‘Themepark’ is not an excuse


The media embargo for Star Wars: The Old Republic’s beta dropped yesterday, and Massively produced two different impressions pieces summing up the beta, both of them from guys who willingly and happily play themepark MMOs but who have more than once declared their preference for sandboxes. I saw the game about a year ago but was only in the regular beta, so my NDA on what I’ve seen recently still holds. Still, I can talk about the buzz, and I want to focus on this constant excuse for SWTOR:

“It’s not a sandbox.”

And what SWTOR die-hards mean when they say “it’s not a sandbox” is this: “The game was designed as a themepark, not a sandbox, so sandbox fans’ complaints about the lack of sandbox elements are biased and invalid. In fact, you shouldn’t even let a sandbox fan review the game.” It’s not a sandbox, it’s not a sandbox, it’s not a sandbox, they say, holding it up like a talisman to protect BioWare from criticism. I call bullpucky!

I could understand the argument if, say, we were complaining that a teapot isn’t a very good window. The teapot wasn’t designed to be a window; it has nothing to do with windows. The idea is absurd.

But that’s not what the sandbox vs. themepark debate is about. Paul points out that this is really an open vs. closed smartphone debate. He reminds me that niche, high-end sportscars deliberately omit features we might consider basic and necessary — like air conditioning — so that they can do one thing (go fast) as well as possible. We certainly wouldn’t say that makes such a sportscar less of a car, but then again, unlike that sportscar, SWTOR isn’t being marketed as a niche product. It’s being marketed as WoW’s successor, the next big thing in the genre. If the next Honda Accord rolled out with no air conditioning, I don’t think we’d be amused.

I’ve come to think the whole “sandbox elements” concept is a sham, a construct of companies and their apologists pushing MMOs with increasingly limited feature sets. If those companies can convince you that certain complex and difficult-to-implement game mechanics are “just for sandboxes,” then those companies can be excused from including them.

And that just feeds into the false dichotomy. Forget sandboxes and themeparks — there’s only MMOs and the stuff that goes into MMOs. There’s a spectrum of MMO features. Either your game has certain features or it doesn’t. So potential players are absolutely correct to complain when your MMO lacks features considered standard in so many other MMOs. If you’ve chosen to exclude open-world housing, free-form flight, custom storytelling, intense crafting, player-generated content, non-combat professions, a player-run economy, and unique character development, you deserve criticism for those very intentional design choices. You can’t just wave it away by redefining “real” MMOs as things that conveniently happen to omit the same features you do. And every time you suggest that sandbox fans can’t adequately review a themepark game, you’re suggesting that people who like things in their game can’t possibly understand a game with no things, which is just a fancy way of admitting your neglect.

And that’s silly — who defines his own product by what it lacks? We don’t call a sportscar “that car that doesn’t have air conditioning”; it stands out by being “that car that goes fast and looks hot doing it.” When you call your game a themepark and then define themeparks as games that lack sandbox elements, we all know what you’re really up to. Deep down, players know that themeparks really have no features to call their own — even some sandboxes have linear, quest-driven content!

“It’s not a sandbox” really means “this game is purposely minimalist and lacking in multiple areas; take it or leave it.” Some of us will take it on its own terms (like I will — my preorder is still intact, for now), but let’s do away with the pretense. “Themepark” is neither a compliment nor an excuse. It’s an admission of limitation.

Oh yeah, and while I’m thinking about it, BioWare?

Stay classy.

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9 Comments

  1. fff says:

    you don’t understand. dont try to tell me what i mean, when i say the game needs to be a sandbox!

    let’s say you have to liberate a place, an enemy base, once you have done it your team takes it over. the enemy npcs disappear. later the same place can be attacked and defended again.
    mission like this are not possible in a themepark because it is static. everything a themepark is capable of is kill 10 of 100. they have instances(flashpoints,storyareas) which are bullshit and yet another mistake in game design. investors, developers and customer are dumb.

    go on with your wordpress… you make no difference.

