Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Grand Theft! My Sandbox was stolen!

I first heard the term “Sandbox” used by The Escapist to describe console games like Grand Theft Auto. The concept being that GTA didn’t have a track or a set path you followed, but was an open ended world. The player could drive around wherever they wanted, in whatever car they wanted, and do whatever jobs or activities they wanted.

At some point, someone (Syncaine, perhaps?) adopted the term and applied it to MMOs. In doing so, they redefined what “Sandbox” meant (open ended world) to something else entirely. The MMO definition of Sandbox is a lot more vague and harder to define, but I think the original interpretation can best be distilled down to: A game without levels.

Poor Word Choice
But as I say, this MMO usage is vague and it quickly became synonymous with other features like player controlled territories and the ability to loot other players. And so when people talk about a Sandbox MMO today, they don’t just talk about not having traditional levels, but really all the other flexibility that comes with territory control and looting.

The term Sandbox MMO has come to represent the combination of three separate features: No Levels, Player Controlled Territory, Full Looting.

One reason I don’t like the word choice is that these games actually have levels. They just aren’t levels in the traditional sense but skills. I won’t argue that such a system is more flexible, but it’s still a pretty straightforward character progression. If you want to do X, you need to level those skills. The term Sandbox MMO just seems so misused in that application.

Honestly, I think the best argument for the validity of this definition is that player owned structures and territory control in PvP games define the landscape and world.

And yet, Warhammer had such a feature and I’ve yet to hear one person label that as a Sandbox. So it would seem that at least by itself, no one thinks player defined territory control is good definition of why it should be called a Sandbox.

So you’ll have to forgive me, but I prefer the original usage of the word to describe opened ended worlds.

Warcraft is a Sandbox too!
Look, Warcraft by all accounts can be considered a Sandbox. Quite frankly, any virtual world can if you are using the original definition.

You can freely go anywhere you want in the game world. You can equip all kinds of different things. You decide what you want to do and when.

That’s distinctly different than a game like Halo or Half-life. That’s a track. You have stuff to kill and only one direction to go. You move from cutscene to cutscene merrily killing everything along the way until you get to the end. And then you are finished.

By comparison, you have unimaginable freedom in Warcraft. Sure, there are quests. But you decide which quests you want to do, where you want to do them, whether or not you want to complete them or if you just want to do something else entirely unrelated to questing.

The Word, not the Games
Keep in mind that my contention here is not a criticism of the games, but of the way the word Sandbox is used to describe MMOs. It’s a catch-phrase used to imply that such games have more freedom than other games.

The implication being that games like Warcraft have little or no freedom. As I pointed out, that’s not really true. What games like Warcraft provide is guidance. The free form nature of being able to do whatever the hell you want still exists. The difference is that you aren’t left to wander along with no direction.

And if you want to call out Warcraft for having levels, then call it a Leveling-Based game as opposed to a Skill-Based game. Why bother trying to have a separate ambiguous definition like Sandbox?

The point here is that the term Sandbox has been warped and disfigured into something used to describe games that are really no more of a Sandbox than any other MMO. The irony being that all MMOs, by their very nature as virtual worlds, are also Sandboxes.

The Folly of calling Warcraft a Themepark
Set aside your personal opinions about these games for a moment and consider the words being used to describe these games. In real-life, would you rather play in a Sandbox or visit a Themepark?

Themeparks are exciting! They spend millions if not billions of dollars making them incredibly fun and memorable. They are at the peak of all possible forms of entertainment.

Or a Sandbox. With sand. Oh, the joy.

Obviously the Themepark is a far superior form of entertainment and for the same price, no rational person would ever choose the Sandbox.

The term Themepark is used to describe MMOs in a negative way. It’s intent is to imply something is “on rails” and that you have less personal choice or freedom.

People like choice, so it’s a nice tidy little attack to label something rigid and inflexible by calling it a Themepark. However, without that context, an outside observer would say – gee, a Themepark sounds more fun and exciting than a Sandbox.

It just strikes me as silly to use the better of two things as the derogatory term.

Co-Op or VS Mode
As much as I'd like MMO players to adopt the original definition of Sandbox as it was used to describe open world games, I have no illusions that will ever happen.

The issue is that no one has really thought of a different word to describe games whose primary focus is not PvE progression. And let's be clear, that's the central difference between games like EVE or Darkfall and Warcraft.

It's the difference between playing a shooter in Co-Op mode where the other player is a teammate, or VS mode where you are competing directly against each other.

Why is PvE or PvP the defining characteristic? Well, imagine a game exactly like Warcraft except instead of levels, they had skills. Questing in progressively harder zones still existed. PvE Raiding still existed. The only difference is that your "class" and "level" are defined by your skills instead.

Is that a game like EVE or Darkfall? Not really.

What if we added full player looting? No. More consequential perhaps, but not a Sandbox.

