Podzilla 1985

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Theme Parks Are Dead, Long Live the Sandbox!

If you know me, congratulations!

No, seriously, if you know me, I'm not doing my job very well.

Alright, for real this time!

If you know me, you know that out of all the great games I've played in my many years as a gaming enthusiast, none have changed my life as much as Ultima Online. We had J.P. Harrod on the site a couple of months ago talking about his time with Electronic Arts and the role he played on the Ultima Online dev team, and I found him to be both humble and amazing at the same time. To work on such a legendary game that shaped an entire genre must have been a daunting task, but J.P. is a Cadillac of a man.

You should all know by now that I spent almost all of my time from age 16 to 20 braving the wilds of Sosaria in a never ending quest for adventure and coin. I had a damn good time with it, too, as a lifetime of red eyes and all night Orc-a-thons will attest to.

It's not that I love Ultima Online because it is the single greatest game of all time. I mean, it is, but I suppose the argument could also be made that it was my first MMO and I see it through the rose colored glasses. I can definitely admit that the game has lost its luster over fifteen years later. I blame that more on EA's inability to keep alive what made UO so great in the first place, along with the inevitable passing of the player base that made the world feel alive. Gamers today aren't the same class of gamers that we had in "my day," and I might get in trouble for saying that but it's my column so go play Halo and don't fornicate yourself on your way out.

You know why I loved Ultima so much? Because it was a sandbox game, and until recently it felt like that term was a four letter word.

It's obviously seven!

In its original form, Ultima Online had no quests. It had no levels. It relied upon the player to make items to sell, create adventures for themselves, and it didn't hold your hand through any of it. You made your character, picked some skills, and it dropped you right in the middle of a city and said "fuck you, make your own destiny!"

And we did. Sandbox games are designed as entirely open experiences where you can do whatever you want. Imagine Skyrim, with its skill based system and freedom to go wherever you want, but as an MMO with less story and more social interactions.

It's not that games haven't attempted to recreate the sandbox feel that Ultima had. Mortal Online, Darkfall, and even something as different as Eve Online have all labeled themselves, or been labeled by others, to be the "next UO." They may be decent games in their own right, but all of them failed miserably as the next Ultima. They were more akin to massive online arenas where players could grief each other, or in Eve Online's case, it missed the Ultima mark but still grew into a classic title on its own.

But those were your choices for sandbox games. Sure, you could go back to UO, but why bother? It wasn't the same beast anymore. Returning players will find items with stats, gear grinding, and a very lonely world that barely resembles the sacred lands of our youth.

So we hung our heads and forced ourselves into the world of the theme park MMORPG, where games like World of Warcraft satisfied the craving while leaving us hungry for something more. Apparently, back when UO and Everquest were the big two, all of the game developers decided to clone EQ and leave UO to die a lonely death as the greatest that should have been. Guided adventures became the norm in both Eastern and Western MMO's, and the success of the juggernaut that is WoW cemented the theme parks domination in this industry we all love.

Companies attempted to copy the success of WoW year after year, but always failed to live up to the gargantuan numbers that Blizzard's beast brought to the table. Still, there was success to be had, so the MMO Machine churned out clone after clone that over saturated the market and would probably kill off the entire genre eventually. Warcraft's numbers have fallen hard over the past year, and recently they admitted to losing over 600,000 subscribers in a matter of months.

Just when it looked like the industry had reached its low point in terms of both creativity and popularity, a small beacon of hope appeared somewhere in the distance. Like a heroic knight rising up to destroy the darkness that has claimed these lands, he stands on the edge of the horizon waiting for the opportunity to strike.

Kingdom of MMORPG's, meet your unlikely savior - The Sandbox!

Everything that is old is new again. While the clones fight for scraps among themselves, the sandbox MMO is ready to make its presence felt once more in a slew of new games coming soon. Richard Garriott and his UO team has reunited to bring us quite possibly a very revolutionary title called Shroud of the Avatar, while team Everquest will finally show off EQ Next this friday.

That's right, the two games that started it all are coming back to reclaim their industry, and I couldn't be more excited. I've never been a huge EQ fan, but the hype behind Next is so incredible that even I feel like an anxious kid at Christmas waiting to see what's in the damn box.

As for Lord British and his Shroud of the Avatar, well... I've said it before, and I'll say it again - I would follow that man into hell and back.

And it's not just those two vying for your attention. Eve Online is still alive and kicking very well, while upstart titles like Revival, Archeage, and Salem are going to offer a wide range of sandboxy goodness for the MMO player who is sick and tired of this theme park nonsense!

I started Blogzilla 1985 years ago as an outlet for me to bitch about MMORPG's. Back then it was called "Blogs THEY Don't Want You to Know About," and I spent most of my time waxing poetic about Warcraft, Champions Online, and Aion, just to name a few. BZ85 evolved from that simple idea, but I've never lost my love or interest for the genre that has most impacted my life as a gamer.

I'm damn proud to say that we are going to bear witness the revival of the sandbox MMO, and I'd like to take some credit for that.


My next mission? Get AKI involved with WWE games again.

This might take a while.
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