WRUP: Going ape edition

Yes, I know, great apes aren't actually the flipping out sort.  As my entry this week shows, I'm kind of thinking of gorillas.
I hate when I know a major game release is just around the corner. Mass Effect 3 comes out next week, and I've got it quietly pre-loading on my machine right now. That's bad enough by itself, but I count four other games I'm enraptured by at the moment, leaving me to just completely wig out in trying to play everything at once. I could probably bring my desktop downstairs and play on the PlayStation 3 at the same time, but that still leaves me with a need to be playing three other games at once.

I know. First-world problems.

At any rate, it's time for this week's installment of WRUP, in which the entire Massively crew is all frenetic about playing many, many games. Well, some of us are, anyway. And we're all sharing our personal definition of a sandbox game, so that should be fun. So let us know what you're going to be up to in the comments, but only after you've passed through the wall of text beneath the cut!

Beau Hindman, F2P and Mobile Columnist
@Beau_Hindman: This weekend I will be switching to Spirit Tales for Rise and Shiny because I haven't quite got any cavities yet. Here's hoping that the game's cuteness pushes me over the edge. I'll also be tightening up my MMO chore project, and this weekend I'll be taking time off to play some of the new Spiral Knights content, tons and tons of Wakfu, and testing out the new housing stuff in Glitch. At some point I will exercise and take my vitamins, I promise.

I would define a sandbox MMO simply as a world that allows anything to happen. Of course, the only true sandboxes are worlds like Second Life, but there is a more common definition that says a game that allows players to make characters and explore in their own way is a sandbox. I plan on defining this further later on, but it is my theory that most sandbox players are actually very much fans of control and linearity. Look at Wurm Online: The first thing someone tries to do is settle down, make a farm, and plan out how it will look and what he or she will do with it, at which point the player quickly settles into a schedule of "work." Name a sandbox game and I will show you a game in which players have come up with some of the most strict rules on playing efficiently, killing the fastest, or causing the most damage. The problem is that humans crave a schedule... it's in our DNA. We are healthier when we are on a schedule, and it has been proven that we are stressed when we veer into unpredictability. A sandbox game might seem like an endless world with no rules, but really it just refers to a game that has very loose rules. It should be noted that in any MMO a player can play however he wants anyway; it's called roleplay.

Brendan Drain, EVE Columnist and Contributing Editor
@nyphur: I'll be checking out all the candidates in this year's EVE Online CSM elections. The campaigning has been fierce this year, with plenty of EVE-style propaganda and mud-slinging.

A sandbox game is just one in which developers focus on building tools and frameworks that let the players build content rather than one in which developers directly build most of the content themselves. EVE Online, for example, has very little developed content but does have countless gameplay systems designed to promote political conflict. Most of the developed content, such as incursions and wormholes, is really just there to provide a way for people to form organisations and create their own fun.

Bree Royce, Senior Editor
@nbrianna: I'm sitting on a pile of games I'd like to toy with this weekend. Glitch has new housing in testing; Star Wars: The Old Republic is taunting me to finish leveling before my boredom is complete; my husband is urging me to join him in Tribes: Ascend; and Wakfu... I'm still trying to understand what the heck Wakfu is.

Reducing a sandbox to its parts is hard. For me, a sandbox is about providing alternatives to combat -- not removing combat or combat-related leveling but rather putting those things into perspective and offering advancement opportunities (within the game mechanics, not in spite of them) that are alternatives to monster-thumping. I suppose there's even an element of simulation to a sandbox MMO, and consequently they tend to include things like meaningful housing, heavy crafting, player economies, and player-generated content systems, although they don't need to have them all.

Eliot Lefebvre, Columnist Extraordinaire and Senior Contributing Editor
Now that I've finally had the time to do more than a cursory top-level examination of the last Final Fantasy XIV patch, I'm in love all over again. Of course, I still have Star Wars: The Old Republic to play as well, plus a smattering of offline games. So I'll be playing several things, prepping for Mass Effect 3, and probably listening to a bunch of Gorillaz in the background.

