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The History and Theory of Sandbox Gameplay

July 16, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next
 

[In this in-depth Gamasutra analysis, game professional Breslin examines the history and current state of the 'sandbox game', looking at modern games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Spore to see how they fulfill the concept of unlimited, unfettered creativity.]

It's such a buzzword nowadays -- sandbox. It is a very abstract concept, like "liberty" or "love," so there are a lot of varieties. Modern sandbox games draw from a wide range of design structures: from open-world design to emergent behavior, from automation of believable agents to multi-threaded or non-linear story.

Being applied in such a broad range of situations means that the word "sandbox" risks its meaning becoming watered-down, confused, and sometimes forgotten.

On the other hand, it remains the single most important design issue for current and future generation games. It's a great blessing to spend a while in serious thought, on such a critically defining idea.

Let us take this opportunity, then, to reflect upon the different ideas we as gamers and designers have of the notion. Let us think about where the whole idea came from, and consider where we've come to, as we look toward the many futures of this wonderful little concept.

Just to get rolling, let's consider the concept in abstract:

The Ironies of the Metaphor

The concept of sandbox-style gameplay, as we know, suggests more-or-less undirected free-play. The metaphor is a child playing in a sandbox: the child produces a world from sand, the most basic of material. This in contrast to a game where the upper-level content is presented fully formed and ordered.

The metaphor of "sandbox" suggests something pure and free. It implies that it is a young child in the sandbox (and a pre-videogame child at that, with no toys), and assumes an idealized childhood imagination, an unlimited creativity. It is a good metaphor, and a useful one, but the metaphor is also a little misleading, insofar as it suggests a sort of dream-world imaginative capability of the audience, which is not always justified.

The implications of the metaphor are not necessarily carried over by game designers: we anticipate that less imaginative players will get less out of a sandbox game, and this is fine. But even so, the idea of leveraging the player's imagination is quite ambitious, and more than a little risky.

By itself, this design concept is so ambitious -- "give them a sandbox, and they will build castles" -- that it must be met with a far greater investment in making the sandbox actually work, which generally means much more money and time invested across all levels of production, and particularly upper-level design and writing. It means an especially close relationship between programming and upper-level design, with the anticipation that the upper-level design will often determine the lower-level specifications.

If normal game design is developing upper-level material (missions, etc.) based on an engine, sandbox design is writing an engine to express upper-level gameplay concepts. Of course, it's very silly to put it so simply as that: indeed, game production is always a back-and-forth between programming and design.

But basically, sandbox design requires the development of engines which enable open exploration in various ways, engines which support upper-level sandbox design by providing systems for the handling of the sandbox elements. It's fun work for a systems programmer, but it's not easy. Then, on the upper level, sandbox requires design which emphasizes and encourages free-play, as well as the development and implementation of a wide range of dynamic interactive elements.

And it's not just the presentation of the sandbox elements and the play space, but it's handling all of the player's various interactions, all the possible combinations. To say it very simply, a typical game must respond to correct input, while a sandbox game must reward all input.

While a physical sandbox is very easy to build (compared with most other toys), the sandbox game generally requires far more work than similar, less open and responsive games. Unlike the person who builds a physical sandbox, a sandbox-style game designer cannot simply offload the creative effort onto the gamer.

The Necessary Framework

Unfortunately, sandbox design is sometimes taken to justify the exact opposite: "sandbox" sometimes serves as an excuse for less investment, particularly in high-level design. Sandbox elements can be mistakenly taken as fair replacements of narrative content; indeed, many games have missed their potential because they imagined that free-play would compensate for a lack of narrative. But even for our idealized child, playing around in a physical sandbox gets old pretty quick.

This principle design problem of sandbox-oriented gameplay is already subtly suggested by the sandbox metaphor itself: a child playing in a sandbox needs a lot of direction if they're going to have very much fun. They need toys first, and they need to be given ideas of things they can do with them. The parent needs to provide a meaningful framework. Just dropping a kid in a sandbox does not work.

The same is true of sandbox design. If the design effort fails to produce a game rich in intriguing potential, it's very much like shipping a literal sandbox. -- Imagine a game-box literally filled with sand: the open-minded player might enjoy playing in the sand a bit, but the gameplay really isn't worth a lot.

The necessary framework guides the presentation of the sandbox elements as the world develops and unfolds. This is often expressed as a reward system, which can involve new areas to explore and new stuff to do, more difficult gameplay structures to navigate, more story unfolding, more missions becoming available, and so on. It can be based on exploring the space of the game (exploring Liberty City for example), and it can be based on watching the game-world develop over time.

It often means scattering a great number of narrative elements across the game-world for the player to discover. Rather than presenting the sandbox as "here's a box of toys, goodbye," the framework gives some strategic order to the game's elements, a presentational structure -- and thus it gives the player periodic rewards for playing.

A common misconception is that the stories of sandbox games are not determined by the game's developer: instead, the story is supposedly determined and directed by the player. But even designers of the most free-form sandbox games must specialize in producing worlds which are geared towards making that free-play fun. If the sandbox is interesting (and this is by no means guaranteed!), then the game's potentialities, the potential interest and fun -- including the narrative undercurrent and whatever else makes the free-play engaging and worth the time -- are all very carefully handled by the developer.

"Sandbox" sometimes challenges traditional narrative, but it always puts something new in its place. -- Thus, it does not remove the narrative, but rather transforms predetermined narrative into dynamic, responsive narrative. In other words, the sandbox game distinguished itself by making the responses more significant and meaningful.

