Why I Play: Mabinogi

Mabinogi login screenshot
How do you define a sandbox MMO? In my opinion, sandbox MMOs are often described in ways that are much more complicated than they deserve. To me, they are simply MMOs that allow players to play how they want by providing systems -- real, game-impacting systems -- that foster unique character growth. These systems can be represented in a lot of different ways, however. You might grow a unique city in an MMORTS or customize an avatar in a social sandbox like Second Life. The general rule is that there are no rules in a sandbox, within the limits of the particular game, of course. Even then, sandbox players can be some of the most stringent rule-makers and followers. Just ask a Darkfall or EVE Online player how to get the most DPS and she'll rattle off a series of rules, essentially providing a class cheat-sheet. In other words, sandboxes are much like their themepark cousins, only with many more choices for character development. The themepark rules might be left out of a sandbox, but the sandbox communities often fill the void with new guidelines.

Mabinogi provides so many systems to grow a unique character with that it's ridiculous. I can easily log in and spend an hour just decorating my avatar, crafting goods, exploring new areas, flying around in the hopes of stumbling across trouble, or growing my character by leveling any one of the possible hundreds of skills. However you describe a sandbox, Mabinogi should be one of the first on the list of examples. Let me show you three reasons why.

Mabinogi flying mount screenshot
Character is first

If I had to choose, I'd rather have a standard MMO with typical MMO systems as long as it features awesome character creation and customization than a sandbox with hardly any unique avatars roaming around. I'm not only talking about costumes or neat pets; I am referring to player skills or abilities as well as how the character actually looks and moves. Fortunately, Mabinogi has skills -- a lot of skills -- to level up. In total, there are between 150 and 200 skills, possibly more. Frankly, I couldn't find a total count anywhere and barely started counting the skills up when I began to write.

There are skills for every situation, making almost every situation measurable. Combat is covered, of course, but there are "life" skills too -- those you might use when making a new shirt, suit of armor, or piece of food. Classic combat skill-grinders will have no issues finding something to do in Mabinogi, but social crafters or even wanna-be fashion models will have plenty to work for as well. There are skills for exploring, skills for sifting through sand to collect metals and gems, musical skills that actually translate into a better musical performance in the game, carpentry, animal taming, sheep shearing, wine-making... the list goes on and on. It's easier to remember that for almost any activity in Mabinogi, there will be a skill that goes along with it.

If we measure a sandbox by how character growth is implemented, Mabinogi gets a gold star. I can think of other sandbox MMOs that feature a lot of really cool skills or abilities that add up to a unique character, but Mabinogi probably has the most of all of them as well as many systems those other titles do not. What other systems? Let's have a look!

Mabinogi outfits screenshot
A virtual life is second

After allowing for unique character building, a sandbox needs to provide a unique world of activities for that character to participate in. I haven't come anywhere near to mastering the scores of activities in Mabinogi, but I love trying new ones out. Holiday events that act as in-game equivalents of real-world events are placed in the game often. There are also all sorts of different unusual events like defending a hot air balloon against evil dragons and riding a raft on a long stretch of rapids while simultaneously defending your group of friends against attacking tribes people. The sheer number of events is staggering, especially when you consider that many MMOs do not feature many unique events at all.

Most other sandbox games and communities seem to sneer at the idea of linear questing as though it is the antithesis of remaining "sandbox" or "hardcore." I beg to differ; to be "sandbox" means to offer as many choices as possible. Questing can be a forced, bland activity in many other titles, but in Mabinogi, it is just one of the many ways to play the game and to grow. A player can completely ignore the storyline quests and pick up random ones here and there, or she can do nothing but follow the main questline. Personally I like to dabble in the main stories. I enjoy the characters and animated cutscenes that come with the often-gloomy quests, but I prefer to play them only occasionally. It's important to note that, in the hopes of offering yet another choice in the game, Nexon America offers a free leap-forward through the first three chapters of the main questline. I took the game up on the offer; there was no hope that I would finish all of the chapters anytime soon.

Mabinogi screenshot
And a cash shop to round it off

Another strange sandbox rule is that the developers or publishers of the title cannot sell cash-shop items that affect gameplay. I think I understand where this idea comes from, but it is once again (and ironically) the opposite of what it means to be sandbox. Choices are the primary reason to play a sandbox title, and a cash-shop is yet another choice -- yes, even a cash shop that sells items, clothing, pets, mounts, potions, and all sorts of goods. If a subscription is more your style, then you'll be happy to know that you can buy a sort of subscription package that offers a lot of amenities for a pretty standard sub price. I rarely buy the package and instead blow most of my cash on pets and mounts. Mabinogi rises above the pack again by allowing players to play as their pets and mounts. I can log in as a dog or horse or dragon and level, explore, kill monsters, and roleplay. I love to play as my crow pet, Dunwal.

I don't want to imply that all sandboxes should follow Mabinogi's designs. After all, the definition of sandbox is to play and design how you want. Sandboxes should be glorious, freeform make-believe worlds that allow players to do what they want to do. There will be physical limitations, as many as the game can allow within the confines of its digital walls, but we should be encouraging MMOs to push closer and closer to open-ended worlds, not worlds that allow only for forced progression.

Mabinogi town screenshot
I fear that the sandbox MMO is a quickly dying genre. Sandboxes were the norm for a while when MUDs and games like Ultima Online -- and even the original EverQuest in some ways -- ruled the MMO world. These days the sandbox is stuck in the corners of the MMO playroom, destined to be categorized by older titles or independent titles that might not have the numbers to last. Fortunately a game like Mabinogi can stay as it is for many years. The older graphics are pre-aged so players can get over that hurdle immediately. The developers can continue to add new items, quests and systems to the world, and the players happily consume it all. I know I'll continue to do so.

It's important that sandbox fans do not become snobbish about the very genre they love. I have met sandboxers who want nothing to do with many titles simply because the graphics are dated or the systems are not centered around combat. We have to accept the fact that if we do not support these wonderful, open worlds, then they will eventually fade away, and only if we're lucky will they be revived years and years in the future when technology allows for open worlds to be the default for every title.

Until then, however, I'll keep logging into Mabinogi when I feel like playing how I want.

There's an MMO born every day, and every game is someone's favorite. Why I Play is a column in which the Massively staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it's the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.

This article was originally published on Massively.