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Stories From The Sandbox

February 14, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[In this in-depth design article, veteran game designer Sorens examines the 'sandbox game' genre, advocating - with plenty of practical examples - that "designers can and should do more to exploit... player-generated stories".] 

We know that every time someone plays a sandbox game, that person creates an original story. When a player creates a family in The Sims, the resulting game -- based on input from the player -- tells the life stories of the members of that family.

When a player takes control of a country in Europa Universalis 3, the ensuing game tells the history of the world during the game's time period. When a player constructs an outpost in (the pictured below) Slaves to Armok II: Dwarf Fortress, the gameplay creates a chronicle of the outpost and its inhabitants.

Though the same could be said of other types of games, my focus will be only on sandbox games because they provide the best canvas for illustration of the main point I want to make: namely, that designers can and should do more to exploit these player-generated stories. 

The Sandbox Conundrum

What makes the stories in sandbox games special is that unlike the stories found in other types of games, these are not told primarily by the game's developer. Instead, they are created and directed largely by the player's decisions.

The large number of decision points and wide range of possible outcomes in a sandbox game, usually augmented with randomization by various game systems, make the variation in experiences from game to game and from player to player -- one of the key selling points of sandbox games -- both highly personalized and effectively limitless.


Naturally, the developer must provide some amount of structure, as well as the tools the player uses to shape the story. There must be boundaries, goals, and games system that provide decision points. However, the degree to which the player personalizes the course of the game -- and therefore, the story -- is, by the nature of a sandbox game, immense.

The problem that sandbox games have is that their stories are not obvious. The average player, when asked about the story in a sandbox game, would probably reply, "There isn't one." Since we know this to be untrue, the disconnection between player and story must be an issue of presentation. Players do not realize they are creating a story because the game does not communicate the story in a way they understand.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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