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Pay no attention to the witch in the title.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve had some interesting thoughts about the nature of sandbox gameplay which I expect will get me shouted at.

Well, since there was some interest in hearing them, I might as well publicise them anyway, not like I’ve got more to lose than my reputation.

There’s a fine, fine line

First, let’s distinguish some terms. There is no agreed upon strict definition of "sandbox game" in either game design literature or game journalism that I’m aware of. There is a subset of features that have "sandboxiness" to them which is generally agreed upon, properties of an ‘ideal sandbox’ which rest on the ideas of individual freedom and creativity, the list of which is not set in stone and it’s hard to say which ones are essential to be counted as a sandbox. But once we distance ourselves from the concept of a "video/computer game", which is a far more timey-wimey ball of concepts than you might like, that defies a strict definition, 1 there’s clearly an intuitive distinction between a "sandbox environment" and a "sandbox game".

  • A "sandbox environment" is something that has a certain minimum amount of sandboxiness. It may or may not involve a game. Should game elements actually be present for whatever reason, they will not rely on the sandbox properties directly, however, because that is what distinguishes it from…

  • A "sandbox game", which is something that, while having an equivalent amount of sandboxiness, comes with a ‘game’ that neatly joins the properties of both, making them inseparably intertwine.

It’s not that one is good and the other is bad, not at all. It’s not like being a "sandbox game" automatically means the game part is any good, for that matter, or that being a "sandbox environment" makes a game that goes with it, if one does, worthless. The distinction itself is important, however, for studying the social dynamics of the subculture that grows in and around the said work of …well, fiction, for lack of a better word.

The realisation that I came to after many hours of attempting to toss little green men high enough to reach the Mun, was that this is the first sandbox game that I have ever played, and other works that typically get billed as such or referred to as ‘sandbox games’ are mostly ‘sandbox environments’ — with varying degrees of ‘sandboxiness’.

And while I haven’t had much interest in Minecraft beyond a fairly early demo, I’ve sunk lots of time into Eve Online, Garry’s Mod and Second Life, so I should, in theory, know something of sandboxes.

This made me hammer out a stricter definition, which I’m about to present.

What makes a sandbox game

Beyond the par for the course properties, like flexibility of simulated objects, and their interactivity, a sandbox game requires a combination of the following properties to be called such, rather than a sandbox environment (that may contain a different, unrelated game):

  • Clear unambiguous game goals: Not mandated, nor scored, nor given out from on high as quests of some kind, but presented visibly for you to select from and aim for, symbolic achievements, which, at the same time, you do not get to wear on your sleeve. Not "anything you want". "Anything you want" simply means the designer of the piece doesn’t have a clear idea of what the players could possibly want. A clear finite list of prime goals and freedom to derive new ones based on your imagination. Both must be present.
  • Means to reach those goals: A wide variety of those means, but not too wide. Nothing quite so generic as Lego blocks, because this also means the designer of the piece has no clear idea how the goals might be reachable. Objects with clear function, which is an atomic component of a greater, more complex means to reach a goal, objects which can be combined in multiple ways. Multiple combinations must offer a possibility of success, there can be no one and only one right way to do things.2
  • Failure: Failure must be amusing, plentiful, educational and painless, the way this is achieved does not matter much. In a sandbox game, if at first you don’t succeed, you use the knowledge of your failure to try again, and repeating failure is, paradoxically, what keeps your interest, because every time you were a hair away from reaching what you aimed for and you can see that bloody hair.

Notice that direct involvement of multiple players at once is not a requirement and bears no relation to whether something is a "sandbox game" or not.3

The List

Going from these properties, let me show you how they map onto existing works that present themselves as "sandboxes". They’re all quite different, at that:

