On Sandboxes and Theme Parks – My Personal Opinion

There is something of a theme I noticed in comments I received on my appreciation post for Naoki Yoshida yesterday, and rather than writing a handful of comment replies, I thought I’d tackle it a bit more head-on in its own post.

WoW and FFXIV are the exemplars, in a way, of a formulaic theme-park model, where the thrill of the game is the game part – riding the “rides” (dungeons, raids, PvP areas, etc) and repeating for as long as they are fun. The games offer gear and power climb as the reward, making subsequent rides take less time and allow for more fun combinations – larger enemy pulls, more relaxed gameplay, etc.

However, they are in many ways indicative of what MMO’s have become. There was a time when the MMO genre was really composed of two sub-genres which could be intertwined and woven together – the theme park model, and a sandbox.

Most readers here don’t need that distinction laid bare, so I will move on to discussing something that I think is interesting and is purely my opinion – I won’t pretend that I know what a larger playerbase feels or thinks, and I am loathe to say that market success means that one of these sub-genres is “better” since a lot of factors play into market success and many have nothing to do with the actual quality of the product that you’re selling.

First, I think with WoW Classic coming out next week, it is worth pointing out that WoW itself started as largely a sandbox game. If you look at the mechanics of loot, player progression, and questing content in vanilla WoW, the game was clearly half-baked when it came to reward mechanisms and the gear grind a theme park demands. Blizzard didn’t have a clear concept of how they wanted gear to work, and it wasn’t until near the very end of vanilla where the clear delineation of gear into item level tiers happened. Some MC gear held up through BWL, while other pieces were replaced. Tier 2 class sets dropped across Onyxia, Ragnaros, and BWL. The prevalance of resistance gear meant that raiding in green crafted armor with the right resistances wasn’t uncommon. While best in slot gear did exist and was something the community discussed, it wasn’t always something we aimed for.

What vanilla WoW had in its core gameplay loop was exploration. It is easy to forget in 2019, but in 2004, the seamless world experience WoW offered was unique in the space. WoW being a sandbox was easy because there were fewer immersion-breakers. You could run from the northern end of Kalimdor all the way to the southern end without a loading screen. Boats between continents operated on a schedule, meaning going between continents required a wait sometimes, and a frantic run to catch a departing ship other times. Flight paths were faster than most methods of transport, but still took their sweet time. Quest chains often consisted of ferrying orders, instructions, and items between zones and continents, with precious little explanation as to how to get there. So you explored. You filled in the nooks and crannies of your map, not to fulfill a Pathfinder requirement, but instead to understand the world you were in. In the past, I’ve talked about how the world has gotten more complicated over time as a consequence of design, but another part of why that has happened is that the game simply doesn’t reward exploration the same way as it once did.

Vanilla WoW’s questing model managed to keep this illusion of a real world for much longer than we might have anticipated. Even endgame content would often evoke that feeling – the Ahn’Qiraj war effort, if designed today, would likely have NPCs camped near the Scarab Wall, waiting for your turn-ins, and the items they would need would all likely be things you could farm in Silithus. In vanilla, however, the NPCs were in their capital cities, working to build up a war cache that would allow them to actually make inroads through Silithus. It was logically consistent, allowed more participation, and expanded the perceived size of the world. NPCs would talk about Silithus as this far-away place, and while it was possible for you to have been there just moments prior to Ironforge and the discussion with the NPC in question, you really felt this sense of largeness that the modern game often fails to capture.

The problem that zones like Nazjatar have in the modern game, through this lens, is that it makes precious little sense that we are in “danger” for being there, and yet we have a fairly conspicous camp, with flying mounts taking us all over right near Azshara’s minions and the dangerous flora and fauna of the zone. We talk about Nazjatar as this horrifying place, but there was little buildup in game to convey that, and there is no real sense that we are trespassing by being there.

