The lack of Sandbox MMO games

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I’ve been playing MMOs since 1999, some were theme park and some were hybrids or pure sandbox. However, due to the static game mechanics we see these days in theme parks, I barely play any MMOs for more than one week. Some will tell me to play EVE Online, but the thing is, i played it for five years and I can’t do it anymore. I’ve also had fun in Darkfall until the developers managed to completely destroy their product (servers are quite empty these days), so that has left me with a few indie MMOs, that barely can be called BETA games.

EVE Online

The thing is that the sandbox games we have these days, not including EVE Online, are made by developers that barely have any experience in game design or/and have very low budgets. Big companies are interested only on scoring high number of subscribers and they are not interested in sandbox games, they want casual, mainstream MMO to get lots of cash which most of the time fail and become free to play. At the same time niche based games, won’t bring a large influx of cash unless you make a good one and your profit comes from 50-100k dedicated subscribers. This, of course, can’t be made with corporate greed in mind. MMO developers can make a nice profit if the business plan is developed properly and the game is polished, but it needs to be clear from the start that it won’t bring in money like WOW or Rift, but at the same time it will cost less.

Most of the newer MMO players think of sandbox as a Full Loot PVP. While I adore this system, it is not recommended on today's sandbox to have that, but it is also not necessary to remove it completely. For example, if you get killed in PVP, you have a X % chance to drop a few items that you wearing or from inventory, something similar could work and it doesn’t have to be as harsh as, let's say, Darkfall. A good system EVE Online developed where you can insure your ship and get almost 80% of the money back upon death, but you lose the equipment which can be looted by the people that destroyed your ship.


But why would you want to play a sandbox MMO, what’s the thing that makes them special and fun? Well, sandbox games offer you the tools to manipulate alone or with guild the world you live in. Build, conquer territories, bases; a player based economy; complex character evolvement; sieges and awesomely harsh PvP. We can also try to bring the AI and Quest systems to the next generation by building on the existing Theme Park madness. Imagine an AI faction that is dynamic and grows strong or looses power based on how many NPCs and Players it manages to kill. They acquire equipment, build bases and even attack player hubs or player own cities when they are strong enough. The quests could be generated dynamically based on what happens in the world. For example a player trader traveling with his cart from city A to city B, could get robbed by a group of NPCs or players. Annoyed that he lost of most of his merchandise, the trader can go to the nearest city and posts a quest at the mayor office that he is offering a reward for killing those people that he encountered. Maybe even make it so that stolen goods can’t be sold for 24 hours, so a quest to recover the items could also be posted. At the same time these quests can also be generated by NPCs. For example: some where a powerful dynamic AI mob is attacking NPC villages due to low defense, and the NPCs in hub cities generate a quest to kill that mob. The list can go on. New quests could be generated by guild leaders and even faction leaders.

Combat should be active and dynamic, no fixed target, and should be based on the player skills to move, attack the correct part of the body, distance, block and so on. Skills should raise upon use but skills and attributes + equipment shouldn't offer more than 50% - 70% bonuses over an empty, untrained character for balance purposes. The first example that comes to mind is how in WoW at level 1 you have like 100 HP and at lvl 70+ you reach at least 15000 HP. That pretty much destroys the entire idea of being able to do anything, since it just makes you follow the beaten path some hairy old marketing/player satisfaction external expert decides that it makes you happy.

Even if you don’t like PvP or mass conflict in sandbox games, you can become a crafter or a builder, which can be fun and satisfying since you will be able to build houses, cities and craft just about everything everybody else uses. You’ll be able to leave your own personal mark on the world.

At the moment we have a few decent sandbox MMO games, where the most polished is EVE Online, a persistent space MMO, where skills are trained in real time accompanied by a strong player based economy and huge player wars for territories and prestige. Second place goes to Perpetuum, which is heavily inspired by EVE Online. The mechanics are similar but all the action takes places on planets with Battle Mechs. Third one would be Face of Mankind where everything is controlled and generated by players, from resources, quests and even law enforcement. There are more but these are the best choice we have at the moment, in my opinion of course. You might have other favorite sandboxes you love playing.

Arche Age

There is a small number upcoming games like ArcheAge, a theme park - sandbox hybrid that is, unfortunately, accompanied by a weak combat at a first glance, The Repopulation is another hybrid in development by a small passionate company and finally the highly anticipated World of Darkness produced by the makers of EVE Online.

