Drawing a line in the sand(box)
June 2, 2011 4 Comments
The defining factor that differentiates a sandbox from a themepark is an end goal. Wait, Fallout games are considered sandboxes aren’t they? Okay, so the defining factor that differentiates a sandbox from a themepark MMO is and end goal. Different rules for different genres, I am on board with that, and it makes sense to apply them as such. So, if we proceed with that being the line upon which genre-specific titles fall, then we have a clear definition and understanding of what to expect.
Except things are never that simple.
In the typical sandbox, you set out with a decision of “what do I want to DO?”. Pick a vocation of sorts, or just a type of gameplay, and you can go have at it. Want to be a space tailor? Have at it! Want to be a bar-room dancer? You can still do it, but not as well as you used to. Build ships and sail the open seas, braving the ocean depths with each league? I think you can do that, in a limited fashion at least. You can play a pirate (space or sea), a trader, a craftsman, a bar owner, an entertainer, a warrior, an assassin, a leader, a manager, an economist, or even a farmer in some games. The goal behind the sandbox is to provide you options of how to play in the world. In themeparks your options are more limited, or sometimes it’s the world that’s limited. What happens when a themepark becomes astoundingly huge, and your options of what you want to play are exhaustive?
This is the question I’ve been bouncing around in my skull for the past couple weeks, and I haven’t really come up with a clear answer.
If you’ve been reading here recently, I’m sure you realized that the reason I’m wrestling with this conceptual dilemma is because of my recent time in EQ2. This game, by all accounts, would be considered a themepark. You have a strict linear leveling progression, with level appropriate zones, full of quests for soloers to hit the treadmill with and work their way to the cap and partake of dungeons and raids, never looking back at the pitiful places they have left behind. Except none of that is really true. Yes, there is a progression to the game that puts you eventually in dungeons and raids and working on gear acquisition, but there is much more to it as I see things so far.
I’ll start with the most basic and simple thing: visiting old zones is not only required, but often profitable and rewarding. Big quest chains that you will want to do will send you all over the world of Norrath to complete them. As far back as when the game launched this was the case. To finish the prismatic weapon epic quest line, you first had to get the draconic language, which meant doing a quest to find runes scattered throughout the whole world. Epic weapon quests from previous expansions still maintain that requirement. There are updates for some of these quests in old dungeons that are built for characters in their late teens, or early 20’s.
And speaking of levels, progression isn’t always linear. Mentoring down a lower level player brings you to their level to help with their EXP gain, as well as let you see old content. Or you can self-mentor for a small fee from special NPCs to go visit old content. You don’t do it just for the shits and giggles of it, or just to see old stuff you haven’t done. There are tangible rewards to coincide with this. Largely in the fashion of one of the secondary leveling tracts – your AA experience. It’s a second layer of level building that you get exp from exploration, killing named mobs, finding special treasure, and completing quests. Going back to lower levels lets you get that exp from those treasure, mobs, and places you may have missed before. Oh, and if you partake in a secondary type of crafting (beyond the primary crafting), then you also get mats for gaining skills that can only be reached through lower level items.
There’s also crafting. Which is a second game completely unto itself. Resplendent with its own leveling system, experience gains separate from your adventuring, zones specifically designed for crafting, and quests designed to help you through it. The rewards for the quests are often status – a numerical currency of sorts – and token currency, on top of the crafting experience gain. The two leveling systems often intertwine, with a quest for your adventure frequently needing you to be able to craft, and the acquisition of raw goods is cheaper if you can go out and harvest them safely for yourself. And if you haven’t heard about EQ2’s housing and economy game, then you need to go look it up yourself, because it’s too detailed and varied for me to give even a passing justice to it.
Of course, a lot of this can be accomplished through pre-planning, and knowing the intricacies of the game well in advance. If you know all those different locations at low levels to get the experience for the secondary advancements, you can lock your level and go get them, and you can hoard your lewt to help increase the skills that need them. I won’t lie, this is a common occurrence amongst veterans. But as a new or returning player, ignorant of how to do a lot of these things, it brings much-needed depth and vibrancy to a game world. And honestly, doing things to keep veteran players mucking about in the lower ends of the game for longer periods of time isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
So, when I look back at all of those things to DO in Everquest 2, I have to wonder, if a themepark keeps adding extra things to do, that are a bit of a horizontal expansion, does the game start to venture into sandbox territory? Yes, this game has had the vertical rising common in themeparks, but it’s grown outward as well. Outward AND upward. So, has that drawn line started to become blurred? Was the line even in the right place to begin with?