Sandboxes and Theme Parks: Further Analysis

Written by Jeremy Gaffney on October 26, 2012

Last week we held a great discussion about Sandbox and Theme Park elements of games, and whether or not it's possible for an MMO to successfully merge the two types of gameplay. We asked our Executive Producer, Jeremy Gaffney, to offer up his thoughts about the genre, but he had so much to say it needed its own article. Read on for Jeremy's reactions to our community's comments. Enjoy!

We're trying to build WildStar as a hybrid - sandbox elements mixed in with theme park elements. This guarantees we should be able to piss off everyone at one time or another ...or vice versa!

@jleithart The conflict arises with people who prefer to be on rails for the experience vs. those of us who prefer to explore for ourselves

We try to have both ways - I like examples, because they are clear. In most zones, there is an overall 'theme park' overlay - a main quest line that brings you through the zone, has some clear story to it, and is strongly directed. So you always have a guidepost for where you "need" to go (you can skip it, but most people do it). But in the same area, you can find random quests that are either dynamic (through discoveries, for instance), or some zones have elements like poachers who might get bored, build camps, and then there is a prisoner in the camp with a quest for you.

Because those random quests come from a static "pool" they are only semi-sandbox-y. But at some point you get a critical mass of quests that might appear that make the area really feel dynamic. We're experimenting with areas at the higher levels that are almost purely dynamic - we'll see if they feel great or if they still need that high-level theme park direction as we go into beta.

@Bkmiller428 Why can't a MMO offer both? Some zones freestyle/sandbox/hazard zones, others thematic/lore-heavy/mission-rich.

We are trying this - but real players will need to tell us if that feels good to them, or if it's too disjointed when different areas feel quite different. It's certainly the case that the early zones for us (Northern Wilds, for instance - the zone we showed at our announcement) are more linear/theme park-y and the latter ones have more sandbox-y elements - new players need direction early in the game and much less so later.

@nohelixws Sandbox = nonlinear -> can be easier to rack up xp (diff playstyles) and hampers story (since you can do it in any order). Themepark = linear -> more story oriented (it drives forward), RP can be clearer, but right/optimal way to play.

One thing in our mid-level areas we really worked on is the ability to tell a coherent story throughout a big area (currently about 2-4 square kilometers per zone - which since I'm not very good at metric distances I believe is about the size of a queen-size waterbed, but I might be wrong). You can't (and shouldn't IMO) demand players go through the zone in a certain linear fashion, but you do want to tell a story with an arc - resolving that is nontrivial, and we do different tricks in different areas to make it work.

@Ryowulf Sandbox is nice until you are standing at a starport unsure of what to do or where to go

Great quote here. It's daunting as hell to have no idea what to do next. Every area has direction, and then we give you toys to play with to take things in a general direction - for instance in one area you might have the mission to improve your reputation in an area to a certain level, but how you do so is up to you: Do quests in the area, farm some reputation quests/items, kill monsters that ingratiate you with the town, etc. Those kinds of general quests where it's up to you to decide how you want to satisfy the objectives feel very good to me as a player, and I like having it left to my choice. Adding the kinds of layers that our Paths system have to offer further amplifies how you can play the way you want in WildStar.

@AgentNardz There are always limits to a PC game, so you can't have a true sandbox. Solution is in offering as much fun replay as possible.

Here's some more batter for the waffle iron of theme park vs. sandbox with some examples from areas of the game in similar content:

Settlers: In areas of the towns, there are areas they can build up that are pretty theme park-y and linear - let's say there is a field hospital in a zone that puts a long-term buff on players, or a mount vendor who once you've built the shop, is available to other players until the shop decays. So, interesting, but pretty static. On the other hand, right now you could get a campfire which gives a buff to other players and place it anywhere in the zone - and now you have an interesting puzzle: Where can you place this where the most other players will use it?

This is sandbox-y in part because it doesn't have a trivial solution. The more people who use your camp and get helped by you, the more settler XP you can rack up. Solving exactly where is up to you, and it matters to you because: we're incenting players to help each other out, but leaving it up to them about the best way to do so.

Thank you all for your comments! It's going to be really important to us to get your feedback once we get you in the game, and we hope this give you some concepts to look forward to trying out once beta starts next year.

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