This is perhaps contrary to an image of sandbox play which emphasizes pure freedom, but again, sand by itself is not much fun. Automated, complex, and perhaps most of all, directed responsiveness is essential to sandbox play, and the more complex and responsive the world, the more interesting the sandbox.

What is interesting about the sandbox form is not that it allows full freedom, but that it generalizes and parameterizes, it finds arenas for agency and gently crafts the potential space of the game. It fosters a sense of free-play and exploration of that space. It engenders a sense of player control, without actually handing over the reins entirely.


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Comments


Luis Guimaraes
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My personal top list of games that did well what everyone around today calls "open-ended" games. The way it has become a "trend", or at least a discussion trend nowadays, is what makes sandbox games do be more sands of box.



Not necessary to be in the following order:

. Bioshock. (beeing indoor and having linear story does not mean having no freedom)

. Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive. (simple mechanics with only useful interaction can do a lot)

. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. (very little non-meaninful interaction and most good mechanics)

. Super Mario World. (one more exemple that game mechanics richness really open the world)

Gerard Gouault
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Spore:

not a real sandbox as you notice that every time you play the same events happen at the exact same spot. ie. the meteor shower in creature stage, UFO flying over, the offered missions in space stage, etc..

The only sandbox aspect in Spore are the editors for creatures, vehicles and buildings. The gameplay itself gets boring after a couple of passes.



It is strange that the author only makes a small mention of THE only real sandbox game. Neverwinter Nights 1.

Nwn is still an active game system after more than 8 years.

Not only a sandbox game by itself but it also lets player design their own sandbox for other to explore.

Thomas Eidson
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Any game that lets you create your own content is to some degree a sandbox. I believe that the author is saying that the content creation is created as part of the gameplay and not principally by external tools. A concept he mentions is player interaction with the game, which implies "in the game". This is not to say that external tools should not play a part with sandbox games, but that I think external tools do detract from the collaborative and social aspect of building something together in a world.



I definitely agree with directed content as a requirement from a developer, when building a sandbox world.

Ken Nakai
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The idea of a "sandbox" games really has to be considered on a sliding scale. When you have something like SimCity where you've got a clean slate and can build your city however you want creating your own problems along the way (build too much of this, get that problem), you're on one end of the scale. When you're in a game like Spore or whatnot, where there is little you can do to the world except achieve some goals to exit the stage and move on, you're talking about the other end of the spectrum. Outside of this scale, running through platformers or other games on rails (Wolverine, for instance) is no where near a sandbox experience. It's like the shooter reference, Doom, that's no sandbox game. Once you've cleared a level, there's nothing to do unless you want to try to figure out how to get up to some hidden spot. You also can't argue that multiplayer shooters are in anyway a real sandbox. You're not making a new game...trust me...all those people playing CS and COD...on the same maps over and over again. You might have a different gameplay experience each time but that's no different than running through a single player game of L4D or something where the AI automatically adjusts the game for you.



Sandbox play is all about making a game out of a game. Whether it's the Sims or the vast array of tycoon games that came and went.



As far as the boredom aspect, it's so true. A poorly balanced or written sandbox game (for instance, those tycoon games or the 4X space RTSes) become boring fast. A big part of that is the lack of any short-term goals. Long term you're trying to get the most money or biggest city or dominate a market or whatever. When you've got shorter term goals, whether it's generating enough money to buy the next upgrade or game-generated ones that tell you to attack someone or that create enemies to attack you, it helps stave off that boredom. And, a lot of that boredom can come from the devs. To help extend the game experience (i.e. make it last 10 hours rather than 1), building something might take minutes at a time or generating enough income to build out or expand your city/empire/household/whatever takes a very long time unless you're lucky or you're deeper and farther into the game.



I personally love sandbox games...games that let me screw around or build out my business or empire however I choose...but it's rare to find one that's truly engaging over the long haul. I was done with Spore in no time but I still have Patrician 3 installed and play it from time to time. I guess it tells you just how much better some game devs were (even though we're talking no more than a 5 year difference). I think a big part of it might be the larger teams. Bigger teams mean increased diversity in thinking but at the cost of dilution of potential excellence. Someone could have a great idea but if the rest of the team doesn't think so, it's gone. On a smaller team, that someone might have been better able to convince the team to go with it. This combined with short-term sales goals that are similar to movies (publishers want to sell a million copies and once sold, could care less about how long you enjoy the experience). Ever notice how movie trailers are starting to actually show scenes from the endings of the movies in the trailers? If you didn't know the plot of the movie, you wouldn't know until AFTER you dropped $10 to see it. But, if you did know or could recognize what looks like an ending (sorry but "Knowing"...end of the world in the trailer? Check!), it ruins the experience. So it is with more recent games that either don't bother padding more than 4-6 hours of game play in their games (tacking on higher difficulty levels to compensate for a lack of replayability) or just find something stupid and monotonous for you to do (grinding, overly complicated puzzles) to fill the time.



Maybe we need to spend more time making games fun again, rather than taking a Wall Street view of things and trying to make the next moneymaker...you might be surprised how profitable a good game can be...

Michael Rivera
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Great read.



Spore deserves a lot more credit for how it integrates sandbox mechanics into the overall game narrative, so it's nice to see an article that focuses on that rather than the "simple" game play.

Alex Covic
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Elaborate article; tip my hat.



In the 80s I read an academic magazine about game theory (nothing to do with 'video games') and the definition in one article was truly simple:



1. Create a closed world

2. Define 'entities' within the world

3. Define a set of rules.

GO!



That's it.



This does not contradict with anything written above (or in the comments). It just shows, how much one can make out of fondling and tuning these basic rules.

Mark Venturelli
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Interesting read, Steve. Keep them coming! =)


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