Let's be clear: You, the players, are the tricksome Genie. Whatever rules my team of designers lays out for you, you will do your best to cheat us. So I won't fight that; you can have your illusion of anarchy, up to a point. But my sandbox won't be some Lord of the Flies remake. I can't just throw everyone onto an island and say, "OK, have fun figuring it out for yourselves," because that results in a crappy game experience for everyone but the few players who excel at exploiting those situations, and my aim is to sell a good game to all of my customers, not to give a couple of online thugs their own toy banana republics because I am too lazy/cheap/delusional/like-minded to provide anything else.
Creating the illusion of abuse-free freedom requires a lot of tinkering and a staff dedicated to carefully monitoring the full economy, combat balance, and social systems. Therefore, the first people I hire will be neither graphic artists nor coders but economists (a la EVE Online and Guild Wars 2), along with sociologists, psychologists, historians, philosophers, civil engineers, and writers. We have to build a world before we can build a game, so we must begin with people who understand worlds.
We can't neglect graphics and engine, though; I'm just not overly picky. I want it to look beautiful, but I'd like it to run on a wide variety of machines too, even if that means stripped-down partial clients for tablets, smartphones, and browsers. Whatever else you think about World of Warcraft, its philosophy on this topic is a good one: Find a happy medium between eyecandy and accessibility, weave technomagic to make your graphics look higher-end than they actually are, allow users to create mods and plugins to fill in the gaps in your design, and produce a top-tier smartphone app to let people connect to their friends and their markets while AFK. The game cannot look like crap (the Minecraft look gets you only so far), but it needn't be bleeding-edge, either.
I prefer a comfortable, sci-fantasy, space opera blend to pure high-fantasy or hard sci-fi. Maybe something like Firefly plus Recluce would do, and yet I'd avoid the temptation to pander to nostalgia and familiarity with a favorite setting. I don't want my staff of champion game writers to be hemmed in by a game world unsuited for a mutable interactive game (Lord of the Rings Online) or by a setting hampered by an antique, lingering sexism or racism (Age of Conan). Ryzom and WildStar and Morrowind have particularly attractive, multifaceted, genre-defying settings with the dash of weird that I crave.
I'd avoid Star Wars, but it's worth consideration because it's particularly suited to sandbox play. Star Wars, like Firefly, has a built-in frontier theme that plays directly into the design of a sandbox that is constantly shifting based on player input along the fringes of known areas and the reach of the law, whether you're colonizing a remote planet in the 'Verse or smuggling in the Outer Rim territories. The setting needn't be dusty space cowboys vs. space samurai with glowsticks, though; it could easily be a post-apocalyptic water world or an exploration-centric, lost-civilization theme, just so long as there's a reason to keep expanding and settling and expanding again (and being caught up in the conflict between PC and NPC authorities along the way).
If we wind up in space or underwater, vehicles and ships will be a necessity, but I'd make them strictly locations (Serenity's interior) or transport contraptions (a landspeeder). Dogfight-combat and optional real-time overland/interplanetary travel would be awesome, but I don't want ships to usurp characters, nor do I want travel to turn into an annoyance that sucks away playtime.
I'll adopt a classic Raph Koster-esque economy, even more stringent than those of Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, Asheron's Call 2, and Glitch. We'll have no NPC vendors or shopkeepers in this game. Nearly everything will be harvested and crafted by players either by hand or via machinery (ArcheAge's tractors or SWG's factories), and everything crafted will eventually decay or be consumed in the service of a perpetual, realistic ecosystem. That's going to necessitate a truckload of crafting and trading professions, plus player vendors in homes and player stalls inside NPC cities. You'll locate your fellow players' goods through a global search system in lieu of an auction hall.
A symbiotic economy that keeps the market-savvy aligned with the combatants is not a set-it-and-forget-it game system, so I'll expect my economists to tightly balance gold faucets and sinks along with crafting, item, and resource incentives to avoid useless (or too-useful) craftables and drops.
Also, no matter where the game is set, it will possess a moisture farmer profession because I can. You will get wet on this ride!
