Syncaine has a good article here about what he calls “Sandbox Envy.” The short of it is that themepark players are enticed into sandboxes by all of the potential for heroic moments, but fail to reconcile themselves to the fact that it takes a lot of work, and often mundane work, to accomplish that.
I think he is being duplicitous. The problem is even greater-sandboxes are not true sandboxes. They are just as focused and targeted as any themepark game, but are focused on mainly PvP conflict. This creates experiences which are actually very shallow when they are not similar to themepark ones. However, sandboxes are constantly marketed as being something more, with the glamourous moments Syncaine refers to being either impossible for the average player, or absurdly rare.
I recently started EVE, and am going into my second month playing. It’s a great example of this. EVE has an almost glowing rep of being a place where things happen, where it’s possible to take down an alliance or be in huge fleet battles. Syncaine mentions this as well, and he is right in mentioning that people shouldn’t expect them to be common.
He undersells it though. For a new player, its hard to impossible to make things happen. New players are outgunned by veterans with greater skills and better ships and fittings, and if they PvP at all, are consigned to tackler roles and have zero life expectancy. The kicker is this: there is nothing else. EVE has empire space, but there is little more to do than very braindead kill ten rats style quests and afk mining. Everything in EVE ultimately is in service of PvP, be it in lowsec, or in 0.0.
This tremendously restricts what can be done. It does so by making everything shadowed by it, in the same way a level system dominates a themepark game. Want to be an explorer? You’ll always be dodging pvp, or you’ll often be probing for ships in gang pvp. Want to be a courier? You have to worry about pvp not only from pirates, but your own contractor setting you up. Want to kick back and mine? You have to worry about people trying to get you to pvp by can flipping you.
Because of that, guilds and players organize to minimize risk through large scale ops. There’s less real freedom because of the threat of PvP constrains freedom for smaller corps and individuals. But there is also less real distinction because the corps organize in blobs to reduce risk and also reduce the chance for heroic moments to emerge. You become a cog, or you become a rabbit that runs away. In time, when you have payed your dues, you might be able to make a contribution on a larger scale but for most people I think it really isn’t much different from running endgame raids. Covert Ops and tacklers are just as rigidly defined as jobs and classes are in a themepark.
That’s the real source of the problem of sandbox envy, not just unrealistic expectations. They expect sandboxes to truly be different, but the main difference is full loot, always on PvP. The game itself isn’t that different. For sandboxes to be meaningful, they need to be more than just letting players replace all the mobs.