Sandboxes and Theme Parks has a fascinating interview segment with NCSoft’s Thomas Bidaux (NCSoft Europe’s director of product development) about one of the publisher’s (and perhaps industry’s) core conceits of online games: sandboxes and theme parks.  Bidaux explains that online games, in order to succeed, must strike a tricky balance between open-ended, create-and-do-what-you-want sandbox gameplay versus proceed-through-amazing-linear-steps theme park gameplay. 

I found the comment interesting because my first thoughts went to, what else, City of Heroes/Villains, which I believe is very theme park-like, aside from the utterly undefeated sandbox creation of your hero or villain.  I personally love that balance.  Within 20 minutes of sandbox design, I have an affinity and bond to my hero or villain purely from the time I took creating him or her– and that’s before the character has even stepped in the game.  Further, I don’t have any “this is a waste of time” naggings because I’m nearly assured my character won’t look like any other player character out there, unlike nearly every other MMO. 

Then, in the theme park of Paragon City, you can randomly partake in street battles, follow missions through story arcs, or take the risk of joining a pick-up group and letting them decide what you do next.  It’s all very simple.  No weapons creation, accessory making, armor upgrading, instrument playing, fishing or animal training is required.  Expansive neighborhoods or confined mission areas provide accessible, and imminently disposable, arcade gameplay as deep as you like. 

World of Warcraft, EverQuest 2, and, whew, definitely Lord of the Rings have a healthy heaping of sandbox, at least in my experience, in that there’s so much content and choice offered it’s overwhelming.  The “theme park” metaphor applies to the sheer breadth and scope those worlds have, but they’re so gi-normous and full of little craftings and skillings and whatever other fake words I can come up with that the span of choices and paths is near debilitating.  Those of you who have oodles of time, or at least healthy chunks of time you can set aside daily for such experiences, probably love this, but in my high pressure, overbooked schedule, a sandbox of that scope is the last thing I want to deal with.  A Sims sandbox, or a well-constrained RTS sandbox I can dig.  I don’t feel as much pressure to succeed or explore.  Tack on a monthly fee, though, and I feel the stress. 

All of which is interesting to consider when you remember that City of Heroes’ designers felt obligated, for some reason, to introduce staples of sandbox titles’ gameplay in the form of crafting and base construction.  Fun, healthy diversions, to be sure, but they remain diversions.  Thank goodness they’re not required in order to effectively progress through levels, otherwise, they just become more justifications for incredibly annoying grinds.

Which takes me to a core point: whether sandbox or theme park, there’s a grind in every game.  Once learned, gameplay is a fixed set of rules that you play through again and again to meet your (or the game’s) needs.  While far more abstract and subjective, if the gameplay’s grind is fun and compelling, it’s going to be successful.  The subjectivity of those criteria, of course, determine which sandboxes and theme parks become successful.  There’s a whole score of people who find the massive sandbox scope of WoW and LotRO fun because they truly like the gameplay.  For me, it’s probably more CoH.  And to that, I can at least think– everybody’s still winning.  But I could use a new fix.  PiratesConan?  Jim would roll his eyes at that thought, but I’m still driven to keep looking for the next great thing, sandbox or theme park.

2 Comments to Sandboxes and Theme Parks

  1. October 4, 2007 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    So as I read this I was wondering if it would be inaccurate to classify the “half-assed MMOs” that are out there with their clever in-game advertising, micro-payment, or other non-subscription models as litter boxes and trailer parks?

    The points you make seem right on the money to me, especially in the context of all those games I’ve been playing recently. It will be interesting to see how upcoming games and gaming environments from AOC to Metaplace will fit in to this model and how the players will react.

  2. October 6, 2007 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m not such an eye-roller since our Episode 11 podcast, in which we discussed the types of gamers. It occurs to me that what drives people to play games is the same force that drives people to seek out new games. At the risk of being repetitive, I thought of an analogy that sums up our playing motivations.

    It’s kind of like going to bars. I like to find a local watering hole that meets my needs — has a good atmosphere; has the beer/liquor I like to drink in stock; has a friendly staff, close to home; etc. When I find a place like this, I’ll try to get my friends to go with me and frequent this establishment. I’m a social drinker like I’m a social gamer. However, if my friends won’t go with me, I will either go where they’re going or not go out at all.

    Other people are constantly looking for the next great trendy bar. Somewhere they can find the hip-crowd; the newest cocktail; a drink special; etc. I used to think that these people weren’t satisfied or perhaps even fickle. Now, I understand the fundamental difference between us: the achievers/explorers vs. the socializers. I don’t know where the killers fit in in this scenario. Perhaps they are the guys that want to start the bar brawls or slip roofies into girl’s drinks. ;)

    Anyway, this all makes sense to me now on various levels. It tells me not only why we play games the way we do and why Jason wants to play the new Conan or Pirates game, but also why companies create the games they do. The devs meticulously analyze us different gamers as well as our demographics and try to strike ever-so-delicate balances between sandboxes and theme parks to meet the needs/wants of these people. Some obviously succeed more than others. As for me, I’m happy with CoH, but if all my friends leave me to go to the new trendy bar, I’ll either have to join them or stay home sober.

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