Sandboxes, in the purest sense, are games that give the players tools. At their best, they provide players with a variety of tools; at their worst, they provide nothing but tools and expect the players to do the job of actually making the game. "Sandbox elements" is starting to become its own feature, so part of the difficulty in providing a set definition is that it's really more about giving tools than about building a unified sub-genre. Unfortunately, recent years have seen a set of ugly ideas become synonymous with sandbox gameplay, thus starkly lowering their appeal. I'm firmly in favor of giving players more room to stretch out in games, but I'd like it to not come at the expense of an enjoyable game to play.

Elisabeth Cardy, Guild Wars 2 Columnist
@elixabethclaire: This last week has been something of a whirlwind for me, and the week moving forward doesn't look a whole lot calmer, so I'm not really optimistic about my amount of playtime. I will, as always, find some Guild Wars dabbling to do. The other game I plan to work into my life is a new iOS (for now) app called Zombies, Run! People might quibble over the extent to which it's a game, but it unfolds a story as one goes about one's jogging-type exercise, building up supplies for a base and unlocking missions. As long as I don't end up lying on the ground catatonic with fear, it should be pretty awesome.

I'd say at its simplest, a sandbox MMO is one with a non-linear gameplay style. Following that, I'd tack on that there's not a really set definition of the right way to play, as it relies on user-defined goals. What makes that fascinating, of course, is the complexity that can come up from what are generally straight-forward and relatively simple mechanics.

Jef Reahard, Columnist Extraordinaire and Senior Contributing Editor
I'm not playing much of anything this weekend. Maybe a little EVE Online and some Uncharted 3.

I tend to agree with the folks who say that you can't objectively define a sandbox. Any game that offers meaningful choices has the makings of a sandbox experience (and by meaningful choices, I mean something beyond the choice of which DIKU archetype you want to take through the same progression curve that everyone is experiencing). Most people probably don't consider EverQuest II a sandbox because they take it at face value and play it as a level/gear grinder. I play it as a sandbox, though, because it has meaningful crafting, personalization options, and a limited ability to affect portions of the world via personal and guild housing. This may seem like a stretch because EQII's economy is a joke, the game revolves around loot-drops instead of player interaction, and so on, but I don't see that sandbox fans have much choice in today's MMO climate. You have to either adjust your definition or find another hobby at this point.

Jeremy Stratton, Contributing Editor
@Jeremy_Stratton: I don't know what I'll be playing. I have tentative plans, but weather, school, and other factors will decide exactly how much free-time I end up with. If I have time, I would like to continue leveling in Runes of Magic. I finally hit 65 on my Priest, and I was able to almost double my damage output. I started a new character in Vanguard and have been really successful at finding low-level parties for dungeons. After Adventure Mike livestreamed our multi-staff dungeon crawl, I've been pumped to keep going. The dungeons are really fun, even below level 10. I've managed to get into three different ones now. If I have more time, I want to start a new character in the World of Warcraft trial too -- I'd like to more fully explore what you can do with it.

I think it is hard to nail down one succinct definition for "sandbox," but I think it centers around economy and crafting. Sandbox is usually touted as giving players the tools to play different ways, but themeparks do give players tools to create missions, build housing and other structures and other features. The significant difference to me is that a sandbox-economy allows a self-feeding, circular pattern of gameplay. I think a "good" one would be bringing the torn lovers, sandbox and themepark, back together and calling it an MMORPG.

Justin Olivetti, Columnist Extraordinaire and Senior Contributing Editor
@Sypster: I'm juggling, juggling away with multiple MMOs, so if time permits I'll be glad to check out the next chapter of Star Trek Online's recent featured episode series, work on my lowbie Minstrel in Lord of the Rings Online, and get deep into Act 1 with my Smuggler in SWTOR. I might also take up knitting.

Honestly, I don't think there ever will be a unified definition for sandbox MMOs. I would define it as an online game that gives players significant choices that can impact and persist in the game world.

