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.
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.
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,