If you build it, they will come: Why we need more sandbox games, and now


By on January 16, 2013 at 5:48 pm

I still remember loading up a very early alpha of Minecraft for the first time of what would ultimately be thousands, spawning in the middle of a wide, dense forest, completely bewildered. I alt-tabbed across to my trusty Twitter client, begging for tidbits of help as my followers laughed at my ineptitude and threw me vague suggestions such as “build shelter” and “don’t die”.

Eventually, like most early Minecraft players, I ended up punching a tree for a while and the rest basically flowed through on its own. Over the next few months, I was enraptured with the idea of complete and pure freedom of movement, control, and almost limitless creation. Minecraft‘s story was my story, and the land I inhabited and built was based on my attempt at nirvana. This may or may not have included ridiculous amounts of rail.

The sandbox is a risky move for developers, mostly because you’re relying on your game being flexible enough for players to make their own fun. Minecraft was obviously not the first cab at the rank, with early titles like Sim City providing you with nothing but an empty space and a world of opportunity. But what has changed is the defining principles of what constitutes a sandbox: Is it something that provides almost complete avenue for whatever your mind can muster, or can it be encased in arbitrary borders and attempt to tell a story? Advances in technology over the past two decades have opened the possibilities of both situations, with titles like Dwarf Fortress representing the breadth of one end and crime simulators such as GTA and Saints Row the other.

The key for success usually lies in a rough middle ground, by making the opportunity available for exploration and creative exposition, with a strong narrative backbone that, even at very early levels, provides an incentive to explore. There will always be a market for titles that decide to go “complete sandbox”, but the key to success here is an absolutely spectacular set of tools to make things happen. If it’s too difficult to build, exploit, expand, or destroy, no-one will feel the ability to connect with your game and it becomes work. Developing these tools should be the #1 goal and cornerstone of any team dedicated to creating an engine “for” creation – even if the game is difficult, an interface that is easy to learn but difficult to master is essential.

A particularly good example of a sandbox that is loved or loathed is Little Big Planet on the PS3. One of the surprise early hits on the system, the game featured a short campaign mode but ultimately relied almost exclusively on players to use the tools at hand to develop their own levels, or in some cases, complete games. The ease in which materials could be placed and physics could be manipulated inspired both traditional platform fare but also experiments that surprised even the developers, such as a complete recreations of PacMan, Mario Kart and Buzz, a popular Playstation quiz show title. At the same time, many players felt cheapened that they were expected to seek out their own fun, especially when a lot of the quality was buried under piles of crap.

Not everyone feels the urge to become a creator.

So how do developers bridge the gap between those two types of gamers? Do they follow the successful run of EVE Online, where opportunity for success or mayhem is virtually unlimited but bound within a certain area of the game world? Or do they  follow Far Cry 3, allowing the player to simply choose between a linear and non-linear experience? It doesn’t always work as well as imagined either. In Fallen Earth, a F2P MMO, players are forced to imagine themselves in the harsh environment of a post apocalyptic landscape, to the point where they must fight and scavenge for everything. If you want to cruise the ravaged land in your very own hog, you’re in for hours of metal scavenging, fuel refining and skill bumping. Almost every element of your existence in the world relies in some element of level enhancement, eventually morphing what should be a fun experience into an exhausting chore.

But lets face it; almost every exciting experience, particularly the ones you describe to family and friends, comes from a sandbox. Stalking enemies in FC3, before being snuck up on and subsequently mauled by a tiger. Successfully convincing the leader of an enemy corporation in EVE to hire you so you can report on their location and assets. Building an automated factory that creates solar panels in Minecraft. Chasing around terrified NPCs with a giant purple dildo in Saints Row 3. Hiding in a dark corner of an old industrial site in DayZ. In my mind, the best experiences are those that no-one has thought of before, or those that start as tiny seeds in the back of your mind before blossoming into crazy projects that take up all of your time.

The problem? There’s a whopping 22 months to go until we can get our hands on Star Citizen. 8 months until Archeage. Roughly six months until Starbound and still no end in site for The Repopulation. Note to developers: While we enjoy playing your stories, we also want to create our own memories. Provide us more opportunities and we will reward you handsomely.

