The Origin of Sandbox / Theme park Distinction

Longtime reader and commentator, Curuniel, emailed me and asked if I knew the origin of the sandbox / theme park distinction? I admit I really did not so I decided to crowdsource the question.  Google is not much help because it wants to show the more recent hits.On KillTenRats, the first instance of the term “sandbox” is in 2005 where Zubon praised EVE Online and A Tale in the Desert for being such MMOs. “Theme park” occurs in 2007 and 2008, again by Zubon.

Syncaine has a post from early 2008, but he uses the terms like ordinary vernacular. Looking at Syp’s MMO timeline, I would imagine that the actual distinction happened a bit later than Syncaine’s theory of Everquest. World of Warcraft, I feel, was really the MMO that streamlined quests in to “rides” instead of mere activities. It was so fresh at the time, the backlash of it becoming a theme park I feel came about much alter. Perhaps only later when around Blizzard’s first World of Warcraft expansion in early 2007  people began to see more of the same and a swath of alleged copycat MMOs came around. But, really this is all guesswork on my end.

Anyway, I’d love to hear people’s opinions or any better search attempts to find the origin of the distinction.


30 thoughts on “The Origin of Sandbox / Theme park Distinction”

  1. Star Wars Galaxies, very much a sandbox game, had special areas such as Jabba’s Palace, with preset lines of missions and rewards. These areas were outright called “Theme Parks”.

    This would have been 2003.

    So the distinction between the two styles was present in a single game. I’m not sure whether sandbox MMOs were talked about much at that time, perhaps because most MMOs were sandboxy at that time, and it was just how things worked. Everquest 1 is a sandbox by current standards, and Asheron’s Call and Ultima Online certainly were.

    Perhaps not formally, but the term “sandbox” to talk about a free style of play, has been around for a very long time indeed.

    1. Yeah sandbox has been around for awhile, but MMOs and sandbox used to be very closely related.

      I did not know this about SWG. This has to be a very strong point of origin. It would be interesting to see at what point it evolved from SWG to all MMOs.

    2. I remember the first time some friends asked me if I wanted to do the Imperial Theme Park in SWG, and I was totally confused by WTF a Theme Park was.

  2. I recall that in Star Wars Galaxies the areas like Jabba’s Palace that were built around story driven quest lines were referred to as theme parks. I don’t believe they were implemented when the game went live, but they were definitely there by mid 2004. That’s the earliest I recall seeing the term used in an MMO.

  3. Maybe the ideology of the two stretch back further and WoW simply solidified it in the market?

    I’m thinking that way from the standpoint of a person(or business) finding a market and then selling to it. Perhaps Blizzard saw and/or recognized the market and targeted it more succinctly and fully?

  4. Google has an excellent feature under “More Search Tools.” It lets you specify a range of dates.

    Combing by year, it appears “sandbox” has been used to describe a certain genre of PC games like Grand Theft Auto for quite a while since it appeared in 1997. 1998-1999 has a lot of references to action sandbox in relation to GTA.

    The first reference I can find in relation with MMOs is by Chris Klug in 2002. He mentions ‘sandbox’ a few times in the article.

    By 2003-2004, a few people are referencing it. Here’s two in 2004.

    It’s perhaps interesting to note that ATITD came out in and Wurm Online started development in 2003, though they aren’t referenced specifically as “sandboxes” yet.

    By 2005, “sandbox MMO” is used all over the blogosphere:

    *flexes and shows off Google-fu*

    Now someone else can do it for themepark and MMO. :P

  5. The origin of “Theme Park” vs. “Sandbox/Playground” actually dates all the way back to the 1950’s, perhaps further back. Back in the days of I Love Lucy on Monday nights, there were primarily two kinds of park: public parks and commercial parks.

    Public parks were very similar to what we have now, only they were in more public thoroughfares rather than tucked in a quiet corner of a residential neighborhood. They were meant to be trafficked, and played host to many player-run events (picnics and get-togethers) or even guild-run events (the Rotary Club’s 3rd annual barbecue festival). These parks often featured a playground or two, featuring the eponymous sandbox where young players could build their own low-level content. There were few if any planned walking trails or exercise paths. The closest thing to directed content these parks had was a linear slide or a line for the swings.

    Contrast this to commercial parks, also known as “amusement parks”. For the most part these establishments were loosely conglomerated carnivals, of the type made famous by Coney Island or Atlantic City’s Boardwalk. Each vendor rented his location and set up shop wherever he found available space, without any overarching rhyme or reason. Ergo a park-goer might find a kid’s face-painting booth right next to a mysterious tent advertising the dance of the seven veils performed within, or any number of other incongruous juxtapositions. Unlike the public parks, amusement parks were composed almost entirely of directed content, albeit without any atmosphere.

    Then along came animation guru Walt Disney. Disney’s nieces loved amusement parks, and he often found himself dragged along a roller-coaster-shaded midway whenever they visited. As he walked from gaudy booth to gaudy booth, Walt started thinking: What did his nieces and other children love about amusement parks? What did he and other adults hate? Did the one necessitate the other? Could he do it differently, do it better? He decided he could do much better, and started buying up orange farms in Anaheim so he could try. While his creative team planned the park, he started a new TV show on network television just to advertise and educate the public about his new breakthrough in directed, interactive content. The show, and later the park, was called “Disneyland”. It had all the attractions recreationalists expected of an amusement park, with the addition of themed areas: if you looked around Frontierland, than everything you saw was straight out of Davy Crocket or Gunsmoke, right down to the hewn-log trash cans. He called his new invention a “themed amusement park”, or theme park for short. It was the first massively multi-participant offline attraction with directed content tied into a larger themed structure.