That's because THE POINT of what you are trying to accomplish hasn't changed. It's still about PvE end-game and quest progression. It's still Co-Op mode.

What word would I use to describe EVE or Darkfall?
  1. power or the use of power; sovereignty over something.
  2. a kingdom, nation, or other sphere of influence.
I would call them Dominion games because the end-game is about controlling things. Hell, EVE even uses the word 'sovereignty' to describe ownership of solar systems.

Because at it's core, what makes these games different than a PvE Raiding game is Dominion. The building of kingdoms, nations, areas and expanding a sphere of influence.

It's not about being a Sandbox.  It's about Domination.

NOTE:  Another reason I like the word Domination or Dominion better is because it describes the end-game, not a subsets of features.  I wouldn't call Warhammer a Sandbox, but I would call it a Level-based Dominion game.  Whereas, Darkfall is a Skill-based Dominion game.  And Warcraft is a Level-based Raiding game.


Hirvox said...

..and why did the sandbox term get adopted in the first place? Because playing in a sandbox is all about leaving a mark on the world. If you build a castle, it'll stay there until it rains or someone knocks it down. Even walking leaves footprints. If a disaster strikes in SimCity, that area will remain devastated until you fix it. If you make a volcano in Populous, it'll leave a lasting scar on the landscape.

From that freedom arises an opportunity for creativity. Nobody's going to tell you what kind of a house you're going to make in Sims. Maybe you don't want a house at all. Nobody's going to tell you that you can't live in peace with your neighbors in Civilization. All of that creativity is hard to map into an arbitrary number called a level. The lack of levels is a side effect at best.

sid67 said...

From that freedom arises an opportunity for creativity.

True. And such freedom exists in other games as well. The one that is top of mind is Noor the Pacifist.

..and why did the sandbox term get adopted in the first place?

Because a sandbox game implies that you aren't confined by conventional rules. And relative to most genres, all MMOs fit into that category by virtue of being open-ended worlds.

I'm not trying to call one game better than another. I realize it feels that way if you are on one-side of the fence, but my real point here is that the term is a poor choice of words.

If I'm being blunt, I think the point that many people can view Warcraft as a 'sandbox' in it's own right is indictment enough that the word choice is poor.

Anonymous said...

The term sandbox also implies a certain style of how the game will be updated. Games like EVE and Darkfall release new content in a way that does not diminish old content in a way that games such as WoW might. Instead of a new ride being added, new shovels, rakes, buckets, and tubes are added to the sandbox which enhances the player freedom of expression.

This does not imply that there is no way to be expressive in a non-sandbox, but that the game does not encourage it at a base level.

You use the pacifist in WoW as an example, he is a creative and unique individual. The key here is that the game does not support him, it merely tolerates him. The game nods its head and then never thinks "hey, this might just be something valid" instead of creating new tools which help to make his play experience gain depth it instead continues to add rides.

Hirvox said...

My real point here is that the term is a poor choice of words.
Only if you think in black and white. No game is pure sandbox or pure theme park, but it's certainly possible to say whether it's more like one or the other. Even a theme park allows you to freely pick your ride, but once you pick one, you'll sit where you're told to, keep all appendages within the car and the ride will reset for the next user. It may have walkways, but the core content is the rides.

I'm not trying to call one game better than another.
Sure you aren't.

Themeparks are exciting! They spend millions if not billions of dollars making them incredibly fun and memorable. They are at the peak of all possible forms of entertainment.

It just strikes me as silly to use the better of two things as the derogatory term.
Any derogatory connotations are wholly within the eye of the beholder. And while Internet turf wars are all the rage nowadays, it's possible to enjoy both themepark games and virtual world sandboxes. Strange, I know.

Or a Sandbox. With sand. Oh, the joy.
Yes, a sandbox would make a boring theme park. But a theme park is also a pretty lousy sandbox.

True. And such freedom exists in other games as well. The one that is top of mind is Noor the Pacifist.
The crucial difference is the degree that the game supports those choices. If playing a pacifist is "like pulling teeth", then it's fair to say that the game doesn't support it, even if it's technically possible. But if the game provides proverbial shovels, buckets, action figures and even sample sandcastle designs, then it supports the sandbox model.

sid67 said...


Hirvox, I think you entirely missed the point. You are talking about how these games function.

I'm talking about the merit of using that word to describe those games.

The very fact we can debate what is and is not a sandbox only serves to prove the point that it's a bad word to use to describe these games.

My point is that it would be better to use some other word that better describes the FEATURE.

Also, you are using those sandbox/themepark quotes out of context. When I say "Or a sandbox." I'm talking about a real sandbox (the kind found at a playground) as compared to a real themepark (like Disneyland).

Which would you rather go to? Point being that without the context that themeparks are "on rails", an outside observer would view a themepark as better because of it's real life association to something fun and exciting.

So again, I'm criticizing the words -- not the games we associate with those words.

Hirvox said...

