More Thoughts on Sandbox Games


We’ve talked about sandbox gaming before, where we covered the definition and its application.  This time around, we’re going to dive into another aspect of sandbox games—the world they’re set in.

The setting is one of the most important aspects of a sandbox game, because the developer is basically asking the player to run all over it as they deal with plot missions, side missions, or just for the heck of it.  The world the game is set in provides the backdrop, the paths from point A to point B, and can even be something like a character in its own right—the look of the buildings, the colors in the sky, and everything in between.

I think it’s fair to say that Manhattan, New York, is by far the most popular place to set a video game, especially a sandbox game.  Then you have the numerous cities which are basically Manhattan by another name, making them effectively a corollary list in themselves.

That leads into another thought: I dare say Spider-Man 2 for the X-Box and PlayStation 2 is by far one of, if not the, best representations of New York City in sandbox gaming.  For one thing, it’s easily the largest version, which makes traveling through it much more enjoyable.

In many games, the city is smaller—often much smaller—which means you can get from one end of the city to the other in a flash.  That leads to thoughts like, “What, I’m already in Harlem?  I just left the Financial District…”  For another, it fits the fact that the protagonist can zoom through the streets as quickly as greased lightning.  In smaller cities, such as the first Prototype, the character is quick as heck—which thrusts the smallness of the city right into the player’s face.

Further, in Spider-Man 2, standing at the top of the Empire State Building really feels like you’re standing a million stories up in the air.  Other games—not so much.  Interestingly, this is perhaps exemplified in Ultimate Spider-Man.  Ultimate-flavored Manhattan is tiny.  I mean, it’s ludicrously tiny.  On the other hand, it’s the prettiest thing this side of [insert favorite model here].

That leads us into another thing—why cities are as large or small as they are.

Okay, imagine a sliding scale, like the one pictured at right.  Let’s say the scale represents the size of the city versus how interesting the city looks.  If you push the slider in one direction, you get a larger city, but one lacking in detail and differences between the areas (like the one in Spider-Man 2).  Push it in the other, and you get a city that’s pretty as heck, but very small (like the one in Ultimate Spider-Man).

The reason why you have this scale is because of processing power.  Even if you’re making your game for the most fantastic computer rig this side of N.A.S.A., with the best processor, backed up by as much R.A.M. as you can shove into the thing—you still have a limit on how much of it all can be used for detailing the city.  You have to put processing power toward other things—combat, character animations, story presentation, and a host of other things.

Ultimately, just how far that slider should be pushed to make the city fun and enjoyable is up to the individual player, but I think a good rule of thumb is to edge toward a larger city.  The city can be pretty as all get-out—but if it’s too tiny, not only does it lead quickly to boredom (“Hey, I just passed this building by, like, five times!  In three minutes!“), but it makes for a much less enjoyable experience to simply travel from one point to the next.

Part of the fun in a sandbox game is the city itself—whether you’re running along its rooftops or zooming through the streets in a sports car.  No matter how you travel through it, a well-designed city should offer enough room to let you have plenty of options on how to get to your destination, and also be interesting-looking enough to make the journey fun.

Every developer has to decide where to put the slider, and it’s not an easy decision to make.  Too far in one direction or another, they’re going to get complaints (well, more complaints than usual, given that—and let’s admit it—we really are one of the most difficult-to-please fan-bases around).  Like most other elements of a video game, that decision is based on others—what developers can get away with in how they design the city isn’t a stand-alone decision.

It can be a difficult balancing act, but when it’s pulled off it helps make a game so much more enjoyable—of course, like so many other aspects of developing a video game, there isn’t really a hard and fast rule.  It all comes down to the goals and views of the developer, but also the desires and tastes of the gamers.

Though it’s never an easy decision to make, it can be quite a rewarding one.  Here’s to the continuing balancing act.

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