Grand Theft! My Sandbox was stolen!
Posted by SERIAL GANKER [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 March 2010, 1:03 pm
I first heard the term “Sandbox” used by The Escapist to describe console games like Grand Theft Auto. The concept being that GTA didn’t have a track or a set path you followed, but was an open ended world. The player could drive around wherever they wanted, in whatever car they wanted, and do whatever jobs or activities they wanted.

At some point, someone (Syncaine, perhaps?) adopted the term and applied it to MMOs. In doing so, they redefined what “Sandbox” meant (open ended world) to something else entirely. The MMO definition of Sandbox is a lot more vague and harder to define, but I think the original interpretation can best be distilled down to: A game without levels.

Poor Word Choice
But as I say, this MMO usage is vague and it quickly became synonymous with other features like player controlled territories and the ability to loot other players. And so when people talk about a Sandbox MMO today, they don’t just talk about not having traditional levels, but really all the other flexibility that comes with territory control and looting.

The term Sandbox MMO has come to represent the combination of three separate features: No Levels, Player Controlled Territory, Full Looting.

One reason I don’t like the word choice is that these games actually have levels. They just aren’t levels in the traditional sense but skills. I won’t argue that such a system is more flexible, but it’s still a pretty straightforward character progression. If you want to do X, you need to level those skills. The term Sandbox MMO just seems so misused in that application.

Honestly, I think the best argument for the validity of this definition is that player owned structures and territory control in PvP games define the landscape and world.

And yet, Warhammer had such a feature and I’ve yet to hear one person label that as a Sandbox. So it would seem that at least by itself, no one thinks player defined territory control is good definition of why it should be called a Sandbox.

So you’ll have to forgive me, but I prefer the original usage of the word to describe opened ended worlds.

Warcraft is a Sandbox too!
Look, Warcraft by all accounts can be considered a Sandbox. Quite frankly, any virtual world can if you are using the original definition.

You can freely go anywhere you want in the game world. You can equip all kinds of different things. You decide what you want to do and when.

That’s distinctly different than a game like Halo or Half-life. That’s a track. You have stuff to kill and only one direction to go. You move from cutscene to cutscene merrily killing everything along the way until you get to the end. And then you are finished.

By comparison, you have unimaginable freedom in Warcraft. Sure, there are quests. But you decide which quests you want to do, where you want to do them, whether or not you want to complete them or if you just want to do something else entirely unrelated to questing.

The Word, not the Games
Keep in mind that my contention here is not a criticism of the games, but of the way the word Sandbox is used to describe MMOs. It’s a catch-phrase used to imply that such games have more freedom than other games.

The implication being that games like Warcraft have little or no freedom. As I pointed out, that’s not really true. What games like Warcraft provide is guidance. The free form nature of being able to do whatever the hell you want still exists. The difference is that you aren’t left to wander along with no direction.

And if you want to call out Warcraft for having levels, then call it a Leveling-Based game as opposed to a Skill-Based game. Why bother trying to have a separate ambiguous definition like Sandbox?

The point here is that the term Sandbox has been warped and disfigured into something used to describe games that are really no more of a Sandbox than any other MMO. The irony being that all MMOs, by their very nature as virtual worlds, are also Sandboxes.

The Folly of calling Warcraft a Themepark
Set aside your personal opinions about these games for a moment and consider the words being used to describe these games. In real-life, would you rather play in a Sandbox or visit a Themepark?

Themeparks are exciting! They spend millions if not billions of dollars making them incredibly fun and memorable. They are at the peak of all possible forms of entertainment.

Or a Sandbox. With sand. Oh, the joy.

Obviously the Themepark is a far superior form of entertainment and for the same price, no rational person would ever choose the Sandbox.

The term Themepark is used to describe MMOs in a negative way. It’s intent is to imply something is “on rails” and that you have less personal choice or freedom.

People like choice, so it’s a nice tidy little attack to label something rigid and inflexible by calling it a Themepark. However, without that context, an outside observer would say – gee, a Themepark sounds more fun and exciting than a Sandbox.

It just strikes me as silly to use the better of two things as the derogatory term.

Co-Op or VS Mode
As much as I'd like MMO players to adopt the original definition of Sandbox as it was used to describe open world games, I have no illusions that will ever happen.

The issue is that no one has really thought of a different word to describe games whose primary focus is not PvE progression. And let's be clear, that's the central difference between games like EVE or Darkfall and Warcraft.

It's the difference between playing a shooter in Co-Op mode where the other player is a teammate, or VS mode where you are competing directly against each other.

Why is PvE or PvP the defining characteristic? Well, imagine a game exactly like Warcraft except instead of levels, they had skills. Questing in progressively harder zones still existed. PvE Raiding still existed. The only difference is that your "class" and "level" are defined by your skills instead.

Is that a game like EVE or Darkfall? Not really.

What if we added full player looting? No. More consequential perhaps, but not a Sandbox.

That's because THE POINT of what you are trying to accomplish hasn't changed. It's still about PvE end-game and quest progression. It's still Co-Op mode.

What word would I use to describe EVE or Darkfall?
  1. power or the use of power; sovereignty over something.
  2. a kingdom, nation, or other sphere of influence.
I would call them Dominion games because the end-game is about controlling things. Hell, EVE even uses the word 'sovereignty' to describe ownership of solar systems.

Because at it's core, what makes these games different than a PvE Raiding game is Dominion. The building of kingdoms, nations, areas and expanding a sphere of influence.

It's not about being a Sandbox.  It's about Domination.

NOTE:  Another reason I like the word Domination or Dominion better is because it describes the end-game, not a subsets of features.  I wouldn't call Warhammer a Sandbox, but I would call it a Level-based Dominion game.  Whereas, Darkfall is a Skill-based Dominion game.  And Warcraft is a Level-based Raiding game.

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