The Soapbox: Sandparks

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|06.28.11

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The Soapbox: Sandparks
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

The war between sandbox and themepark MMOs is being fought now, not just in the hearts and minds of players but in the simple matter of which project is getting funding for development. It's a war in which adherents to one design philosophy loudly decry the other, where both sides sling insults at one another and mourn how the other side has damaged the promise of MMOs or has no idea how to make a compelling gameplay experience. It's a battle of words and of subscription fees.

It's also really, really stupid.

Setting up the MMO sphere as a battle between two opposing design philosophies probably feels like a great chance to explore a two-faction system in real life, but it's also shortchanging not just MMOs but games on both sides of the nonexistent fence. It sells a number of games short, and it adds nothing useful to the genre as a whole. It's time to stop seeing the onling gaming sphere as a match of opposing forces and start seeing it as a varied and frequently awe-inspiring spectrum.

The motivations behind the arguments, of course, are pretty obvious when you think about it. If you like your game of choice, you want to be sure it and other games like it are going to be around in five years, and that means supporting that game's features and decrying any game that lacks those same features. It's a question of investment. And the same goes in reverse -- if you aren't happy with a game, it's too shallow or derivative, or it's boring and lacks content. It's another stupid themepark or another boring sandbox.

And if it's a sandbox game that doesn't live up to your expectations for a sandbox? Well, then, it failed for some other reason, even though the inherent sandbox qualities were good. (Make a note of this; we'll be coming back.)

But the division between a themepark and a sandbox game isn't nearly as cut-and-dried as we'd like to claim. Sure, EVE Online is a sandbox... but it also has a lot of directed content, PvE missions, and other elements that players can enjoy when they don't feel like carving out a personal sector of space. And even if City of Heroes skews more toward the themepark model, it's not really firmly in that camp -- the ability to create your own missions with whatever objectives you'd like kind of shoots down the idea that you have a unidirectional content flow.

There's a reason I pinched the term sandpark. There are a lot of games that are clearly not as directed as the archetypical themepark but are more directed than a wide-open sandbox. Even games like Grand Theft Auto that usually get referred to as sandboxes have a fair amount of direction to them -- there's just a lot of freedom in between those bursts of direction. That's part of what makes them games instead of just virtual dollhouses, after all.

It's a lot easier to simply lump games into categories, but MMOs don't fit neatly into one field or the other. They cover a wide spectrum of different play types, and one of the wonderful elements of the genre as a whole is that a single game can accommodate all of those varying styles. There doesn't have to be a right way and a wrong way to play, just support for all of the game's diverse options.

Hey, having a wide-open space to build your character is great, but you have to admit that there are times when a little more direction would be nice. There are times when any sandbox feels aimless because all of your goals are entirely self-set. And it's certainly not doing the sandbox paradigm any favors to be lumped in with free-for-all PvP, which is the sort of thing that goes over about as well as shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater. (I'm well aware there are a lot of people who love free-for-all PvP, but a lot of other people use that to mentally append to every feature of a game "and someone might kill you for no reason." It's not a strong marketing strategy.)

And just as surely, while it can be nice to have directed storyline content, it's kind of lackluster to realize that the only difference between zones in World of Warcraft and levels in Super Mario Brothers is the amount of ground you have to cover in each. There's no functional reason to go back to a zone once you've cleared the quests, no sense of place, no memorable landmarks besides interesting quest hubs. You clear out your assigned content and then you move on. It's not a single-player game, but it's like a constant reminder that you're playing a game and not exploring a world.

I'm not saying that either of these playstyles is bad, but they both have weak points that suggest a solution. If you look at both of these models, there's no real reason the two can't coexist, both in different games for different players and sometimes within the very same game. They're not wholly opposing forces, and while they do clash in certain areas, that's part of the challenge separating good design from great design.

And here is the root of the problem: The two are seen as opposing forces rather than two important elements that support one another. Having a strong set of content pushing you forward and engaging you as a player is an important part of any game. Similarly, having the option to go off the rails and do your own thing is just as important. But games that include the former are labeled as themepark romps and are expected to be devoid of sandbox features, things like housing and detailed crafting and non-combat options, things that are justified with a sense of "oh, it's not that sort of game." Similarly, sandbox games often don't bother with having simple and elegant mechanics, opting for complexity that bogs the game down or ambiguity that forces players to "search" for what to do next.

More than we realize, a lot of the core issues longtime gamers are facing with MMOs comes down to this simple problem -- that we're trying to segregate two important parts of design that work better together. More recent games are met with moaning and distaste that the game isn't deep enough or can't hold our interest -- and why wouldn't we lose interest? Nothing but directed content is going to bore us as surely as a wide open world with no direction. We have seen both of these. Trying to recreate them yet again is going to result in veteran players losing interest.

Unfortunately, players especially react violently to the idea that a game is getting some sand in its park or vice-versa. Part of this is understandable -- if you like a game's directed missions and nothing else, any other updates are essentially meaningless to you. But a lot of it falls back to this sense that there are two pillars of design, one good, one bad, and never the twain shall meet. Developers know this and market to one camp or the other, and a large number of players react accordingly, judging a game's depth or shallowness without ever playing.

So we wind up with a lot of shallow and fast themeparks alongside a lot of slow and immersive sandboxes. And we move on from each in turn, more often than not because we're getting bored with a nonstop string of peanut butter or chocolate.

Put the two together, of course, and you get something that's far more than a sum of its parts.

I've gone on record many times as saying that a lot of sandbox elements are considered optional when they really shouldn't be. At the same time, I like a good themepark romp because it's a fun experience with some neat stops along the way. But both styles leave me unsatisfied in the long run. I don't want to be faced with the worst parts of a sandbox slog at all times, and I don't want to be stuck in a neverending quest chain on rails. Separating the two makes a weaker game.

Both ideals can coexist comfortably. And I wish that both designers and players were a bit more accepting of the idea that they're not mutually exclusive principles -- because the idea that you have to have one or the other isn't doing our hobby any favors.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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