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.