Karen Bryan, Columnist Extraordinaire
@JayeRnH: I'll be prepping for GDC, but I still plan to squeeze in a little gaming before I go. RIFT's carnival has started, and I'm enjoying all the cute games (especially the horse race!)

As for a definition of a sandbox MMO, I can't really define it other than to say I know it when I see it!

Matt Daniel, Contributing Editor
@mvmatt: From the looks of things, I'll be playing repairman at my apartment trying to get a number of broken things fixed. Aside from that, I'll be jumping in and out of RIFT, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Fallen Earth, and Guild Wars. May give Wakfu a spin as well, now that it's out of beta.

What is a sandbox to me? In its simplest terms, a sandbox is a game that allows players to mold their characters and the game world as they see fit. That may be accomplished through a fully player-run economy, world/story changes based on character action, an open-ended character customization system, or any combination of the above. But to me, sandbox games are all about giving players the control to leave an impression on the game world.

MJ Guthrie, Aion and Sandbox Columnist
I shudder to admit all the places I have just poked my head into and had my heartstrings plucked. I am not a nibbler; I prefer to feast on my games, imbibing in copious amounts, so multiple courses are just too difficult! I am debating rebuilding my inn that the 2010 server merge demolished in Vanguard, I yearn to complete the building of a motorcycle in Fallen Earth, and I am eager to complete decorating projects including giant aquariums, a forest, a dungeon adventure, and an alleyway marketplace in EverQuest II. I also have urges now to listen to some musical performances in Lord of the Rings Online. Did I mention actually adventure somewhere? How many hours do I have again?

How would I describe a sandbox? Heaven! Can I haz sandbox nao?

Patrick Mackey, League of Legends Columnist
@mackeypb: I am playing League of Legends as always. I'm also getting back into Global Agenda as it's always great fun. I've also been playing a lot of random flash games; it's always nice to see what truly indie designers come up with... not faux indie designers who don't have producers but the little guys who haven't made anything commercial. It's really cool.

I'd describe a sandbox as a game with minimal guided progression (advance your character the way you want), where players have significant impact on the game world and each other's gameplay experience. Sandboxes by their nature need to have a real in-game economy, as goods and services provided by other players need to be valuable. For example, I would argue that City of Heroes is not a sandbox. It's a themepark with some user-generated stuff stacked on, and it won't ever become a sandbox unless it completely sheds its current leveling system.

Shawn Schuster, Editor-in-Chief
I'll be playing some Wurm Online this weekend as I finally gained the skill to ride a horse, which makes hunting much easier. I also recently reactivated my Xsyon account to see how that game is coming along, and so far it's been fun (although I still die a lot).

I'm a huge sandbox fan, and my interpretation of the perfect sandbox is fragmented throughout many games. It's not so much about a limitless experience; it's more about giving players the tools to do whatever they want to do. For me, most of those elements are found in Xsyon, although I don't understand the need to always connect open PvP with the sandbox environment. The freedom to do whatever you want doesn't work as well when you're constantly getting bashed over the head. Maybe that's just me.

Terilynn Shull, Star Trek Online Columnist
@terilynns: Back into Star Trek Online for me! The fourth episode in The 2800 series is set for release, and I am looking forward to the mission that will lay the foundation for next week's finale!

It's funny that the question about sandbox comes up again! Massively's own Justin Olivetti asked a similar question on Twitter, and I brought it up for consideration on Podcast UGC. We weren't able to come to any conclusions and quickly determined that everyone defines sandbox and themepark differently! For me personally, however, I define a sandbox game as one with little-to-no guided, story-based tasks that have an anticipated or directed result -- a game where the majority of actions are defined not by the developers but by the players.

At the start of every weekend, we catch up with the Massively staff members and ask them, "What are you playing this week?" (Otherwise known as: WRUP!) Join us to see what we're up to in and out of game -- and catch us in the comments to let us know what you're playing, too!
This article was originally published on Massively.