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Nathan Richardson: Why Love the Sandbox

Guest Writer Posted:
Developer Journals 0

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?

It’s the other players--that’s the appeal. The sandbox is essentially an open environment, with rules and tools that empower players to become the “content” for everybody else playing. And this manifests itself on almost all levels of gameplay and interaction.

Playing the market is interesting because it is player-driven and you are competing with everyone else just by the simple act of selling or buying a good. If you run a mission for an agent and the rewards you gain end up on the market, you have become a competitor. Your resources gained through hacking sites or wormhole exploration are part of the supply and demand. Do you process them? Do you manufacture with them? Or do you research and gain a competitive edge in a specific area?

But it’s about more than competition, it is about achieving something with other players. Shooting someone in the face with a spaceship laser is quite rewarding for some parts of the population but when you have thousand player alliances waging war over resources, territory and most importantly reputation, sandbox gameplay becomes truly meaningful. Furthermore, this isn’t just for the Alliances in question. Player actions create a living history and they catalyze other actions. They create something larger than a single-player experience and the “single-player experience” almost ceases to exist no matter how recluse a pilot may be. As developers, we can’t create those dynamics, we can only provide an environment that allows for that to emerge. And when you’re providing tools, players become more and more inventive on how they are used.

It’s like adding bricks. One guy will throw it in someone’s face. Another one will start collecting them just cause it’s cool bricks. Others will sell them for a quick buck. Someone will start building a house with them, maybe on your face. You’ll get pissed and you’ll start … erhm … building on each other. Then the Russians come and evaporate you. But that’s cool, cause you want to maximize human interaction--that’s what creates longevity and real emotions. The lows (i.e. house-on-face) create the meaningful context of the highs (i.e. house-on-other-guys-face) making all the more rewarding.


In the end, the sandbox model let you set your own goals and achieve them with friends. These aren’t artificial goals, not paths that everyone had to before and you’re lucky number 1,121,356 to do it.

These are your goals. Your history. Your legacy. Your bricks.

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


Guest Writer