Today Mary C. Titor put out some thoughts about the nature of sandbox games in her post on The Sand, the Witch and the Box. Check it out, since the following will be a reply to those ideas.
Mary starts her post with advising us to “pay the Witch in the title no attention” and concentrate on the question what game mechanics make a game “sandboxy”. While I agree that there is a significant difference between a sandbox “environment” and a sandbox “game”, I find the criteria she then lists to distinguish the two a bit besides the point. Yes, a game needs a goal, it needs ways for the player to get to this goal and on the way there has to be a challenge with failure being a real possibility and ideally with a learning experience. However, all these criteria are true for any game. To me this does not nail what makes a sandbox game different from other games. Maybe that was not what the definition was trying to achieve here.
What Mary is neglecting, though, is the most crucial element of games like EVE. And it has a lot to do with the Witch. Picture an old woman bend by life and well versed in its twists and the unrelenting turns of fate. Picture her sitting at the oven on a dark evening surrounded by wide-eyed children hanging on her lips as she tells of ancient heroes and tales long forgotten.
Games are about stories. The narrative of a game is what captures our imagination. Even “spreadsheets in space” lives from the sagas it spawns. A sandbox game is a game where the game mechanics allow the players not only to experience but to author unique stories. This is different from simply stating a goal like “build an empire” with toys that allow arbitrary combinations and freedom of choice. It is much more about the “how”, about the way to reach that goal and go beyond it. It is about the feeling that we get when we assemble our toys, about the emotions that spring from erecting our castles and defending them against enemy onslaught. And this is the true challenge of a sandbox game: How do you make people experience exciting stories that touch their emotions without a scripted path that guides them through an interactive adventure?
The answer that CCP is trying to give with EVE (apparently also WOD and to a lesser degree Dust514) is that a sandbox game has to be a social game. Game mechanics that provides building blocks to create a virtual world is just a medium. But it is the interaction with other players that let’s us experience unique stories. Me sitting in my sandbox building a castle and digging out a mine might be a game, it might be creative and it might produce unique outcomes – but it isn’t a story. This changes as soon as the boy from the next block comes over to trample down my works.
The important thing about the sandbox metaphor is not so much that out of sand you can build many different things but that the sandbox is out there in the yard and others can come and mess or cooperate with us.
Interactivity alone is not the holy grail, though. Let’s face it, most people are lousy authors. Ask an average person (or even an average EVE player) to come up with a good story and you might be pleasantly surprised but very seldom will you be blown away. The game has to support the players to create interesting stories. That is why the sandbox toys have to be more clever than just very flexible. And here I converge with Mary’s assessment. EVE makes it very hard to get started with an engaging narrative. A narrative that would make it worthwhile to take the risk of loosing ships, venturing out into the dangerous parts of the world or even get in contact with the people around you. I wonder if it is only because there are no clear “goals” stated from the beginning or if this has some deeper reason in how the entry-level gameplay of EVE is laid out at the moment.
In the end I agree with Mary that the term “sandbox” should be used carefully and above all cannot be brought up as an argument for or against certain game mechanics without further context. The question that has to be asked when discussing game mechanics is: How would a certain feature support players to create and experience new and exciting narratives.
Fly smart! Chira.