11 comments (Leave your own)

True it is a whopping 22 months till star citizen comes out.. but between now and then there will be alpha and beta testing.. and if you got in early for the kickstarter you are apart of that.


There is really 3 simple steps I think

1 – Create a large wonderous environment.

2 – Set a “condition” against the player.

3 – Give a reason to explore.

1 is pretty simple. It could be an alien world, it could be something strange like Minecrafts world of blocks, or it could be something as simple as your home town. Anything that lets the player feel like they are part of some bigger world.

2 is the catch. DayZ’s condition is Zombies. Zombies mean death. Avoiding death means learning how to adjust to the condition of the world. Minecraft uses similar, but I would call it “night”. Day is safe, night is danger. It is a condition you must adapt around.

3 A reason to explore is often resources, resources that help you deal with the “condition”. And in turn the reason to explore creates “sub” conditions. Bandits would be a sub condition of Zombies in Dayz. You must find resources to survive, but that creates the sub condition of other players killing you for those resources. Minecraft does this by needing resources as well, but the danger comes by more in the fact it can be dangerous to source some of these needed items. Both make you get out and move, to explore the world around you. Both make you keep one eye over your shoulder while doing so. That falls straight into immersion, which is the key to any successful game.


Please stop using “DayZ” in any article remotely to do with sandbox games, it isn’t.

Sandbox games have tools you can use to create, dayZ has nothing, pretty much ANY game is more of a sandbox than dayZ is. A lack of objective or content doesn’t automatically make something a sandbox game.


You need to think outside the box a little. DayZ has tools you can use to create awesome stories of trust and betrayal, like this one.


My favourite sandbox atm is WURM online.


nekosan: sandbox

to be fair, “Sandbox” is as ill-defined as any other video game genre


Exactly, one mans sandbox might be another mans sandpit. Either way a sandbox game in general terms is one with relatively limitless freedom for the player to generate story or content by action or creation.

While I’m hanging for Star Citizen too, there are other things occupying my time, one of them is indeed a sandbox game, though most find it a chore to get into. The mod I’m working on for it, aims to eliminate that chore element…



chore element? Must be Minecraft

James Pinnell

Please stop using “DayZ” in any article remotely to do with sandbox games, it isn’t.

Sandbox games have tools you can use to create, dayZ has nothing, pretty much ANY game is more of a sandbox than dayZ is. A lack of objective or content doesn’t automatically make something a sandbox game.

I don’t think that’s necessarily the case – like I wrote, there’s a broad spectrum of games that could be considered “sandbox”. Is it a box of toys (GTA/Dayz) or a box of tools (Minecraft)?

Creativity can be done without any tools.


James Pinnell: I don’t think that’s necessarily the case – like I wrote, there’s a broad spectrum of games that could be considered “sandbox”. Is it a box of toys (GTA/Dayz) or a box of tools (Minecraft)?

Creativity can be done without any tools.

That could be said about ANY game. They are all a “box of tools”. The idea of a sandbox is that the tools interact dynamically, not linearly.

DayZ isn’t a sandbox it’s a shooter plain and simple. It misses far too many of the dynamics to be called a sandbox.

Wow had monsters, it had people you had to kill in the world, it had progression and crafting it had everything dayz has – doesn’t make it a sandbox.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oq2oxt7Nrxo <- this is a good example of dynamic events occuring through mechanics.

While Dayz Might have the combat element – it’s missing all the other elements to make it a sandbox.


Tim Colwill,

Remember just because you can do something doesn’t mean it was provided by the game and if it’s not provided by the game it’s not really an aspect of it. Take TF2 for example. Often you can find these little moments where two opposing players will stop fighting … just to jump at each other for lols. Or toss each other sandviches, or just stand and eat sandviches together despite being enemies in the middle of a fight. Many other things happen like that. Hell, in TF2 it’s entirely possible for the Red team to take a member of Blu hostage – but it never happens because the PLAYERS not the game don’t let it happen. That hostage situation happened in DayZ because the PLAYERS not the game made it happen.

DayZ is basically a (really big and content-lacking) death match game. It doesn’t really provide players with anything to do. It’s open world, but it’s not a sandbox game.

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