Out Of The Pit – Building A Better Sandbox

Years ago I was playing a new game at the time called Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, when something extraordinary happened. I was just driving around the streets, looking for a particular shop if I remember rightly, and I thought I’d found it so I got out of the car, leaving it in the middle of the street. I started to walk towards the shop (it turned out to be a nightclub and not what I was looking for) when I heard a huge explosion. I ran for the kerb, looking all around for who was shooting at me. And that’s when a plane fell out of the sky and onto the car I was driving. Looking up I could see the lingering smoke from an explosion and the wing of a second plane sticking out from the top of one of the buildings. Two planes had hit each other in midair, at the exact time I was passing underneath them, and come crashing down to the pavement below. The interesting part is that this wasn’t something that had been planned by the game developers, it was just an unexpected consequence of the way they’d set up the game – planes could take a certain amount of damage before being taken down (because the player could fly them), planes flew over the city in specific flightpaths, and sometimes events would conspire to make a plane leave late. The rules were all in place to allow this once in a lifetime event to take place in front of me, yet I’ve never met anyone who has played that game and had the same experience. It’s since become one of my favourite gaming moments simply because the odds against it happening were huge and yet the simulation in the game was robust enough to allow it. Why am I telling you about this? Well, mostly because it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen in a sandbox game and this particular article is about sandbox gaming in particular, and the problems many of these types of games face in particular.

What Is A Sandbox Game And What’s Wrong With Them Anyway?

Imagine you’re a child, about three or four years old, and a loving parent has put you in a sandpit. You can dig holes or make sand castles or even bury yourself, and generally use the tools you’ve been supplied with (usually a bucket and spade) to make your own fun in the sand. Rather than being given a specific toy with a limit to how you can use it, you’ve been given a way to build your own games and fun. Sandbox games use the exact same principle except that they’re usually aimed at a higher age group than actual sandpits. The games are built in a certain way to encourage the player to experiment and explore. They have a set of tools that reward them by letting them make their own stories and play the game in ways the developer didn’t anticipate, as well as allowing them to go off between missions and just have fun. Some people spend much longer on the sandbox parts of a game than they do playing through the story, while others loathe the sandbox parts, finding them a distraction from the story. It should be noted that sandbox games (where the player is encouraged to play around between missions and discover new ways to play) are not the same as open world games (where the entire world streams from a disc with no noticable loading times) although the nature of an open world game often adds some form of sandbox play to it. The best known example of a sandbox game (and an open world game as it happens) is the Grand Theft Auto series of course, but there are many others. Some are pale imitations that aspire to the formula set down by GTA, while others bring something new, and others still are completely different with new ways to play.

Imagine you’re that young child playing in a sandpit again. You’ve got a bucket and spade so you can easily make a sand castle, then you use your spade to dig a moat around the castle and finally you see how big a hole you can dig… and that’s your lot. No matter your imagination that’s all you can really do in a sandpit with a bucket and spade. Anything else you do is a variation of that and will eventually bore you. There’s a fundamental problem with the concept. The problem is that, while the game developers are creating increasingly large sandbox gaming areas, they’re forgetting that the sandbox isn’t where the fun actually comes from. To make an abstract concept much more simple, these developers think that putting a child in a bigger sandpit with the same bucket and spade will mean that the child has more fun. In sandbox videogames we don’t have a bucket and spade; instead we have cars and guns. While that’s fine for driving and shooting, there’s only so much fun you can get out of such a limited set of tools.

More Tools Mean More Fun

The obvious answer to this problem is to simply start adding more tools for players to use within the game. Yes, give us cars and guns, but maybe we could have something else too? The Saints Row series brought in contacts that you would build a relationship with over time. Each contact had a specific purpose in the game – some would come with you and provide extra firepower, others would deliver cars to your location. A single extra tool changed the flow of the game immeasurably as each contact could be called from anywhere using your in-game mobile phone. It was a neat touch that added a tactical element to the game as well as the feeling that the player was more a part of a living world. Phone numbers could be found on bus shelters, taxis, billboards and several other locations throughout the city and all of these could be called, with the results of the call being believable (although a rather dark joke had the character die if they called the Suicide Helpline). Grand Theft Auto also tried a similar approach by introducing a camera so that players could take photographs of the sights in the city. This was a lot less successful because they hadn’t thought about it enough at the design level. While the phones in Saint’s Row were fully integrated into the world, the cameras in Grand Theft Auto were just the opposite. Apart from a few collectable shots that weren’t marked in any specific manner and a couple of missions that provided you with a camera, there was no real reason to carry the camera around with you and most players forgot it was there. To stretch our sandpit analogy even further, the camera was a crayon in the sandpit with no paper around while the phone was a small plastic rake. One was useless in that environment while the other allowed us to shape the sand and have more fun with it. Put simply, it’s unsurprising that Grand Theft Auto IV introduced a fully realised mobile phone into the game and took its integration further than Saints Row had, with great success. So, the key to adding new tools to sandbox games is integration with the world. The new tool has to be both believable within the context of the world and fully realised within the world too.

