Sandbox Quests

Tobold made a post the other day that got me thinking about the more philosophical angle of the differences between themepark and sandbox games. In the post, Tobold relates the common DM nightmare of players striking off on their own, plundering the crypt/castle/ruins before technically getting the quest to do so. While one solution is the Warhammer-esque “Bears bears bears” method (retroactive credit), Tobold went with “All roads lead to Rome” where he simply moved the quest-giver to where the players were going. As I mentioned in the comments to his post, the latter is not particularly innovative; WoW has had the occasional mid-quest updates since Cataclysm, and GW2’s Hearts are all location-based and automatic rather than relying on quest-givers.

The thought that struck me though, was this: at what point does a sandbox become a themepark?

Take, for instance, Darkfall. I don’t think anyone would claim that Darkfall is anything other than a sandbox. But it also has what amounts to “quests” in any other game: Feats. I suppose these are more similar to achievements than quests per se, but they are basically “Do X, Receive Y” activities that drive player behavior. Would having Feats tied to NPCs in a town or camp change Darkfall into a themepark? I don’t see why they would.

It seems clear to me that the difference between sandboxes and themeparks are the difference between player-motivated actions and developer-motivated actions. Do what you want in Darkfall, do Siege of Orgrimmar/Timeless Isle/LDR/etc in WoW. But I am starting to think that that line is a bit fuzzier than it is typically portrayed. “Do what you want in Darkfall, but farming X over in Y is more rewarding than Z.” How different is that really than themeparks? And isn’t it possible for someone to treat a traditional themepark MMO as a sandbox?

So, now I’m thinking that the line between these two paradigms really comes down to developer attitude regarding content. If the developers feel that they have to create the content themselves, it’s a themepark; if the developers let players amuse themselves, it’s a sandbox. Am I missing something critical? I mean, player housing and non-instanced dungeons are prototypical sandbox qualities, but a Darkfall without either is still a sandbox, right? And clearly the line is not drawn at the mere existence of quests or directed player activity either.

Are these themepark/sandbox distinctions more arbitrary than we have been led to believe?

Posted on October 1, 2013, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I agree 100% that the sandbox/themepark split is more on the developer side than on the player side. In a sandbox the developer focuses on tools to aloow players create content, in a themepark it focuses on content to be consumed as-is. But it’s not as clear cut as it seems: is Neverwinter or STO a sandbox because they have a foundry? The overall gameplay is still mostly leveling/progression/instanced endgame….. And can WoW be a sandbox? After all there are so many possible different activities that you actually have a lot of choice and you’re not really forced to follow the last and latest content…..


  2. I think they are, yes. I’d been trying to get a handle on this as part of an old blog post, myself, and came to much the same conclusion, using EVE as the sandbox model.

    Whether or not a sandbox has explicit ‘rides’ (and I would argue EVE does) its systems shunt most people into certain discrete, commonplace activities, quite finite in number. Most people will arrive at the same methods and tools for doing those activities, or more likely copy them from others who have worked out the math. There will always be innovators and the off-beaten-track types, but they will be the minority. Much like that one guy who makes a career out of soloing old-content bosses in a themepark, or the ‘pacifist’ leveller, or other oddball self-imposed variants.

    The common counterargument is the richness of the sandbox metagame but even there I am not so sure. The rank-and-file player’s activities end up much the same, regardless of what player-created faction they are working for. And the themeparks do have their progression rivalries and their ranked PvP drama, and the rest of it.

    If I had to define a sandbox right now, it would go something like: ‘an MMO whose rules succeed at causing players to create and maintain a significant proportion of the content’ as opposed to the themepark’s content being explicitly created by the developers. The definition would have very little to do with the nature of the content itself.


  3. This is what I’ve been saying since the day I first heard the terms “sandbox” and “theme park”. The analogy I always used to use, even before I ever came across those two terms, was with what we used to call a “recreation ground” where I grew up.

    The Rec is a large, open space provided by the local authorities to give kids somewhere to hang out and to facilitate the playing of games and the pursuance of hobbies. The council might put in some swings, mark out some football pitches, provide toilet facilities or even a snack bar. There could be tennis courts, a running track, a bowls green. There might even be a sit-on miniature railway track giving rides round the perimeter, I’ve seen one that has that.

