The best sandbox MMOs
While theme parks can be great, not everyone wants to be led by the hand everywhere they go. Some of us like to take our time and smell the roses, while others want to trample those roses as they build an empire with thousands of real players and become a space dictator. If you're the type of person who likes building a sand castle just to kick it down, sandbox MMOs are where it's at. The freedom and consequence they offer will turn away those looking for a more relaxing experience, but if you truly want to embrace the potential of what an online world can offer, there's never been another choice.
Release Date: May 6, 2003
Developer: CCP Games
Payment Model: Free-to-play with a premium subscription
When you think of modern sandbox MMOs, there's only one place to turn: EVE Online. The 14 years that EVE has been around could fill the pages of a textbook (actually, it kind of has)—but only if you're studying How to Lose Faith in Humanity 101. Its reputation for being a callous, uncaring universe was forged over a decade of war, betrayal, and scandal. But that same spartan culture has also given birth to the kind of camaraderie you'll never find anywhere else.
EVE Online is obtuse and complex as hell, and there will be times where you'll stare at the screen, clueless of what to do. CCP Games gone to great lengths to make EVE easier to understand, but your best teacher will always be the sting of failure. The good news is that last year EVE Online started offering a free-to-play option, letting you dive into its sandbox with a limited set of ships and skills to use. They've since expanded the program, giving free players even more choices of what ships to fly.
Those who persevere will find a whole galaxy of possibilities at their fingertips—and really, that's always been EVE's greatest accomplishment. It's truly a living world where those with the will to rise to the top can find a way—even if that means using all those daggers in the back of the people who trusted them as a foothold.
Release Date: January 4, 2001
Payment Model: Free-to-play
As the oldest MMO on this list, Runescape should be like a crotchety old man, and yet here it is looking young and appealing as ever. That's because being original never gets old and, despite the rise and fall of popular MMOs, Runescape has never stopped being original. Despite the fancy graphics and new additions, Runescape still values freedom above all else. You're dropped into the world with little more than a few items and a general sense of direction. Where to go is for you to decide. That emphasis on choice gave birth to one of the more varied skill systems in the genre, as players can pursue anything from professional monster slaying to just being a lumberjack. That spirit of freedom is even extended to which version you want to play, giving players the choice between the current version or the "old school" Runescape so many love.
Runescape has also come a long way from its early days of 2D sprites in 3D environments, but that "ugly duckling syndrome" led to a focus on having a great personality over all the fanciest bells and whistles—and it doesn't hurt that just about anyone and their grandmother could play it through a browser. Over a decade later, that pursuit of substance over style makes Runescape one of the most endearing and unique MMOs available.
Black Desert Online
Release Date: March 3, 2016
Developer: Pearl Abyss
Payment Model: Buy-to-play
Korean MMOs are often negatively viewed as brutal grindfests, and while Black Desert Online doesn't break that stereotype it does offer one of the most expansive crafting systems ever seen in the genre. While the active, combo-based combat is great fun, there's dozens of career paths to take your character down in this dynamic sandbox MMO. You can be a merchant, a fisherman, or invest all your time into building a massive production empire of beer.
This is all thanks to Black Desert Online's complex node system. Each region is divided up into nodes that provide various resources, while properties in cities can be purchased and converted into blacksmiths, fisheries, or storage depots. Instead of doing all the hard work yourself, you can hire automated workers who level up and have their own innate skills to do the heavy lifting. It's an intimidating system to learn when you're just starting out, but the freedom it provides is unparalleled. It can be just as rewarding to spend an evening tweaking your farms and leveling up your workers as it is taking down one of Black Desert Online's brutal world bosses. And if that doesn't suit your fancy, the node system is also the foundation for weekly guild wars, where guilds race to conquer various nodes for special bonuses—making BDO a great choice if you're into PVP as well.