Building a Better Sandbox

Building a Better Sandbox

Jul 2, 2010

If you have ever looked around for a student bedsit with mates, or gone house hunting with a partner, you’ll have come across different styles and tastes when it comes to location, property ranges and room styles. Ultimately, you’re looking for a space in which you feel comfortable, relaxed at home. Then, once you’ve found your perfect pad, you set about improving it, tweaking the design in such a way to express your personality, making it better and easier to live with.
I’m the same with games. After buying Two Worlds back in 2007, I managed about half an hour before I calmly turned it off, replaced the disc in the box and returned the game back to the store, tutting and sighing on the way. Sandbox games are all about your involvement within the environment, with the character (either pre-determined or one you have created yourself) and the overall ‘feel’ of the gameplay. It takes something very special for a world to become just as important as the main characters or the story. Just as you can tell as you walk through the front door of a property knowing it is the ‘one’ for you, that it’s a potential new home that you could fill with love, laughter and tears; the greatest sandbox adventures are those you can return to time and time again, just like the home of your dreams.
I may have walked away from Two Worlds, seeing it as a place that wasn’t for me, but i’ve enjoyed spending time residing in a few of my favourite gaming worlds. (You can see some of our favourites in “Wish You Were Here” – Ed) Unlike moving house, it’s a lot easier to inset a new disc and start afresh too… So, how could we go about improving the design of our much love open world adventures?

Character Based Sandboxes
I have a tendency to get over-involved in other people’s problems, fancying myself as some sort of Jim’ll Fix It Agony Aunt – one who can resolve all your issues. Which is the main reason Ilove sandbox games that focus on the main character, somehow I always start the game thinking I can make everything right, that no missions, challenges or storylines are too difficult for me to fix. I‘m always wrong. Rockstar is the king of the sandbox style that focuses on pre-set and well developed main characters. Massive blockbusters like GTA, Bully and Red Dead Redemption have often taken inspiration from mould breaking past titles like the original “Serious grit” of Max Payne  in that there is a storyline which follows a clear, cultivated character urging the gamer to get involved in a deeper emotional level than just pure point-and-shoot. The key points in these character-based sandboxes are clear to the developers – storylines, missions, and developing the character, so, what could make them better?

For me, I feel that even more involvement with the characters including more empathy and character development (not just in terms of unlocking weapons, but unlocking more interactive AI, relationships and personal items like transport/memories/homes). More ability for co-op in-game rather than just multiplayer would also be a bonus, where your mates could literally jump into your campaign as a story-based associate would also be preferential, alongside missions talked about and rewarded within the actual story; what you do has more of an impact to how the actual game is played out.

Environment Based RPG’s
Unless you live in Shangra Lai, modern life is rubbish. Escaping deep into the countryside involves an hour’s drive (and let’s face it – we all need to live in areas that offer the fastest broadband connection). Sometimes we all need to escape from the traffic noise, the repetitive high street shops, and the zombie-like people who frequent our local community. So we purchase a highly recommended RPG and escape into a world modelled on the importance of the aesthetic, either strikingly beautiful or strangely apocalyptic. For key developers like Bethseda, the environment is the key. Games like The Elder Scrolls ( Daggerfall, Arena, Morrowind, Oblivion) and Fallout 3 have had infinite inspiration from old school roleplaying like Dungeons and Dragons, but instead of the environment being formed within the players imagination, in these types of RPG’s, artists have spent years developing and creating a world that truly offers escapism, with the only constraint coming from the form in the dreaded ‘map boundaries’.

What could possibly make games like these better in the future? For one, the ability to develop your characters is one main point. Lionhead gets a start in Fable, with your character changing their ‘look’ depending on your playing style, but I would go further. Audio needs to play a better part, rather than just being a silent player, I would like to be able to talk and interact with AI as a reflection of my character’s personality. Alongside verbal communication, us gamers should be able to do more in terms of body language (perhaps Kinect technology could pick up our subconscious reactions to AI, and have our characters react accordingly.) Rather than just levelling up, our characters should be able to build upon their environment (in much the same way that the PC modders can do, and real time strategy players, but I would like to be able to look at a valley next to a lake… and decide to build a house there… perhaps set up a cake shop while I take a break from raiding dungeons.

Driving Free-Roaming
I’d like an Aston Martin DB9 and a Jaguar E Type. Instead I am left with my 1 litre go-kart to get me from A to B. We all have that zombie fantasy: where the end of the world has happened, we are the only survivors, and our first stop is the Farrari garage. The open road should be the ultimate freedom, but we are left with traffic jams, red lights and 20mph speed limits. It is for this reason that the free-roaming driving genre holds its appeal. It may be totally unrealistic unless you a one of the lucky few able to take your supercar on the Gumball Rally, but the idea of just having ultimate freedom, (going where you want, doing what you want and as long as you are faster than the law enforcement officers,) and having no repercussions is wonderful. EA/Atari offer the most renknowed titles, such as Need for Speed and Test Drive Unlimited. Free Roaming car games are pretty self- explanatory, they really are the kind of game that offers exactly what it says on the box. One downside is that the unlockables take ages, hours and hours of constant driving, evading and tuning.

