Thoughts on Sandbox Games


No limits, no linear goals—it’s the type of game design that’s been slowly building up steam since the ‘Eighties and became arguably the most popular with the Grand Theft Auto franchise.  We are, of course, going to talk about the sandbox-style games.

As mentioned in yesterday’s Tuesday’s Top Ten, defining the term “sandbox” isn’t an easy thing to do.  We’re going to use the all-inclusive definition we talked about yesterday—you can explore the world, choose to complete plot-progressing missions or not, and so on.

The first open-world game was made seventeen years ago—Elite for the B.B.C. Micro and the Electron.  As I said yesterday, most concepts present in modern-day sandbox games were present in Elite—a player started with next to nothing and had to patiently work their way up to a better ship, better armaments, et cetera, all while on the look-out for pirates as they explored the universe.  There was also a heck of a lot to simply explore.  Following in its spiritual footsteps was Midwinter, set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  The player could explore, recruit surviving humans, and more.  It was the first truly non-linear game.

Eventually we get to the Grand Theft Auto series, which wasn’t anywhere near the first to offer a sandbox design, but it certainly codified it, specifically Grand Theft Auto III.  For years afterward, other sandbox-style game was called a G.T.A. clone, whether it was truly deserved or not.

The reason is actually almost complimentary: Sandbox games offer you an entire game world without restrictions, and when III brought that concept to a wider audience, people realized what they’d been missing.  It led some to assume that game started it or that it wasn’t too old of a concept, which is understandable to some degree.  The important thing, however, is that more people—gamers and developers alike—realized how much sheer fun true freedom is.

The reason why it’s complimentary to some degree that for those few years other sandbox games were called G.T.A. clones is because III showed how to do it well.

There are two big “traps” that developers can fall into while making a sandbox game: One, the non-linearity makes it difficult to tell a coherent story, so lost the game can make the player in side-quests, nifty things to look at, and whatever else.  Two, it makes it more difficult to create a strong, individual protagonist.  They become more of a player stand-in than a strongly-defined character in their own right.

Grand Theft Auto III pretty much ditched strong characterization to bring us a nameless protagonist.  The closest he ever got to a name was an off-hand reference in San Andreas, where someone else called him Claude.  Making him nameless, making his back-story rather “light”, it dives headlong into that second trap and turns it into a strength.  It doesn’t bog the player down in motivations they may not care about and what ultimately may be self-contradictory, to let them more easily enjoy just wreaking havoc upon a game world.

That’s the appeal of sandbox games as a whole, really.  Whether taking it in our current all-inclusive definition or like Garry’s Mod, offering no mission structure whatsoever in a more original, “purer” definition, sandbox games are appealing because they’re freeing.

That’s not to say there are no enjoyable linear games, of course.  Plenty are created now and have been for quite a while that were truly enjoyable, genuinely fun.  Yet there’s something in the freedom inherent in sandbox game that makes it more memorable, an experience we’ll seek out a bit more often.

No matter the game itself—a stealthy game, a platforming game, whatever—when set as a sandbox it gives freedom nearly unparalleled in other game styles.  That freedom gives players so much more to do, so many more options on how to complete the game.  It can come as the generally more expected form of literally approaching a mission from a different direction, or it can come in the form of simply exploring a self-contained world that seems “alive” regardless of the protagonist.

That variety of approach to the game as a whole is one of the primary reasons sandbox games became popular and only grew in popularity.

To be sure, that makes it somewhat more difficult to develop the game.  For one thing, the process tends to take at least a little bit longer since the developers have to account not for what the player necessarily will do, as much as what they might do.  The more variation in different parts of the game world, including that area’s N.P.C.s, the more the developer has to account for choices the player might make.

You see it a bit more strongly in games where the player is allowed to take whatever guns they have and just go nuts—sometimes different areas have different police response times.  That makes sense, but that’s also more script that has to be written, which means more time to write it in the first place, and (hopefully) more time to test it all.

Another concern is the finite amount of space the game has.  No matter what format the game is on, there’s only so much room to go around.  Look at Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas—a very large game world, filled with people that acted differently in different parts, but the graphics suffered.  I’m actually fine with that, but I remember forums talking about C.J.s “oven mitt hands” and the like.

There’s a delicate balance in creating games in general, but I believe it’s most precarious in creating sandbox games.  In a linear game, you don’t have to worry about what the player might do beyond the room he’s currently in.  In a sandbox game, you have the entire game world that has to contain enough to keep the player interested.

That’s not easy, but it’s definitely worth the effort.  Again, look at the success of the Grand Theft Auto franchise.  Sure, some of it has to be just that it allows you to blow people up in the first place—but without being able to do it wherever you want in the large game worlds, without that freedom to just muck around, I dare say the franchise wouldn’t be as popular as it is.

I see the future of sandbox games staying the course, offering large worlds to explore that only get larger and more in-depth as time passes and technology improves.  They won’t shoulder linear games off of the store shelves, nor should they.  They can stand right alongside each other, offering different things.

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One Response to “Thoughts on Sandbox Games”

  1. Thanks to the Rush Limbaugh wannabees this stuff is sometimes taken for granted.

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