With that in mind we’ll have a look at two of the extra tools introduced in the recent cowboy-themed Red Dead Redemption– the newspaper and the knife. Now, some of my readers may well remember I won a competition in a British gaming magazine a couple of years ago for my ideas about what should be in a future Grand Theft Auto game. I told them that newspapers should be in. Each issue would tell the official story about missions you’ve completed, as well as point out sales to the player and possible hidden missions or objectives. It was a simple yet powerful idea which won me a free game (that I’m still waiting for, thank you very much Future Publishing) and it’s the exact feature that made it into Red Dead Redemption. Is it game changing? Not really. The newspapers in that game aren’t linked to a living economy system like I originally planned so they aren’t a compulsive buy just to find out where things are cheapest, but they do add context to missions and point out some things to players who may not have found them otherwise. They fall somewhere between the camera and the phone – a nice new tool but could have been much more. The knife on the other hand provides hours of distraction. I know what you’re thinking; it’s just another weapon right? Well yes, the knife can be used as a weapon, but it’s a lot more than that. In Red Dead, players can use the knife to skin the animals they’ve killed and Rockstar have filled the countryside you play in with a wide variety of animals to hunt. Skins can be sold to shops for a few dollars here and there, animals are spread into different areas around the game world, some are only found during the day while some are only available at night, and there are gradually more difficult hunting challenges to complete. While the skinning knife is the tool that has been added to the game, it’s this attention to detail in how it’s been worked into the systems in the world that makes it stand apart. The player has to pay attention to the world around them, taking note of which animals are most often found where. They’ll note the larger dangers in the area and weigh the pros and cons of hunting there or perhaps set bait down so they can find more of the particular animal they’re hunting. In short, the player is acting out being a hunter in the game, mimicking the thought patterns a real hunter in those days would have had. Combined with the fact that bait can draw the larger and more dangerous animals in even if you haven’t noticed any of them around, and the hunting system can really open up some intense unscripted gameplay moments as the player travels the world hunting for different species.

Final Fantasy X is a pretty linear Japanese RPG (a game genre known for it’s linearity, big swords and spiky hairstyles) but it has a couple of extra tools added that really change the way you play the game. The first tool is the weapon creation system which becomes available later in the game. In this system you take a basic weapon and add abilities to it (extra damage, extra health, always attack first, etc) to create your own perfect weapon. With enough work you could create weapons for every character that were stronger than the hidden legendary weapons they could find. However, each extra ability required the player to use a lot of items to add it to the weapon and the more powerful the ability you wanted, the rarer those items would usually be. That’s when you’d find yourself using the second tool added to the game – the Steal and Bribe combat commands. These commands would respectively allow you to steal an item from the creature you’re fighting before beating it, or pay the creature some money (because that makes sense, obviously) to leave you alone and give you an item before it left. Now a lot of JRPGs have these sorts of commands but where Final Fantasy X got it right was to ensure that items gained through stealing and bribing were usually different from the items you got by defeating an enemy. Suddenly you’re trying to steal before beating the enemy, enduring it’s attacks until you manage it, or saving your money up until you can afford to pay a certain enemy type for the very rare item you can only get from bribing it. Combined with the weapon creation system, those commands added literally hundreds of hours of potential extra play time to the game, and made players reconsider their tactics even when they’d reached a level where most regular enemies were a walkover. Players would be hunting specific creatures in their habitat, stealing expensive items from them before beating them, selling those items then moving onto another creature when they had enough money to bribe it with. They’d do this until they’d collected the ninety-nine rare items for the weapon ability they wanted, before starting all over again on the next set of items for the next ability. Only truly hardcore players ever bothered to play the game that way, of course, with the majority of players happy with the existing weaponry. Nevertheless, those two little tools used in tandem allowed millions of players a completely optional way to extend their games by hundreds of hours as they chased down each item they needed to collect. I think that’s a nice place to leave this section on new tools as it leads sneakily to…

Reasons To Explore

One of the defining features of a sandbox game is that you can go anywhere and make your own adventures. They’re usually big open spaces, ripe for exploration. But why would you want to? At this point in time about a quarter of my gaming readers just reread that last line to see if they’d read it correctly the first time, while the other three quarters are nodding in agreement. The fact is, while some people love exploring these places for hours just to find an alleyway they hadn’t found before, the majority of us need a good reason to do anything. Unfortunately a lot of sandbox game developers misunderstand why people don’t explore the worlds they’ve spent years of their lives creating and they add visual easter eggs in so that intrepid explorers have something to find. Let me ask you one thing; who cares if the Statue of Liberty parody in Liberty City has a beating heart inside it? Seriously, does anyone here really care enough to load up their game and go find it for themselves? Unless you stumble across it by accident then it’s just another useless thing you’ve found out about the game. You can find and see it quicker on Youtube than you could in Grand Theft Auto IV and, when you’ve seen it once, why would you need to see it again? Yes, it’s a nice thing to stumble across if you are one of those people who looks around for these types of things but it’s not exactly a compelling reason for the majority of players to go exploring. So, how can game developers make sure that players will see as much of their work as possible? The easiest way would be to make it profitable to do so. Fallout 3 has a pretty large map but each point of interest, small town and hidden cave gets marked on the map as a discovered location for fast travel. In one of the earliest available missions in Fallout 3 the player finds themselves introduced to a group of Rangers who’re trying to explore the Capital Wasteland and they’ll give you an item that you can carry around which marks these locations. Each time you return to the Rangers they’ll pay you for all the new locations you’ve discovered since your last visit. A simple, almost crude way to make people explore, but having a dedicated mission and constant cash source makes players explore places they may not have considered visiting before. Most players will have at least a cursory look around each location too, which both extends gameplay time and opens more opportunities for sandbox play.

