These days, "sandbox" is both a buzzword and an abstract concept. Games that qualify as sandbox titles span a broad variety of design structures -- and as such, it risks its meaning becoming confused, even forgotten.
In this in-depth Gamasutra analysis, game professional Breslin examines the history and current state of the sandbox game
, looking at modern games like Grand Theft Auto IV
to see how they fulfill the concept of unlimited, unfettered creativity.
Breslin points out that while sandbox games are intended to offer the players new levels of depth and a greater variety of options, sometimes the word "sandbox" is taken to justify the opposite -- used as an excuse for less
investment in high level design. As he explains:
"Sandbox elements can be mistakenly taken as fair replacements of narrative content; indeed, many games have missed their potential because they imagined that free-play would compensate for a lack of narrative. But even for our idealized child, playing around in a physical sandbox gets old pretty quick.
"This principle design problem of sandbox-oriented gameplay is already subtly suggested by the sandbox metaphor itself: a child playing in a sandbox needs a lot of direction if they're going to have very much fun. They need toys first, and they need to be given ideas of things they can do with them. The parent needs to provide a meaningful framework. Just dropping a kid in a sandbox does not work.
"The same is true of sandbox design. If the design effort fails to produce a game rich in intriguing potential, it's very much like shipping a literal sandbox. -- Imagine a game-box literally filled with sand: the open-minded player might enjoy playing in the sand a bit, but the gameplay really isn't worth a lot.
Breslin travels through a variety of titles from Elite
through GTA IV
to examine freedom and player investment, and to identify the source concepts behind sandbox gameplay:
"The main reason that this trend towards believable characters is compelling for sandbox play is that the characters are, at bottom, more dynamic and interactable. They help 'sell' the game world because they seem more realistic. Not 'realistic' in the sense that they can ever hope to pass the Turing test, but realistic enough that they'll lull you into forgetting about their artificiality. The more intelligently the NPCs respond, the more the game feels like a free and open world.
"AI is widely various and can be complicated, but in general it is effect-oriented. The programmer has in mind a goal behavior, and writes code to meet this objective. In comparison with AI, Artificial Life is bottom-up programming, and it's all about emergence. The emergent behavior is not necessarily even known in advance.
"The Sims, and especially the range of games it inspired, was heavily influenced by technological developments in computer science during the 1990s, and in particular Alife. By 2000, this has developed into the art of manipulating automated NPC behavior, even in an otherwise traditional title, as we have for example in Majesty.
You can now read the full feature
, which offers a comprehensive history and analysis of sandbox games, at Gamasutra (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).