"Sandbox" is a relatively recent term in videogames used to
describe games that satisfy the following set of characteristics, some
to lesser and some to greater extent:
- an open world - whether large or small, the player must be able to have the box to play in
- goals that are defined by ends rather than means, or even no goals at all
- a set of consistent, fleshed-out responses to the actions that a player might take
- finally, a set of tools that the player might use to try and accomplish their goals.
like this have been around for quite some time, but the recent
advancements in technology and the
ever-maturing creative space of gaming have both contributed to the
increase of sandbox elements in gaming. Where before something like
Civilization or Nethack was the province of the grognards and the
graphics-indifferent, nowadays you can have your sandbox cake and fancy graphics too. At the same time, as graphics
continue to evolve and photo-realism (or its stylized equivalent) draws
ever nearer, focus is shifting towards aspects other than graphical:
clever AI, body kinetics, convincing and consistent world design,
more options, more things to do - basically a better response to the
player's actions through physics, improved AI responses and all those
little things that make the world work.
Let's throw in an example on how to create a sandbox, using the ever-popular Grand Theft Auto.
a city, the more iconic/archetypal the better. It doesn't have to
be exactly real, but it should have easily identifiable areas and a
vaguely logical layout. Housing close to other housing, industry near
other industry, commerce ditto, roads and rails connecting all. Add
some natural features, make them work for you. Think Liberty City,
Paragon City, Azeroth or even Middle Earth.
- Since we're
going to be driving quite a bit, work in some natural-seeming
obstacles, interesting dead-ends (with ramps, for example), hairpin
turns, a chicane or two, go wild, think Bullitt or Dukes of
Hazzard. This is the part of your toolset (interesting things that the
player might do) which you can work in later.
- Ok, it's time
to populate the city. Throw in some pedestrians and
traffic - but they're boring by themselves. Add in
routes so that the AI can at least walk and drive around. While you're
at it, make sure the two (cars and peds) sometimes collide, and put in
appropriate behaviors in each case. You can start off with creating a
simple collision model, but the more elaborate the more interaction
have the potential to spontaeously generate. For example, some cars can
stop, the driver can get out and have a shouting match with
the victim. The victim may choose to assault the driver.
A crowd may gather, prompting more potential accidents. When sufficient
crowd density forms, the AI may choose to reenact Thriller in its
entirety. And so on and so forth, but all of this has to be modeled to
create these potentially interesting situations.
boring. Add some factional behavior - make ambulances and
police get triggered by collisions, fire trucks by fires.
Oh, you forgot fires and destructable cars, let's go back in and put
- Still a bit too orderly. How about randomly designating
certain inhabitants as crazies, and have them go wild every now and
then. How about some riced-out road racers and crazed taxi drivers,
some purse-snatchers and skateboarders, joyriders and undercover cops.
- Finally, to give this the last bit
of anarchy, throw in some rival gangs or corporations, each controlling
slightly overlapping territories with randomly assigned variables
controlling pursuit behaviors, aggression levels, types of armament and
- Now throw in the player with the ability to walk,
drive, shoot, climb, swim, hire goons, summon cars, build hideouts or
Even with this limited set of behaviors and tools we got a pretty good
toy. Come to think of it, Just Cause plays just like this once you
finish the relatively short set of missions. Each mission is set up to
take advantage of the built-in toys and easter eggs, ones the player
might not even see due to the ridiculously huge size of the playground,
but ultimately it's the sandbox that gives the game character and
replayability. Games like Hitman give you a much smaller playground,
but a vastly more impressive set of AI behaviors and things that you can
do; games like World of Warcraft rely on the player wanting
to increase their tool arsenal in a world that's very large and full of
low-level "goals", but ultimately non-interactive.
This definition is pretty broad, but so is the subject. Just like a
sandbox, the more you put in, the more the player will get out of it - but in order to maximize the enjoyment the player has to be willing to experiment as well.