Another popular option in sandbox games, particularly the so-called crime simulators, is to have hidden collectable objects hidden around the world for the player to discover. This can be both a blessing and a curse to a game depending on how it’s implemented. As an example the first Assassin’s Creed game had four hundred and twenty flags which had people scurrying all over the place trying to find them until it became apparent that there’s no reason to do any of it. Nothing happens when you’ve found them all. No special cutscene plays, no secret weapon is unlocked, and most players feel cheated out of the hours they’ve put into finding these things. On the contrary, Alan Wake (yes, I’m aware it’s a linear action-horror game, but it was originally designed as a sandbox horror game and much of that design is still evident in the way the final game plays) has 106 manuscript pages hidden throughout the world. These pages also unlock nothing but, as they’re an important plot device and each one adds more context to the story, the player feels compelled to collect them all in order to get the full experience. So we can see that collectables can work in a game as long as they reward the player in some way, either by enhancing the story in some way or in a more direct manner by giving them money or weapons. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (in my mind, still the most fun game in the series) had a hundred hidden packages that were supposed to contain drugs stolen from your 80s mobster character. In the story you were trying to get them back because your bosses would kill you for allowing them to be stolen if they found out. In gameplay terms, each ten packages found unlocked more powerful weapons outside of all of your safehouses. As you lost all of your weapons each time you died or were arrested and they cost a fortune to replace, this was a compelling enough reason for most players to seek out the packages. The Fableseries has chests that can only be opened by an increasing number of silver keys. The treasures in these chests are usually greater than you’d find in regular chests so the player has no problem scouring the countryside looking for those elusive silver keys. Both of these options built the collectable objects into the game in such a way that they could be ignored, but players who collected them were at an advantage over players who didn’t. When the rewards are worth the effort having collectables in a game can truly enhance that game for everyone, but without rewards the player may as well be hunting those worthless easter eggs that no-one will bother with again.

On the subject of Fable, there’s a moment early in Fable II where you kill a few bandits by a campfire, and then that still existing camp is deserted for the rest of the game. Doesn’t that seem like a waste to you, especially in a game which goes to such extreme lengths elsewhere in order to make the simulated world feel alive? Why not allow other people or creatures to use it, with the contents of the site randomised? One visit may find some dead travellers and a couple of Balverines (werewolf type creatures in the series) in the camp. Another may find a trader, a bard and some travellers. A different visit may find some travellers who’re looking for their lost son and offering a small reward if you find him and bring him back alive. With a randomised list of encounters (and each one getting checked off so it doesn’t repeat until you’ve seen all of them) almost any part of a region can be made to feel more like a part of a living world. This is an area that Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption shine in, with both having many spots throughout the world that can have randomised encounters attached to them. In the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Fallout 3 you’ll regularly find two groups fighting over uncontaminated water or run into scripted encounters like an earlier than usual meeting with a Deathclaw (which should usually be avoided until you’re quite a high level) that has been wounded in battle and the hunter it’s about to finish off. Red Dead Redemption throws other types of encounters at you, sometimes giving you a moral choice (a cannibal at a campfire has someone hogtied beside them and you can just walk away or act to save the person) and sometimes telling their own small tale (a man cries over a dead woman then pulls out a gun and shoots himself with nothing you can do to stop it, and believe me when I say I tried everything). What both of these games have in common, and something Fable could stand to learn, is that these random encounters go a long way towards making the world believable. By mixing scripted events in with the general simulation of a living world (the main theme in the first part of this series which focuses on making defeat a part of the game story), the world actually starts to seem less scripted to most players and begins to feel more alive. These encounters make the player start to understand what kind of world they’re playing in much better as well as keeping the player from knowing exactly what they’ll run into around the next corner, even if they’re on their fourth or fifth playthrough, and making the world a more varied place to explore.

Individuality Is The New Handgun

That header isn’t quite what you’d expect eh? The meaning is quite simple though. When sandbox games were in their infancy the amount of guns the game had was regularly used as some arbitrary measure of how much freedom the game offered. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? The different ways you can put a bullet in someone translates to freedom. Unfortunately that still seems to be the case in a lot of game designs, but others are following more unique routes and individuality of the world is one of the latest features that is being experimented with. The object of these experiments is simple – the players actions will affect the world and change it so that other players watching them play will see a noticable difference to their own worlds. The first game to attempt this with any degree of success was True Crime: New York City in which you played a New York cop who could either play by the rules or do whatever it took to get the job done. Playing things by the book was all well and good, and the game was primarily designed to be played that way. However, a feature added late in the game made any “bad” actions (running over pedestrians during a chase for example) or failure to stop the random crimes that appeared as you travelled around the city affect the city in an adverse manner, while “good” actions (arresting criminals instead of killing them, for example) and stopping random crimes would make the city a better place. Each neighbourhood would start to get more trash blowing around the area and more windows would be boarded up while shops would display Out Of Business signs as the area became worse, and the developers set each neighbourhood up at certain pre-set levels of degradation from the game’s starting point. Having these things hinge on the player’s actions was a nice way to show your effect on the city as you either cleaned up crime or became a part of the problem yourself. It was a rushed, immature feature added very late in the game but started a move towards some quite interesting ways to differentiate our game worlds from those of our friends.

One of the first things you’ll find when you leave the vault in Fallout 3 is the town of Megaton. You can scout for information on your main quest there and then move on if you wish, but you’d be missing out on one of the most memorable gaming moments ever if you do. You see, Megaton is built around an old, unexploded nuclear bomb from the war that created the wasteland and, if you disarm that bomb, the residents will be so happy with you that you’ll be provided with a house to keep your spare belongings in and heal for free at. However, a little investigative work will lead you to Mister Burke in the pub and his request that you set the bomb to explode when activated by remote. Having done that you can meet Mister Burke later on and watch the total destruction of Megaton (in a scene so atmospheric that censors in Japan forced the entire option to be removed from the game before it could be released there for fear of reminding people of Hiroshima), even pressing the button yourself, and then the town along with all it’s many sidequests, collectible items and inhabitants will be gone in that flash of light, leaving only rubble and a huge amount of radiation behind. Well, one character survives as a zombie-like ghoul, but she’s doesn’t realise at first and is characteristically cheerful about it after you’ve broken your own heart telling her what happened to her. The best thing about such a drastic change to the landscape is that it’s nothing to do with the story. Either choice in this sidequest can be ignored as you get on with the main story, making it all the more poignant moment if you do decide to destroy the town.