I hope it goes without saying that I'd want a completely wild character creation and wearables system -- All-Points Bulletin plus Star Wars Galaxies plus City of Heroes plus... well, I can't even think of an MMO that doesn't make me wish there were just one more tattoo or hairstyle. There's never enough customization. A cosmetic gear system is also a no-brainer.
My sandbox would be skill-based with a combination of use-based skill-gain (think Ultima Online) and offline leveling (think EVE Online) with an added twist: general experience (from exploration and quest completion) allotted as you choose, more like Asheron's Call or Fallout 3. Combat activities will range from standard questing and random missions to story arcs and pseudo-dynamic content. I don't see any reason a sandbox can't borrow gameplay elements from themeparks so that achievers have something to do; that just won't be the sole, overriding focus of the game at the expense of everything else. And while I see the wisdom in instanced content, I'd rather make my game world big enough that there's enough real space to go around and instanced content simply isn't necessary. A full sidekicking system a la City of Heroes (up and down) will help transition newbie players to their friends' favorite content. The most skilled players should be able to literally train their lowbie compatriots a la classic SWG.
Sandboxes don't really need endgames, but challenge content is just plain fun. Let's implement some big-group raiding for the people who love it. Expect bragging rights, achievements, and titles for your trouble, though, not purps that render crafted gear obsolete. Need more people to tackle your challenge? Single-shard technology, LFG tools, and Guild Wars-style heroes will lend a helping hand.
I'd expect a full complement of social activities and support in addition to combat, questing, crafting, and shopkeeping. Fans of SWG's and LotRO's music systems will be right at home. Let's have animations and emotes and speech bubbles, roleplay-oriented servers, GM-led events, hidden names, character bios, writable books, and a robust player-generated content system to boot, though it'd need to be much more elaborate than anything any MMO currently has to really promote exceptional storytelling.
To imbue players with a sense of ownership over their world and give them a reason to visit both NPC and player-created areas, I'll include and surpass EverQuest II's vast housing customization options and go for a two-pronged, hybrid housing system that provides two different types of player housing. Players will bid on pre-built apartments and shops in dev-designed NPC cities, which would provide special bonuses unique to each town. Players who want to sacrifice those bonuses on the altar of freedom could set up their own Star Wars Galaxies-style cities on the ever-moving, open-world frontiers of the game in a worldspace immense enough to actually support them. Of course, there'd be a few layout rules to prevent the ugly urban sprawl of Ultima Online and inexpensive, one-man villages and ghost towns of Galaxies.
A fully player-driven economy is PvP, but melting faces is an essential cog in the perfect clockwork economy too. Still, I won't produce a pointless free-for-all gank-fest. Optional guild wars (or monarchy wars, as I'd adopt Asheron's Call's monarchy system) and multi-factional PvP will dominate the majority of the game and be rewarded richly. Open PvP and territorial conflicts with partial looting (again, think AC) will be restricted to whichever zones constitute the lawless frontier of the setting, governed by a formal but player-driven justice system of bounties and penalties.
It makes me sad to realize that so much of what I would put into my ideal game already featured prominently in an MMO slaughtered before its time to promote a title that is its polar opposite. Star Wars Galaxies, like all great sandboxes, embraced something anathema to modern themepark grinders: Rather than start with quest-driven combat and tack on extra systems, SWG made the economy its foundation and built the rest of the game on top it. My game would do the same, following in those mighty footsteps, only better -- after all, Galaxies had flaws of its own. I don't want merely a return to the "golden days" of classic MMOs; I want something more spectacular than those games, something that's never existed all in one package but should, a type of game that certainly can make a lot of money and get gamers really excited when it's not produced like a third-tier MMO.
Ultimately, I do think a game should avoid becoming an "everything-box," but a good sandbox needs buckets of toys to appeal to a wide variety of people willing to play all the roles needed to build the sandcastles that keep the simulation spinning and make the gameworld a place players want to live in... not just quest through.
Have you ever wanted to make the perfect MMO, an idealistic compilation of all your favorite game mechanics? MMO Blender aims to do just that. Join the Massively staff every Friday as we put our ideas to the test and create either the ultimate MMO... or a disastrous frankengame!