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The History and Theory of Sandbox Gameplay
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The History and Theory of Sandbox Gameplay

July 16, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 6 Next

Contemporary Case Studies

One of the best ways to evaluate the state-of-the-art of Sandbox design is to consider modern expressions of the design. General theories about this design strategy may help guide future development efforts, but practical analysis will explore how these ideas are playing out in today's game studio.

And seeing what's going right and what's problematic in practical terms can be a big help for guiding future development, and expanding the theory of sandbox design.

For our first example, we'll take:

Assassin's Creed

One of the main stumbling blocks for this title is the dynamic nature of the game world, and the manner in which scenarios are spawned. The scenarios themselves carve out only a very small area, and are immediately surrounded by random "sandbox-world" elements. This was a relatively early programming and presentation decision, which determined that there would be little design control over the extended environment of a given mission.

Not to doubt the efforts of the design team, of course. These kinds of questions are extremely difficult and require an enormous amount of work. When you're innovating, it's an uphill negotiation all the way. But it can still be said that the design, while it brings "sandbox" design into a new dimension, also prohibits the kind of finely-tuned level design of conventional sneaker games. As we have already suggested, sandbox carries both promise and problem. In this case, the main problem is a lack of upper-level development.

Even the principal fan-made FAQ for the game complains about its gameplay.

"Once you experience the same old objectives over and over, then you go crazy and just want to get to the end." The problem is that the gameplay is underdeveloped or barebones. The thwarted hope is that the design and mission objectives would become more sophisticated.

Chris Kohler of Wired's Game|Life blog also found the game lacking in terms of design-depth.

It's not a perfect review: Kohler does not recognize how well Assassin's Creed rewards clever and patient play. But on the other hand, the game's subtlety will be unappreciated by many other players as well.

Assassin's Creed

The game should probably have spent more time explaining/training the correct way to play, through more nuanced training missions early on. And then the game could have reinforced and telegraphed this message by more finely-tuned missions throughout the campaign.

Even something simple like adding a Hitman-inspired "Silent Assassin" reward for particularly delicate play (at critical mission junctures) -- this would have gone a long way towards communicating the concept of excellent play, and rewarding clever execution.

Thse design considerations would not fix the main problem, however. The principle dilemma is the flat, repetitive mission offering, combined with the shallow game-world depth. It is commonplace for a sandbox game to require the player to perform a few stock random-generated missions between each customized major campaign, but the variation and range of random missions are insufficient. There is not nearly enough range and variation to suppress their repetitive nature.

The world would be far richer and more like a sandbox world if there were twenty well-worked-out characters per city, who the player could visit to talk and receive missions -- and play off each other. Allowing the player to work with different warring factions would greatly add to the sense of immersion.

Inevitably, scenarios of greater sophistication and wider variation are needed throughout. Random scenarios are good, but over-use of default scenarios means repetition. Ideally, each scenario is customized. Players allow recycling, but they don't like excess repetition and greatly appreciate custom scenarios.

There is no simple solution; it's the kind of problem that has to get worked out over many months if not years. But the general solution is extremely simple: a much larger fraction of development investment must be spent on upper-level design (mission design and writing).


The unifying metaphor makes or breaks the game, for it is a game which works very hard to be viewed as greater than the sum of its parts. Some people will suspend disbelief, and feel a little joy as the overarching narrative emerges; and other people will see the seams.

Still others will look at it as "five games for the price of one," and then judge those five games harshly: many have observed they are "-lite" versions of other previous sandbox games, from Age of Empires to Masters of Orion.

And while it remains true that Spore explores many different genres of sandbox play -- it is almost a survey of the larger genre, from cellular A-life to empire building -- it is also true that the separate phases are not integrated, and each in its own area is simplistic and under-implemented.

If the game works, it is because of the larger aesthetic presentation, and the great risk the game takes is that it leaves its success or failure to the aesthetic sense of the player. Whether the game does indeed hang together -- whether a person buys into the idea of developing from a cell into a planet-jumper -- this is mostly subjective. And this lays bare a common challenge in sandbox design: player commitment to open story.

The main interest, perhaps, is the creature creator (along with the building and vehicle creator). These segments of the game share with the audience a critical aspect of modern game development (3D modeling). In this, the design is highly consistent with one of Wright's major statements on the origin of his particular brand of sandbox design: that game design is so fun in itself that, if properly packaged, it can well be reinterpreted as gameplay itself. But let us consider another quite intriguing quotation:

Your heroic efforts have proven you deserving, worthy of advancement to the next level of your existence. The universe you inhabit is but one of many countless worlds, unseen but yet connected. Your creative efforts have not gone unnoticed. Indeed they have spilled into these other, unseen worlds, just as your world has been enriched by them.

Thus speaks the god of the galaxy, upon completion of the final objective. (Though of course this is not the end in the strong sense: the sandbox subsists after this, so you can continue to expand your empire indefinitely.)

These words of the divinity (playfully named "Steve") are quite clever, from a writer's perspective. The game text is doing what a writer might call "reinterpretation," or more simply, "changing the subject in a clever way."

Steve begins by proposing yet another level for the game: "the next level of your existence." So far there have been five "levels of existence": cell, animal, tribal, civil, and space. By the logic of the game, if you win the fifth mini-game -- the space game -- then you should get mini-game number six. The concept of a multiverse is then invoked: this would be level six!

Then, this multiverse is reinterpreted as the multiplayer function of Spore, which you've already been doing: "your creative efforts [...] have spilled into other worlds, just as your world has been enriched by them." It's a brilliant poetic turn, in the sense that the sixth level is the reality of multiplayer. It's also a cop-out, in the sense that the game is done providing new stuff to do.

The sandbox persists, but it is now repetitive with no hope of new content or additional gameplay interest. In most cases, gameplay is geared towards meeting an objective in order to enable a new feature of the game, but here it is just the joy of play itself, and again it comes down to player commitment to the purely open game.

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