Another recent game that allows you to change the landscape is Fable II, although it’s system is a kind of mix between Fallout’s and True Crime’s systems, with a few novel ideas thrown in. In Fable II your decisions have weight and, after ten years trapped somewhere during the story, you’ll return to Albion to find that many of those decisions have changed the world somewhat. Of the thirteen main regions in Fable II, eleven of them have multiple alternate versions that depend on your choices or the passage of time. During the childhood phase very early on in the game you’ll find some arrest warrants that a guard has lost and turning them in to the guard will allow him to take down some criminals, making that area much nicer when you’ve grown up with shops that give you discounts. However, you can also give them to the criminals which will allow them to take over the area by the time you’ve grown up. This choice results in the area becoming slums that the guards wont visit (perfect if you’re of the criminal persuasion) and the houses are all trashed with peeling wallpaper, broken furniture and smashed windows. Criminals will use this place as a safe haven, occasionally offering you jobs. There are a load of choices like that in the game, and they result in the entire world shaping itself to your actions. There are a total of thirty-five alternating versions of the thirteen main regions allowing for a somewhat unique land by the end of the game. On top of this evolving world is the economy system. Like True Crime before it, bad deeds in Fable II’s regions will lower the economy level while good deeds (or working in the towns or buying from the shops) will raise it. A low economy level puts more beggars on the streets (something that actually made Kim feel guilty about her in-game actions at one point) and cuts prices while only making low quality items available for sale. High economy areas have better things for sale but everything is more expensive in the area. The economy system is quite robust, with each individual shop having it’s own effect on the overall economy while still allowing them to be nudged to a better level themselves by constantly buying from them, and the small changes it brings to regions are on top of the major region morphs to give you an even more unique playing experience. Unfortunately a management decision to cut prices in the game was taken so late in development that they couldn’t rebalance the economy system to compensate, and it became much too easy to build an area up to the highest economy level just by stocking up there a couple of times, limiting it’s potential as a sandbox feature. Hopefully the next game in the series wont suffer the same fate as I’d love to see how my actions slowly evolve the world in a system like that, without the management breaking it by making the game easier for casual gamers to play.

Commerce Is King

So far we’ve had a look at adding new tools to sandbox games, giving the player reasons to explore the world and shaping the world based on the player’s decisions, all of which have been attempted by games for better or worse effect. This category of things that can improve sandbox gameplay differs because actually fits into all three categories to some degree. In the 1980s there was a side scrolling space shooter called Forgotten Worlds. It was pretty unremarkable as those games go with one exception. Forgotten Worlds introduced a concept that had never been seen outside of the RPG genre before as it allowed you to collect money from enemies you killed during each level and spend that money at a shop. This one addition brought the game reviews boasting about it’s “unprecendented levels of freedom” and kick-started a craze of putting shops in games that usually wouldn’t have had them before. Oh, before I go on I feel obliged to mention that, apart from that one innovation, the game was pretty boring and would in no way manage to stand up against today’s games even for fans of retro gaming. So why am I bringing up a game that’s over twenty years old if it has no contribution to make to modern gaming? That’ll be that wonderful shopping idea that changes the way the game is played, an idea that has found it’s way into many games but shows itself off best in sandbox environments.

Ever since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City allowed players to enter shops and hold them up by pointing their guns at the person behind the counter, shopping and how a player can spend money have become one of the easiest tricks a developer can use to make their worlds feel more alive. Saints Row built on Vice City’s idea by not only allowing players to hold up the stores but by adding a safe in each store that filled up over the course of a week and could be broken into if the player got to the store after it closed for the night. Saint’s Row also introduced sales which were marked on the map and showed shops that were selling their produce for a discounted price that day, an idea that was later used in Fable II along with the excellent but flawed economy system. Grand Theft Auto IV went a different route to give players access to cheaper merchandise, reducing the amount of gun shops in the city, but giving access to a contact who would bring cheap guns into the area you’re in and sell them from the trunk of his car. Every single one of these ideas helped make the worlds presented in their respective games a little more believable, but they weren’t the only way shops were used to do this.

Fallout 3 had several traders who travelled around the wasteland, and who would buy from and sell to you if you met them. However these traders don’t have much money and their merchandise is quite limited so at some point you’ll find yourself unable to sell to them without making a substantial loss of profit. The traders are based out of one town in the wasteland though and travelling there allows you to invest in their shops, giving them better merchandise to sell and more importantly giving them more money with which to buy things from you. When you stumble across this mission the world suddenly feels less like a game world and you start to consider your own in game survival needs as you figure out who to help first.

In Fable II and the Shenmue series some of the shops in the world would occasionally have job openings. The player would take these jobs and then play a mini-game to determine how much they would be paid for their work. By making the player work for their money the games made their players extra careful about how they spent it, and allowing the player to choose which job to take helped to make each player’s experience with the games a little more unique. Other games have had players working for shops as a way to increase the time they spend in the sandbox. Star Ocean: The Last Hope for example gave each shop a list of materials they needed which would earn the player much more money if he found them in the world and turned them in than if he sold them. All of these work options are completely optional and can be concentrated on or ignored at any time. Of course, working in a shop is one thing, but what if we want to think bigger? One idea introduced in Vice City was the ability for players to use their money to buy a business which would then act as a new save point as well as an extra source of income for the player, or to spend a little less on a safehouse that just acted as a save point. Allowing players to build their own empires and tying game features as well as missions to the development of that empire was a bold choice that became a resounding success. The Fable series took this one step further by allowing players to buy any available property and rent it out for profit or live in it. Businesses could also be bought and would produce a steady profit over time, even giving players an owners discount and allowing them to set prices as higher or lower than normal. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Saint’s Row brought their own street gang flavour to the idea of property, allowing gangs to control territories and get protection money from those areas so long as they could fight off the rival gangs who would try to take over. Not only did these additions make the game worlds seem more reactive to the player and NPCs, but it made them feel more tactical too as the player would balance what to buy and what to protect on the fly.

