On Sunday night, I livestreamed some Europa Universalis IV, the grand strategy sandbox game from Paradox Development Studio, and those two hours flew by so fast it was hard to end the stream. I sat back today and wondered, “What was so alluring about this game?” What makes this game, and any sandbox game for that matter, so addicting? What is it about games like these, games that institute a “one more turn” mentality, even when there aren’t any turns? Upon looking closer at my gameplay, I realized a few points which I think answers these questions.
Freedom of the “Gameplay Loop”
Most games, if you haven’t noticed, follow a simple pattern of how the game plays, also called a “loop.” Think about your favorite, non-sandbox game. Now think about the gameplay in different situations. In the end, the gameplay is usually repetitive, though you are in a different setting. Take the original Super Mario for the NES for example. You start the game platforming through the level, gathering coins and musrooms, defeating Goombas and sliding down a flag-pole at the end of the level. The next level, while underground, follows the same basic pattern. This repeats itself until you reach the castle. You face off against King Koopa, or his impostors and then find out you need to do this all over again because Princess Toadstool is in another castle!
Control the world…as any nation on this map. Boom.
While this gameplay is fun, the fact of the matter is eventually it loses it’s luster of originality. There are only so many times I can be told by Toad that all those levels of jumping and platforming were for naught. As I played EU4 on Sunday, I was not really “looping” my gameplay…or so I thought. The beauty of a true “sandbox” style game is that I was oblivious to the repetitiveness of some aspects of my gameplay until I really looked for it. The same could be said about some non-sandbox games, but in the end, you really feel it unless you are creating your reason for playing. I fell into some loops while trying to unify the main islands of Japan. I then took a mission, giving me a “Casus Belli” or “Cause of War” to invade my neighbor. Battle ensued, causing me to invade the nation and besiege their province. Over the course of a few minutes, I eventually occupied the province, and any extra provinces they held, giving me a completed wargoal. Upon suing for peace, I demanded full annexation on the part of the defender, thus giving me complete control over that portion of the map and eliminating a threat. Wash, rinse and repeat this a few times and you get the bulk of my gameplay that night. The beauty of it was that I was not aware that there was a loop during the play. It all helped me reach my goal, my player-set goal of colonizing California as Japan.
Speaking of player-set goals…
You decide how to play, not the developers
Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of one of the greatest examples of a true sandbox, open world game: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Skyrim, as well as Oblivion and Morrowind before it, defines what it means to “play as you want to play.” You start as a prisoner that has to escape Helgen while it’s attacked by the dragon, Alduin. When you make it out of Helgen, the game developers “recommend” you go to Riverwood…but they don’t force you there. You can literally walk in any direction and the game doesn’t hinder you from doing so.
Mincraft is another great example of a true Sandbox. Literally, the map is like a giant empty canvas and you can build and do anything you want in the game. Whole cities and worlds have been created, one block at a time. Fans of cinema, TV and literature have taken to recreating the worlds they love in this game, and it’s only possible because Mojang decided that player creativity and freedom was more compelling than any story they could’ve written. It’s no wonder that Minecraft is one of the best selling games of recent years, and has console players clamoring for their versions of the game.
The Villas: Sprawling Apartments in the hillside because my friend and I were bored.
Most strategy games don’t tell a story, and therefore can be more open. Most, however, do not let you set your own goal and just go with it, they just give you different ways to win the game. This is why playing EU4 was so great the other night. I went into the game deciding that I wanted to expand my country over the Pacific. There was a practical reason for that. If I colonized part of the Americas as Japan, I could Westernize and earn technology at a faster pace. The great thing is the game didn’t tell me I had to do that, nor did it even recommend I do so. I chose to start working towards colonization. Not every game has this feel, and not every game should be open and free. It all depends on the story the game studio is trying to tell.
The Industry Agrees: Sandboxes Rock
Snake is destined to explore more than the inside of a cardboard box.
In the end, open world and sandbox style games seem to be the trend moving forward in many games that traditionally aren’t part of the genre. E3 this year opened with a trailer and then gameplay from the new Metal Gear Solid entry. Open world Metal Gear. MMOs are starting to try and venture into this to some degree. The Elder Scrolls Online is trying to meld the best of the sandbox style gameplay the series is known for within the constraints of an MMO world. We are even seeing some MMOs emulating the feel of Minecraft, with the voxel elements of Everquest Next. An open world, sandbox style game broke records this year with it’s astronomical sales: Grand Theft Auto V. There is a demand for this style of gameplay, and game developers are taking notice. Choice and freedom in gaming is compelling, as compelling as the most eloquently written story, because in the end, you create that story.
Why do you enjoy sandbox titles? Is it the true freedom the game developers give you? Are you a player who doesn’t like the openness of some games, and prefer the more traditional gameplay given by some studios? Let us know in the comments below!