Spectrum Of Design
a blog series by sunandshadow
aka Mare Kuntz
Blog #3: Does This Rollercoaster Have Sand?
(Themeparks, Sandboxes, and Sandparks)
Themeparks and Sandboxes represent two different philosophies about what a gameplay experience should be like. Themeparks are concerned with giving players a well-paced, story-rich experience. This means guiding players along a somewhat linear path, and preventing them from changing the gameworld except in certain planned ways (combat and quests) or personal locations (instanced housing or inside minigames), to prevent players from damaging the experience for future players, or taking actions that the story can't react appropriately to, damaging the players' immersion. World of Warcraft is probably the most widely-known and played themepark game, though there are many, many others.
Sandboxes are concerned with creating a highly-interactive, sim-like world where players can do whatever they want within the world's physical capabilities. NPCs and pre-created locations don't usually have a place in a sandbox game, whether because they are regarded as irrelevant and not worth putting development effort (and budget) into, or whether they are seen as a taint on the pure player-shapable sand of the world. Sandbox play often focuses on gathering, crafting, and building, whether this is an end in itself or in support of combat. Some sandboxes focus more on trading and traveling. Eve Online and Wurm Online are two of the most widely-known sandboxes. Wurn Online, in fact, has a web page devoted to talking about the nature of sandbox games and why they feel it is important that their game is an exemplary sandbox.
Sandparks are any hybrid between themeparks and sandboxes. It's still an open question which features will become characteristic of this genre, or whether it will split into two or more distinct types of sandpark. Personally I think that customizability will turn out to be a central trait of sandpark games. Themeparks and sandboxes both consider customizability a virtue, though they normally focus on different types of customizability: character appearances and mounts for themeparks, crafting and housing customzability for sandboxes. Players who are requesting sandpark MMOs often seem to be looking for a game that has all types of customizability, rather than neglecting some as both themeparks and sandboxes tend to do. Ryzom could be considered an existing example of a sandpark, but it's not a complete, well-developed example of the genre, which is why it has had such financial problems over the course of its existence. There's a fuzzy line between "grinders" and sandparks. Grinders are like themeparks which are somewhat sandbox-like in that they mostly lack questing and instead have really high level caps reached mainly by killing monsters. Arguably, they combine the worst features of themeparks and sandboxes, though their design goal of using a limited budget to create a world players can spend years playing in without running out of game might be considered noble.
One way of combining the best (though possibly most expensive) features of sandboxes and themeparks is geographically: the themepark locations are NPC towns where quests and story are delivered, while all land outside the borders of NPC towns is sandbox-like, allowing players to build and grow crops on it, as well as the usual monster hunting. In some cases the land outside towns may be divided into two different bands – suburbs for player housing, which don't have monsters or gathering nodes, and wilderness with monsters and gatherables. A designer might prefer to have housing separated from wilderness because if wilderness areas are not landscapable or constructable the terrain data for them is simpler and requires less bandwidth and load times for players. Similarly, if monsters can't roam around housing areas and attack, the monster AI doesn't have to know how to navigate around houses and housing/monster interactions don't need to be tested for bugs and exploits. On the other hand, a designer might want players to be able to reshape the whole world, or to have territory control gameplay focused on gathering nodes. One other possibility is putting the player housing into the NPC city, but this is really a themepark approach, because usually this type of housing can't be customized on the outside, only on the inside (which may be in an instance). And as I was saying above, limiting customizability seems to run counter to the purpose of having sandparks rather than being content with either a sandbox or a themepark.
A different way of combining sandpark and themepark elements might be having quests and narration be delivered through the menu system, rather than having NPCs exist at particular locations in the world. Or, if NPCs existed in a physical location, it might be that each player had a copy of the full set of NPCs on their personal property, and these NPCs could communicate with the player regardless of where the player was or what they were doing. A system like this can be seen in games where the player has a cell phone or other personal communicator through which NPCs call the player; Grand Theft Auto V is one example. A slightly different version can be seen in games lke Castleville – the player gets a copy of each NPC who wanders around like a pet, but all the actual missions and story are delivered through the menu system. This approach is probably descended from the single-player campaigns of games like Warcraft III and StarCraft/StarCraft II; in these games stories and missions are delivered through the menu system, but the main characters of the story are often playable hero units in the mission levels.
A third attempt at trying to combine sandpark and themepark elements might follow the approach of a game like Vindictus – this type of game doesn't have a main world, but instead allows players to run the dungeon of their choice from a menu. If a game of this type were to add either instanced player housing, menu-accessed gathering and crafting areas, or both, it could become sandpark-like. Wouldn't be too different from existing themeparks that use an expansion to add instanced player housing with sandbox-like play such as growing crops possible only within the housing. Runes of Magic and Wizard 101 are two examples of themepark MMOs which have added sandbox elements via an instanced housing system.
Themeparks, Sandboxes, and Sandparks aren't the only kind of MMO. Myst Online: Uru Live Again is the most well-known examples of an MMO adventure game (MMOA or MMOAG). There are several MMO strategy games (or PBBG, Persistent Browser-Based Game). Examples include Travian, Grepolis, Ikariam, Evony, Stronghold Kingdoms, and many more. There are also several not-quite-MMO online CCGs, games which are basically lobby games where players duel each other at a Collectible Card Game. These include games from Magic The Gathering Online and Hearthstone through PoxNora and a wide variety of free-to-play single-player RPG-like games where the player uses cards to fight a series of increasingly difficult AI opponents, combined with online lobby-based duelling against other players. Wizard 101 is also an interesting example of a themepark MMO which has CCG-style combat. Tactical MMOs usually fit into one of the themepark/sandbox/sandpark categories, but I feel they are worth mentioning in case any of you have not yet encountered the unique experience of an MMO where combat is turn-based and generally occurs on a checkerboard-like field and use of terrain is an important elements of combat. Dofus and Atlantica Online are two examples of tactical MMOs.
So, why might you, as a designer, choose to create a themepark or a sandbox, or something else entirely? It really depends on the type of experience you want to create for your players. In previous blogs we've already covered whether to give players a precreated character, an avatar which is a blank slate for the player to customize, or a team of adventurers, athletes, soldiers, or pets. We've also covered whether to focus on players who want to play in groups or players who want to play solo. Now we can add: players who like to experience precreated stories, players who like to customize the world around them, players who like to have clear goals and be rewarded and recognized by the game for achieving these goals, players who dislike having a game try to guide them somewhere and set their goals for them, and also players who like to spend almost all their play time on combat vs. players who like to spend half or more of their play time on non-combat activities like crafting, trading, or exploring.
What kind of experience do you want to give players? What kind do you as a player want to experience? Let me know in the comments!