The way shops operate within a game world adds to how realistic that world feels to the player. If a shop has specific opening and closing times then players will take note of that and try to use it to their advantage, feeling very clever themselves if the developers have thought of allowing players to break in at night for example. If a shop offers a job or some way to own it and make money from it then players will invest more time in the game, exploring for new businesses or houses to buy and picking up their share of the profit from their existing ventures. Shops that have sales will cause players to travel to the opposite side of a world in order to buy something they could have bought much closer to where they were, adding extra opportunities for players to find something they’ve never noticed before. The best thing about shops is that they’re a feature that fits naturally into most sandbox games and have a lot of potential as a tool for building up a world to seem more realistic as well as kick starting more unscripted stories.

I’ve written a lot and the truth is I could probably write the same amount again to illustrate my points, offering examples of things that do (fully destructible scenery, advanced artificial intelligence techniques and the use of physically evolving primary characters being only three little examples of things I’ve skipped over) and don’t work as well as a few of my own ideas (a system of randomised NPCs, each with the potential to grow, as you spend time with them, into predefined characters that have their own scripted story arcs). However, while I’m a heavy videogame player, my core readers don’t tend to be and a post this length on a subject they’re not all that interested in will no doubt drive many of them to learn how to tie a noose. So it’s probably best that I leave this article here for now and start to sum up. It’s become pretty obvious to most readers by now that I have a very specific idea of what enhances a sandbox game and what doesn’t, with the best tools and features being those that fit naturally into the world as well as increasing the opportunity for sandbox play or allowing for the player to be adding to their experience no matter what they’re doing in the game. As far as I’m concerned, it’s simply not good enough to make the best looking or largest sandbox environment, nor is it enough to fill it with things to do if those things don’t make sense as something the character would do. The best sandbox game will be large enough to allow players to go off the beaten track and explore but small enough for it to start becoming familiar to players at some point. It will have several things to do that not only reward the player for doing them, but make sense for the character to be doing within the context of the games story. When a player is between missions and just mucking around the sandbox elements should fit in well enough that they’re almost indistinguishable from the scripted mission pieces. This is how you create a believable sandbox environment for players and it’s a lot harder than most developers who undertake the project believe. They feel that their game is lacking something so they add faster cars and bigger guns assuming those things will make the game a deeper experience for players, but sadly missing that tiny design leap that could make their game something really special that stands above all others.

Have another look over all the examples given in this article and imagine if every one was in a single game. Now imagine that game as an actual sandpit, each feature as a new sand toy and the player as that young child we turned you into way up at the top of this monolith of text. Look at all the toys you have to play with. See the look of joy on your face as whole new worlds are created in the realm of your imagination. It doesn’t matter that you’ll only use some of the toys while ignoring others on some days or that this sandpit isn’t the largest one on the market because, no matter what you’re doing, you’re having fun and there are enough tools and toys there to allow you to find new ways to have fun no matter his mood.

And isn’t having fun the point of playing games in the first place?


83 thoughts on “Out Of The Pit – Building A Better Sandbox

  1. I always ad this issue when a G.M. as well. Linear is a lot less work, but means herding your players. Sandbox is an enormous amount of work, both before and during. This makes me long to play Eureka again. 250K!

  2. Mm. Also, it's kind of depressing when you spend forever setting up a place, and then your gamers don't go there. Did I mention that I loath role-playing. By and by.Wait.Wait.

  3. Ah good old text adventures.>Hit with stick.Hit what with stick.>Hit havin with stick.I don't know havin.>Gavin.Gavin what?>Hit Gavin with stick.You can't do that.>Hit Gavin.Gavin looks annoyed. He hits you with a stick and you die. GAME OVER.>Fuck that.Fuck what?True freedom for a player is impossible to plan ahead for, as you well know if you used to run games. However there are techniques that can give the illusion of having planned for those eventualities, like Wandering Monster charts and setting up alternate planned stories for pen and paper RPGs. All it takes is setting these techniques up in an easy to use manner that fits within the world you've created.The problem is that many developers feel they'd be planning ahead for people to not be interested in what they've spent years creating, so they rarely use those techniques. It's like making a film then selling it with a comic book just in case people don't like the story. Of course, this still emerging media isn't like writing films and these sort of eventualities do need to be planned for, if only to give players value for money.Kim, the second part of this is actually the third part in the series, concentrating on the player's character in general with a focus on character creation and evolution. And having said that, I've just realised I'm moving backwards from death (the integrated death system), through life (this article) and onto birth (the next one). It should incorporate more of my own ideas.

  4. It took half an hour to read, but it was worth it! :yes:.I needs to find me some freelance software developers that I coach into creating this game you're describing! :whistle:.

