It is common to make rational choices in selecting objects of art/industry to enjoy. Whether we are speaking about food, movies, books, wine, cars etc. it is a priority to have a refined taste which, on the basis of precise information, would allow to make a proper choice. I believe that computer games should be no exception.
Two weeks ago I was frustrated as a gamer. I was completely bored with World of Warcraft and was playing RIFT. I found RIFT a very solid game with many good features, however something in its design, probably the visual style, happened to be not appealing enough to hook me for a considerable period of play. I wandered for a couple of days until I stumbled upon Everquest 2. Incredible! I knew about this game all the time, but happened to try it after seven years, and now I am very happy to reside in Norrath.
However, this highlighted a problem for me - I did not find Everquest 2 following some process of rational choice, but just stumbled upon it. This may be fun, but I think that this should not be the general rule, which sadly is often the case. Today the amount of games by far exceeds the amount of free time which an average gamer may have. You may spend a week wandering from one game to another before you find the one you will really play.
The first thing we need to change this situation is a set of criteria by which we can use reason to ponder games. The second thing is how to get the information to compare with the criteria, but this is a separate issue. I would confess that I am a perfectionist if I had not played text MUDs before graphical MMORPGs. There are several online resources which have advanced search options to make a proper choice, the most popular are "Top Mud Sites" and "The Mud Connector". Not to mention an amazing fact that text-based online games are still alive and more or less well, these criteria of advanced search are really interesting and in some form applicable to the "big" games of today.
However, one modern gameplay generalization seem to be most appropriate in current environment: it is the distinction between "sandbox" and "theme park" games. Generally speaking, sandbox games are nothing more than the world where players are expected to build some form of virtual society, while theme park games provide predetermined ways of players' advancement, activity and socialising. One may think of Ultima Online or Eve Online as examples of sandbox games, and World of Warcraft or RIFT as examples of theme park games.
Of course, these terms are abstractions. There are no pure sandbox and theme park games, and these qualifications should be made not in black-and-white way, but as a kind of scale or chart.
My guess is that there is one characteristic which determines the extreme points and may serve for a scale: source of the virtual goals. The more goals are generated by players themselves, the more sandbox the game is. The more goals are imposed by the developer, the more theme-park the game is. At the first extreme, the developer may support players by providing infrastructure to their goals. At the last extreme, the players may either accept or reject (thus making the corresponding aspects of the game dead) the goals imposed.
I think that other criterion should come to mind quite naturally, it is who creates and maintains the virtual infrastructure. The infrastructure of a virtual world (e.g. towns, shops, means of transportation, virtual legal system etc.) may be completely provided and, which is more important, determined by the developer. This is the commonplace for most of modern games. On the other hand, theoretically, such things may be arranged throughout cooperation between players with a minimal intervention of the developer limited to technical implementation of the tools.
The problem with the infrastructural criterion is that currently there is no computer game which could serve as the example of the second extreme (please correct me if I am wrong). However, there definitely are games which are somewhere in the middle of two extremes, although they are not "big" games. Such text MUDs as the Iron Realm's ones, namely Achaea or Lusternia, may be good examples. The developers provide technical tools for player-run rivaling organisations (cities and houses) which are managed by players, and they also do general coordination of the plot along with specific events. However, the day-to-day management is performed by the players, and their choices and decisions determine how the plot develops.
So, in order to choose a game to play, besides other critera, one may pay attention to what this game is - a sandbox or a theme-park, which can be determined by how the virtual goals emerge. And this is the fact to fish from the magazine articles, online reviews and game forums.
If you know any other sandbox games, besides the ones given above, which are alive and well, please share.