[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
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
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.
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.