Thursday, April 07, 2022

"Sandbox"

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Let's talk about the term "sandbox game".  We'll take a look at a couple games I consider as true sandboxes and a couple that misuse the term.  Through this exploration; the definition -- my definition -- of sandbox will be apparent.

Games I consider as true sandbox games

  • Foxhole
  • Minecraft

Games that need to stop using the term "sandbox"

  • Albion Online
  • Crowfall 

Starting with Foxhole there is a very clear sandbox.  First, I can log in and choose what I want to do and in order to do what I want I need to either pull resources together myself, use resources shared by other players, or steal resources from other players in the Sandbox.  Important to note; the game allows me to choose any path, change path, or blend paths.  In my first couple of hours (outside of the tutorial) I moved seamlessly between logistics (known as logi in game) supplying other players to the frontline where the fighting was at (and once there I switched between playing medic, infantry, and frontline logi).

The "frontline" in Foxhole also illustrates another of my tenants of a sandbox; the world can be changed.  In Foxhole the frontline is defined by the players changing the world.  There is a world map in Foxhole that defines some features (where water bodies are, what area is a mountain, etc) but beyond that everything else is defined by the player.  The frontline area I ventured into was in the middle of a field; one team on one side the other team on the other side.  Our side had dug in foxholes and trenches.  Behind those were numerous medical tents and forward bases; all placed by players.  A little further back a group of players were working on a hardened base with cement fortifications.  Somewhere in the middle were players setting up long range artillery.  All of this build up was defined by the players choosing exactly what to build and where to build it.

Another key aspect to the build up was that the resources came from the game itself.  Every gun, bullet, bandage, and piece of building material was manufactured by a player somewhere and then transported by a player in a player-crafted vehicle to that area.  Nothing happens in Foxhole without a player somewhere putting in the work to make it happen.  And the end result?  A sandcastle that can be smashed by the other kids in the sandbox who can then take that sand and make their own castle you get to smash.

The frontlines of Foxhole are exactly why Foxhole is a true sandbox game; they are defined by the players collecting from and manipulating the world with minimal restriction and that manipulation has meaningful impact on the game.

In summary; what we take away from Foxhole in regards to the term sandbox:

  1. The world is made of resources that players make use of (i.e. "the sand")
  2. The game world itself can be changed by the players (i.e. "can make sand castles")
  3. Those changes by players have meaningful impact (i.e. "sand castles can be smashed")
  4. There is minimum restrictions on what can be done where (i.e. "build my sand castle anywhere / permanent sand castles aren't already built")
  5. Players can move between roles seamlessly (i.e. "eat sand if want to")

If we roll what we learned from Foxhole into Minecraft we see that we hit all of the marks at an entirely new level. In my opinion Minecraft is the truest sandbox game in existence.

  1. In Minecraft the world is literally made of resources that players make use of without almost any restrictions. 
  2. Players can change the world in Minecraft; to a degree well beyond what a game like Foxhole allows.  
  3. Changes to the world in Minecraft have direct impact.  If I dig a hole straight down and a pig falls into it... well... bacon.  
  4. As mentioned and bearing repeating there is little restriction in what you can manipulate in Minecraft
  5. Players in Minecraft can be in combat one second and digging that bacon hole the next; there is no concept of a role in Minecraft.  The player do anything at any time.

So that covers items 1 and 2 from my Foxhole list.  The question is then; is there any other tenants of sandbox games that Minecraft brings to the table? 

Those changes by players have meaningful impact (i.e. "sand castles can be smashed")

Somewhat already covered by the bacon hole example, but to expand on the impact players can have in Minecraft I'll talk about multiplayer servers as that's the closest equivalent to the MMO space.  On a multiplayer server under non-modded players are free to modify the world however they see fit.  If player A stacks two blocks then player B can break those two blocks and if they so choose place them somewhere else.  If player A digs a bacon hole then player B could fall into it ending in death.  There have been numerous "chaos" servers whereby the entire world becomes an apocalyptic wasteland with anything resembling order quickly converted to chaos by the players.

