How I define sandbox
I think the jury is still out on exactly what defines a sandbox MMO. Is it a world where the player creates everything? Can it have a linear story embedded through questlines? Should it contain an economy that mimics real life? Just for the record, I'm not sold on these terms. There are so many ways of defining them that drastically alter the meanings for each player. I don't find them to be good ways of identifying many MMOs. However, I am intrigued by the way tearing apart and rebuilding these terms can make us see things in a different light.
I loosely define a sandbox MMO as having features or activities that a player can take part in, but that he or she doesn't have to take part in. A player doesn't have to be able to create something as much as just be able to do something when he or she wants to do it. I don't necessarily see a sandbox as something that gives us more to do, but rather as the sum of what we can do with what the game already provides.
WURM Online is one of the best examples of a sandbox MMO. Many who join that game will quickly be asking themselves, "What the heck am I supposed to do?" Well, you do what you want to do. WURM gives you the tools to literally terraform the land. Everything in the game needs to be created by you. Want a totally unique looking house? You'll have to dig ore, make a fire or furnace to smelt that ore, create nails, cut down trees, chop those trees into logs, shape those logs into planks... You can see where I'm going. The idea is that you can build whatever you want, but there's still a set of rules defined by the game. You can't build a rocket ship to zip around the world because that's just not in the cards for what WURM is. If we take the approach of how an MMO lets us interact with the rules it sets, I think we'll see how some of RoM's features lean towards sandbox gameplay while other features lean toward themepark.
Compare crafting between RoM and World of Warcraft. If you want to raise your tradeskill in WoW, you will have to level your character. Tradeskill levels are tied to character levels. RoM frees players by breaking the tie that connects a character's level to a profession's level. There's no invisible director saying you have to progress vertically through RoM if your favorite hobby is crafting.
Now. What terms best describe dungeons in RoM? Before I really started pondering what these terms could imply, I considered the game to be leaning towards a more sandbox nature -- even with dungeons. Granted, RoM takes longer if you don't pay, but I had always felt the integration of diamond-selling freed players from any forced ride. The different ways of obtaining stats and modded gear allow for a player to start running dungeons whenever he or she wants. I don't see it as pushing you in any one direction. I'm not forced to run a specific dungeon for specific armor, because I know I need it before I can run the next dungeon. Instead, I could mix a variation of methods including buying, farming, stripping, and upgrading to enter any dungeon I want.
Yet even though there's a definite choice when entering what some players call endgame, dungeons have a definite path. Certain stats and epic equipment drop from specific dungeons, and those rewards help a player upgrade for the next dungeon in the line. When RoM first opened its doors, someone had to go through those dungeons on a pre-written ride before the shiny loot entered the economy. A player also reminded me that RoM is incredibly gear-heavy. With all the repair hammers, phirius potions, fusion stones, and other gear-oriented prizes strewn throughout many features, all the signs seem to point players toward leveling and dungeon-running.
There was also the issue of accomplishment that another player presented to me. Some players spend vast amounts of time repeatedly farming dungeons to work their way up to higher-level dungeons, while others have the option of short-cutting that trip through the memento system, quickly earning more gold via diamonds and buying gear. It might be best to bring it up in a separate article, but a sense of fun accomplishment is lost for some players when there doesn't seem to be a hierarchy of tasks that must be completed in a set order. When there's only a pseudo-ride that anyone can skip around through, does it make it less fun to do?
In the end, I don't know what to call RoM. I will probably continue to say it's an MMO with lots of options and choices. Terms are great for helping us define something, but we shouldn't give them so much power that we force games to fit them.
Hopefully rolling around these ideas in our heads has produced more than a headache. Has reading this caused you to look at, or think about, RoM -- or any MMO -- differently? It has prompted me to think about how I enjoy jumping between many different activities in an MMO. I love choices and options when I play, but being directed through an activity is no less fun. Whatever the style of gameplay, I think the focus should be on the trip. Any future changes or additions I'd like to see added to RoM would be on how to make activities more fun instead of making the reward for an activity shinier... but shiny loot is good too. With such emphasis on stats and gear in RoM, the ability to get better rewards is a definite plus. It's open for debate. Does RoM need to rework loot and how it's rewarded? Does RoM need to concentrate on making the rides to the loot more fun? Or does the MMO need to make those horizontal gameplay features more fun?
Each Monday, Jeremy Stratton delivers Lost Pages of Taborea, a column filled with guides, news, and opinions for Runes of Magic. Whether it's a community roundup for new players or an in-depth look at the Rogue/Priest combo, you'll find it all here. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.