  5. Ha, it's probably not possible to get the game in my head onto current machines. This is just a small look at the thinking I've done on gaming conventions that need to be reworked in my opinion. If I got every idea down as a straight list with enough basic detail to describe how it works, it'd probably take up at least 100 times more space. Even just the features I'm talking about in this series pretty much need to be fully designed and coded in from the very beginning as they're fundamental aspects that are fully integrated with the worlds they're built into.Seriously, half an hour? I have trouble gauging how long it'll take to read through something as I'm a fast reader anyway plus I wrote it so I know what's coming, making it go faster. The aim was something that could be read in 20 minutes but also enable someone to spend a good hour with the links and thinking about examples given and what they believe works. I'm not sure about the flow of the article either. My inner editor is saying that the paragraph on Final Fantasy X slows it down and doesn't quite fit.

  6. I remember True Crime (bad sunglasses indeed). In fact I believe I still have it. I chose the bad cop path first time I played it, and was surprised by this ever increasing decay that it caused. I think it was one of the first real sandbox games I tried. Then came GTA San Andreas and my life changed. You wouldn't believe (what am I saying, of course you would believe) how many days I have spend with Carl and his shady friends. I haven't played GTA IV yet, but I'm gonna.Assassin's Creed, well, I like the 12th century setup and the Altaïr character a lot. I know the historical events, that the game is (roughly) based on, and the developers have focused enough on historical accuracy to make it believable, even to a regular scholar like me. The flags do play a role, though. You would know if you'd played the game.Red Dead – fairly good. I made the mistake to just run through it first time, though I knew I shouldn't, but some day, I'll begin from the start again, and enjoy myself. Funny, you should mention the hunting part. Never thought of it as anything else than just how things are in John Martson's life: a question of survival – gotta hunt to get money to buy medicine.AC II – Well, according to the rumours ACII is basically a prologue to the endpiece of the trilogy Assassins Creed Brotherhood, but even so, it has a slightly bigger playground than the first one, and there are side stories and mini games, flags to collect, codex pages, different kinds of armor, that actually influences the character's movements – the movements part is really nice in the AC series, it is the first sand box game I have played, where the fighting scenes are actually realistic – opponents have different styles, and you have to 'read' their styles to snuff them out. BUT… you can't be bad. If you do bad things, like killing civilians or burning down houses just for fun, you will not be able to win the game. Everybody becomes you're enemy, shopkeepers will call the guards, people will mock you on the streets or even ambush you on the roads, and eventually you have nowhere to run (Quite frightening, really. Educational for kids, I guess).Just a few musings. Nice article.

  7. Assassin's Creed II is a great game, far superior to the first one. If this artice had gone any further I would definitely have mentioned it because it's a great example of how features have been rethought and integrated into the world and story better. Even the collectables are a part of the story to the point that they show the character's emotional connection to his family and why he'd collect these things (I can't go into that further without spoiling a major part of the game).San Andreas was a wonderful game but I didn't appreciate it fully when it first came out. It was only a couple of years later when we bought it again that I managed to "get it". The reason it felt so different to Vice City is that the 90s were a much harsher time than the almost cartoon like 80s. Once I realised that everything just clicked into place with the game.GTAIV and Red Dead both have the same need from players. If you rush through you only get one experience. They both almost demand that you spend time experimenting with the world between missions in order to get the full experience. Both are rather dry compared to Rockstar's earlier games too, with the humour being put aside when it would get in the way of the story. It makes the games less fun, but more impressive experiences. Kind of like watching The Godfather compared to Goodfellas.

  8. My stepson and me share the same taste in games. However, GTA is a bit too complex for him, he gets bored easily. Read Dead seems to be a bit of a challenge to him, because he can't bully his way through things, but lasooing people for fun, building a mountain of bodies and shoot the predators that will come, snuffing bears and bores with the knife only and such stuff is nice fun, if you are stuck in the game. Beats going to the movies. ;)Anway, him and me have sort of joined forces in playing ACII. We played the first Assassins seperately without interfering in eachothers game, but sort of decided to co-work on the sequel. Great fun.

  9. Interesting post even though I couldn`t follow you all the way – simply because I am not that much in computer games and never heard for some of them you mentioned.

  10. Darko, that's what the links are for, although they'll only go partway towards explaining games for complete newbies. Nothing I can do about that I'm afraid, though I did try to explain the features in enough detail that someone outside the world would be able to follow them at least partly. This is very much a specialist knowledge kind of article though, where people who aren't into gaming aren't expected to understand most of it. That's why I boiled it down to a single main point and a load of examples of how that point has been worked into existing games, along with a few examples of how some games missed the point.Martin, your relationship with your stepson gives you a unique view of the importance of what I'm aiming for here. Having so much more to do that actually feels like it's all part of the story can help out players who are stuck. It quickly becomes evident to all players when a game has features shoe horned in to expand length, so integration is the key. When everything you do makes you feel like you're progressing along the same path, you can continue playing even when stuck and aren't as frustrated by the part you can't do.

  11. So this is your big post, thanks for the warning. Hehe every time i think it's near the end there is more and every time i wanted to stop i just had to keep on reading a bit more. I must say it is well written and constructed with each paragraph lending more to the overall topic and it all fitted well together. I would like to add the Elder Scroll Series to the sandbox genre and they might even be one of the oldest sandbox games out there if i am not mistaken. The game series is developed by Bethesda who is the same people who created Fallout 3 and they use some of the tools they created in the Elder scrolls to good effect in Fallout 3.I never played Fallout but being a Bethesda game it sounds familiar and i can relate to the game play elements.Thanks for the post and hope some game designers of the future can read this and start tinkering with their codes to use this to make some great games.

