With the mainstream MMO market being unable to renew the genre, many companies have resorted to less traditional methods of funding, such as cash shops selling in-game goods, crowdfunding, and more. But their projects, being some of the biggest and most innovative titles in gaming’s history, have massive development cycles and are years away from release. So, while waiting to play Star CitizenChronicles of ElyriaDual Universe, etc. it’s a wise choice to check out some of the smaller, but not less unconventional, titles of today.

Of course, I have no interest in Themepark MMOs, nor do I tolerate pay-to-win, thus this list isn’t going to feature the likes of Black Desert or Albion Online. Furthermore, I don’t think that following a specific order (or a classification) of such titles is useful or sensible.

Legends of Aria (Beta)

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Previously known as Shards Online, Legends of Aria walks in the footsteps of Ultima Online. True, it has the all-too-familiar cartoonish look, with a bright color palette, but its light-hearted tone is quickly offset by a massive learning curve, a complex skill and combat system, a focus on player-driven content, economy, crafting, and hardcore, full loot PvP. LoA also features non-instanced player housing and a classless skill-based character development system.

With contemporary MMOs busy replicating World of Warcraft, this Ultima clone is all too welcome. Furthermore, since Citadel Studios have allowed players to create their own “shards” with unique sets of rules, a dedicated group of gamers has created Legends of Ultima, a community server mimicking UO.

Even in Beta, this game’s many features allow for hours upon hours of learning, exploring and adventuring.

Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues

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Speaking of Ultima Online, Richard Garriott, a.k.a. Lord British, and his colleagues at Portalarium, have been brewing a UO spiritual successor of their own. It’s a weirdly delicious concoction of RPG fairytale-like setting, D&D-esque gameplay, and withdrawn, slightly gloomy, visuals.

The game’s one odd flaw is that its world is divided into separate large zones, traveling between which entails an abstract map, which makes the game non-open world. They surely haven’t taken that one from UO’s list of features and it somewhat betrays the purpose of the game.

The third-person visuals and point-and-click combat system (with a twist) are roughly where this game’s unoriginality ends. It puts emphasis on markets, cooperation, classless character progression, player housing, a virtue system, and so much more.

Some gladly welcomed innovations are seasonal weather, interactive musical instruments, persistent housing with upkeep costs and, last but not least, a communication system that allows the player to type words when interacting with NPCs, who, in turn, respond appropriately and reveal otherwise hidden information and quests. The game’s open-ended questing system allows for exploration and immersion and the absence of automated guidance makes the quests themselves challenging and interesting.

After a century-long Beta, Shroud of the Avatar is finally out. Not checking this one out would be a sin, especially given its generous free trial.

Worlds Adrift (Beta)

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Often, especially among MMO developers, the smaller indie studios and their sincere projects are the ones that push the envelope of the genre and tap into its potential. Worlds Adrift takes everything that we know about MMOs and throws it away.

The world is a sky full of clouds and floating islands. It is a completely open world, open-ended, unscripted and player-driven. It doesn’t get any more sandboxy than that. The player must survive, explore, and craft, using curious futuristic technology.

One of the main features of the game is the construction of skyships. It is these vessels that allow players to traverse the world and unite. They can also create their own floating patches of land by using the island creator tool (available for free).

Floating islands and player-crafted airships wouldn’t be any fun, without a real-time physics engine and a grappling hook, not to mention a climbing mechanic, that allows for unique movement methods and action mechanics.

Bossa Studios have made something that nobody else had dared, or even though of, before.

Life is Feudal (Early Access)

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Games have the incredible property of making us like what’s actually horrid and dreadful. Life is Feudal is a great example of this. Set in a land loosely based on medieval Europe void of any fantasy elements, the game starts you off as a half-naked, derelict cave dweller with the sole desire to run around the forest looking for food.

It might sound like a poor premise. And it would be if the game didn’t gradually evolve into a fully-fledged sandbox MMO where those who have survived the wilderness group to gather, craft and build. In fact, everything in the game is player made or somewhat shaped by the players. And, although housing, terraforming, and farming might be crucial, so is warfare, territorial control, dominance over resources, etc.

Its action packed, non-focus target, combat system is skillfully paired with a third person camera and complemented by detailed, realistic graphics. The developers at Bitbox prove to have what it takes to make a complex, yet fluid, game.

However, the monetization scheme is a source of concern for many. An overpriced premium subscription is available on top of the Pay-to-Play model (justified by the Early Access state of the product), combining two payment methods that don’t overlap even in mainstream titles. In addition, the very expensive cash shop features some concerning boosters and toolboxes, which, in the context of a Sandbox MMORPG focusing on resource gathering and territorial control, could be game-breaking.

Life is Feudal is a great game but I would strongly advise any potential players to be cautious before buying and to research the monetization system thoroughly. After all, if proven to be pay-to-win, purchasing such a title would be harmful not only to the player themselves but to the gaming industry in general.

Gloria Victis (Alpha, Early Access)

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Competing directly with Life is Feudal, Black Eye GamesGloria Victis, sheds some sandbox elements and gives the player a bit more direction. There are non-player-made building, cities, NPCs, quests, and more. In additions, far from being a fantasy game, it incorporates some low-fantasy components, such as ogres, and there have been hints that the devs might choose to add subtle supernatural elements, like blessings, curses, and potions. Overall, however, the game focuses on realism, guild control over territory, unforgiving PvP, crafting (both items and tools) and combat realism.

Gloria Victis‘ combat system embodies medieval warfare like nothing before. Intentionally slow-paced, strategic, and ruthless, it makes the player feel like a soldier amidst a chaotic battleground, desperately longing for a group of like-minded players who can watch their back and fight shoulder to shoulder.

Seasons, weather, days, and nights are more than aesthetics. Fog and rain obscure the vision, while the summer heat makes of plate armor an unwise choice. Players have to calibrate their arrows according to the weather and protect their belongings from the harsh climate. Additionally, NPCs react according to the day and night cycle, as well as players’ actions.

The game also features an extensive crafting system, with skills such as Husbandry and Culinary Arts, Engineering, Hunting and Forestry, and many more.

Last but not least, Gloria Victis is much cheaper than any of the games on this list and, as of the moment doesn’t have an in-game cash shop to worry about.

More games next time…

There are many more Sandbox games, big and small, I shall write about in the future, but the important thing is to always examine what a title offers and whether it suits you as a player.