Again, the improvements that could be made to free-roaming driving games come from involvement within an overall storyline. Instead of merely tuning one car to it’s best performance, why not buy the whole garage and set-up a car sales showroom. Instead of just having a few randomly placed arcade games in your garage, why not have a house set up like a true gamer’s paradise? Let me follow a path in which I can get a job as a city planner in the game, or perhaps become a luxury yacht owner and sail on the seas around the map. Let me get out of my car and go for a walk in the countryside (perhaps stumbling upon nudist beaches or dogging spots, or even an area of outstanding natural beauty). Hide those wonderful easter eggs like waterfalls and let me explore the cave behind it before returning to my Ford GT.

Anyhow, I’m sure all of these things will come to pass, (apart from the cake shops and the dogging sites maybe). What should we be expecting from developers in the future? It’s only constrained by our imaginations.

  • The Cavalry

    The one hang up I’ve had with every single game, especially sandbox games, is that they only have the illusion of freedom. Sure, if you just scratch at the surface of any particular game, you won’t discover the strings that move the characters, the logic functions beneath the coding, or the wire frames that are colored and sculpted around it to give off the illusion of a characters and items. Those of us in the gaming industry see things much differently, as we have swam around in the murky, bug-filled, swamps of early development, where every single glitch or bug is most likely a game-stopper. We are trained to have a critical, and often unforgiving, eye for detail, thus taking away the ‘magic’ of immersive gaming.

    Sorry, got a bit off topic there. My major point is that I’ve played many ‘sandbox’ games and at first I absolutely loved them! I remember playing GTA 3 until I passed out and talking on the phone with a friend while we both played GTA 3 and talking about all the messed up things we did to the pixelated pedestrians. Unfortunately, as with any game genre or engine, you start getting tired of it. The same graphics that wowed you a few years ago start looking dated, as do the game types and missions that were once exciting and challenging. Can you say ‘Escort Missions’? Now then, I’d like to break these down along with you.

    Character Based Sandbox games…

    I have noticed that almost every sandbox game has a hint of RPGness to it in regards to introducing a main character, the character the player is going to control. It’s the developer’s job to make sure this character is ‘likeable’ to a certain extent and somewhat relatable. Otherwise you wind up with a character you don’t really ‘want’ to ‘control’. Take Kronos from God of War 3 for instance. The combat system was well tuned and the graphics were pretty, but I hated what Kronos was doing and I hated the way the game ended. Not going to spoil anything…

    The point here is, when you introduce a character that the general public or audience of your game is going to be playing, make damn sure he/she/it makes the player WANT to keep playing. Otherwise your game is doomed to be a ‘rent-only’ and the chances of a successful sequel are very slim indeed.

    Possibly one of the most entertaining sandbox games I’ve ever played was Sim City… that was the birth of the sandbox game in my opinion. From Sim City we got The Sims, a game where you can create your own individual(s) with their own problems and quirks and build a place for them to live. The problem with these early games is that you are restricted by the game engine and what the developers put into the game itself and not your imagination. The Sims 3 (The newest installment) comes closer to allowing the player to be creative and use their imagination to the fullest, but you will always hit a wall. It’s simply because no team of developers will ever be able to think up what everyone else can think up. This limitation will be a thorn in many sides and hopefully we will surpass it someday.

    Environment Based RPG’s

    Who doesn’t love an in-depth, beautiful, and vibrant world to play around in? The eye candy makes it very enjoyable to be a part of and it’s very easy to immerse yourself into the world created for you. It’s the closest we can come to reading a good book that you can envision in your mind in your own way. What I always loved about these large worlds, mostly found in the famous Final Fantasy, Oblivion, and Fallout games, is that I could look far into the distance in mostly any given direction. Today, I refrain from letting my imagination go because I know that most of what I’m looking at is none-accessible and only there to further aid the player in becoming one with the game.

    Last but not least, the Free-Roaming driving experience.

    I love these games because it lets you drive as recklessly as you want and you won’t get a real ticket for doing it! The games that let you optimize and customize your cars are my favorite, as it gives you even more possibilities to tinker around with. Sooner or later, though, you hit a wall… a wall that I affectionately dubbed ‘The Developer’s Wall’. This is basically where the developers stopped making the game and went on to the ‘polishing’ stage of development. It is a very crucial step in the game-making process but at what cost? The game could be so much more if it weren’t for deadlines… but in the case of Duke Nukem Forever, it never, ever, came out and tragically died with over 10 years of development behind it… so sad! :(

    When I absolutely love a game, I’m always sad to see it end. I keep thinking that they could have added so much more! But that pesky Developer’s Wall always gets in the way!

    We must strive for perfection even though it is impossible to attain! There will never be a perfect game but there will be ones that come very close! Coughportalcough.

  • Amanda

    off at a tangent – when is portal 2 coming out? i'm set to start my teacher training this year – and although its not my subject – i'd make playing portal an exercise in lateral thinking…