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Sandbox Vs. Theme Park MMORPG's

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

The First True Success

MMORPG's have been around for a long time. They have been around since the internet modernized computers and allowed people to actually run fairly complex games on 56k internet speeds.  It was during this period, the late 90s and early 2000s, that MMORPG's began to become popular with the online gaming community.  But, investors were skeptical.  

How do you get the same people to pay month after month?



Everquest would be the answer to many investor's worries.  Released in 1999 by Sony, Everquest would become the most successful MMORPG up until that date.  It would also allow Sony to become the "king" of successful MMORPG's for a short period before the rise of Blizzard Entertainment.


  1. Allows a player to create an avatar which includes numerous playable fantasy races: barbarian, human, dark elf, high elf, gnomes, trolls, etc.  There were a lot of fantasy races in Everquest.  
  2. The game included fourteen different classes.  Each class fit into a distinct category however.  This category continues through modern MMORPG's.  There are tanks, healers, dps, casters, and hybrids.  So depending on what you choose for your class you would fit somewhere into the spectrum of classes.  
  3. Huge world with hundreds of zones.
  4. Instances that require grouping.
  5. Guilds.

Everquest would show the world that MMORPG's could be successful with a subscription model.  Investors would invest in new Sony projects and continue to fund MMORPG's.  Everquest was also a themepark.  It wouldn't be until later that successful sandbox games started to emerge.  Also, this game is still live, if you want to check it out you can.[1]  

Everquest Video

The Great Debate

Everquest started a spawn of MMORPG's.  Some are still around while others failed and are now in the dustbin of history.  However, the feud that began with Everquest and it's successors in the early 2000's became known as a war between MMORPG's.  There were two directions in this time period that developers choose to go with their projects.  One direction was known as a theme park.  

Theme Park

Theme Park

Theme park MMORPG's are games which the players are allowed to create their avatar, customize their character and then go out into the world and collect loot.  This is the traditional format for most successful RPG's and almost all MMORPG's follow this format.  However, theme parks are different than sandbox MMORPG's.  

You are allowed to go out into the world and collect loot, but you follow a path created by the developers.  This allows you to go to specific leveling zones and instances.  These areas are usually marked so you know that you have a quest there or that it is within your leveling range.  Usually you have to complete the zone or instance before you can advance to the next one and you can always return to re-do instances or go back to old zones and help out friends.  

The path create for you will take you from zone to zone like in an amusement park.  You can ride the rides and they will always be there, but once you are done with the ride all you can do is ride it again.  There is no sense of accomplisment because you are constantly running the same instance or questing in an area and then moving to the next.  The world doesn't change just like an amusement park.  When you finish an area that area is still going to be the same if you come back.  It doesn't change if you completed it.  Theme parks offer a lack of accomplishment, but offer great rewards for completing raids and instances.  This gives you an incentive to redo them over and over again.  Usually the raids and instances that you complete have a feature called a loot table and the loot drops from bosses are often different.  So you may complete an instance or raid, but don't get the item that you want.  This almost forces you to redo it.  


Sandbox MMORPG's are different than theme parks.  They still allow you to create an avatar and customize your character.  However, once you enter the world there is usually no pre-destined path created by the developers for you to follow.  There might be a brief tutorial at the beginning, but once you pass that obstical then you are free to roam the world and make your own adventures.  

There is usually a sense of accomplishment in sandbox games because once you complete a zone or area for you it might change to reflect your progress, but the downside is that it is over for you.  You can't redo it.  Sandbox games are notoriously known for their quest grinding.  This means that you might have to kill hundreds of monsters to level up because there is no pre-destined path for you.  So instead of advancing to the next zone you might have to run missions that kill monsters until you are ready to level up.  

Items, intances, and raids are scattered around the world and random.  For example, you might want to hunt a rare dragon, but the dragon only spawns a couple times a day.  Everytime in a new place.  That means you have to explore and find where it is.  Then you have to call your guild to assist you in killing it.  You might not even know what it drops because the items are randomized.  Sandbox games rarely have loot tables. The difference between this and theme parks is that in theme parks people know what the loot table is and where the raid is going to be.  In a sandbox you have to find your end-game bosses for yourself.  