    • ArcherAvatar says:

      Lost in translation?
      You (fff) seem to be arguing (very vehemently) against the OP… except the OP is in favor of sandboxes and their elements – not opposed to them as you seem to be suggesting.

    • Bree says:

      Yeah I think he maybe just read part, but he had some valid points in there and wasn’t a spammer, so I didn’t want to chuck him!

      There are a lot a sandboxes that have instanced or respawning content, though, and there are themeparks without. I’m not really opposed to instances — a lot of great games (GW, CoH) are made up entirely of instances, for that matter, both the “world” and the combat areas. You could also make the case that any game with sub-servers or shards is also instancing the game to some degree. I consider them to be necessary technological evils (one-shard EVE Online, for example, is constantly dealing with tech problems relating to lag). And there’s good reason to instance PvP and dungeons too — to balance the sides and allow everyone a crack at a fight. Elsewise we’re just right back where we were 14 years ago: people trampling each other to camp dungeons and gank PvP. Either way, I wouldn’t say that a sandbox or themepark is defined by the presence or lack of instanced stuff.

      No doubt you’re right that a tiny little blog makes no difference, but I mostly use this to vent my frustrations and practice writing since most of my time at Massively I’m copyediting other people’s work, not writing myself. :D Plus, much of what I say here has no place there or is already being covered by someone else.

      • LeHarfang says:

        I can’t agree on this one, sorry. One shard universes do increase player freedom of laying their own path which is a feature even you, in your blog, said was lacking in SWTOR (or whatever game you were talking about that was lacking).

        The “Theme Park” and “Sandbox” meter is usable in the game industry. I mean, if i want to play a game that goes on like a movie where all the story is already written and all i do is resolve the challenges and puzzles it (the story) sends me, then i’ll know i can count on Theme Park games for that. On the contrary, though, if i want to play my own story and/or challenges, i know Sandboxes are there for me.

        Of course, for a company who makes a really big investment in a game, making a sandbox is awfully risky in today’s market. Making pre-made stories, like in movies, is sure to bring in some casuals who will stay for the whole of the story.

        So, by always releasing content, those can stay hooked the same way we can be for television series as in: we stay connected and subbed for the next episode.

        Also, if Eve Online lags, btw, its a latency issue, not a server one. CCP optimized their systems a lot. Just youtube Jita protest and try to find any server related lag (not latency or client related). Most of the time, big lag occurs in huge blob fights of null sec where they have 500 players versus another 500 players. Not a lot of servers on the market can quickly handle that kind of stuff to process. Those who can cost way more than what CCP can afford and are probably still at prototype phases, anyway.

  2. ArcherAvatar says:

    @Bree

    I agree completely with your identification of the entire “sandbox vs themepark” classification of MMOs as a sham. It’s one of many “jedi mind tricks” used by developers against their customers. Level grind and gear grind also fall into this category in my opinion, and don’t even get me started on the concept of “end game” …the fact that so many players have swallowed that particular “blue pill” is a constant source of bogglement to me.

    When you’re trying to convince players to pay you a monthly fee (and keep them doing that for as long as possible) then you’ve got to come up with some way of convincing them it’s “their idea” to spend ridiculous hours making incremental progress moving forward down what they think is a path, which is really just a hamster wheel. Some of them have gotten so good at running their little butts off on that wheel that they are quite proud of themselves and their “accomplishment.”

    It’s also immensely surprising to me how many players are so timid that they literally want their hand held at every single step through a game (most current quest systems) and as Colin Johanson has pointed out at GDC, ArenaNet playability testers would actually go right past activity and events happening all around them without even attempting to interact with it because they “didn’t have a quest telling them to.” Centaurs pillaging and burning right in front of them, and it certainly looks like an interesting fight, but they don’t interact with the activity unless their quest overlords tell them to. Mind = Boggled.

