Captain's Log: Will STO become a sandbox or remain a themepark?

Welcome back from the holiday, readers! I trust everyone has recovered from the excitement of a long weekend, a tasty Thanksgiving and a rabid Black Friday. By now you should have settled back into the slow, miserable slog toward more holidays. I know I have.

For this week's Captain's Log, I'm going to discuss themepark and sandbox MMOs. What do those terms mean? And how does Star Trek Online fit into that dichotomy, both in its present form and in its Foundry-expanded future?

Why?

I ended up on this topic for two reasons. First, some readers dinged me a few weeks ago for making a big deal about Champions Online's impending switch to a free-to-play model. Apparently, a reader or three felt I was making a mountain out of a molehill (I wasn't, by the way) and ignoring the positives about STO.

Specifically, they argued that I should have focused on future features that will push STO in a more sandbox-y direction. That caught me off-guard a little bit. Of all the things people have called STO, either kindly or otherwise, a sandbox MMO isn't one of them.

So the topic rattled around for a bit and then settled down somewhere in the back of my skull to collect dust, right next to my knowledge of Hall & Oates lyrics. And then Deathwing decided to get super mad at everybody, flying around Azeroth and spewing patch 4.0.3a everywhere.

The Shattering dragged me back into World of Warcraft to try out the revamped questing in the old world. As my young Orc Warrior drove her new Goblin cart around and rode the back of a kodo on the way to the Crossroads, shooting angry Twilight Cultists (maybe -- I don't read quest text), I realized just how themepark-ish the whole thing was. That dusted off the thought of STO's categorization as themepark or sandbox.

Themeparks

So what is a themepark MMO? I'm sure that, as with any made-up classification in the Internet age, the term can be interpreted a bajillion different ways. So I attempted to look it up, but have you ever tried plugging anything involving the phrase "theme park" into Wikipedia? You'll learn plenty about Theme Park the game or about Universal Studios, but that's about it. (I'm sure one of you readers can prove me wrong in about 15 seconds.)

So instead, imagine my delight to find that Massively's own Jeremy Stratton just two weeks ago wrote a column about this very subject as it applies to Runes of Magic. A themepark MMO, he says, "is filled with directed activities." The game is like (wait for it) a theme park (pause for gasping). It's packed with prefabricated fun over which the visitor holds little sway. Tina Tourist can choose whether to visit Western Happytown or Super Space Place, but she can't, for example, dictate how long a ride lasts or make up new attractions.

World of Warcraft is the very pinnacle of themepark MMOs. I can choose which zones to visit, but each one has a set number of quests, all of which are designed to offer me a carefully crafted experience. In the Barrens, that kodo-protecting quest literally was a prefabricated ride from point A to point B, with adventure in the middle.

STO pretty thoroughly qualifies as a themepark MMO. From the moment you create a character, you step foot into a storyline-driven march from sector block to sector block and from enemy faction to enemy faction. Along the way, you can enjoy more free-form gameplay with exploration missions, but choices are limited otherwise. PvP is limited mainly to pre-fab matches, and crafting offers no diversity at all.

I'm not saying this is bad (except for the crafting). I happen to like themeparks and themepark MMOs. Storylines are fun! Feature episodes, which offer STO's most coherent and carefully designed storytelling, are the best content I think the developers at Cryptic Studios have ever released.

But that doesn't stop many players (myself included) from yearning for something more, or at least different.

Sandboxes

Like anything with even the vaguest relation to STO, the definition of the sandbox MMO seems to be a point of contention. My understanding is that a sandbox game offers seriously non-linear progression and leans heavily in favor of player autonomy. The ability to impact the game world by creating content in some form is helpful, too.

I view EverQuest, my introduction to the whole genre, as a sandbox MMO. I can't speak to it current state, not having played it seriously in years, but early EQ dumped players into a wide world with little or no direction. A new Half-Elf Bard might start his life in Freeport or Kelethin, and then he was free to wander the lands, finding groups to kill whatever groups killed. No storyline or firm path determined anyone's destiny.

EVE Online, meanwhile, seems like the epitome of modern-day sandboxery. My experience in the game is limited to a few utterly befuddled weeks, so I'm no expert. But EVE demands that the player find his own goals and his own reason for playing, be it ship-building or piracy or perpetrating immense acts of fraud.

STO the sandbox

With that in mind, how could STO ever really qualify as a sandbox MMO? In short, it can't and won't. The game is a quest-based, instance-heavy funhouse, and the folks at Cryptic aren't about to rebuild the game entirely from scratch. And I don't think they should. Almost every reader who says he or she likes STO ascribes that to the game's not-so-demanding nature. They enjoy the fact that they can chill out with exploration missions or whatever without having to try too hard. STO scratches their casual itch.

And for those who want a lot more out of STO, the Foundry will be a godsend of sandboxishness. Players will stretch those tools to the limit with user-generated content of every stripe. But we'll all still be designing quests and quest content. So STO will continue to be based around themepark amusements -- they'll just be made of sand. Wonderful, fantastic, imagination-rich sand!

Less trustworthy than a Ferengi loan shark and more useless than a neutered Tribble, Ryan Greene beams Captain's Log straight into your mind every Thursday, filling your brainhole with news, opinions and reckless speculation about Star Trek Online. If you have comments, suggestions for the column or insults too creative for Massively's commenting policy, send a transmission to ryan@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.