The Early Years Part Two


Star Wars Galaxies was another Sony project that was completed in 2003.  It was a great hit when it released and subscriptions rose quickly to around 500,000 people.  Galaxies was a true sandbox game in the beginning and it was one that I played because I am a massive Star Wars nerd.  


  1. The game allowed you to pick from a variety of different professions.  Each profession had a tutorial profession.  Instead of gaining levels you gained skill points and each time you had enough experience points you got to pick a skill.  Each profession had four skill trees and you had to master them to become a master of that profesison.  There were dozens of professions which included:  Bounty Hunter, Commando, Dancer, Politician, Fencer, etc.  
  2. Self-Sustaining Economy:  The professions in the game allowed the player to create the economy on the server.  There were dozens of professions that simply existed to craft and open up player made stores.  
  3. Cantina's and hang out spots:  In the game you would often go to dangerous planets and on these planets you could go to a cantina where players would be the dancers, bartenders, and entertainers.  You would need to sit down and relax while you received their leveling buffs.  I never went out into the wild without getting a buff from an entertainer.  
  4. Jedi:  The game also included a hidden feature, Jedi Knights.  The game takes place during the Galactic Empire and Jedi's have been hunted to extinction, however anyone could become a Jedi.  You just had to grind each profession until you received a message stating that you were force sensitive.  
  5. Player Cities:  This game allowed for the player to create the cities.  There were some NPC cities in the game, but the game really started to roll when players were given the chance to build, name, and create their own cities.  

Unfortunately, despite all of these amazing features, the game died a slow death.  It finally closed down in December of 2011.  The game was a true sandbox for the early years, but when World of Warcraft became successful the developers attempted to overhaul the game and make it a theme park.  This killed the game and the subscriptions dwindled until there were less than 20k people paying for it by the end.  

Galaxies Trailer

A New and Now Old Era

World of Warcraft

World of Everquest emerged after the successful Warcraft RTS series reached it's ultimatemoment during The Frozen Throne.  Building off of these games Blizzard unleashed World of Warcraft which quickly became the biggest MMORPG success since Everquest.  It would also become the most successful theme park MMORPG through this day.



  1. Leveling:  Leveling in vanilla World of Warcraft allowed the player to choose where they wanted to go within a set of restrictions.  There were usually three zones you could level in at any given time up until max level.  This has changed a little bit with the expansion packs.  
  2. Raids and Dungeons:  World of Warcraft builds off Everquest by allowing players to fight over loot tables in raids and dungeons.  These raids and dungeons do not change and you can run them as many times as you want for your chance at loot.  
  3. Races and Customization:  The game allowed you to choose from four races (four for each faction) at the start of the game.  This was in vanilla and it has changed a little bit since then with new races added to the game.  You can customize them after you select them.  
  4. Players can join guilds and work at maxxing out in professions, but there isn't a player created economy.  
  5. Around ten generic fantasy classes.  Several have been added over the years.  

World of Warcraft reached critical acclaim for doing what Everquest did, but doing it better.  The game reached out to casual players and minimized grinding.  It was a fun experience and people had fun playing it.  Many still do.  This game is a good example of a theme park and I hope that it remains around for a long time to come.  You can check it out here.[2]



The WoW Killers were a group of MMORPG's that were released after World of Warcraft in 2004.  These games were not successful and many of them were ended by WoW's popularity.  Additionally, most are not even live anymore.  However, we will look at a few of them in this section. 

  • Guild Wars:  Guild Wars 1 and 2 were moderately successful and both are still played.  They are free to play games, but were not able to make a dent in WoW's subscription numbers.   You can check them out here.[3]
  • Rift:  Rift was a standard theme-park subscription game that was released in 2011.  It had ten minutes in the sun before going free to play.  
  • Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, and Warhammer Age of Reckoning were all failures.  These games have gone free to play and in the case of Warhammer are going to be shut down.[4]  

All of the WoW killers were in fact WoW clones.  Most of these games copied successful elements from World of Warcraft in the hopes that it would make their project succesful.  These games failed because they tried to copy World of Warcraft.  These games were all theme-parks, but eventually went free to play and some of them are actually remarkably successful FTP games now.  The Guild Wars games are still good games and Rift was the most successful of the so-called WoW Killers to emerge from the 2005-2012 period.  