Truth be told, I do miss that sense of scale quite a bit in the modern, more theme park design of WoW. Nothing in the game today feels as big as that original world, and even as the square footage added in new zones has grown, nothing has ever felt as large as Vanilla.

The change in emphasis was mostly a sudden switch in The Burning Crusade. Quests became heavily focused on the zone in which they started. Hellfire Peninsula doesn’t matter by the time you reach Zangarmarsh, which doesn’t matter by the time you reach Terrokar Forest. The orginal zones had this problem a bit, in that gameplay didn’t drag you back to complete objectives, but they would still be needed for other steps. Boating to Eastern Kingdoms as an Alliance player often meant a trip to either Darkshore or Theramore, revisiting older content via that process. Completing later quest chains often required going back to older zones, like with the Onyxia attunement quests. Legion was, in many ways, an attempt to sort of accomplish this, but the problem was that the zones felt more like set dressing than a meaningful journey with a logical reason behind it.

However, I think it is also worth saying here that this shift was mostly necessary from a player acquisition standpoint. If the level 60 to 70 experience climb took as long as 50-60, I would have probably quit the game. The experience of the world was fantastic, but as Blizzard began to focus in more on gameplay, the questing experience and constant back and forth were easier to view as a liability rather than a strength – a waste of time en route to the “good stuff.” I came up on vanilla questing and I did like it, but there were times where it was frustrating, without a doubt. Some of these quests were more exciting when they involved more gameplay – if you could use your class toolkit to make the journey between points easier or more fun, that was great, but not every class had those options. Leveling as a priest was sometimes outright awful because I had no real means of expediting the quests or making them more fun. I had to Smite my way out of corners, or keep to paths and hope for the best. Getting a mount at level 40 was a lifesaver – and interesting, in retrospect, as many people would call that a time-sucking inconvenience if done today, as they do with Pathfinder. There was a time where the game required a lot of running back and forth when players had no mount, and when they finally got one, it was a slow mount that did not substantially ease the process. I suppose it could be argued that had Blizzard not focused on endgame content as much, the game could have delivered better on the promise of its world, but I wonder what type of content would have taken its place?

The hub-and-spoke questing of TBC forward became the new gold standard in the MMO industry, and became wildly popular, presiding over a spike that nearly doubled WoW’s playerbase. The WoW-clones of the late 2000’s nearly all adopted this model, with varying degrees of success – mostly ending in failure.

The thing about WoW up through and including Wrath of the Lich King is that the game was a true hybrid of approaches. The old game still existed, with the same quests and same degree of world exploration. Questing in the TBC and Wrath zones often did better at introducing the world to players, making it remain a focal point, if not the main character of the game. Many of these new games had unestablished worlds and took so fully of the hub-and-spoke model that there was little introduction to the world, leading in part to their failure.

When Cataclysm came, WoW changed as a whole. The remnants of that vanilla questing experience were struck out from the game, replaced wholesale with new quests that adopted the newer design paradigms. This is the point at which WoW committed fully to being a theme park – the world was set dressing for the story being told and served as little else but this. The model of the game moved fully to repeatable content – dungeons, raids, and PvP, alongside world content via daily quests. The endgame of WoW had already been this for around 4 years at the point this shift was fully made, but the difference was that the emphasis on the journey was largely taken away. Leveling, arguably, no longer serves a purpose other than as a gating mechanism for endgame content, and even the leveling mechanics favor playing quests which constrain you to a single zone while queuing for dungeons.

The thing is, I am of two minds about this overall.

One thing I am going to say which will be controversial to some of you is that I personally don’t find pure sandboxes to be that much fun, in that they don’t really satisfy what I hope to find in a game. I do like exploration, but I often find myself more compelled to explore the margins of a game that offers me a track of content to complete. The reason I play primarily WoW and FFXIV, and the reason I am not incredibly hyped for WoW Classic, is down to that – I enjoy having a track of goals that can be accomplished, and to have zones with little easter eggs and things that I can find in the time between activities. It does boil down to a tolerance of repetition that I have as well, though – give me a dungeon that catches my eye, a zone I can explore again and again, or a raid with engaging mechanics that change a bit for raid composition or role played, and I can still be excited to run those bits of content over and over again.