  12. There's actually a reason I didn't mention the Elder Scrolls series – I'm mad at them. After seducing me with the excellent Morrowind, they went on to release Oblivion and broke my heart. Now if you've not played anything else you'd think Oblivion is a pretty good game, if a bit buggy and very glitchy. If you've played Morrowind you'll realise they sacrificed too much in order to make the game. In order to have every character speaking they cut down how much they say and made them repeat things too much. To concentrate on graphics they had to make the world smaller and build every dungeon from the same three palettes, losing the variety they'd had in the previous game. There's a load more but it'd turn into a Why I Dumped Oblivion article.Thankfully Fallout 3 not only got rid of these problems, it reinvented that sort of game for the mainstream. I'm hoping the upcoming Elder Scrolls V will follow Fallout's example.

  13. I played Morrowind and Oblivion. With Morrowind i followed the main story arc and with Oblivion i am just Sandboxing, I am doing all the guild quest one by one and i am having fun doing so and exploring the world. Morrowind was too gloomy for my personal taste.I just downloaded Daggerfall for free on the Bethesda website, i always wanted to play the game but heard it's was too buggy. Now i can give it a try. One of my fondest memories of RPG is with Ultima Underword all though i never got to finish that game, i got stuck in the very end.

  14. Really? I guess that comes down to depth versus accessibility. I need the extra depth and details myself when playing a game like that, and I feel they lost a lot of that in order to make the game more accessible. Other people's tastes may differ. It doesn't make those tastes any less valid unless they own an iPhone. Heh, I could probably get an entire post on accessibility in gaming, the difference between it and dumbing down, and how people react to it.I'm hoping to get the older Elder Scrolls games myself when we get our PC online. Just downloaded the original Final Fantasy game for my phone and I'm loving it. There's a reason these games became classics after all.

  15. It's a long post, yes, but also a very well thought out and good written one! Melikes! That "hit Gavin with stick" made me laugh. Sorry Gavin! 😆

  16. :eyes: Mammoth post, but interesting. I'm not sure how much appeal these things have beyond a certain point – most players will never see most of it. And from the publishers point of view, if they give you a game that you'll spend six months playing that's limiting their chances of selling another one. The SIMs are more dollhouse than sandbox, and with GTA I'm sure much of the appeal to most gamers is the 'law-breaking' bits. It's not that I don't love the increased freedom in these games, but I don't think you or I are typical consumers. Outside of Rockstar, who's doing well from the sandbox?

  17. Before computer based gaming, and before paper based RPG's, most seven year olds played "Cops and Robbers" or "Cowboys and Indians" and often without plastic toy guns at that. There were no scripts and no props. And everyone wanted to be one of the "good guys". That's the kind of imaginative freedom that a good game should strive for in my opinion. :up:.No pre-orgastrated, scripted quests, but a game that's strong enough to generate it's own quests within the laws of the game world's universe. :left:.Where events are not simple random chance, but develop as a result of decisions taken by both the player(s) and the NPC's (non player characters). :yes:.The next generation of gaming consoles might well be mini Beowulf clusters, and if so, would be powerfull enough and parallel enough to allow sufficiently advanced AI to accomplish this! :yes:.

  18. "Lets protect the wagon!" is the Cowboys and Indians version of a scripted quest. "I kill your wife and take your food" (we played rough) is the equivalent of the extra features I'm talking about here. As mentioned earlier, it's impossible to design for every eventuality but these are some examples of features that can disguise that fact. With enough varied things happening and enough tools for the player to use to influence those things a game world can come alive and the player can nip on for an hour then be surprised that it's suddenly tomorrow.About a year ago on the Fable forums I created a system that would enable the randomly generated NPCs to provide quests for the player if he got to know them well enough. Each NPC would have a series of traits that define their personality and how they act in the world. Each trait would have part of a mission attached to it like Type (rescue, find, steal, assassinate, etc), Location, Obstacles (being hunted, guarded item), Enemies (specific enemy types added to the area for the length of the quest), and a load of other factors. Depending on how you got to know the NPC (friend or enemy) you'd find yourself involved in one of two generated quests involving them. Furthermore the design had specific archetypes (best friend, nemesis, happy spouse, unhappy spouse) that the NPCs could grow to fit depending on your interactions with them. Each of these archetypes would add it's own twist to the events as well as having it's own scripted questlines. It was an idea built around the player's actions building the story and only roughly suggested, but very much a step towards emergent gameplay.Mart raises a good point. From a business point of view there has to be a limit to the size of these things. They can't make them sprawling sandboxes with huge mission structures anymore. Which is one of the reasons I'm suggesting they add depth of features to the world instead. If a world has enough depth, the sort of players who value that thing will want to stick around and those are generally the sort of people who buy DLC and expansion packs for games. With a well planned expansion release schedule it'd result in a longer profit chain from the game before they have to move on to other projects. As most companies these days have started to set up DLC teams it just builds their profit and the chance of each release being bought. It also builds customer loyalty if they release a game that you can pick up years later and still find something new in. Both are good for business, but sadly not as good for business as making a by the numbers first person shooter.Outside of Rockstar you've got Gearbox's Borderlands with it's Diablo style randomised loot system adding a compelling reason to go back into the game, Lionhead's Fable giving players entire towns full of NPC playthings to befriend or torture, and Volition's Saint's Row giving a less realistic but more fun variant to GTA. Then there's Bethesda and Bioware, masters of the sprawling RPG. Of course the ultimate sandbox games are the Way Of The Samurai games which, if they had a larger budget and better control systems, would be a serious mass market contender. They gain their freedom by a hugely complex branching story tree though so it's not true sandboxing per se.

