Rock, Paper, Shotgun has an excellent article by Jim Rossignol about the stumbling of Star Wars The Old Republic (SWTOR) away from the pure subscription-based model. His vehicle for most of the discussion is EVE Online, a posterboy for subscription model MMO success. He also discusses the value of sandbox and themepark:
And so perhaps what we want to pay for is something we find a specific sort of value in. We want to pay for something that rewards us not with more quests, or more numbers, but with fresh modes of interaction. And, perhaps because of the surplus of quest-based MMO experiences out there, we value the rare and special service that the sandbox provides.
I like Jim’s thinking, and had much the same thoughts using different words and synapses in response to a Guild Wars 2 blog post. The knee-jerk response to sandbox vs. theme park seems to be whether the content is developer-driven or not. One could argue that W-space is EVE’s theme park because a lot of the content is created from developers. What really matters is the interactions that take place.
In my view, successful MMOs are successful because they offer a lot of fun interactions. It is not about freshness of content, whether it’s contested sleeper sites, a rift burning through the transdimensional atmosphere, or skritt stealing cannonballs from a firing range. The criticality of MMOs is whether that content allows for various degrees of positive interaction.
I felt bad for SWTOR since the start because the producers never seemed to realize that. The interactions were either hyper-personal with personal story or forced with a variation on the trinity. There is nothing wrong with theme park style design, but creating community is what is going to pay the rent. Community can only be created by interactions.
Tonight I plan on playing another few rounds of Doomsday on Team Fortress 2. I haven’t really played any other map since Pyromania. I am sure I will experience a fresh interaction (hopefully another crocket on the launch pad).