    On a side note, Disneyland eventually moved from a micro-transaction model with a separate currency (buying tickets marked A through E to spend on individual rides) to a pure subscription model (per day: ticket, or per year: annual pass).

    TL;DR: Walter Elias Disney coined the term Theme Park for massively multi-participant directed content tied into an overarching theme. In light of this, whether the term is applied to a physical location or one that exists only online seems somewhat inconsequential.


  6. For what it is worth, I referred to EQ/WoW like games as “Theme Parks” in one of my Engines of Creation columns for Skotos, which would have been back in 2003-2004, as opposed to “World-like games” such as UO or Eve (I don’t think I used the term “sandbox” in that context).

    Sandbox as a quality of games dates back to the 90’s, as some of the original debates over what kind of game UO was during that game’s beta referred to the “sandbox” qualities of the Ultima games.


  7. Raph Koster used the term in August 2001 in regards to SW:G in the same way that it is used to describe MMOs today.

    ‘The sense in which we use “theme parks” is, actually, “like EQ,” sort of. In that, they’re carefully handcrafted narrative experiences. They’re rides. Fixed quests, static content, things you go on once and probably don’t do again.’

  8. Thanks Ravious, and thanks for the answers and links everyone. Very helpful!

    I can’t help but feel that it’s sort of a natural evolution of the social vs. adventure/combat/game distinction you find when people talk about the history of MUDs. The distinction isn’t quite the same, but the broad sense of two different play styles and two kinds of values is similar.

  9. My old UO and AC guilds referred to EQ1 as a themepark/carebear land when it first came out. Of course, I did not have a blog then, and the WTFMan archives or Dr.Twister are no longer available, but yea.

    Back then we did not make the sandbox distinction as, at the time, we believed sandbox=MMO, and that EQ1 was this odd MMO-lite title. Funny that today, people consider EQ1 a sandbox. How ‘far’ we have come…

    1. Yeah, one of the things I found most interesting about the old links was the assumption that MMOs (as the virtual worlds they were then) were pretty much already sandboxes.

      Most people were trying to figure out how to add on more sand and tools, more ‘story’ to the sandbox, whether it was player-created narrative or developer-created show-and-tell.

      Somehow around the time of WoW and 2004, things moved abruptly past even the ‘theme park’ distinction (different people can choose to go to whatever rides they want, whenever) to becoming IKEA (walls and layout specially set up to funnel everyone efficiently through one controlled experience.)

      1. I mean to write (when I find time) a post myself about how ‘virtual worlds’ and ‘MMORPGs’ somehow got separated over the last decade. I personally think that part of the reason Guild Wars 2 appeals to me – and why it really doesn’t appeal to some – is that it makes more effort to also be a virtual world to a greater degree.

        1. I’d be very interested to read your thougths on that. While press coverage on GW2 had many unspecified “feels so alive” statements, few people seem to draw the conclusion that this harkens back to the old idea of virtual worlds.

  10. Anecdotally I relate “sandbox” to GTA and “themepark” to Raph Koster’s mentioning of the term, although it was Zubon’s usage of themepark that struck a nerve with me, because it defined how I was feeling about RPGs.

    I don’t see them as opposite ends of a coin though, because “sandbox” for MMOs has strong PvP connotations. Also, I can be given the ability to go explore anywhere, but still have a too-curated themepark experience and I’m disappointed wth Guild Wars 2 in this regard, which I’ll even describe as a quintessential themepark MMO.

  11. First person that I heard who consistently used the term themepark was John Buehler circa 2000-2001 on the now defunct MUD-Dev list serve. Koster was part of that group too and no doubt got it from there. Some industrious members reconstructed partial archives of the group so you can google it.

  12. What I’d like to know is if actual theme park games would be considered theme parks or sand boxes ;)

    I suppose campaign mode would be theme park and free form would be sand box…

  13. To me, Jabba’s Palace was the first themepark. I never heard of the term until SWG beta.


  14. As long as there are no follow up questions and I’m not required to provide any corroborating evidence… I came up with it.

  15. While I have no evidence of this, I do recall a friend of mine referring to Ultima Online as a giant sandbox, complete with bullies and nerds. This was back before 2000, but it was always in verbal conversations in any case.

    I don’t remember discussing Theme Parks vs. Sandboxes until after the launch of World of Warcraft.

    In any case, this is an excellent discussion and it can be fun to dive down and determine where terms came from.

    Another one for thought: When did we start shortening “MMORPG” and “MMOG” down to “MMO?” MMORPG was theoretically coined by Richard Garriot and MMOG is considerably older (apparently in 93 by Dale Addink). My guess is that it’s an impossible task and just a victim of internet slang/shortening. I fought against removing the “G” for a long time until I decided I didn’t care anymore since I already accepted “RTS” as legit.

    1. I’m not sure about when it came into use, but a lot of academic writers distinguish between MMOGs (games) and MMOW (worlds) – again a distinction linked back to social vs. adventure MUDs. There’s something of an assumption that a world is there either for socialising and building, or for killing things, at least as its main focus.

      I know I call them MMOs because there are so few that aren’t RPG-based or aren’t combat-centred that it’s easier to define those which are different and have the default term refer to MMORPGs.

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