  19. Well, I didn't go for the noose … ;)Though I have an interest in computer games, of course. I just don't have the equipment to play the ones you're talking about (so I haven't). About the most ambitious I've gotten is Dink Smallwood, 😆 which is why I don't comment on many of your game-related posts. You're, like, now, man. I'm, like, the 1990s. ;)And I'll tell you why: My brother-in-law was going to throw out his old (working) Playstation and games simply because he didn't use it anymore. He gave it to me, instead. I've played one character on Ready to Rumble and tried a few different tracks on Road Rash. Of course, these are nothing compared to the types of games you're talking about, yet it reminds me of how games have evolved over time. I remember playing Buzzard Bait and Pooyan on a TRS-80 and now they've got games like you mention above. In 10 years, they'll have games like you mention you want. :)In the meantime, why the hell aren't you getting paid to write articles like this? They're a hell of a lot better (better-written, researched, more comprehensive) than a lot of the writing in computer magazines. Hell, than magazines and newspapers in general! You care about your finished product. A lot of 'professional' writers are just trying to fill column space.By the same token, why haven't game developers snapped you up in an advisory/testing capacity? It's obvious you actually think about how games can be improved, which can only be a good thing for them.Oh, well … back to Kula World … 😉

  20. Why David, you're as flattering as the mother of a televised serial music competition entrant who just can't see that their child can't sing, and is dragging their forty stone bulk in to scream abuse at the panel of people who work in music.Road Rash is actually an excellent example of how giving a player a new tool can change the way a game plays. Up until that came out, racing games were all about staying away from the edges of the screen and taking tight corners. Road Rash added another tool to get you to victory – you could attack other racers and boot them off their bikes. At the time it was such a revolutionary idea and big enough to completely change how the game plays.

  21. I've actually been letting it grow out this year (it's halfway down to my chest now). And I'm gonna let my hair grow out, too. As your jealousy is towards my magnificent chin mane, mine is towards your lengthy scalp fuzz. 😉

  22. Few people realize that growing a beard demands it's sacrifices. When I decided, I might as well grow a beard, I soon discovered that beard and cheesecake is almost incompatible, and I fell into a state of deep depression.

  23. I had a beard and long hair for a decade. It's a hassle. You spend a third of the time with wet hair. I caught a lot of colds. Plus it clogs the drain.

  24. Beard and cheesecake don't have a problem with each other! :left:.Just keep the cheesecake out the beard, and the beard out the cheesecake. :whistle:.

  25. I usually in for the long beard and no hair look myself. But I haven't but my hair since the begining of the year because it's been so cold this year! :left:.I normally shave my mustache off at least once a week though! :happy:.

  26. I grew a beard initially because it was such a bother to shave every day, but to properly look after a beard (which, uh, I don't do anyway), you have to spend more time tending to it than you would shaving every day anyway. :doh:

  27. I keep the whole thing as short as possible – using the electric trimmer, hair and beard same length. I hate when it gets to long. I look like a weirdo.

  28. Hmmm, I'm actually writing a section on beards for the next post in the series that goes a little like this conversation.

  29. Heh, told you it's a big one. This is what I know I'm capable of writing and it had started to get me down that I wasn't writing like this on what's supposed to be my page. So I started.I also know the routes needed to become a developer. Lots of education, hard work, not being up and commenting at 5:30 AM, and working on stuff I'm not interested in until they'd take my ideas seriously. You lot know I couldn't cope with that unless the reward was guaranteed. There is another route though…On the topic of good memories in games, I played Mass Effect 2 earlier this year. The entire plot is based around a suicide mission you're preparing for. If you play the game right everyone will survive, but miss things and members of your party, or even the main character, will die and not be in the next game in the trilogy. After playing a few times I decided to see how wrong it could go and when I started the suicide mission everyone died. They'd not only accounted for the possibility but made the deaths quite shocking in some cases, to the point that I felt guilty even though I'd set out to do just that. Absolutely awesome storytelling there.

  30. Jesus lord… You need to apply to a gaming magazine… or better yet make your own. (now there's an idea 💡 )I swear if my MacBook didn't read to me there's nooo way I'd read all this 😆 ….but I got through it!I like the FFX bit… I connect with that game play style. Also I love being the 'first' to see/explore an area. When a game gets it right you get the most awesome feeling. Getting the uppercut Mega Man in X2, Finding Dinosaurs in a deep cavern in Tomb Raider, defeating Hades in FFIX….. I'll never forget those moments. (best had with a friend at your side lol)Mik…. the next step for you is to create your own game. Write out the plot, side-quest, characters etc. Then copyright it or whatever and try to sell to a developer. If the Main Plot is different to the usual & engaging enough, you will stand a good chance of getting it sold. The risky part is not knowing if they will implement your ideas faithfully in the final version. Dude maybe you should just work for a game developer? That way you can control the outcome. Consider it. You know 'what works' so you can't fail. :up:Best wishes dude :p

  31. You don't need that much education to be a developer, and none of us have normal sleeping habits. What you need is a good brain, time and motivation.

  32. Sorry if this got flashed folks. I've just entered it in a writing competition for a gaming website and then read that the article shouldn't have been published before. Turns out blogs count if they're open to the public. 😮 Just made this friends only so it wouldn't ruin my chances. I'll update you on the competition later on. Fingers crossed for me. :up:Oh, the competition specified a 750 word minimum word limit with no upper limit. This ended up at about 6,500 words after editing it down and came to ten pages on Word with images inserted. I think I broke the limit. :headbang:

  33. Anonymous writes:I'm a wanking spammer who comes onto other people's pages in an attempt to flood them out with offers that they're not interested in. What I don't realise is that a lot of people who've partaken of those offers are using details that don't exist and the money I think I've made isn't coming top me after all. It's a shame I didn't take the time to read and subscribe to this page as I may have actually realised this when my own comment changed.

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