You are talking about how these games function. I'm talking about the merit of using that word to describe those games.
I guess I am missing the point, because I don't see how it's possible to discuss the merit of a metaphor without discussing how well it fits the games.

Also, you are using those sandbox/themepark quotes out of context.
How so? Everything I've said applies equally to games and the real-world equivalents of the metaphors.

Which would you rather go to?
As always, it depends. Do I want to see what the designer has come up with? Or do I want to see what fellow players have come up with and create my own works?

an outside observer would view a themepark as better because of it's real life association to something fun and exciting.
Ah, this explains a lot. Again, you're associating your own bias with the words. If you are unable to understand why others could consider a real-life sandbox fun and exciting, then the metaphor won't make sense to you either.

Anonymous said...

The very fact that these words are metaphors for the design philosophy implies that we shouldn't try to use a strict literal in judging them.

If you truly want to do a real world comparison it may work, but very poorly.

A better real world comparison would be to invite someone to either visit a real theme park, or to visit the real sandbox except you need to include that the visitor will be given an architectural team and unlimited supplies with which to build their sand castles.

Now it is a more fair comparison, you will have some that pick the sandbox, and of course you will still have many that pick the theme park. It's all in the personality traits.

As for your stance that we can't use the word sandbox because not everyone is in 100% agreeance with its meaning that would also imply that we cannot use the word theme park, or the phrase 'virtual world', or the term 'massively' in our mmo's.

sid67 said...

The metaphor should at least fit what you are trying to describe.

Sandbox best fits open-ended worlds as it was original used to describe games.

It's usage as it relates to MMOs is not as easy to nail down.

Ask 10 people what Sandbox MMO means and you'll get lots of different answers. What it tries to describe is ambiguous. Is it lack of levels? Player controlled regions? Horizontal expansion?

If I say that I'm a Lion, does that mean I am powerful? Or fearsome? Or a predator? Or fierce? Or Wild?

It can mean any of those things or only one depending on context.

My issue here is in the merit of using the metaphor as a description in the first place. It's too vague and subject to misinterpretation.

Anonymous said...

I will agree that there may be a word that could be created that would better convey what these types of design philosophies mean, but at the same time it is generally understood within the community as our current best word. Show someone experienced in these things UO and they 'know' it's sandbox, regardless of if they 'know' exactly what terms a sandbox strictly follows. In the same sense the same person looks at LotR:O and 'knows' it is a theme park.

I'm all for calling these types of games "World Simulator's that put a greater emphasis on player creativity and interactivity that follows a design paradigm that serves to enhance by this philosophy", however this is both long and would not be as easily recognized or accepted in the same way the simple to read and (almost) universally understood term 'sandbox'

Tholal said...

Yeah. Dominion is such a better, non-vague term. Let's get out there and Dominion the hell out of those asteroids!

Themeparks can be fun, but how many times can you ride the same rides? Sure I know some people buy season passes to Six Flags and go every weekend, but personally, one trip every 20 years is enough for me.

Anonymous said...

Personally I see both of their pluses, in fact I am playing two theme parks and zero (at the moment) sand boxes.

Anonymous said...

The fact that you are debating the terms used doesn't indicate poor application of terminology. Instead, it means, that like all things, summation of complex systems is rarely possible within a singular word. Games have varying shades of implementation, focusing upon different areas and designing with different goals in mind. The terms "sandbox" and "themepark" have come to be used as terms describing degrees of freedom.

WoW is freedom-lite. There is a set progression to achieve once you reach the destination (end-game, level 80). It has daily, repeatable quests designed to help earn rewards. A blatant example tracks.

WAR is a mix. There is a set progression model of gear, there are defined areas of play. However, the focus on PvP means reliance on other players and yourself to generate content. Additionally, the introduction of multiple methods of progression provides a series of roads to take. Part sandbox, part themepark.

EVE is freedom-heavy, though still has some tracks. Anyone can go anywhere, and have activity. The destination and ultimate goal are your own to decide. What you want to do, is just that, up to YOU.

So perhaps, through all this, the realization should be, not the reality of the playing field, but the concept of the goal. The more the destination is defined by the player, the more freedom they have, and the less of a "themepark" it is.

Mig said...

What about Fallen Earth? I think the majority of people identify it as a Sandbox game, but I am not sure it could be called a dominion game.

sid67 said...


You can distill a complex topic into a soundbite, but all that helps you do is win the argument.

For any intellectual discussion about the topic, it's worthless.

Soundbites only win elections. They don't fix or address real issues.

Do they serve a purpose? Sure. But only in the context of trying to persuade other people to your point of view by oversimplifying complex problems.

The term Sandbox is the MMO equivalent of a soundbite. Great for winning a forum war, lousy for any deeper conversation.

I would much rather use very specific attributes of a game to describe it. MMOs are hardly as complex as political problems, so the need for soundbites is not exactly huge.