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I've started back playing Rift again, and have just reached my Capital City (Sanctum). While I was running around (having completed my first "major" goal. I got to thinking.
I would like a Themepark game that Transitions into a Sandbox fairly early. Now, what the game is will determine what that "fairly early" actually means. But to me it means more than just an "extended tutorial". But instead gives players a decent amount of time to learn the game, the systems, and the paths. And then after completion of a major goal, they find a whole world has opened up to them that they can now explore.
In the case of Rift, I would set the reaching completion of the breadtrail that leads you to the city HQ to be the start of the Sandbox content. This doesn't mean that quests dry up, story-lines end. It just means that level-like progression halts, and other things start to take precedence. You can become a Rift-hunter, a soldier in the Gaurdian/Defiant war, a trader, an explorer, etc. But the whole world then opens up, with little to no level difference from that point on. Instead, you have other carrots to chase.
In some other games, I would set the Sandbox starter at a different spot.
Age of Conan: Leaving newbie Island.
Star Wars Tor: Gaining your ship. (2 planets in).
EQ2: Dunno, Probably about lvl 20 or so, when you can reach Queynos or Freeport.
The key here is that generally, the game stops leading you by breadcrumbs, and instead opens up. But it does so after a decent amount of time. Starting a new character and getting to sandbox isn't something to do at the drop of a hat, but its not an insane level of work to do. (say 5-10 hours or so of play for a new character).
What do you think?
So long, and thanks for all the fish!