A sandbox can be a pretty fun place, especially in the video gaming world. Sometimes you might get sand in your shoes or some bully destroys your sand castle, but that is the consequence and risk of the sandbox. So why am I looking for a sandbox? Because when a sandbox is done correctly, there is no better place to spend your gaming time.
If you’ve spent any time playing MMO’s in the past 5-6 years, you will know exactly what I am getting at. If you are getting lost with the sandbox analogy, let me lay it out for you. A sandbox in gaming terms is a game that is completely open world, where you can go and do whatever you wish. The easiest game I can point to as an example is the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series. The world is completely open and you can run around and do what you want. There is still a linear story line to be told, but you can follow that whenever you wish and can complete objectives in any way you see fit.
To me, that is the best type of game. That is one reason why the GTA games have sold so well. But that is not the genre I am leading up to. If there is any genre that can easily benefit from a well designed sandbox it’s MMORPGs; and as of right now, there are currently none to speak of.
Best way to describe what I am looking for is to look into the past for inspiration. One off the top of my head was Asheron’s Call (AC). I’m an old player of AC back in 2000 and I’m currently playing the 14-day trial to rediscover some of the great aspects of it. Asheron’s Call had a lot of great sandbox elements, primarily in character classes and the way you improve in the game. You see, there are no set classes in Asheron’s Call and there are no actual levels in the game. You might inspect someone’s avatar and it will tell you what “level” they are, but in reality, levels in Asheron’s Call are just a measure of how many experience points one has gained. Those experience points are in turn spent on your attributes and skills. So instead of having a standard class you choose at your character’s creation, you get a large pool of skills to build off of. Everything from using swords, bows, and spears, to different schools of magic casting, trade skills, and then some. Feel like playing a Healer Mage that uses claw weapons? Go right ahead. That in the end makes character progression in itself a sandbox.
My second big MMO of the past was Ultima Online (UO). This is the ‘OG’ in the MMORPG world and is still considered by most the best sandbox game ever made. Unfortunately, I wasn’t into the MMORPG scene until the first Everquest, so I don’t have much of any first hand experience with UO. But what I know of it, you had the potential to pretty much do anything you wanted to do.
My best comparison to my limited knowledge of UO however is best substituted by the early days of Star Wars Galaxies (SWG). I was playing SWG the day it was released, and overall it was great. It had a unique skill system, open ended gameplay, player cities, great crafting system, and the rare chance of becoming a Jedi. At first it had its share of bugs, some game crippling. For example, one of the first professions in the game I tried to go for was called the Commando. You were able to become a specific type of character based on what skills you developed the most. You could also be a Bounty Hunter, Combat Medic, a variety of different craftsmen, and much more. Of course once I was able to become a Commando, the class was pretty much broken at the that time. There was no armor for me to wear or weapons for me to use as my new profession.
Eventually the game matured and around 2005-2006 is when most people agreed the game went full circle and was at its peak. Unfortunately however, with World Of Warcraft (WoW) on the scene raking in the money by the truck loads, Sony Online Entertainment (SOE, the developers and publishers of SWG), decided to totally scrape the great things about the game and turn it into a class based system like most other MMO’s. That lead to the eventual fallout of the core SWG players and the fall of the game from grace. It was truly the end of an era.
Since then it’s been nothing but WoW style, linear MMO’s to play.
So on to my final point, what kind of MMORPG I’m a looking for now? One that can combine what MMO’s of yore did with technology of today. One that has a wold that is open to do what you want, however you want, and uses an open-ended skill pool for advancement rather than your standard class based advancement.
Two games currently in development that I’m looking forward to are called Fallen Earth (FE) and Darkfall (DF). Starting with Darkfall, the game has no levels and it is completely skill based advancement. It has real time combat for intense fights and a leveled playing field where player skill matters big time. The world is completely open for exploration and is full PVP! So anyone can attack anyone else and take all of their possessions. This makes it mandatory to find friends to be with otherwise you might be out in the wilderness all by yourself and get slaughtered by your racial enemy or a group of bandits that just want your stuff. There are six races you can play. Humans, Elves (or the Mirdain), Dwarves, Mahirim (Wolf People), Orks, and Alfar (kinda like Dark Elves). The Humans, Elves, and Dwarves are allied with each other while the Mahirim and Orks are allied. The Alfar are enemies with all other races. PVP in the game is very risky and can lead to drastic consequences for you actions, but with that comes a rewarding playing experience. To top it all off, clans or guilds in the game can construct their own player cities which can then be attacked by other clans.
Fallen Earth is based on a post-apocalyptic United States. The game takes place in and around the Grand Canyon. It also serves up a completely skill based advancement system with real time combat. It has six different factions for you to join and they all fight against each other for their ideals. The game also has an extremely involved crafting system, where crafting items actually takes time to complete therefore warranting to be paid for time spent making someone else an item. Again it features a completely open landscape to explore and lots to do.
Both of these games do not have release dates yet but are nearing completion. I am hoping to be playing either of them by early 2009.
The main reason why we are not seeming more games like this recently is mostly due in part to World of Warcraft. WoW, although I am a long time veteran of the game, now holds a place of disdain for me. Because of their huge success, most developers and publishers see that and try to copy its “winning formula.” That in turn produces a slew of really poorly designed, class-based linear MMORPGs which I just don’t find as a rewarding playing experience anymore.
In truth, these sandbox games are mainly for a niche market and the developers/publishers do not see them as the cash cows they are hoping for. As it currently stands however, there are a lot of people like me looking for the same thing. I believe whichever game is able to fill that niche first will be a huge success.