Sandbox Games – The MMO Industry's Reality Check and Rise of Freemium
By Jordan Hall (ApocaRUFF), OnRPG Journalist
To anyone that has been following recent MMO news, it will be obvious that the industry is heading towards a more sandbox-y direction. Freedom and options are quickly cutting a path to the top preferred features in an MMORPG. People want to be able to live virtual lives, rather than get on a virtual themepark ride. I don't know about you, but I am truly excited about this and it's about damn time.
As well as sandbox mechanics becoming the norm, Freemium is on the rise as well. Freemium is when a game offers a free account type that is usually limited in some way, as well as a non-limited pay to play option. Freemium games often have non-pay-to-win cash shops that offer cosmetic and time-saving items, but nothing that gives you a game breaking advantage over other players. This is also something I like as it provides free gameplay with quality development, without a pay-to-win cash shop that ruins the game.
As they always do, Indie games have paved the way with their risky innovation, and the large companies are following in their path. In 2006, Rolf Jansson introduced Wurm Online. This is a game that I often consider the grandfather of modern sandbox games. In reality, it is still growing up itself. Rolf took a chance by creating a game where hard work and dedication are required to accomplish goals and achieve greatness. No hand-holding, no direction, and no restrictions are what he offered. It's safe to say he delivered, too.
Six years of trial and error later and Wurm Online is finally ready to raise its head out of the depths of the internet. On 12/12/12 Wurm officially released with version 1.0 which greatly improved the game. Adding multistory buildings, better models and animations for everything, and a bunch of other improvements. With the goal of release-ready state reached, Rolf decided to begin advertising the game. Not that this was needed, as the games population had been rising steadily with word-of-mouth alone. I've been playing off-and-on for years and I've been amazed at how much the population has grown in the past year or so alone. I will also mention that Wurm has been using the Freemium system since the beginning.
Speaking of 12/12/12, Darkfall: Unholy Wars was released on this date and it is the next sandbox game worth mentioning. After months upon months of nearly no support for Darkfall 1, Aventurine finally let the cat out of the bag and let the gaming community know just what it was doing all this time – developing a whole new game! With Darkfall 1 they took a chance. It's hard to judge whether that chance was a success or not, however. Why? Because while it can be agreed that Darkfall 1 was great, it was closed down. But then there is the fact that a new game with the same setting, using an updated version of the same engine, and same overall concept was released. And it's too early to see whether or not Darkfall: Unholy Wars is a success or not.
Mortal Online launched in 2010 and has been going ever since. It started with a lot of hype, but in recent times it has been on the brink of dying. The population was low, the game was broken – things looked very bleak. But then Awakening was released. Awakening fixed a lot of problems, improved the game’s AI (making the PvE aspects an actual draw for new players rather than a burden), and completely replaced the user interface with a much smoother and better working one. But even all this could not keep the players, and eventually the population dwindled again.
Then Star Vault made an announcement that no one expected: Mortal Online F2P. Along with a majority of the niche fans of the game, I was completely floored by this announcement. I admit I always thought that Mortal might have to go free to play to survive, but I did not except it to happen so soon. There was literally no warning for this announcement. No hype, no hints, just one day we all logged on to the forum and BAM it was there.
As with all games that go free to play, or at least offer a free to play option, the population in Mortal skyrocketed. Tindrem, the biggest city in the game, was completely packed with new and old players alike. It was a sight to behold and one I will never forget. The amount of people that jumped at the chance to play the game is proof that innovative sandbox features are what the players want. They want the freedom that until now only indie developers have been offering.
I said, “until now” because one of the biggest names in Western MMO publishing has completely switched its stance. In the past, SOE was synonymous with themepark. Recently, however, that has changed completely. Just about every game in SOE's library has sandbox features now. Everquest 2 and vanguard have extensive housing systems that allow for a lot of creativity. Wizardry Online throws permanent death in to the mix, something that has always been avoided by any developer who wanted to keep their players. To my knowledge, all SOE games now offer a Freemium system, too. Innovation seems to be oozing out of SOE's current line-up by the gallons.
And to top it off, SOE has announced two up-and-coming Sandbox games it will be releasing: Dragon's Prophet and EverquestNext. Both games promise unmatched sandbox features that will change the face of the MMORPG industry. I am personally praying that they are right. If they keep this up, they will almost make up for the horrible tragedy that Star Wars Galaxies became. Almost.
Of course, EVE Online also deserves a mention. Personally, I have never gotten into the game. It's just too hardcore for even me. I have an incredible amount of respect for anyone who can play EVE for longer than a couple of months; it takes extreme dedication. EVE was released in 2003, and while it had a rocky start, it has been growing and growing since. Now it is definitely one of the most successful MMORPGs out there. The innovation that EVE has brought to the industry is something I am truly grateful for. They proved that a hard sci-fi space simulator on a large scale can be successful, and I have seen many games adopt features that CCP pioneered with EVE. One thing I wish more game developers would adopt that CCP has done already is the Council of Stellar Management. I have seen games try, and fail, to copy CCP's concept and I eagerly await the next game to successfully implement a similar council.
This change of direction isn't just happening in the West, either. Games like ArcheAge and Age of Wushu, which is being released in the West soon after the time that I am writing this article, show that freedom and choice are extremely valued by gamers in other parts of the world as well. Both of these games offer innovation that a majority of Western MMO's haven't even begun to touch yet. I used to dread when another WoW-clone Asian fantasy game came to the West; now I am excited to see what is next.
I believe I've provided enough evidence to prove my point. The industry is being taken in a new direction. Sandbox and Freemium games are on the rise. And the games I mentioned are only a portion of the games that offer sandbox elements. There are games like Guild Wars 2 or the Elder Scrolls Online. The future of the MMO industry looks bright for the players. Finally we are beginning to be released from the strangle-hold that has been the WoW-Clone. No longer are the 'good games' restricted to those with the money to pay monthly subscription fees. I feel that we will be entering a Golden Age of MMO gaming in the near future. For once, people will be asking, “Which of these great games should I play?” rather than, “Are there ANY good games out there? Please?”