I’ve been able to mention 6 decent games in total which is not bad, but with a high chance of failure, my hopes are pretty low. Feel free to join in on my game design frustration and share your thoughts about the next gen recipes you’d like to see made real and sandbox MMOs in general. Given time, we might get another EVE Online success story, if we are lucky. But, until then, expect more holding-hand linear recipes and the same theme park mechanics that have been slowly taking over in the last 12 years.

The lack of Sandbox MMO games, 8.1 out of 10 based on 8 ratings

7 Comments to “The lack of Sandbox MMO games”

  1. Guess says:

    Hello, well as a pure sandox you have Xsyon, which recently they added zombies invasion, that spawn at abandoned tribes . They can loot player armor hehe

  2. Have a look at Island Forge (I’m the sole developer). It’s all about player-created content: Create your own islands with stories for others to explore. It has a lot of old-school appeal, but provides a very unique gameplay experience. It’s

  3. Lucius Croft says:

    Man, I’m Game Designer and lately i wounder about what people are really expecting from new MMOs RPGs. The most actual player seems only care about Grafic and pvp (exactly in this order). RPG is not grafic or PVP only, moreover, grafics all game have and aways will be defined by actual technology and PVP, is just only a aspect of the whole cool things in a RPG game. 
    I’m saying that because i have seeing peoples evaluate a MMO only by it’s grafics and pvp system. RPGs should be evaluated by a lot of things more. Maybe the Game designers that are working on actual and news MMOs RPGs never played old RPGs (i measn table rpgs) or they are forced by the company to ignore its features and focus only if will be profitable or not, and,  OF COURSE that games must be proftable but, those guys are forgetting that a REAL profitable only happens when they can keep this for a good and long time and don’t release a new product on market, make a great investment and the game reach a good numbers of player BUT, only during 3 or 4 mouths. Dhaa…F2P! EVE has managed to keep its audience because they did a good and solid product, keep the main features and dont only one or two that could sell more but, problably the chance that CCP falls in the same mistakes that all others producers are doing are reduced. A thruly and real good MMO RPG will born when something like a good balanced hybrid born on market, i belive that we are walking on that direction, but with a lot of mistakes and attempts, but we will change to the next level!

  4. Staal Burgher says:

    Once again there is the incorrect assumption that Darkfall is a sandbox. It is not, it is a FPS-battleground. It is Battlefield with grind. There is nothing else in the world.

    A sandbox can only be such if it accommodates all play styles. The problem is not with FFA PvP. The problem is the lack tools given to the players to create stable communities. To institute laws and order. Darkfall allows player to travel everywhere in a short time span and kill anyone with little consequence. Obviously the game is going to degenerate into a FPS mush with grind.

    But neither do you need static beginner areas that are safe. Give players the tools to join together and create a dynamic safe zone. Let players designate themselves as a warrior or soldier - which makes you vulnerable everywhere but enables you to attack other PvP designated characters. 

    If someone one wants to attack your non-PvPers or destroy a building they need to be invested into the game as much as you. I.e. they need to be a faction with a town/city/fortress. Town/city/fortresses can only be obtained if you have positive reputation. Reputation is negative if you steal or murder. This is just off the top of my head. The bandit is a viable role but it needs to be a tiny minority of the population that truly wants to live the dangerous life outside the community. No “sandbox” has done this. Everything has been poor rehashes of UO red/blue alignment.

  5. I agree these kind of game are really challenging, check these two anime series to see some of the ideas you describe “SAO: Sword Art Online”, “Accel World”.

  6. Judy Bathrick says:

    Cool game. Check out Terrayn on Kickstarter. You guys should hook up.

  7. Forgedrake says:

    Wurm Online is a solid if low population game - it seems simplistic at first but more and more functions unlock as you skill up - you can build anything from a simple shed in the woods to sprawling cities - only real downsides is its a killer learning curve early on and the 2 major servers - Freedom the PVE has massive areas already locked down by players so finding a decent spot is hard and the players are very protective of there resources - epic the pvp server (mostly realm versus realm not free for all) is a bit more open as players tend to build behind fortress walls rather then sprawling roman villas however players are a bit more paranoid - all in all its a solid game with lots of depth IF you can break its tough shell

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