Fans of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games may be familiar with the terms “theme park” and “sandbox.” When discussing MMOs, “theme park” refers to a game that sets very clear rules and lines of progression for the player. For example, World of Warcraft is a “theme park” MMO in that each area is filled with quests designed to lead the player from hub to hub. Dungeons are instanced, specific to character level, and will match you up automatically with other players. “Theme park” MMOs are designed on the premise that if you pay for the ticket (in this case, the game), then you get to ride all the rides–the game will hold your hand and guide you through all the content.
“Sandbox” MMOs, however, work differently. While a theme park MMO is designed to show you as much as it can, a sandbox MMO creates a world and systems for interacting with that world, then leaves it up to the players to define how those systems are utilized. For example, in EVE Online, players can create open contracts for item trading, cargo hauling, and more. However, in practice, the majority of these contracts are actually used to scam unsuspecting players. While player scams are usually against the rules in theme park MMOs, EVE Online encourages it. Much like playing in an actual sandbox, sandbox MMOs require its players to be creative and interact with each other in order to create its content. Because of this, sandbox MMOs tend to be more niche than theme parks. While a theme park MMO will have activities for a player to do at any time, sandboxes require constant interaction in one way or another between players.
The interactions between players in a sandbox MMO are often referred to as “emergent gameplay.” Emergent gameplay refers to situations that occur as a result of player interaction without specific intent on the part of the developers. The experience of raiding in World of Warcraft, while fun, is not “emergent” because players are taking part in strictly choreographed fights in ways that the developers specifically intend them to be performed. If a raid group finds a strategy that the developers did not intend, it will likely be patched out. Meanwhile, if player pirates in EVE target a player corporation’s trade lines, that corporation may respond by sending their own ships out to kill the pirates. The pirates may choose to run, prompting a galaxy-spanning game of cat and mouse, the pirates may fight, or the pirates may pay a player-run mercenary group or another corporation to fight on their behalf. None of these interactions are specifically crafted and laid out by EVE’s developers. They created game systems that allow players to trade between stations, systems to kill other players, and systems to trade money for services, then let the players use those systems to interact with each other. As a result, situations like these “emerge” from player interaction (if you’re interested in hearing more about his, there’s an excellent YouTube video that goes into it in more detail).
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For a long while, EVE has been the only real option available for MMO players looking for a modern sandbox experience. Games like Black Desert Online and ArcheAge tried to incorporate sandbox elements, but ultimately leaned much harder into their theme park aspects. A recent trend of crowdfunded MMOs, however, hope to bring the sandbox MMO back. One of these is Sandbox Interactive’s recently released Albion Online.
Albion Online revolves around three central concepts: take the sandbox elements that make EVE memorable, make the mechanics easier for new players to digest, and move them to a medieval setting. While there’s plenty of space for Albion to grow and improve, it does a great job of realizing these three concepts in its launch state. Let’s look at these concepts in more detail:
1. Albion Online retains the sandbox elements that make EVE memorable
Space in EVE Online is divided into 3 broad categories: High Security (HiSec), Low Security (LowSec), and NullSec. In broad terms, players are safe in HiSec and vulnerable to other players in LowSec and NullSec. NullSec specifically is space that is controlled politically and militarily by player alliances. Albion follows this same structure with blue, yellow, red, and black zones. Blue zones and yellow zones are equivalent to HiSec in EVE. While it is possible to be attacked by other players in yellow zones, there are no benefits to player-killing in these zones, and players have nothing to lose by dying. Red zones hold more valuable gathering materials, better leveling spots, and allow guilds to own land in them in exchange for non-consensual player versus player (PvP) combat with full loot on death. Players who kill too many people in red zones in a short amount of time, however, will find themselves locked out of blue, yellow, and red zones until their reputation recovers. With its emphasis on small scale PvP, red zones most closely resemble EVE’s LowSec space. Black zones, then, are Albion Online’s NullSec equivalent. Black zones are territories that guilds war with each other in order to control. The benefits of controlling these zones are bragging rights, security, and most importantly, easy access to the most valuable materials in the game. Due to the value in owning black zone territory, black zone guilds patrol their lands vigilantly, often leading to large battles over valuable gathering materials. Over the past 14 years of EVE Online’s life, NullSec has been home to some of the most interesting player-driven wars in gaming, and it will be interesting to see if Albion Online’s black zones will be host to the same kinds of conflicts. So far, the answer seems to be yes.
