Defining Sandbox: Part 1

Words are hard.  Here I am, a person who communicates continuously via the written word and is paid to craft words for others, and I know that despite my “expertise,” most of what I’ve written in my lifetime, if not all of it, can be misunderstood or interpreted from angles I did not imagine while writing.  Jargon is both a boon and a bane: although it allows people from the same fields to quickly communicate complicated ideas, people from different fields may use the same word to mean different things.  But the worst jargon comes in young fields, such as gaming criticism, where it seems assumed that “everyone knows” what it means without any discussion.

So have I justified talking about the meaning of the word “sandbox” in gaming and in the growing lexicon of mmo jargon?  Since I’m already writing this, I’ll go with the answer most convenient for me: yes.   So how do we define sandbox?  How is it being used out there?

Searching google for “define sandbox mmo,” the first relevant hit I come across is this hub page. The author, Tahamtan, equates sandbox games with freedom of choice.  He goes on to more details, including the claim that the players make the rules rather than developers, and specifics such as classless skill systems and customizable appearances, some of which I agree with and some seem optional at best and otherwise completely arbitrary.   I strongly agree with the freedom of choice bit, but I don’t think that’s enough detail to eliminate games that are commonly called theme parks.  I found a second blog post attempting to explain a personal definition of sandbox, but he focuses even more on the details than this first author.  And most of those details are lifted straight from UO.  UO is certainly a sandbox, at least everyone who has played it seems to think so, but I’m more interested in creating a definition of sandbox that includes any MMO generally agreed to be a sandbox (Ultima Online, SWG pre-NGE, Eve, Darkfall, Wurm Online, and such) while excluding any games generally agreed to be theme parks (WoW, Rift, Warhammer, etc.)

Sandbox games can certainly be said to depend on freedom of choice, but to what extent is freedom of choice limited in a theme park?   There’s a common argument about WoW that claims WoW offers choice despite generally being considered a theme park by most mmo bloggers and reviewers.  And it is certainly true that there are options available in WoW.  Although the most common path is to follow quests, players can choose to ignore the quests and grind mobs.  Players could also put together a regular group to crawl instances or exclusively use the dungeon finder and complete instances with PUGs.  At a certain point, though I cannot recall when, PvP becomes another viable option.

Similarly, WoW does allow for players to choose the zones they visit.  Once getting out of your racial start zone, there are frequently multiple options about where to go next.  There is not a single clear path that forces everyone to be in the same zone for the same level like there is in Forsaken World.  So with all these choices, why does the general consensus firmly place WoW in the theme park column?

Because all of these choices come with obvious limitations.  Although there are options about how to play, all of those options reach the same end: leveling your character and acquiring better equipment.  No matter how someone plays WoW, the goal remains the same.  Even when I imagine a player that gets joy primarily from exploration, visiting every in-game location still requires leveling up and getting new equipment.  Locations are designed for certain level ranges, and while there may not be something stopping a player from visiting higher level zones, players are not able to explore and survive unless they are in the right range for that zone.  The choice of where and how to level is governed by the character’s level throughout the game.  No matter what a player focuses on, leveling and new equipment will either be the end result or a necessary step along the way.

When I look at a sandbox, I find it more difficult to generalize all the goals with a single end as I have with WoW.  Although I have heard it said that the goal is still more power, the difference is in the definition of power.  In WoW, power will nearly always refer to character level and gearscore.  Some might describe power as the amount of gold they possess, but again this goal is governed by character level (higher levels acquire more gold and more valuable crafting materials) and just like character level, there is even a cap that forces players to cease pursuing gold as a game goal.

So far the difference between a sandbox and a theme park MMO seems related to choice, the nature of those choices, and the limitations placed on those choices.  This is far from the complete definition I’m searching for that clearly defines sandbox while excluding theme parks.  But this blog is the longest I’ve written so far, and if anyone is still reading I’m amazed and impressed.  Next, I will take a closer look at how “gaining power” is not a sufficient generalization for goals in a sandbox, or at the very least, how many different ways one can define “gaining power,” all while continuing to work toward a meaningful definition of sandbox.

No promises as to when, I still have a draft of WoW Hate Explained Pt. 1 to finish, and I started thinking about that months ago.

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