Why Are Indie Developers Utilizing the Sandbox And AAA MMO’s Aren’t?

For me to adequately discuss this topic I should explain what the sandbox means in the gaming world. Sandbox can mean that a game is open world, but the main focus is on the interactions and game play. The game play of a sandbox game is nonlinear, allowing players to accept their own challenges or even go as far as making them. This is a huge contrast to linear games because the player must complete the quest and challenges to progress through the story. Basically a linear game is a game that has been set in stone. A very good example of this is Bioshock Infinite. The game is not open world, and the quests and paths are already determined. You, the player are essentially on for the ride. A sandbox style game has the potential to evolve, and experiences while playing the game can drastically change, affecting alliances with other players, the environment, and even the story of the game itself. With sandbox, elements like player versus player is heightened and becomes much more competitive. And the goals in this game type are made by you, not what the game itself designates. This style of play greatly intrigues me because it has not been massively utilized until indie developers gained prominence, and I can’t help but ask questions.

So why is the sandbox being used by indie developers, whose teams can be a one or two man show? I think the answer lies in the fact that these teams are so small. AAA or major retail games have massive teams and departments devoted to churning out content for their games. They have the resources to make quests, NPCs, concept art, advertisements and various other challenges while a small indie team cannot. Their efforts have to be more focused towards the game play, and player interaction becomes one of their key component if the game has multiplayer function. For an indie developer it’s a lot easier to let players find ways to entertain themselves in a game than to provide them with ongoing quests.

Some sandbox indie game titles include Minecraft, Starforge, Cubeworld, and Day Z. Most of the general public is very familiar with Minecraft, an indie title that exploded in popularity thanks to its simple graphics, open world design and versatile crafting abilities. It does not have quests nor is the game on the rails, and if the game is hosted on player run servers, it allows multiplayer to be possible. Another indie title Cubeworld – while similar to Minecraft – does have key differences. It is an action roleplaying game, allowing users to play various races, have pets and level up. The game does have quests, but players aren’t forced to complete them to experience the full game. This is one of beautiful things about sandbox games, you have the freedom to play how you want, whenever you want. It makes it difficult for the game to become boring because players can create their own goals, roam wherever they please, and enjoy the game the way they want to.

It’s been proven that a sandbox game is fun, and yet very few major MMO games are utilizing its potential. I attribute this to the success of World of Warcraft and the hard core appeal of Eve Online. World of Warcraft is definitely a game on rails. Every single player does the same thing, they quest and dungeon their way from level 1 to the level cap, and either choose to PvP or go raid. They get decked out in the latest gear only to trade it in for the next expansion. After a while, this way of playing can become extremely boring. Yet because of the huge success that World of Warcraft garnered in its vanilla years – the game had 15 million subscribes at its peak in Wraith of the Lich King – many other MMO games followed suit. Titles like Tera, Guild Wars 1 and 2, The Secret World, and Aion all have quests, NPCs, along some form of PvP or end game content. Unfortunately an MMO’s greatest enemy is boredom and since players go through content faster than what the developers put out, it’s easy for players to get bored.

Eve Online did not follow this template. Instead it went the opposite direction and gave their players freedom to play the game how they wished. The game did this by supplying players with a competitive auction house and marketplace, along with items and ships that took months, even years of real life time to obtain. But the biggest hook is letting players own solar systems that they conquered with their corporations. This ingenious mechanic allowed players to form alliances, back stab one another, run their own economies and basically create their own political atmosphere. However being a game that requires a vast majority of one’s time and devotion, it’s been categorized as a game for the hard core player. So I can see how people would deduce that a sandbox play style meant a game was hardcore. That and well… Eve didn’t make as much money as World of Warcraft.

All in all, I think indie developers are tapping into a a new market of game play, and fortunately for them it has been received positively. (And it’s also given them fame and money.) That is not to say that a game on rails is bad, it’s just been overused. We are beginning to see some MMO developers meekly take their first steps into the sandbox. Who knows, perhaps we will have a sandbox MMO title that was as popular as World of Warcraft.