This extends outside of MMOs, too – I’m not a big Grand Theft Auto fan, as while I definitely like that the game has these large, realized cities, the core content is a bit thin for me and there is only so much time I can spend driving around and looking at the various spots in town. I played APB (the original release) when that was out, and when I did my first bit of group content and had to listen to unhelpful party members berate me over the unclear objectives, I was done. Likewise, a game that has a structure and objectives I can ignore to just play sometimes appeals to me more – I play a lot of Cities: Skylines and Planet Coaster, but rather than setting out to have the best city or park, I make what I want to make, and if it meets the goals the game has in mind is a secondary concern. I have a few cities in CS that are awesome and would be well-rated by the game’s criteria for such, but I built them how I wanted to. Likewise, my favorite park in Planet Coaster was built to my own desires, with roller coasters cutting through each other in a mess of track spaghetti – it makes a profit and has high guest reviews, but I just built what I wanted to build, and the only mechanical deference I took was making sure there were adequately available and properly spaced bathrooms.

Similarly, I’ll often fill my time in both WoW and FFXIV with activities off the beaten path. I’m not a roleplayer in video games, but I’ve had a guild meeting in an inn in Stormwind before! In FFXIV, I spend a fair amount of time exploring the world, whether doing the Aether Current discoveries needed to unlock flying or simply roaming around – part of why I’ve been leveling gathering and enjoying it is that it ties a gameplay need to exploration, which is a good combination to me.

Overall, my expectations for a game usually center on it meeting my standard for a “game” – having a sufficient amount of available content, and being focused on gameplay experience. It is why I think that I can engage with WoW lore – when it’s great, I can get absorbed into it, and when it isn’t, it usually serves to setup gameplay and so it ends up being tolerable. I like the efforts that FFXIV takes to be different in that way, whether it is through stronger lore writing, or the ways in which it still tries to hybridize its gameplay, like having the Sightseeing Log and making better use of the world as a whole for the various quests that come later in the game. The level 80 Gunbreaker quest, which I did this weekend and won’t fully spoil, involves going all over the world, including to old zones and some places where you can’t fly, and that exploration serves a purpose and makes logical sense in the confines of the story being told.

The theme park MMOs suffer from trying to shrink their world in service of gameplay, though. I love dungeon finders and queue mechanics, because they get me to the parts I enjoy most the fastest. Yet, there is a problem, in that they all teleport you in to the dungeon from wherever you are, which makes the world feel smaller and less impressive. Especially in FFXIV, where I might be goofing around in regular Eorzea on a level 80 character, who then gets teleported across worlds to a dungeon or raid on the First.

On the other hand, I think that my biggest problem with pure sandboxes and open world games is that they often tend to focus so much on having a large, explorable world, that they don’t offer enough meaningful gameplay hooks. I have few doubts that such a thing is possible, but I think that such a sandbox hasn’t been made yet, and I sure hope it comes to be. I think a sandbox is appealing because I do like exploring, but I often hesitate with game purchases nowadays and I would struggle mightily with paying $60 for a game whose sole appeal is a large, open world. It could very well be that the perfect sandbox for me is already out there and I just don’t know it yet!

However, I think that the lessons Blizzard took from the runaway success of WoW in the post-vanilla world is that moving from the sandbox elements helped player retention, and while I do think there is some truth to that, I think they definitely overcorrected with Cataclysm and have never moved back to adjust. Instead, they’re introducing WoW Classic for player to scratch that itch, which is fine – but I think there is a lot of strength in the synthesis of the two approaches, a synthesis that no MMOs have gracefully pulled off without leaning too heavily to one side or the other – usually the theme park side.

I wonder what future title, if any, can hope to acheive that balance.