There is minimum restrictions on what can be done where (i.e. "build my sand castle anywhere / permanent sand castles aren't already built")

At the end of the day some form of restriction will always exist in games just as even in the real life sandbox there is eventually an end to the sand and physical limits on what you can do with it.  Minecraft is no exception here.  But Minecraft goes a long way in minimizing restriction.  For example; I can build a house out of any material that I can dig up and stack.  A fond memory for every Minecraft survival player is that makeshift shelter of dirt and wood blocks hastily assembled to survive the first night.  For the most part; if you can dream it you can build it in Minecraft.  Journey into the world of mods and the sky is the limit.

Players can move between roles seamlessly (i.e. "eat sand if want to")

Minecraft has no real concept of a role.  One moment the player is digging a hole and the next they are in combat and the next they are an interior decorator in their home.  The only requirement is that you need to have picked up some sand and turned it into whatever you need for the activity you want to do.

With the exploration of the "true sandbox" that is Minecraft let's look at some not-a-sandbox offenders in the MMO space.

The one that jumps immediately to mind, mostly because the owning company uses sandbox in their name, is Albion Online by Sandbox Interactive.  Interestingly enough their video for "What is Albion Online?" goes a long way trying to defend it's place as a sandbox.  Let's go through the checklist.

  1. The world is made of resources that players make use of (i.e. "the sand")
    • All items in the game, from weapons to the bed you place in your house, are made from resources gathered from the world.  Players have to gather those resources and use them or trade them for others to use.  The big issue I have here as I'll also touch on later is that those resources are static, always replenish themselves, and harvesting them has no noticeable effect on the world (they will be back in the same spot in a few minutes for the next player).
  2. The game world itself can be changed by the players (i.e. "can make sand castles")
    • Some may argue that players can change the game world, but I'd have a hard time buying the argument.  Resource nodes are static; always in the same place and players just keep harvesting and the resources keep re spawning.  Players can manage their own personal or guild islands; placing houses and items but that is all instanced off from the main world.  Outside of some zone control mechanisms and hide outs that are placed in the outer zones; players have no practical effect on the world.  What is on the world map today will be there tomorrow and the day after and the day after.
  3. Those changes by players have meaningful impact (i.e. "sand castles can be smashed")
    • As noted in #2; players have little impact on the world itself.  But I will give Albion points here because of the crafting and the fact that every item in the game was crafted by a player at some point and the material for that crafted item was gathered by a player.  
  4. There is minimum restrictions on what can be done where (i.e. "build my sand castle anywhere / permanent sand castles aren't already built")
    • Albion is a combat-focused game.  While there is housing, farming, and some other activities on personal islands these are all just mini-games.  The game world is built and outside of things changing ownership (like a shop being bought by another player) most everything is already built and placed in the game.
  5. Players can move between roles seamlessly (i.e. "eat sand if want to")
    •  Albion ties a player's role to the gear they have equipped.  Want to be a mage?  Throw on a robe and grab a staff.  Want to be a warrior?  Grab a sword and heavy armor.  Each piece of gear grants the user an ability.  Players can change gear at anytime, but must "level up" each type of gear in order to equip higher tier versions. Crafting is mostly driven through a level up system but requires access to crafting stations so while any player can do it there is gating mechanism.

Final Judgement? Albion Online has some sandbox aspects but is far from the "king of sandbox MMORPGs" that it tries to bill itself as.  With that said; don't let this scare you off of the game.  I played it for several months and absolutely loved the time I spent with the game.  It is on the short list of MMOs I'd recommend and on the even shorter list of MMOs with original ideas; it just is not a sandbox.

Next on the evaluation list is EVE Online.