    For those of us who have actually seen some more expansive “virtual worlds” instead of just riding down the narrow tunnels of a themepark, it’s baffling that so many consumers instead opt for the restrictions of the so called “themepark” games.

    Then again, according to the Bartle test (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartle_Test) I’m mostly an explorer, so I’m not really the target audience of the “themeparks” anyway, but clearly there are a LOT of achiever-monkeys out there who are more than willing to pull those levers hoping for a treat.

    Unfortunately, once a person has been “brainwashed” one of the hardest things in the world to do is to convince them that the decisions they are making are actually someone else’s and not their own… and make no mistake about it, the vast, VAST majority of the MMO player population have definitely been properly “conditioned” to accept some rather nonsensical game designs.

    I’ve never met a self-identified “raider” yet who didn’t whole-heartedly believe it was their own idea to participate in the endless hamster wheel of gear grind and level grind, nevermind the whole mythical “end game.”

    • Bree says:

      I never thought of “endgame” as a contrivance — that’s very interesting. When did gamers first start using the term? I can’t remember it before WoW, which is odd because EQ certainly had an ever-moving endgame. Either way I agree, and that’s probably why I primarily prefer games that are interesting before you get anywhere near endgame (if you ever do). Perhaps not coincidentally, I don’t remember hearing the word “raider” prior to WoW either. It wasn’t that no one raided in EQ; it was that everyone raided in EQ. There was nothing else to do, and so there was no logic in defining yourself as a raider since if you were still playing, you were raiding.

      Johanson’s comment is fascinating, but I’m willing to cut the players some slack here. If we’ve “grown up” in MMOs that lack truly dynamic content (with rare and frankly ancient exceptions), then it’s no wonder we ignore what appears to be dynamic content because we assume we’re mistaken about its nature. Surely those centaurs are just some scripted event, and besides, what if it doesn’t reward me with anything — isn’t the quest I’m on the safer bet? And so on. It’s very strange to me because *I* grew up racing to live orc invasions in UO, ooohing and aaahing when the AC devs made it snow, and organizing parties to take down GM-run giants in EQ. But those days are forever ago, and WoW clones have dulled those senses. It’s not that themepark games have no place and don’t hold their own entertainment, but I’m still sorry that’s all come at the expense of sandboxes and immersive content.

      I hope you’re right that Anet will deliver. A large chunk of my guild, including me, has set its sights past SWTOR to GW2 already.

  3. Demuse says:

    I find the difference between Sandbox and Theme park is not any one particular feature, but rather how much of my character’s story is supplied by the game, and how much is supplied by me. I find that crafting and housing and secondary professions and open world exploration are just tools to let me define and play the character I imagine… that’s an RPG to me. Whereas theme parks fill in my back story for me, and push me along a chain of scripted quests and stories that I must complete in the order presented. I’m not in control of that character. It becomes a book I’m reading instead of a book I’m writing.

    By this logic most games can be classified one way or the other, not by their features but by the flexibility of their storytelling. SW:TOR will be the quintessential theme park — once I pick my class they’ll tell me who I am, where I came from, who my friends are, and what my place in the galaxy is to be. I’m just along for the ride.

    I think the only way one game can be both is if there are pre-built classes and hand-holding tutorials and starter zones and intricately scripted quest chains… all of which I can opt out of, or pick and choose. But then I need other ways to play: factions and reputation and crafting and maybe user- or randomly- generated missions and other tools so I can spend my time defining my own character and telling my own story.

    Bioware swears their story telling will be so engaging that nobody would want to skip it, and I’ll probably play every class, much of the way through, to enjoy all their story-telling… then I’ll quit and move on. But if they’d added lots of sandbox elements, that would only be the beginning. The industry knows that endgame content keeps raiders around indefinitely… but there’s less acknowledgement that sandbox content keeps roll-players around indefinitely? On the other hand, most casual players fall into neither category. They can and will sell millions of boxes and subscriptions without sandbox or endgame content.