Players who prefer more structured PvP will gravitate to Hellgates and guild vs guild combat. Hellgates are portals that spawn in certain locations in the open world. Upon activation, it will send a team of 2 or 5 players to a special dungeon with the possibility of meeting a hostile team of players. The group that wins not only gets to loot the opposing team’s gear depending on the type of zone the hellgate spawned in, but also get the opportunity to loot valuable materials from the demons populating the dungeon. Guild vs guild, or GvG, is the game mechanic used to decide which guild owns a certain territory. GvG can be 5v5 or 20v20, depending on the zone, and requires contribution by almost all guild members in order to ensure victory. Death during a GvG doesn’t mean automatic failure, but instead requires the players who have died to re-gear and head back out to the battle. In preparation for a GvG, gathers need to gather and crafters need to craft in order to fill the battle chest that guilds will use to gear back up during a GvG match.
Everything in Albion is created by the players–every weapon, every piece of armor, every mount. With full loot on death in red and black zones, there is a constant demand for new gear. Players may choose not to focus on combat in lieu of focusing on gathering and crafting. Other players choose to make their silver by buying goods in one city and selling them in another at a higher price. In a less unscrupulous way to make a living in Albion, many players choose to be bandits who kill gatherers and sell their hard-earned materials.
In a departure from most modern MMOs, Albion Online has only one quest: the tutorial. After that, players are free to level up the skills they want in an Elder Scrolls-esque way of gaining experience by performing the associated action, e.g., using a fire staff will increase your level with fire staffs. As a result, the most efficient way to level up combat skills is to make a group with other players and go to dungeons in PvP zones. Joining a guild and being social is almost a requirement in order to progress in Albion. Bad news for solo players, but a welcome change for those who were tired of massively “multiplayer” games requiring no interaction with other players
2. Albion Online makes its mechanics relatively easy for new players to digest while moving the setting to one that is more familiar than EVE Online’s
EVE Online has a reputation for being impenetrable among those hesitant to try the game. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does limit the potential population of EVE. Albion Online takes many mechanics found in EVE and previous sandbox MMOs and attempts to make them easier for new players to grasp. Gear in Albion is tiered and there are multiple options for gearing available within a tier, just like in EVE, but there are less choices in Albion, and the game is more straightforward with what each piece of gear will do in terms of stat bonus and abilities.
Also similar to EVE, Albion Online features zones that expose the player to non-consensual PvP. However, Albion Online adds tools that makes it easier for players unfamiliar with that concept to play safe. Upon entering yellow and red zones, a number in the corner instantly lets players know how many people in the zone are “flagged” for PvP–how many players are hostile. In addition, flagged players display their name tags in red, and flagging up for PvP takes about 10 seconds. This way, when a player is in a red zone, they are always aware of how much danger they are in as long as they pay attention to this number. However, this counter is hidden in black zones, requiring scouts and communication within a group in order to avoid large groups of players.
Combat, too, is much simpler than EVE Online. In EVE, choosing a correct ship fitting is complicated enough, but players must also manage multiple modules according to ship velocity and target distance in order to be successful. Albion features a battle system reminiscent of a MOBA, where clicking on a target begins auto-attacks interspersed with skill-shots and activated abilities. It has room for depth, but on the surface presents a simple and straightforward way of fighting that makes it easy for new players to hop in.
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While all these comparisons to EVE Online may seem excessive, its only because the CEO of Sandbox Interactive constantly compares the game to EVE himself. Albion strives to be a more accessible medieval sandbox MMO against EVE Online’s complicated sci-fi MMO, and in that regard, Albion succeeds. However, Albion Online is not without its flaws. PvE content is lacking–open world group dungeons and world bosses make up the majority of PvE content in Albion, and while it is successful within the goals set by the developers because it encourages social interaction between players, players looking for structured dungeon and raid content comparable to theme park MMOs like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV will likely be disappointed. Albion’s UI, while functional, is missing several quality of life additions that would help smooth out the game experience. Players who like to play MMOs by themselves wont find much to do in Albion, as everything revolves around having a pool of players to rely on in order to safely farm in dungeons, gather, and PvP. Finally, in terms of sheer game mechanics, EVE Online simply has more to do after 14 years of patches.
However, for all of Albion Online’s faults, there is plenty that it does right. While it may lack PvE content, the focus of the game is its sandbox nature and interactions between players. By making solo play difficult, Albion encourages social interaction between its players in a time where most MMOs are removing the need to ever interact with others outside of an automatic queue. In sandbox MMOs, the content is created primarily by the players, not the developers, and Albion lays a strong groundwork for both Sandbox Interactive and their players to build upon in the future.