Give Me Back My Sandbox

Written by Cliff Harris

September 16, 2008 | 12:51

Tags: #cliff-harris #dev-col #developer-column #exploration #freeform #free-roaming #sandbox

At some point over the last twenty years, sandbox games went out of fashion on the PC. I can't say exactly when it happened, and it was a gradual thing, but there has been a definite rise in the number of linear, one-play experiences in PC gaming.

I think it was the first time I read a forum argument somewhere about a game only having 'X' hours of gameplay in it, that I realised how much gaming had changed. Space Invaders didn't have X hours of gameplay, I probably grumbled.

You can find such arguments everywhere now, with gamers earnestly debating whether Call of Duty 4 was 'too short' and discussing how they 'finished' it in under 10 hours, and that's not good enough. I have no doubt that in the boardrooms of the big games publishers, careful thought is given as to how many hours of gameplay they should aim for, what marketing should multiply it by, and what tricks they can use to make those same 5 hours of gameplay last 20 hours. Maybe they could have the player retrace his steps several times running errands? They love that.

It all goes pretty much over my head, as I am a sandbox kinda guy and always have been.

The early games I grew up with were all more like toys than games. The game designer wasn't a storyteller or a movie director, but more like an architect. They set up the rules for a world, let you loose in it, and hoped you would have fun.

To this day, that is the kind of game I enjoy the most, and the games I make are all without exception sandbox, freeform experiences.

Sim City 4 is possibly one of the most popular true sandbox games. The best thing about it is the way in which it's so open and up-front about this. There is no score to be had, and no levels to be beaten. In the eyes of many modern gamers there is just no point to a game like Sim City. The same can be said of the original Sims.

I however embrace the freeform sandbox nature of a game like Sim City because it gives me total freedom on how I want to play. Whereas a linear game like Call Of Duty 4 is basically showing me a movie and inviting me to take part, Sim City 4 is like a huge model train set, inviting me to do as I please.

When I think about how the market for games has changed over the years, I think this change is possibly inevitable. The people who originally played games were the uber-geeks, the kids who loved working out how complex technical stuff worked. Unless you took the time to fiddle around, it wasn't that easy to get a game to load on a ZX-81, and if you wanted to play Sim City 2000 on your Intel 386, you’d better know all about autoexec.bat and config.sys and how to juggle your TSRs out of RAM. By definition, back then the people playing games were tinkerers; people who wanted to rearrange stuff, fiddle with it, and be in control of what happened.

As gaming got bigger though, and Windows 95, XP and Vista made the interface for playing games simpler and simpler, the audience expanded to encompass those people who had been happy to watch TV while the geeks played Sim City.

In focus-groups all over earth, groups of potential new gamers looked up at publishers and said "what am I supposed to do now?".
And lo, the system of achievements, and big glowing arrows were born. No longer could you just be expected to ramble around in a game doing as you please, there was a compulsory tutorial which would introduce you to how to play and lead you into the first level, starting the trend for linearity. Ever keen to show you how all your guns, abilities and special powers worked, newer games insisted on telling you which to use, when, how and why, and refusing to progress until you did it their way. Yuck.

Worse was to come though, namely in the form of 'achievements' and 'quests'. In the early days, games had a score and the aim, if any, was to beat your personal best. Nowadays, the games have to congratulate you for every tiny thing you do otherwise you don’t feel you’re making progress. Well done! You moved the mouse! Have 6,000 platinum points!.

Yes, you finished the game, but to meet the marketing departments quota, we would like you to do the whole game on one leg, to get the special 'peg leg' achievement.

For me, (and I do realise I'm alone here) the worst outcome of all this is quests in MMO games. It's pretty much why I don't play them any more. The promise and premise of an MMO is awesome, but often the reality is nothing more than a tedious level grind with neatly packaged quests. No attempt is made to be immersive, or to reward exploration or discovery. You simply go to the town/elf palace/spaceport, non-descript stationary NPC #4, and effectively press a button on the quest dispenser. The quest outlines what object you have to take from A to B, how many of creature X you need to kill to get your reward, and off you go.

Where is the world that was promised? Where is my freedom? Can't I just roam the countryside and act as a brigand, waylaying other players and robbing them? Not unless I have selected the 'brigand' class, and made my way to an approved 'briganding PvP' area, apparently. Eve Online is maybe the most freeform and hands-off MMO, but its missions are no different to the quests in other online games.

I miss my true sandbox games, the games that let the player be a free agent, not a puppet being directed around the world by an ever protective and ever-micro-managing game designer. Give me back my sand.

Do you too miss the time of truly freeform games like Ultima or Sim City, or do you think that Cliff is way off base? Either way, let us hear your own thoughts and opinions in the forums!
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