Ok this isn't exactly a new or groundbreaking topic. I'm sure you have read commentaries on "Themepark vs. Sandbox" on a dozen different blogs. But somebody made a comment to me recently that instantly made me think about this issue and so I thought I would offer my perspective based on what this person had to say. We were talking about higher education and they said, "The purpose of post-baccalaureate (Masters, Doctorate) programs is to teach students to be producers of information rather than consumers of it." The argument being that at these higher levels the aim should be to produce new concepts rather than simply informing yourself about current ones. How does this apply to MMO's? Well in a nutshell, themepark MMO's encourage us to be consumers of content whereas sandbox MMO's encourage us to be producers of it. And while that sounds fairly straightforward, I think when you consider the implication of that statement, you can understand why one of these formats has become much more popular than the other.
My Kingdom is my Castle- Life in the Sandbox
In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that I am personally not a huge supporter of "sandbox" style MMO's. I don't think that fact will affect my commentary here, but I am a big believer in being honest with my audience, so I wanted to put that out front. That said... the general principle behind the sandbox MMO is that the game itself only provides a basic framework and ground rules for the operation of the game. The game does not really direct you to do anything in particular. You are free to do pretty much anything you want to do, within those basic parameters the game establishes. Killers can kill, builders can build, explorers can explore and each generally can find a certain level of "reward" for their chosen activity. The game does not provide content for the players to experience, by and large. Oh almost every sandbox MMO has a few quests and such, but they are typically few and can be totally ignored unless you choose to complete them.
In this style of game the players are expected to produce their own "content." Now in most cases this does not mean that the players themselves write quests, hand out rewards, or build dungeons (although there are some examples of where this is possible.) But what it means in almost all cases is the players create the things that other players will interact with in the game world, and these creations become the basis for the game itself. Players build towns. Players assemble armies or fleets. Players organize alliances and empires. Players fight wars and make peace. All these things happen at the player's direction, not because a developer created the scenario. In the end, the game is only what the players make of it, not the vision of a developer.
Thrills, Chills, and Spills- Take me to the Themepark
By contrast, the "themepark" style MMO operates on the entirely opposite principle. In this game, almost all the content is created by the developers and presented to the players for their use. All in game activities are designed by the developers for the players. There is very little for a player to do in this sort of game outside of those activities provided. Now that is not to say that there are fewer things to do, far from it. A well designed, well supported themepark will necessarily provide different kinds of activities to suit different players and their interests. This would include quests and other content to be completed alone, small group content such as dungeons, large group content such as raids, PvP scenarios such as battleground or arenas, crafting systems, etc. There remains a wide variety of activities and things to accomplish. The only difference is those activities are created by someone else for your use, not at your own direction.
From a "technical perspective," there is no reason to consider one of these formats superior to the other. They both provide certain opportunities. They both provide certain benefits. And they both have certain drawbacks. Individual players are going to find one preferable to the other based on their own desires and motivations. And that is where we come full circle to the comment that started me thinking on this.
We're here to have FUN!
Returning to the concept of "production vs. consumption," I think we can see why the "themepark" has become the most popular format of current MMO's. It really comes down to what people see as fun. Remember that we are talking about a form of recreation. Video games are about having fun, entertainment, relaxation. For the vast majority of people, this means letting someone else do the "hard work" and just going along for the ride. It means popping in that copy of Mass Effect and helping Commander Shepard save the galaxy. It means turning on Call of Duty and wasting some terrorists. It means playing a game of Madden 2012 with a buddy and running up the score on them. In all of these cases, we are presented with a scenario created by someone else and we play it out for our own entertainment.
The "sandbox" asks us to do a great deal more of the work involved in creating that entertainment. Now for some people this is not a problem, and in fact they find it more entertaining and more relaxing than playing someone else's story. But the reality is that these individuals are a small minority. Most people are not interested in investing that much "work" in their recreation. They don't want to write the story, they just want to experience it. This is why I think the comment about production vs. consumption is indicative of the current state of MMO's. The average MMO player is perfectly happy being a consumer of content. They are not interested in being a producer of it.
While I said I was not a supporter of sandboxes, this is mostly because I am one of those that does not want to expend so much energy to "create" my own entertainment. I am a very creative person, but in my experience most sandboxes are tedious in their presentation requiring huge grind type activities to actually produce anything. However, I would agree with the assertion that sandboxes are more in the "spirit" of what an MMO is supposed to be. A lot of people forget the second half of the full abbreviation... MMO-RPG, role playing game. These games are supposed to be about us, about our stories, our achievements. How can that be true when each player is doing the same things for the same reasons? So I sympathize with the sandbox supporters in that themeparks do not allow them to tell their own "stories."
But this is why sandboxes are not commercially successful, at least not in the US/EU markets. The number of people willing to invest the time and effort in creating their own content is small. And that is the reality that sandbox supporters need to acknowledge. They are loud and they are vocal (as many of The Informed are) but they are very few. What I don't understand is why they subscribe/play games such as World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic and complain constantly that those games aren't what they want them to be. It's like ordering a chicken breast and complaining that it isn't a pork chop. You knew it was chicken when you ordered it. Complaining after the fact won't change it. Why make yourself (and others) miserable by stating the obvious? I'm finding this a lot in SW:TOR right now as all the refugees from the now defunct Star Wars: Galaxies are trying to get their Star Wars "fix" in SW:TOR despite the fact that it is a pure themepark and everybody knows it.
Unless there is some vast untapped source of people who are willing to invest the time in creating their own stories, it is unlikely that we will ever see a sandbox MMO reach the same levels of popularity as the biggest of the themeparks like WoW, SW:TOR, or RIFT. But again, this is not a value judgement of one format over the other. Themeparks are not superior in any way except that their basic premise appeals to more people on a much broader basis. The fundamental problem sandboxes face is there really isn't anything they can do to increase their appeal. Their basic premise only works for a select few, and if you alter that premise, then it really isn't a sandbox at all anymore.