Drawing a line in the sand(box)

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?

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About Shadow
Making serious business out of internet spaceships.

4 Responses to Drawing a line in the sand(box)

  1. Grimnir says:

    Sandbox games are about making your own path, not following the one provided for you. No matter how many zones that Epic quest chain takes your through, in the end it’s still just another linear quest chain. Adding a second layer of leveling doesn’t make it any less linear to level. Crafting is one of the closest things you can get to sandbox play, but when you look at the materials per product, aren’t the lower tier ingredients creating lower tier products with a linear and vertical progression upward? Adding more linear aspects doesn’t make a themepark game more like a sandbox, you’re just adding attractions to the themepark.

    • Shadow says:

      On the other hand, no matter how expansive a sandbox, you will never be able to do everything. If I want to play EVE, and have my avatar be a farmer on a planet (actual tilling of soil, not just PI space harvesting), or fly out deep into uncharted space, setting up new stargates, I can’t do that. Every game has limitations in some form or another, it’s the reality of programs, there are always limits and boundaries.

      So sure, that epic quest chain may be a linear chain of events, but it encompasses the entirety of the world. And having quest chains and regular quests are not things you find only in themeparks. EVE has them as well. Sandboxes often still contain themepark elements. And even with that quest, I’m just as free to choose to do something else, like grind mobs (for multiple reasons), or work on my AA, or work on my crafting, or work on my OTHER crafting, or work on my housing, or work on playing the market selling the things that I got while exploring and participating in old world-content (because it still holds value to the high-end characters as well). At what point does the host of options available to you in a themepark equate out to what is offered in a sandbox?

      The difference doesn’t see so much to lie within the player choosing what to do, because any sufficiently horizontally fleshed out themepark will have a host of various and equally attractive options.

      Keep in mind, I’m not saying that EQ2 is a sandbox by any stretch of the imagination, merely that as a game, it has incorporated a lot of the sandbox theme and implemented that into their game. A player is still tied to one archetype, and more specifically, one class within which to operate, which is an inherently limiting design choice from the onset of the play experience. However, the boundaries within the world of operation are fare more expansive than what you find in typical themepark fare. If you were to take EQ2, and make the classes skill-based, what would our perception of it as a game be like?

  2. Erbse says:

    The trick with Everquest II is and was that they implemented plenty of linear systems that are un-attached to each other and can be focused on specifically, or simultaneously as desired. I’ve never made it anywhere lategame in EQ II, think my highest toon was around 40, yet it’s a game I have probably 4-5(+) accounts at because it kept on sucking me back from time to time and jumping onto an old toon while you practically haven’t been there for the past 10 expansions would be rather expensive than simply buying the game anew for a few bucks and have it all in one again.

    Linearity however is a needed feature in any MMO, because it ensures progress and measure-ability. In a pure sandbox game (think Mortal Online tried that) where you can do everything doing what you want becomes pointless because there’s no goal to reach, however slow you may be on the road towards that goal.

    In EQ2 you could work on your AA’s, your real level, your crafting and whichever road you chose to walk or focus on, it always impacted your game and made it easier overall for the other two routes thanks to passive boosts (AA points / stats, pimped gear from crafting, or game experience by simply rushing through the tiers).

    EQ2 took it to a complete new level, which I also find to be reason the game is still alive and kicking. If EQ2 didn’t provide the depth and options it did at launch chances are it would have lost out to WoW big time and may have died by now.

    Anyway, the verdict, technically speaking, EQ2 would still rank in the same category WoW, or War would, while certainly offering a whole lot more either of the mentioned titles have to offer by comparison. Personally, I regardless tend to single EQ2 as the better, if not the best MMO up to this day – most certainly if you can set your needs for heavy PvP aside.

    • Shadow says:

      I basically agree with you. EQ2 is most definitely a linear themepark, but its those many dissociated paths of progression that you can take that makes it so different from many of the other similar-styled MMOs out there. That significant difference and its similarity to the concept of what makes a sandbox unique is why I started to question the line of delineation so to speak. The only main divider that I can see that remains is the relevance of low-level new player impact on the combat portion of the game. Low level zones are still populated for various economic and secondary advancement reasons, but the low level players themselves are not necessarily impactful, unless a veteran player has the helm and is playing the market game.

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