  1. The world is made of resources that players make use of (i.e. "the sand")
    • The world of EVE is massive; a series of interconnected sectors of space.  When playing it can often feel endless.  Within the endless space are asteroid belts to mine and enemies (affectionately known as "rats") to farm.  These make up the sand by which the sand castles (ships, space stations, and more) are built.
  2. The game world itself can be changed by the players (i.e. "can make sand castles")
    • EVE gets a good score on this item.  Players can build and manage space stations in many areas of the game.  The only issue is that the game world is broken down into different levels of areas and in the "safe" areas there is not much from a player perspective that can be changed.  It is already defined by the game in these areas.  However the heart of the game is played in the "low security" zones where players define and control almost everything.  From my time playing EVE I learned the hard way that you don't show up unannounced to an area owned by someone else.
  3. Those changes by players have meaningful impact (i.e. "sand castles can be smashed")
    • As noted in item #2 players have direct impact on the world outside the safe zones.  There are numerous legends
  4. There is minimum restrictions on what can be done where (i.e. "build my sand castle anywhere / permanent sand castles aren't already built")
    • As noted in other answers the game is divided into different areas with different impacts on players.  In the far reaches of space in the low security zones there is very little restriction to what can be done as long as players spend the time to collect the requisite sand and toys.  In the safer areas the rules ensure sandbox enthusiasts are not stealing each other's toys.
  5. Players can move between roles seamlessly (i.e. "eat sand if want to")
    • This is an area where EVE falls down and ultimately was why I gave up on the game when I played.  Skill progression is tied to real world time.  Players set a skill to accumulate points which accumulate whether playing or not.  Players that have played for years have years worth of skill points accumulated.  There is no time machine for a newer player to catch up.   This limits the roles that an EVE player can enjoy. While fundamentally the game allows the player to change what they are doing at any point; functionally it is hardcore time gated as to be infeasible.

Final judgement?  EVE can count as a sandbox, but is best for those that are looking for a multi-year engagement to get that experience.  EVE is another game on the short list of recommended MMOs and that shorter list of games doing something unique.

 Now let's look at Crowfall.  All I'll ask "Sandbox?  Really?  REALLY!!??".

  1. The world is made of resources that players make use of (i.e. "the sand")
    • Crowfall does have resources to gather and those resources are used to make things.  Like Albion Online points are deducted here because the resources are static and respawn endlessly.  While there are is a campaign mechanic where campaign areas are time-limited (i.e. they go away after a month) and thus the resources within that campaign are not available forever; the practical reality is that another campaign will replace the current one and feature the same resources.
  2. The game world itself can be changed by the players (i.e. "can make sand castles")
    • Players can take control of castles and zones, but there is almost nothing that players can do to change the world.  There are "eternal kingdoms" (EKs) where players can build their own personal or guild zone.  EKs feature a lego-like building toolset.  If that toolset was part of the full game experience and not just a side feature for EKs then maybe I could see sandbox fitting but in it's limited state for EKs only it does not get any points.
  3. Those changes by players have meaningful impact (i.e. "sand castles can be smashed")
    •  As noted in #2 there is not much of anything the players impact so zero points here for Crowfall.
  4. There is minimum restrictions on what can be done where (i.e. "build my sand castle anywhere / permanent sand castles aren't already built")
    • Crowfall is a standard class-based MMO and zones are on rails.  In effect the entire game is one of restriction when it comes to my sandbox tenants.  Zero points here for Crowfall.
  5. Players can move between roles seamlessly (i.e. "eat sand if want to")
    • I repeat; Crowfall is a standard class-based MMO.  While players can slot crafting/gathering disciplines to change up what they are at the end of the day you are the class and race combination of your character and to change requires you to change your character.  Crowfall tried to advertise the concept of changing roles as changing "your vessel/crow"; whereby a character is really a vessel and you are jumping in and out of the worlds as different vessels.  In reality it's no different than changing characters in any MMO that allows you to have multiple characters.

Final judgement? Crowfall is not anywhere close to a sandbox and should not use the term.  My prior posts on Crowfall will give you my opinion on the game.  I'd not recommend it and it is not doing anything all that exciting or different.  It's a crappy World-of-Warcraft-a-like.

As can be surmised from my rambling I have a tendency to be attracted to games that purport to be sandbox experiences.  Then I play them and realize they fail to hit my key tenants of a sandbox as influenced heavily by Minecraft - yet I still enjoy and recommend some of them.  What that boils down to say is that games that advertise as sandboxes are really saying "I am different" and for anyone that knows me I tend to jump on the "I am different" bandwagons.  I'd still prefer that sandbox was more indicative of Minecraft-like experiences and thus not used in error by games like Crowfall. 

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