  • Second Life: A sandbox environment in it’s most flexible form — far too flexible to ever approach the concept of "sandbox game", because it’s not really a game at all, in any way, shape or form, and can’t possibly be. Multiple games exist within, the biggest of them the game of social tapestry where drama rages on and splashes on random bystanders, but none of it has anything to do with it’s sandbox properties. It’s so flexible that new residents, (you don’t even call them players) are completely lost — having no clear idea of what is possible to do and what isn’t, they can only learn by observing and imitating others who do things. If they don’t see something, they don’t know it can be done — which is why 90% of Second Life is imitating others.
    It gets quite repetitive, to be honest.
  • Garry’s Mod: Belaying it’s roots in Half-Life 2 engine, you start in a small walled-off area with a gravity gun, a multitool, a full set of Half-Life weapons and nothing to do. It’s less universally flexible than Second Life, but still provides no pointers towards goals and does not attempt to make a game. It’s fairly obvious how to make a game — the guns are a dead giveaway — but that gets old fairly fast, and anyway, playing with physics and attempting to weld together all the numerous props created for scenery in Half-Life and it’s close relatives4 into something coherent is more fun. It’s a "sandbox environment" alright, but not a "sandbox game".
  • Eve Online: There is a game in it, multiple levels of games, multiple bits of games — they just don’t have much to do with it’s sandbox properties. At the same time, Eve is also somewhat short on the sandbox properties themselves, so it doesn’t even make the cut for ‘sandbox environment’. While there seemingly is freedom in fitting your ship, only a few very specific fits survive in competition, and unviable fits don’t just make you fail, they also get you laughed at and ostracized. Ship fitting is, at the same time, the only actual activity available that is based on the concept of assembling things from atomic elements… well, except POS construction, which we know is a chore like few others. Failure is plentiful, and amusing, but very costly, so costly that players parade around how much ‘real money’ they cost their enemies.5 While the site lists ‘careers’ and presents them as game goals, some of them are misrepresented and don’t match the actual reality of how the game is played,6 and others border on nonsense.7 Little of that is visible from the inside, anyway, making the list on the site a bolt-on afterthought. New players get dumped in without any idea what to strive for and often settle for paths of least possible resistance, which typically involve grinding ISK for no other purpose than to have more ISK. Because the only obvious goal is to fly a bigger ship and have a bigger wallet, every other goal you have to dig around for.8
  • Kerbal Space Program: The only proper "sandbox game" that I have personally experienced. You get an unlimited budget and a launchpad. And you know you need to build a rocket, because two thirds of the parts you get to play with are rocket parts — the other third is unmistakably for spaceplanes. You zoom out and see where you might want to go. It likes to frustrate the player and stumble them by presenting lots of windows for mistakes — incorrect module staging order, insufficient fuel for landing or return trip, or even something as silly as forgetting to install a ladder on the landing module. The first time you try it, your rocket always falls apart and blows up, but that has no reflection on your budget — or even on your kerbalnauts, for that matter9 — and you can usually figure out why you failed and where to go from there. There is a game here — and it’s the game to show that you have done it, inseparably intertwined with it’s sandbox properties.

Notice I didn’t say anything about Minecraft. That’s because I haven’t played much Minecraft. But from what I can see, it’s in transition from "sandbox game" towards "sandbox environment", especially since the introduction of ‘adventure mode’ which essentially makes it into a platform for games rather than a game by itself, just like Garry’s Mod. With Kerbal Space Program, you see people making videos about watching the sunrise on Laythe — because they got there, something a fair bit nontrivial to do even if you know exactly how. With Minecraft, people make far more videos about what they have built for no reason other than to express themselves, than for the purpose of reaching a game goal. A subtle distinction, but an important one, and takes Minecraft out of the running for the "sandbox game" representative.

Meanwhile, in New Eden…

Actually, I already said more than enough about what is and what isn’t happening in New Eden. But I must add that the usage of the term ‘sandbox’ in relation to Eve is ambiguous, misleading, and for best results, should be avoided.10

It’s an open11 question whether Eve should have more sandboxiness or not, how much sandboxiness is good for it exactly, but to me, there is little to no question that what sandboxiness it has bears no relation whatsoever to it’s game content, and thinking of these parts as connected leads into bad judgement. What Eve has is valuable and special, but it is nothing at all like everything else that shares the term with sand.

Call it a sandspaceboxball and move on.

  1. But then again, it’s just a sub-instance of the mess that is ‘fiction’.

  2. If there were just one, that would veer well into adventure game territory.

  3. Presence of multiplayer elements, however, appears to weakly indicate that they will take the emphasis off ‘playing with the sand’, so to speak. That is, the more multiplayer a game is, the less likely it is to contain these properties of sandbox game.

  4. I ended up buying every Source game ever made just to increase my repertoire.

  5. Some killboards certainly list that value, based on the current PLEX prices.

  6. Bounty Hunter irks in particular.

  7. What, exactly, is Freedom Fighter supposed to be doing, I wonder?

  8. There’s that nice flowchart… But someone has to show you that flowchart.

  9. They don’t permanently die unless you install a mod, but they’re in general quite resilient. I’ve had one survive a fall from orbit in nothing but a spacesuit, even. Whether I just got lucky and picked the right trajectory or what, I’m not sure, but I’m not particularly anxious to try to replicate that.

  10. — He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!
    — You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  11. And a completely different one, far beyond the scope of this post.