For a while now I have been intrigued by the concept of the MMO Sandbox. Having played Eve Online for a while, and later Albion Online, there is something truly compelling about online player crafted experiences. For those unacquainted with the concept of a “Sandbox game,” in essence this class of games gets its name from the metaphorical child playing in a sandbox. The child can build whatever they want and can tell whatever story they want, as long as it is within the confines of the sandbox and whatever toys they happen to have. The core value of a sandbox game is the players ability to freely decide their play-story.
Unlike the child playing in the sandbox, the game doesn’t allow players to freely break all the rules in exchange for story. In the literal sandbox, I could take out all the sand and fill the box with water, but in a video game although it would be fun to cause a world flood, the game does not support all possibilities for narratives. Instead sandbox games give players tools to craft their own stories within the context of the world.
Because of this, sandbox games commonly utilize tools, primarily exploration and crafting. Take Minecraft: players go out and explore, so they can find items that will allow them to build bigger and more complex creations. Now while I could dive into all the nuances of Open World games vs Sandbox games, instead I want to focus on online sandboxes. If you have ever played Minecraft with a group of friends or on a server, you are technically playing an online sandbox game.
The benefits to playing Minecraft on a server, is that there are more dynamic encounters via other players, communities, and goals. The downside of this is that other non-friendly players can destroy and rob your creations while you are offline, or unprepared. This is at the heart of online sandboxes.
Most MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) games incorporate elements of sandbox elements into their game but so far only two games have succeeded in creating an epic online player driven world.
Eve Online released in May 2003 has been famous for its large scale space combat in which thousands of dollars have been lost to the cosmos. It has also earned its infamous name as ‘spreadsheets in space’ from the gaming community. Eve Online has a rich history of player stories ever since it launched 15 years ago, so much so that the game was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Albion Online is a much newer sandbox, being fully released summer 2017. Albion takes a lot of inspiration from Eve, but instead of focusing on a sci-fi concept and a futuristic streamlined industry, Albion is set in a fantasy world, taking inspiration from top-down MOBA games. As a result, Albion Online offers large scale skill based PvP (Player vs Player).
Both Online sandboxes offer full loot on death, heavily customizable characters, crafting, territory, and a player driven economy. All of this basically adds up to an experience that goes on long after you log off. The main long-term appeal of the game is character progression, which would mean to become the most specialized and high tier of whatever you want to do. However, guild or corporation progression is just as important. Like in real life, land or territory is the most prized resource, going back to the Minecraft example, if you control a plot of land, and log off, people can easily destroy what you have made. But if you team-up and work together with a group of people, you minimize your risk of getting robbed unfairly. Controlling territory, building up bases, and securing precious high-tier resources for your allies is incredibly rewarding. Even more rewarding is being able to steal resources and territory away from opposing guilds and corporations. In every situation in this game, and thanks to the full loot PvP, players are constantly weighing the risks with the rewards.
The downside to this is the amount of grinding players must do to get to high tier. In addition, although there is content and players playing at every hour, massive fights still have to be more or less scheduled and provoked, so if you have 30 players in a group there isn’t a matchmaking system to get you an even fight, instead, you have to go out looking, or have the inside scoop about where another group of players might be.
Now, grinding and repetition is fine and all, but when the meta-game strategy only consists of a few builds, that is where individual player stories die, and grinding becomes a chore. If a player wants to run a sword and shield, instead of a laser, obviously there should be trade offs, but why would you ever not want a laser? When one class of abilities becomes obsolete, that is when the sandbox of possibilities dries up. Players should always have options and be able to express themselves and their playstyle, without repercussions. But then again, every game cannot be perfectly balanced, or else there wouldn’t really be a point in the choice!
I personally look forward to seeing what these online sandboxes become, as I believe the ultimate game, or VR experience, much like real life, includes this huge space of possibilities that online sandboxes have discovered.