Single-player sandbox games have always been incredibly popular. Starting with games like Fallout or GTA and ending with Skyrim and Minecraft, open-world, free-roam, non-linear sandbox games have always been on top of the charts.
Contrary to that, in the history of MMORPGs sandbox games have always been there, but occupied a rather small niche subscription-wise. Somehow when translated to multiplayer sandbox games tend to not attract even a fraction of the fanbase.
Here is an attempted analysis of the problems:
PVP and Fairness
I honestly think this is the biggest detractor of sandbox MMO popularity.
FFA (Free-For-All) and especially full loot PVP creates a high-risk low-reward environment. New players are discouraged by this mechanic to go out and explore the open world.
If the sandbox also uses a level-mechanic with power being assigned to the player by stats and/or gear the problem is only exeggarated.
The enjoyment of PVP is closely tied to "fairness" or what the player experiences as fair. Being ganked in WoW by a lvl 85 in Goldshire is not fair for many players. They have no options to defend themselves, to fight back. They just have to sit there and watch being slaughtered.
If WoW had full-loot mechanics, where you would essentially need to restart your character when killed by another player, its appeal would be greatly diminished. Frustration and fear builds up in a player that is under constant harrasment of others.
FFA, full-loot PVP combined with level/stat-mechanics creates a set of problems:
But FFA, full loot PVP is not an integral part of a sandbox. Its presented to us as a false dichotomy from most developers of sandbox MMOs (EVE, Darkfall, Ultima Online, Perpetuum).
Many would argue that if you left out FFA PVP the world would stop being a sandbox, and I can understand that argument (although I disagree), but then there is no excuse to make the PVP also -fair-. New players need to feel that they have a chance of survival in the game, that they at least have a chance of escape.
When I look at League of Legends the greatest games I have had were the ones where both teams were evenly matched. In Dominion the most satisfying games revolve around a 10-0 victory, not a 400-0 one.
The next generation of sandbox MMOs needs to step away from their FFA PVP-focus, it is not necessary for a sandbox experience.
Many sandbox games feature a way for the player to leave a permanent mark on the game-world, be it building a space-station in EVE, a town in Darkfall or terraforming mechanics in Perpetuum. However these features are inaccessible for most new players. A station in EVE needs a consolidated effort of a corporation to build, so does a town in Darkfall.
If Minecraft and Farmville taught us anything, its that people absolutely -love- to build things in a game (and break them afterwards).
A tripple-A sandbox MMO could rope in significant interest if the world-building features would be accessible from the start. It does not have to be significant or grand, but being able to, for example, craft a small wooden hut already shows the player that he can truly influence the world and leave a mark on it.
Sadly often those features are often implemented as endgame-content, its counter-productive really. A powerless player doesn't want to feel even more powerless by looking at Player Bs magnificent fortress of solitude.
World-influencing content must be available to players from the start or as early as possible, its an essential part of a sandbox.
I think there is a myth that a sandbox MMO must be devoid of narrative or story. Most current sandbox MMOs provide a lot of lore and background for their world but are devoid of any narrative.
The goal for a sandbox is to give you choice and a non-linear way to achieve your goal, this does not exclude a story and progression of the game-world. A game like Skyrim can clearly have a story yet stay true to the sandbox by not forcing the player to follow it. Similarily a sandbox MMO could have an enjoyable story yet keep it completely optional. This is not about handholding the player, its about giving the player a sense of direction and purpose of his actions.
When a narrative-direction is missing, most players will substitute their own goal, however often these goals are either unrealistic (because the player didn't yet experience the game properly) or simply causing mischief (ganking, griefing, running naked through the streets, spamming chat).
Story, or narrative direction must be present in any future AAA sandbox MMO.
One of the halmark features of single-player sandbox games is exploration. There is an intense satisfaction in uncovering secrets or easter-eggs left behind by the developers, creating their own narratives or leading to greater understanding of the world.
Current sandbox MMOs have little features that encourage exploration.
I remember a situation while playing EvE Online where I jumped to a random system to discover a huge broken down temple with a statue on top that was around 10x the size of my Thorax.
I was intrigued. Why would someone build a temple or even a gigantic statue in space? What kind of faction/race did this? What was its purpose? Who were the people living/worshiping there?
Sadly, turns out those are just differently named mining sites. Its just that instead a mining-laser you will need an analyzer or other tools to open the containers afterwards.
Its just a novel way to aquire wealth through blueprints or whatever else drops.
This is not exploration, its mining.
Exploration is about aquiring a different kind of wealth, a wealth of experience about the world, without resorting to Wikis and other write-ups and summaries. Exploration needs to give context to the world.
Yes it can have its own mechanics like analysis, or hunting for clues, but most imporatntly the reward needs to be primarily lore, not gadgets.
Future sandbox MMOs need to give a fulfilling exploration experience, its a core of the genre.
Simulation VS Game
Why did I stop playing games like EVE or Perpetuum? Thats simple, they are built like a simulation instead of a game. They use they same mechanics that in their compostition feel like the real world.
I am almost afraid to say it, but EVE, Perpetuum or Darkfall is like a libertarians dream. It feels like playing a game of real life, it feels like work, like something I would do in reality, except in reality I would get paid for it with real money, instead in EVE i pay for it.
Most players play games because they want to escape reality, not to work in it.
A sandbox game does not have to be structured like a simulation, it does not need to apply the same rules as real life. When designing a game I would strongly suggest to not take solutions from life to structure your game, make up own rules that would make sense in the given universe.
The four areas I mentioned seem to be the largest problems for a successful sandbox MMO. Mostly this is an accessibility issue, but current sandbox MMOs also present to us a false vision of these areas as necessary to create a fulfilling sandbox MMO.
But this is not true in my opinion.
The spirit of the sandbox rests on four pillars:
I am hopeful that in the future brave developers will dare to create sandbox MMOs for everyone, not just the hardcore, there is much potential to be tapped into.
I think there are far more players that would enjoy a sandbox MMO than developers and publishers think.