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Some Assembly Required: Is the sandbox dead?

Jef Reahard
Jef Reahard|September 2, 2011 2:00 PM
Some Assembly Required - header with plans
Let's face it, folks, 2011 has been a fairly bad year for sandbox MMORPGs. Whether we're talking about the premature (and, ahem, forced) demise of Star Wars Galaxies, EVE Online's public relations disasters and its capitulation to the cash-shop-in-a-sub-based game fad, or Earthrise's rough launch, there hasn't been a lot to celebrate for fans of non-linear MMO gameplay in quite a while.

I've even had several friends ask me point blank: Is the sandbox dead? The short answer is not just no, but hell no. Join me after the cut for a few bright spots as we look to the future, take stock of the present, and try to forget about the past.

Some Assembly Required header - Perpetuum mech
So what can you do if you're a sandbox fan, but put off by the fact that the genre's two biggest guns are misfiring rather spectacularly? If you're an SWG vet, there's really not a lot of choice; you've got to find a new home (or hobby). Disenfranchised EVE players, on the other hand, at least have the hope that CCP will focus less on RMT and more on fun sandbox play as the game goes forward. If you're ready to move on, though, there are plenty of interesting titles out there that need your support, not to mention a couple of really promising ones in development.

Asheron's Call (Official Website)

Call me crazy, but Turbine's finest MMORPG has nothing to do with hobbits, directed content, and lore faux pas. Asheron's Call has been satisfying sandbox fans since 1999, and the game is still receiving regular updates. The graphics are quite dated, of course, but in terms of content, gameplay options, and a go-your-own-way mentality, few places are more inviting than Auberean.

A Tale in the Desert (Official Website)

A Tale in the Desert is an unequivocally odd duck. It's also as deep and as complex an MMORPG as you're ever likely to play. Due to a singular focus on tradeskilling (and the complete absence of combat), the title has a uniquely polarizing effect on first-time players and is liable to either hook you for good or send you screaming back to the land of swords and behind-the-scenes dice rolls.

Also, with apologies to EVE and its scandal-ridden metagame shenanigans, ATITD features in-game mechanics that allow for interesting social interactions you won't find in other MMORPGs, including the ability to ban, punish, or otherwise bring the weight of the game's legal system to bear on your fellow players.

Darkfall - Swiftsnout in AgonDarkfall (Official Website)

Ah, Darkfall. I'm a bit biased here, as the couple of months that I spent in Agon late last year for Massively's Choose My Adventure series were some of the more memorable in all my years of gaming. Aventurine's combat-focused sandbox isn't perfect (in fact it's got some pretty glaring mechanical deficiencies, including no skill cap and a hellacious grind), but it is nonethess loads of fun.

Yes, there's free-for-all PvP and corpse looting. Yes, there's a huge Darkfall 2.0 revamp looming that looks to reset everyone's progress and basically reboot the game world. Those two (admittedly huge) caveats aside, Darkfall is one of a very few games that feels like a world. Agon is simply vast, and populated with dozens of off-the-beaten-path dungeons and spots to make your inner explorer stop and take out his camera despite the ever-present dangers. Oh, and the combat system is pretty fun too.

Dawntide (Official Website)

The guys at Working as Intended are saying all the right things (namely, that they've set out to create an updated homage to Ultima). Dawntide has most of the things sandboxers crave, including free-form advancement, ridiculously deep crafting, a huge seamless world, yada yada. One thing it doesn't have is a lot of PR, as the devs have stated they prefer working on the game to talking about the game. Consequently, there's not a lot of Dawntide info floating around the interwebs.

Fear not, though, as it's currently in open beta, so if you're looking to do a bit more research prior to to its October 1st launch date, it's free to try for the next few weeks.

Earthrise - newbie isle vistaEarthrise (Official Website)

Despite the fact that I used Earthrise's launch as a negative example in my opener, the sci-fi title remains a viable sandbox destination. Masthead has released a couple of huge bug-fixing patches since its February debut, and work continues on transforming the game into a more polished experience. Also, if you're a sci-fi sandbox fan, it's one of a very few options available to you.

Perpetuum (Official Website)

One of the other sci-fi sandbox titles is Perpetuum, and it couldn't be more different from Earthrise. The vehicle-based game is cut from the EVE Online cloth (indeed, one of the criticisms leveled at Avatar Creations is the fact that some of its systems and interface mechanics seem to have been lifted directly from CCP's game).

That said, Perpetuum has its own charm, and thanks to a mass influx of disgruntled EVE vets, it's also growing steadily. Avatar is currently hard at work on some pretty substantial updates, and I'm very interested to see whether the devs can replicate CCP's success over the years.

Wurm Online (Official Website)

Wurm is one of the more famous sandbox MMOs in spite of (or perhaps because of) its indie pedigree. Markus Persson was heavily involved in the game's development prior to creating Minecraft, and the two titles share a similar focus when it comes to player creativity and emergent gameplay.

If that's not enough to pique your interest, how about the fact that starting next week, you can get in on a once-in-a-lifetime land rush and stake a claim to your very own fantasy homestead as a denizen of the new Deliverance server?

Xsyon - fishing at duskXsyon (Official Website)

I may get some flack for this one, as Xsyon is one of the more roughly implemented MMOs in recent memory. That said, I stand by the game as a fun sandbox, and one that has more potential than any game on this list aside from Ultima. Yeah, it's buggy, and yeah half of the features that caught your eye are either broken or not implemented at all, but I'm hard-pressed to think of another MMO that offers the kind of crafting depth and survival-style gameplay that Xsyon does.

From chopping down trees (and spending lots of time carrying the timber back to your camp) to making sure to eat and drink enough to remain functional, Xsyon is as about as far from the traditional kill/quest/level paradigm as it's possible to get. As in many FFA sandboxes, the community features a "red equals dead" crowd that is determined to reduce the title down to its PvP features, but the game is at heart a crafting simulator, and the world is quite large (and avoiding the undesirables is quite easy).

Ultima Online (Official Website)

This one may raise a few eyebrows, as it's the only one of the bunch that doesn't boast 3-D graphics or a "modern" aesthetic. That said, it's not only the granddaddy of MMOs; it's the granddaddy of sandbox MMOs, and it's worth checking out if only to see what is possible when developers aren't worried about catering to the widest possible audience.

Despite its dated presentation, UO's sprawling feature set puts every other MMO produced since to shame, and it will keep you busy and happily sandboxing for years to come. To be honest, the only real downside to checking out (or returning to) UO is the fact that you'll get a first-hand look at how far most modern MMORPGs have strayed from their virtual world roots.

And those are just a few of your sandbox options. Time and space has prevented me from listing them all (no, I didn't forget about your games, Ryzom or Mortal Online fans), and rest assured that future issues of Some Assembly Required will touch on these and many more. Further into the future, we've got potential gems like ArcheAge and Origins, so while on some level it has been a down year for sandbox games and player-generated content, better days are coming.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!
Some Assembly Required: Is the sandbox dead?