  4. JBFire says:

    I happened across your blog this evening and was compelled to leave a comment, as the discussion of theme park and sandbox MMO’s is one that I frequently am explaining my positions on with others. I won’t make this too long winded hopefully, but I thoroughly enjoyed your views on how the term “Theme Park” is being thrown around in the MMO-sphere. I can certainly relate with your positions of how you would look forward to “GM” run events in previous MMO environments, that honestly just does not exist in this market. Things we considered standards in our games of the past are no longer standard by the definition of the current MMO gamer. Plenty of us can remember when player housing, extensive crafting systems, unique world events, player generated content and a sense of mystery were still involved in our games.

    As I have heard on numerous occasions in regards to books and other entertainment properties, the joy of a good mystery is immediately destroyed the moment you learn the truth. Perhaps that is one of the things I miss the most from virtual worlds in contrast to theme park games. With the exception of the procedure to execute a boss fight correctly, there is very little to learn from playing a sandbox MMO that dictates how you are directed on a linear path of progression. Even the aforementioned boss fight mysteries are ruined in fairly short order due to player bases that expect one to know the mechanics of every encounter by heart before attempting it. Finding secret areas or discovering an unknown item have been forgotten in favor of pushing everyone along set paths. I digress though, I didn’t want to get on a rant about that subject, but I seem to have started to. It has been a frustrating number of years where features in the MMO’s being released are shrinking more and more.

    Unfortunately, as long as we have well known properties such as Star Wars or Warcraft being released, then we will not have much hope in terms of being able to have a larger set of features in their respective MMO’s. Their narratives are so heavily controlled by the parent companies, that I fear the option to have player created content or, in Blizzard’s case, unscripted events would be unrealistic or even impossible. I originally got involved in MMO’s back many years ago to be able to interact with other people in a fun environment where we could work cooperatively towards a goal and participate in a living online world. Though when I play game like Rift or World of Warcraft or even Star Wars: TOR, I am left with an unsatisfied feeling where I feel like I have done not much but played a game of Skyrim or League of Legends alongside others, rather than actually interacting with them.

    Until we leave this current fad of MMO’s being a multi-million dollar produced money-grab and we can possibly have some new ideas enter the market again, then it is my opinion that we are going to keep getting this kind of content. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the theme park playstyle as much as anyone else, because it can be easy to pick up and play with friends in an environment of a franchise you recognize. Developers just can’t be bothered to take risks anymore, even on things that a lot of us would consider standards to what previous MMO’s had offered, because that is not the certain way for money to be made and it would cost more in development time for probably less return than using that time for new raid content.

    I wish to end this with a parting thought on some ideas that were around back in the early 2000’s in regards to MMO’s. Recently, I sat down and watched the original .hack//sign anime again after not having seen it since it was released in around 2002-2003. Part of the plot of the show is that the characters consistently discuss rumors of a fabled item that exists in “The World” (the MMO they play) and how to find it, including some of them hunting for it for extended periods of time with no results. The player base has no conclusive evidence of it’s existence outside of rumors. This led me to think, could you imagine a current MMO developer like Blizzard, leaving a secret item that has been around since the beginning of the game, just laying somewhere where no one has found it yet? As far as I can tell by reading their dev blogs, something to that extent would have been chided as a waste of time, money and resources. An item only one person could find or hold? Never. Not now anyways. Everything now has to be experienced by the majority of the player base or it’s not worth it in the long run.

    I am not pushing for everyone needing to be a unique snowflake, but I still wish there were things to gather, do or see that were included in our games because they are for fun, not just to be always made in thought of getting the maximum amount of return on your efforts. Just a bit of wishful thinking to end my commentary with.

  5. Curtis (Gylnne) says:

    Bree,

    Don’t underestimate your blog, even though this may be a place to practice your writing for some of us your opinion is just as important as anyone else.:)

    Nice article, thank you.

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