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?
I have been playing Borderlands 2 quite a bit lately.
At one point, I had a mission to rescue a dude at the top of this dam. I fought my way through several rooms, saw some interesting stuff, solved some pseudo-puzzles, killed all the things. As I bust out of the final door onto the dam proper, everything goes to hell: the orbiting space station starts launching artillery shells, armed robots start landing, bullets start flying everywhere in this now-three-way battle royale. I take down a few more enemies with my corrosive sniper rifle, and then crouch behind some cover while I reload.
I emerge from cover while tossing a holographic decoy out, stealthing to the first robot and meleeing it in the goddamn face. As robotic limbs fly everywhere, I switch to a ridiculously large shotgun, aim, and fire at a second robot. The shotgun shoots 17 pellets that each individually explode on contact, and firing it sounds like God slamming a car door shut.
Whump. Chik-Chik. Whump. Chik-Chik.
As I stroll down the middle of the ramparts like I own the place (and I do), I am suffused with a feeling of Badass. This whole sequence is staged, minus the explosive shotgun; the designers specifically put this music, with these enemies, in this order. It is the definition of themepark content, as single-player games are wont to be. But that doesn’t matter. I had been having fun before, but this was on its own elevated level. And after the sequence is over and I move on to the next (decidedly less cool) quest it occurs to me to ask: when was the last time I felt this way while playing a game?
I had to go back, waaaay back to my guild’s first Mimiron kill¹ in WoW. Like I said, I have had fun in plenty of games in the past three years. I have done some crazy moves in Deus Ex, there are some epic moments in the Mass Effect trilogy, and double-dagger Elementalist in GW2 was great fun originally. But the specific feeling I had owning faces up on Bloodshot Ramparts? Very fleeting, very rare, but much appreciated.
If you guys have experienced something similar in a game lately, feel free to share below.
¹ Please excuse the editing and the decidedly non-epic music accompaniment. 2009 was a long time ago.
[Update: Please note the missing link photo]
Reading some of the positive comments about Guild Wars 2’s “Explorer-friendly” questing, I cannot help but feel… confused. I understand that there are people out there that do not like traditional questing. That is fine. The problem presents itself when ArenaNet decides to go through the motions and try and placate those of us who like our themeparks to have, you know, themes. And let’s not kid ourselves: Guild Wars 2 is a themepark. Maybe one with a few sandbox rides, but a themepark all the same.
Rather than attempt to explain the problem again, and why it is a problem how ArenaNet is handling it, I am going to simply show you. My apologies to those with 16.6k baud modems.
[Edit: The following picture was accidentally left out of the series, and provides some much needed context for the remainder]
If the above is not immediately clear, I was looking at my map to see if there were Renown Heart quests undone in my endeavor to finish level 7 and start the next step in the Personal Story quest. The only available quests were set for level 8 characters, although I never saw what was down in the South-West. While it is possible to quest above your level, GW2 makes it abundantly clear that it takes levels very seriously – as evidenced enough by the fact the game will de-level you down to the “appropriate” level for questing to be challenging. [end-edit]
To be clear, I have nothing against an Explorer-based leveling game, or one that allows you to reach max level solely by PvP or chain-running Events or even grinding mobs. Hell, I do not have anything against strict sandboxes either, even if I do not play them all that much.
The problem here is one of coherency. The Personal Story thus far is perfectly serviceable, all the way up to the point where you choose to attend a dinner party and discover you need to go play outside for an hour for an entirely arbitrary reason, e.g. you haven’t leveled enough. As Keidot pointed out in the comments yesterday, it does make a certain amount of theoretical sense to structure the game this way. If you can level solely by the instanced Personal Story quests, what is the point of the outside world? Grouping them up better (instead of spacing each quest out by 2 levels) could potentially leave you performing nation-defining epic actions by level 10, diminishing the weight of your future exploits. Clustering them sounds good, e.g. 1-10 and then 15-25 (etc), until you realize that there had better be 5+ levels of interesting grinding/Event activities to participate in.
I do not have an easy solution to this problem. And believe me, it is a problem. It is one thing to be given a vague motivation to go out and do random Renown (aka Heart) quests, and be satisfied. It is quite another to be following a storyline and then be constantly interrupted to complete tasks that have nothing at all to do with the storyline itself. People talk about joys of not having to read quest text anymore, and maybe they even believe that, but this sort of textual background radiation is what differentiates the character and tone of one MMO against another.
And nevermind what this suggests more generally about the designers’ (future) abilities to pace their own content.