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Earthrise: First Impact Dev Journals: Atanas Atanasov: Why Love the Sandbox?

By Guest Writer on December 16, 2009

Every so often, we ask a series of MMO developers to answer a single question about game design and / or design theory. This week, we ask about the sandbox design model and why it has remained popular.

Sandbox games have proven that they stand the test of time. Why do you think the sandbox model appeals to players even after all these years?

When MMORPGs emerged from their MUD roots - before becoming one of the highlights of the gaming industry - they came along with a promise that players would immerse themselves in a persistent virtual world that they can not only play inside, but one that also shapes the course of its destiny along with their character's rise in power and influence.

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Ultima Online pioneered both the genre itself and the concept for player-driven economy and flexible political system; but as new games became larger, intricately more complex and successful, and their player base grew from thousands to millions, new hurdles caused the genre to stray from its initial direction. Game designers opted to strip their games of the sandbox mechanics in order to tightly control the direction in which their games would evolve, ultimately making sure the player's experience was as well orchestrated as it was in single player games. MMORPGs became more about acquiring shiny loot rather than influencing a world with your actions.

While game designers may have initially balked, a supportive and enthusiastic audience of experienced players stayed true to the promise of the MMO genre and now the demand for sandbox MMO games has never been bigger! Over the past few years the vast majority of players, many them introduced to MMORPGs by the flagship titles on the market today, have matured to see past the limitations of the set in stone design and have become more experienced and demanding. These players demand the right to have their actions influence the way the fictional world develops and to have the freedom to act anytime based on their best judgment with true and strong consequences for their actions. Many developers are leery of giving control to the players, but it is a risk worth taking. The combined actions of thousands of players can create unfathomable situations that balance out and require the designers to intervene in only rare and extreme situations. The beauty of the sandbox experience is in the unpredictability of its nature - the sense of amazement is incomparable to anything in other games.

Fans of sandbox games are often those who seek a more challenging gaming experience. In the sandbox genre players must have more than knowledge of the game system; they must also have strong social skills, personal charisma and leadership. Unlike other types of games, all content is eventually either crafted or can change due to players' actions and it's the personal ability to draw people to a common goal that defines players best in sandbox games. Much like in the real world, sandbox games allow players the potential to be challenged due to their unpredictable nature, but never in a way that they cannot recover and learn from mistakes.

Check out Monday's response from Fallen Earth's Wes Platt, here.

Nathan Richardson from EVE Online answered the same questions yesterday, here.

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