The paradigm in these so-called “sandbox games” is the same as it is for the MMORPG: a space in which there are multiple activities. Now, some of these activities may be games (levelling up, completing a time challenge); some may not be (chat systems); some may seem more important than others, or have more development time associated with them… In fact, we frequently see that they even have a “magic circle” insulating them from.
What we shouldn’t do is confuse the act of moving from one activity to another within the virtual space as being equivalent to playing a game. That’s why I try, when I have the luxury of being pedantic, to call most modern games “interactive entertainment experiences.”
It is reductionist for even game-centric MMORPGs to be considered to be merely games; even the most game-centric of them embeds some experiences that are not games, and of course, more can always be added. We tend to call a virtual world a game world when all the reward mechanisms are tied together into one game of advancement; that isn’t even the only way to make a game, much less the only way to make a virtual world.
Of course, the fact that MMORPGs aren’t intrinsically games doesn’t at all mean that if you choose to embed a game, you can pay it any less attention, or regard it as somehow less important. Arguably, we have regularly done games a disservice when putting them into MMORPGs, by failing to make the gameplay good enough and instead relying on the virtual world’s nature to prop up the gameplay. A good test for an embedded game in a virtual world would be to play it without the virtual world itself; if it’s fun enough that way, then we’re doing the game justice.
I believe that regarding virtual worlds this way opens up the door for a very different outlook on how to design them; the spread of possible worlds becomes much wider. If we let go of the notion that virtual worlds are games, not only will we get better virtual worlds: I believe we will get better game worlds too.
I have a rogue, on WoW, and she has been quite cheerfully running about, collecting Ancestral Coins for the Lunar Festival. Only, being me, and loving diving into dangerous places as much as I do, I’ve been sneaking around, trying to get some of the most difficult ones. (And being only level 42, many are excessively difficult.)
Little Railee has been shimmying along cliff faces, running through enemy cities with her hair on fire, chased by giants, knocked off of mountains by evil albino hippogryphs, and pinned against walls by packs of slavering hyenas. She showed a higher level druid how to best sneak past a group of monstrously higher level nagas, and then teamed up to fight the two that attacked, when they reached their goal. She rescued lowbies who were blithely charging into dire peril, and skated across a frozen lake full of murderous ghosts.
All-in-all, it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had in one of these games. Yet, it’s not collecting coins that makes it fun. Honestly, I hate playing most collect-the-coin type platform games. They bore me to tears. In an MMO, however, this otherwise mundane coin collecting activity can become almost epic. You’re not just collecting coins. You’re journeying across perilous terrain into almost certain doom, with nothing to protect you but your flimsy armor, and the optimistic belief that you can find some clever trick to get you to your goal at the end of the road — assuming you make it to the end of the road. You may even make some friends and enemies along the way. The sheer openness, complexity, and richness of presentation provides a compelling array of possibilities that has more in common with reality than it has with most traditional games.