Defining Sandbox Part 3: What a Sandbox Isn’t

As I mentioned elsewhere, Part 3 was intended to pick up right where Part 2 left off, but in the meantime, I’ve stumbled onto some of the same misconceptions repeatedly.   I will come back to where that argument left off the next time I return to this idea.  Instead, I’m going to do a quick bullet list.

  • A sandbox is not a game where everything is possible and players can do anything.  It’s still a game.  Sandboxes will provide a lot of options and freedom to choose between those options, but those options still exist in a frame built by the game designers.  There are a lot of choices a player can make in Eve, a lot of ways to increase income or power, but there are still limits.  Players can camp a gate, but they can’t destroy it, can’t disable it, can’t redirect it to make it useless or send people to a dangerous area they didn’t expect.
  • Following from that, a sandbox does not require open PvP.   For one, there are sandboxes without combat of any sort (A Tale in the Desert, Glitch).  However, I can understand thinking that if there is combat players should be able to attack anyone they want or they do not have real freedom.  But it is still a fictional world created by the developer.  If the developers want their world to be one in which crime is non-existent and intelligent creatures have never attacked other intelligent creatures, then fair enough.  Create some explanation in the game world’s lore and the problem is solved.
  • A sandbox is not a game with only player-driven content.  Glitch has quests and plans to include more that reveal the lore of their world.  Skyrim, while not an MMO, is full of stories and direction wherever someone turns.  While true that most sandbox MMOs lack story-driven content, such is a characteristic of those particular games and not virtual worlds in general.
  • A sandbox is not more work than fun.  Grind is a rather subjective descriptor for MMOs: the less one enjoys the mechanics that are required to advance in a game, the more grindy it will feel.  A sandbox could easily be created in which tasks that currently feel monotonous in current offerings require more active participation and are more entertaining.  Again, the idea that a sandbox is work and not play might be a valid descriptor for some current sandbox offerings, but it is a characteristic of those games and not a necessary characteristic of the genre.
  • A sandbox is not a game with no direction.  Even professional MMO writers seem to get this wrong.  Once again, just because current games offer little to no direction, does not make that a characteristic of a sandbox.  One has to look no farther than single player sandboxes to see that this is not true, just true of MMO sandboxes at this time.

I wanted a few more bullets, but these seem to be the most common objections to the idea of sandboxes that I see around the internet.  When I read these objections, I hear in my head: “I played a sandbox MMO or two where [insert misconception from above is true] and I am incapable of understanding that what has been done is not all that can be done.”

Once again, “anything is possible except staying static” is not an ending to the conversation, it’s the beginning.  The inability to understand that is an unfortunate flaw of many gamers, most of whom will likely jump on an innovative game that does things they claimed would never happen without ever becoming aware they’ve been proved wrong.

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