7 thoughts on “On Sandboxes and Theme Parks – My Personal Opinion

  1. This post has me dangerously close to waxing poetic about Asheron’s Call again. As an aside — AC had a seamless world! The only forced loads were in and out of dungeons (which incidentally weren’t instanced, so you could and frequently did run into other players).

    More pertinently, in my view it was a wonderous mix of sandbox and themepark. If you were to throw it singularly into one camp or the other — it would be sandbox. It was by and large up to you to create your own fun. But it also had a great many quests. Generally to create or obtain some form of special weapon, magic focus, or armour. But despite the wide array of these artefacts existing in the game, each ‘quest’ (I use the quotation marks essentially because there was no journal or quest log like today, it was uncovered through inworld lore and/or NPC conversations) each felt truly special and quite a feat to have pulled off obtaining.

    …Alright, I think there is probably a post in here somewhere for sometime soon. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great analysis and overview. WoW, of course, was squarely and solidly based on EverQuest, whichin turn was squarely and solidly based on Diku-MUD. The tradition and heritage Blizzard was extrapolating was a combination of virtual world with very strong RPG progression.

    Far from leaving players with no direction, prior to the launch of WoW, when it was the West’s most successful MMORPG, EverQuest was most famous for it’s ferociously addictive qualities. It was widely known as EverCrack. The game didn’t direct players on where to go or what to do but everyone quickly fell into a pattern of trying to find the best places to gain xp to level, which could tale literally months of playing 30+ hours a week to reach the cap.

    After leveling came gear. EverQuest did gear exceptionally well in that individual pieces of armor, weapons or accessories didn’t merely increment stats, they could jump your dps or survivablity by an order of magnitude or give you entirely new and sometimes very desirable or powerful abilities. Gaining items that could allow your character to become invisible, run at very high speeds, levitate, breath underwater, teleport and so on added a huge degree of motivation and focus. You didn’t go to a dungeon because it turned up on a roulette or wass required by a quest – you went there because you knew a monster that lived there had an item that would change your gameplay experience for good, if only you were skillful and lucky enough to acquire it.

    Yes, exploration was a huge part of gameplay, but for most players it wasn’t random exploraton driven by curiosity; it was necessary to get to the things you desired. The pre-WoW MMORPGs weren’t sandboxes in the modern sense of the word; they were more structured and directed than that but the structure and direction had to be discovered and maintained by the players themselves. We don’t really have an accepted name for that kind of gameplay and there certainly wasn’t one in use at the time. Some people call it “Sandpark” as a hybrid between sandbox and themepark but really its neither.

    When I played WoW I the mid WotLK era there was a really obvious split when I hit the Burning Crusade content. I’d been playing very happily in what we now cal “Vanilla” for about four months, taking one character to sixty and several others into the 20s, 30s and 40s. Then I moved my highest character into BC and within six weeks I was done with the game. I got into the low 70s, didn’t enjoy BC much at all and when it looked as tough the WotLK zones would be more of the same I’d had enough.

    Vanilla felt like I was somewhere, BC and WotLK felt like nowhere. What’s mre, because of that it felt that nothing I did really meant anything. I had the very conscious feeling I was playing a video game and as I’ve said many times, I don’t really like video games much. It’s going to be very interestig to watch how Classic is received and how it develops. I have the feeling the pendulum has swung about as far as it’s going toswing in favor of pure theme park MMOs. We’ll see just how far it swings back and how long it stays there.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s funny to me to see Vanilla/Classic WoW described as a sandbox game, because I think at the time it was considered much more “theme-parky” than the competition. All those quests! And marked with giant exclamation marks too! I guess it’s all relative, and these days it certainly feels a lot more freeform than modern MMOs, but I would still expect a “true” sandbox to offer even less guidance. (I’m not saying that’s what I personally want, just that I think Classic is already going to be a fair middle ground in my opinion.)

    Liked by 3 people

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