    On a sunny day you might see crowds of people there playing organized games on all those pitches and courts, picnicking on the grass, throwing frisbees to each other or sticks for the dog. People might be flying kites, playing dominoes, just sitting in the sun reading a book.

    I see most MMOs like that and always have done. The developers provide the space and the facilities for certain organized activities but what you choose to do there is limited only by your imagination and the list of things that are specifically forbidden. Of course, the serious football players get incensed if people want to use the pitch to play frisbee and the kite-flyers get in everyone’s way but somehow everyone manages to muddle along and have a good time.

    Once an MMO goes sufficiently far down the “you must play this way” road as to become something genuinely analogous to a Theme Park, where all there is to do is ride, queue for rides or watch people riding or queuing for rides then it’s not what I’d call an MMO any more. But those are extremely rare, as are sandboxes that are directly analogous to a wooden frame with nothing in it but sand.

    Mostly MMOs are virtual spaces in which players largely decide how they are going to spend their time and it seems as though developers are finally beginning to acknowledge that. Not before time, either.


  4. Correct me if I’m wrong but I think that everything that was fun in vanilla WoW was, at least partially, on the sandbox side, according to your definition. Even if the goal was developer generated (1000g for an epic mount), the way to achieve that was up to you. (You certainly didn’t do 30 days of daily quests to get the mount.)

    WoW tightened the theme park experience during WotLK. They forced you more on predefined rails with their daily dungeon, daily quests, multiple weekly easy puggable raids (OS, Naxx), daily profession cooldown, etc. Playing the sandbox-y side of WoW was more and more overshadowed by the on rail content.


    • Ehh… I might agree that Blizzard “tightened it up” in Wrath, but I think people let TBC slide too often on this account. Remember, TBC introduced daily dungeons, puggable raid content (Kara, at least once Black Temple was opened), and had a half-dozen or more daily quest areas on top of reputation grinds and attunements. In fact, the latter sort of makes TBC one of the least sandbox-y expansion IMO.


  5. I recommend the word structure–

    “This game is heavily structured; this other game allows for more player freedom and exploration.”

    See, easy. I didn’t even need to create arbitrary categorisations that people then need to argue over until they eventually realise that all games have structure because that’s the whole point so why the hell are we so insistent on creating an arbitrary distinction between games that have “too much” structure and proper games for intelligent adults.

    As far as I can tell this term “themepark” is used mainly by people desperate for another pejorative to throw at whatever MMO is currently trendy to dislike, or by people who see other bloggers using the word and don’t realise how stupid it was to begin with.


    • It’s a rhetorical shortcut, certainly. I would even agree with you that it can be (and likely is) used as a pejorative by some people.

      On the other hand, I hold zero shame over a desire for character progression, a coherent narrative, and other hallmarks of “highly structured” games. Someone who says (or writes) “themepark” with a sneer while gleefully playing in the sand is beyond irrational; even if they dislike the style, both are sides of the same online coin. So I don’t worry about them too much.


  6. @Coreus: Your dislike of the term isn’t really grounds to call those interested in the term “desperate”. It indicates how easily you dismiss things which don’t match your own opinions and that’s not fair nor conducive to good discussion.

    The terms themepark and sandbox are appealing because they are concepts that players immediately understand. “Structure” is non-descript. Sandbox is descriptive when said to an audience of gamers. Same with themepark.

    @everyone else: I think the article really sums up the ideas of sandbox and themepark here. As far as MMOs go, I think games are more enjoyable when players are designed as part of the content. I also think games which do so trend more on the sandbox end of things. @Kring hinted at this as well as an example. The more on-rails the MMO becomes, the more themepark it feels.


    • I agree that players immediately understand these concepts. This blog post and the comments that follow demonstrate just how many players understand exactly what these terms mean, as well as how varied those understandings are.

      I maintain that the term “themepark” is mainly used as a pseudo-pejorative, and the people who use it sincerely just don’t realise that.

      (I posted about this stuff months ago on my own blog, just so you know it’s not something I’m dismissing “easily” —


      • Fair enough. No doubt many players do use it pejoratively, but that doesn’t change that it’s a very descriptive term, more clear than “structure” when you’re talking to an audience of players. About a week ago wrote on this exact term. In it I described all the qualities that make it an appropriate term and gave some examples of why the term is fitting. It was the “Industrialization of MMOs” article if you’re interested.


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