Guild Wars Trailer

EVE is a Success


EVE Online differs from the long list of WoW Killers because it was never meant to compete with World of Warcraft and never set out to kill the game.  EVE Online is the most successful MMORPG Sandbox to emerge between 2005-2011.  It was emerging during a time that Galaxies was selling out to become a theme park game and World of Warcraft was rising in subscriptions to become the ultimate MMORPG on the market.  But, EVE Online was able to create a niche in the market and rise to a successful 500k subscription level that it remains at today.  



  1. Up until a year ago players didn't actually have a walking avatar.  You could create a image of what you looked like.  However, this changed and now players can walk around on space stations.  
  2. Races:  There are several races in EVE.  These races all descend from humanity.  
  3. Player driven world:  In EVE the players drive the politics, economy, and ship building of the entire galaxy.  This means that players create the de facto governments called corporations in EVE and set the policy for the galaxy.  These corporations battle each other for huge swaths of territory.
  4. Ships:  You pilot ships in EVE and train skills to become a better pilot.  You auto-train these skills so experience isn't needed, but time is. 
  5. Economy:  The economy is player driven.  Players sell what they find exploring the galaxy at local auctions.  
  6. Misisons:  There are NPC missions you can take or you can just go out and start ambushing other players and raiding their ships.  There is no narrative structure or developer path in EVE.  






EVE is not a theme park it is the most successful sandbox and longest online sandbox to date.  I recommend you check it out here.[5]  


EVE Online Trailer

Biggest Bomb Yet

Video games can sometimes turn out to be bombs especially MMORPG computer games.  A few just were bombs and that is all that can be said.  One of these was Star Wars: The Old Republic.  



  1. Fully Voiced:  SWTOR does bring something new to the MMORPG table.  The game is fully voiced over which allows you to hear some amazing dialouge during your playthrough.
  2. Great Customization:  SWTOR does have great cutomization.  You can customize your players to look different, which is awesome for theme parks.  
  3. Dozens of Planets:  The planets are mostly linear.  This means when you are questing you have to go to the same planet each time.  This is the same for both factions.  When you are leveling up you do the planets in roughly the same order for both sides and while they are cool it does get a little stale.  
  4. Class Stories and Ships:  Class stories were great and are a redeeming factor for the game, but the fact is they are being phased out because they don't bring in that much revenue.  Ships are not cool.  Each class gets the same ship and you can't customize it.   
  5. Guilds
  6. Operations and Flashpoints:  The game offers what all traditional theme park games do.  You can run operations (raids) and flashpoints (dungeons) for a chance at  loot from a loot table with other people in your group.  

The game fails for not being original enough or going far enough like Star Wars: Galaxies does.  It fits into the category of WoW clone or WoW "Killer" and met its end at the hands of World of Warcraft for being too similar and outdated before it even shipped.  You can check it out here.[6]

SWTOR Trailer

Changing Industry and Conclusion



The Great Debate between sandbox and theme park MMORPG's may be coming to an end.  Throughout this article we have examined the debate, successes, and failures of the genre, but one theme remains throughout: Free to Play.  Free to Play games reached their pinnacle under the guise of the old WoW Killers.  Games like: Rift, SWTOR, Warhammer Online, LOTRO, Guild Wars, Dungeons and Dragons Online.  These games were failures because they tried to compete with World of Warcraft for a part of the market share of MMORPG subscribers and failed, but then they went free to play.  This means that there is no subscription and you can play for free, but there is a catch.  To do bascially anything in the game you have to buy the right to do it.  

They are still pumping money out of you, but it is through cheap trips and gimmicks.  Ultimately, this seems to be the direction the market is pushing so in a few years it won't matter if the game is a sandbox or theme park, both options will likely include some element of free to play which is money grubbing at its truest form.  


More Information

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria
Amazon Price: $39.99 $18.99 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 22, 2013)


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  1. "Everquest 1: The anniversary edition -PC." Amazon.com. 22/09/2013 <Web >
  2. "World of Warcraft Battlechest -PC." Amazon.com. 22/09/2013 <Web >
  3. "Buy Guild Wars 2." buy.guildwars2.com. 22/09/2013 <Web >
  4. "Warhammer Online Shutting Down." IGN. 22/09/2013 <Web >
  5. "EVE Online." eveonline.com. 22/09/2013 <Web >
  6. "SWTOR Home Page." SWTOR. 22/09/2013 <Web >

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