Why MMO Bloggers Talk About Alton Towers And Building Sand Castles All The Time

I’m still a newbie. I’ve played WoW for three or four years now and I’ve charged headlong into other MMOs whenever I’ve found a few minutes to give them a try. EVE Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, A Tale In The Desert … most of them I’ve only peeked round the edge of the newbie zone to get a glimpse of the  big bad content waiting for me, but haven’t had time to stick it out.

Having tried that many and been writing about MMOs for a while now, my gamer pride says I should know things at the whoosh of a dragon’s wings. By osmosis, maybe. But there was something this week that I read about, realised I’d not grasped before, and went “There are different types of MMO. That explains the constant references to Alton Towers-alikes. Doh.”

It’s no surprise, really. I’m still learning about MMOs, and that’s how it should always be. There’s no point of knowing everything or stopping picking up new knowledge about a topic. Then I figured… I bet there are other newbies like me out there. And I bet there’s nothing that explains these topics to them.

So, for MMO newbies, veterans and otherwise hadn’t-understood-this-yets out there: let’s have a seat by the fire, crack open the secret cookie stash between us and chat about themepark MMOs and sandbox MMOs. Cos well, did you know there were different types of MMO? I didn’t.

Theme park MMOs

What happens when you go to a theme park? You go with a group of friends or maybe your family and gradually work through all the rides you want to do. Some of them terrify you, some of them get your imagination churning, some of them take a while to get through but are worth it in the end for the rewarding rush of an epic twist, long drop or stunning visual scene.Perhaps there’s a theme or overriding story you participate in as you go round the themepark.

Maybe while you’re at the theme park you’ll take some ‘you’ time to explore bits of it by yourself, or some downtime to watch the world go by as you chat to the folks you’re with. You might even be sent on a quest to find the ice cream truck.

Right, WoW. These are exactly the kind of experience theme park MMOs provide. You see the sights, you get the stunning visual scenes, you get rewards, be  that the achievement of completing a particular ride raid, getting the loot you wanted or having the rush of downing a boss. You can wander off and explore, pushing the boundaries by yourself if you want to. And they’re usually a social activity.

WoW, as mentioned, is #1 culprit for being a theme park MMO (as though there’s anything wrong with that). LoTRO, DDO, Rift – they’re all theme park MMOs too, and there are lots out there.

Sandbox MMOs

All right, let’s be honest – for most of us it’s probably a good while since we were in a sandbox in real life. And let’s not talk about the terrible surprises you’d find in there, like your favourite teddy stuck up to his neck. But wait, you put him there so you could come up with imaginative, ingenious ways to get him out. It’d keep you entertained for hours.

Then there was all the building with whatever materials you could find. Sand castles with stick drawbridges, grass guards and a carefully engineered moat that was actually wet (in sand?) and you have no idea how you achieved?

All of that is what a sandbox MMO is. You’re free to do what you want: not many rules, not many pre-defined goals. It’s not that they have no goals or ways to progress, it’s just that how you want to play is a lot more up to you. Quite often you’ll be able to build yourself things you want, and you’ll need to engineer them just as carefully as you did that moat but you’ll be proud of it once you’ve achieved it. And quite often you’ll come across hiccups in the operation, like your stuck teddy, but you’ll set your mind to it and come up with creative solutions to get yourself back on track. These ones are where your imagination runs free and you do what you want to do.

Examples of sandbox MMOs are A Tale In The Desert, EVE Online and Minecraft. Unlike most themepark MMOs which are, at their core, quite similar, sandbox MMOs can be quite different. You tend to have more no limit of choice in what you do in a sandbox MMO. It can be quite confusing if you’re used to theme park MMOs (which is why most of them have wikis you can explore, but how you’d automatically know that if you’re a newbie I don’t know). I guess that’s the thing about no limits: they’re not on rails. In one sandbox you can easily get lost in catacombs while trying to find the way back to the tower you built, in another you can be part of an economical powerhouse among the stars.

What about you – is there anything MMO-related you learnt recently that surprised you, or had you too not figured sandbox vs. theme park yet?

The basics covered, here’s some further reading of folks talking about themeparks and sandboxes: