Problems With The Sandbox

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Problems With The Sandbox

Sandbox games keep running into the same problems.

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Personally, I think the best open world game was Mount and Blade: Warband, it fixed a lot of the problems of the first one, and since it doesn't have guns like the next game, bandits can't kill half your party late in the game. Sure, it might not have the up close detail of Skyrim or Sleeping Dogs, but it is so deep. You start off like any RPG, but you'll notice that some of your skills have to do with party management, but since on might be used to a game like Skyrim, you ignore them to make yourself skilled in combat. As the game goes on, with you mastering the complex yet intuitive combat system, gaining favour with the local lords and ladies and slowly amassing your party.

Then a major war will inevitably break out, and then you'll be tasked with taking a city. Its around this point that your realize that your small party is now an army and then the game turns into a really interesting blend of RTS and RPG. Sure, the RTS bit is optional, you can always just let your troops charge and wade in with them, but using it will get you the best result. And then you'll either slowly start amassing your land and becoming a vassal to the king (or suitable equal) or you can do, what else, take over the world.

Great article. Totally agree about the problem with money, it just becomes redundant after a while. It was most noticeable in Assassin's Creed, where my banks fill up because I'm making too much money. I felt it was less of a problem in GTA IV because weapons were pretty expensive; that said, what were you supposed to do with the $250,000 that was your share of the bank robbery proceeds? It would have made more sense if you bought your safe houses with it. The idea of losing it all in the final act is a great one. I would really applaud a game which took such a bold step.

On the other side of things, I think Just Cause 2 messed things up. I got all these cool preorder bonuses such as signature guns, but to carry on using them would require me to keep on spending cash on ammo, so I stuck with the standard SMGs and rifles you find within the game world. And when you purchase something as DLC you don't expect to keep having to pay in game to use it. So it's a fine balance between giving the player enough money to have the things they want but not making it TOO easy.

I've always felt the first Mafia did time-keeping well; partly because it does something as simple as putting the date up in the middle of a black screen (AC has all the Animus-construction stuff going on at the same time), and since it begins at the end you're very much aware of the years creeping forward.

Open world games just don't work that well with grander storylines, I'm pretty certain a trope exists for2 days till the end of the world I'll get to it in a week, FF7 rising multiple generations of Chocbo within the time it takes for the meteor to fall and I can't even till how many times I put off doing an urgent mission in Elder Scrolls, it's okay because enemies seem to just hang around outside the gate till you show up, it really seems to lessen the threat once you realize the villains work by your schedule or makes sidequests less fun because the constant reminder to do the main story feels like the game is yelling at you for not playing it right. Saints Row worked based for me story wise because I felt no rush or push to do the main story and the character are psychotic enough to just put off doing something so they could drive around shooting people.

Red Faction Guerilla did have the bad guys take something important away from you, but in a rather poorly executed way. In the middle of an important mission, the bad guys attack and destroy your safehouse in the Badlands. The Badlands are freakin' huge, so even if you didn't care about the rebels who got killed, you'll definitely feel it once you realize there's a hundred miles of desert between your new safehouse and anywhere else.

But you never get it back, and it's just a longer commute, so it rapidly stops being "Curse you, EDF!" and starts being "Curse you, game designers!"

Wasn't Mafia 2 like that? Silly and trite as the story was, it kept a pretty good "see how time has passed" kind of thing after the arrest, and it even robs you of all of your fancy suits in the raid that causes you to flee to your buddy's house in your underpants, causing you to more or less start anew. They don't take your cars, if I remember right, which is kind of weird, but hey, close enough. It could really have used more to buy, however.

Didn't GTA: Vice City do almost exactly that? When you bought properties it unlocked additional missions and then at the end, they try to destroy all your property and the final mission is taking down the guy that tried to take your stuff away.

I've never played GTA IV, but Vice City has always been my favorite sandbox game from the PS2 era.

Sandbox games need to be aware of the type of story they are trying to tell. Example: Bully. It provides solutions to both of Yahtzee's issues. The school is divided into fractions corresponding classic social categories, and your the missions you undertake for one faction will effect your reputation with the other factions. This in turn corresponds to how the interact with you in the free roaming environment. Unfortunately I don't think it works the other way round, but being a kid at school your actions still have other consequences if you aren't quick enough to avoid the hall monitors or your victim's retribution. The passage of time was also quite pronounced not only by the need to sleep but by the changing of the seasons. There were also certain missions and activities that you could only do during certain times of the day or year.

The money problem was solved by the fact that the game remembered you were still a kid. You can't earn money from interest or owning businesses, so you have to steal or do odd jobs around town. And there was always something to spend it on even if it was just clothes. But those still felt significant because your style effected how groups in the real world would react to you: whether the girls would admire you or the greasers would shove you as they walked past. You unlock most of the weapons, vehicles and safe-houses during missions which made them feel extra special.

*spoiler alert*
It even pulls the second act reset idea Yahtzee was talking about. Halfway through you go out on your most daring prank yet, only to return and find-out your psychotic former roommate has been spreading rumors about you and you've lost all your reputation. After that you spend most of the game beating all the factions back into submission (where as you began the game on a neutral ground, now they're all actively hostile) and forming an alliance to thwart your rival's take-over of the school. No jetpack, but you did get a spud launcher and a go-cart.
*end spoiler alert*

San Andreas did something similar to the trick described in the last paragraph. Around mid-game Tenpenny takes your character hostage and he robs you of your guns (not sure about the cash), essentially making you start from the beginning in a new, remote location. I remember reacting just like described ("My guuuuuuuuuuuns!") :)

Open Sandbox games don't have to be incompatible with time limits. Star Control 2 and the origial Fallout are the best examples of this. Although SC 2 probably does it better because it's a soft time limit: you never get a "Time's Up-Game Over" message, but if you faff about too long the map becomes filled with extremely powerful enemies that inevitably exhaust your limited resources.

On the other hand, not every game needs to do this or will necessarily be better for it-part of the appeal of Skyrim is that you're free to do whatever you want and the impending apocalypse can go take a smoke break while I fart around.

Yeah, it's like in Poacher! Once you've bought all the items in the shop, the gold coins dropped by enemies become entirely pointless! :P

I know this example is not even remotely in the same genre, but I was very impressed by the rings mechanic in the Sonic games. Not only were they the "currency" used to get extra lives, but also served as a buffer to prevent being killed instantly. It was pretty creative.

Demon's Souls might be a bit closer, with the Souls currency being used for... Well, everything. Leveling the character, upgrading the bonfires, buying items....

GTA 2 made you pay for your saves. Quite a hefty whack too- on a new game, you actually had to play a fair few missions to be able to save. But then with each mission you complete, you get a multiplier- and the value of the missions goes up as well. Thus breaking the economy. Helpfully though it resets (I think) at each new area.
On which, you have to reach a target to get to the new area. So, trick out a car with a bunch of upgrades (that you'll lose when it blows up anyway), or go forward?

When it comes down to it, it's all about the rewards. Yea, money is meaningless if it doesn't do anything for you. Personally I think the whole achievement/trophy system is meaningless so a lot of the activities in open world games are pointless.
The problem with GTA4 was that I wasn't compelled to do the side missions because the only reward was some achievement trophy. I did everything in San Andreas because every side mission and activity gave you rewards you could use in the game.
Same thing with Fallout 3: you feel compelled to explore everything because you might find something cool to use in the game.

I think the problem with sandbox games is simply that they try and be too story based in what is supposed to be a freeform setting. Story missions are important, but they shouldn't be quite as dramatic or "apocolypse looming over your head" all the time to make going out and doing your own thing seem inappropriate under the circumstances.

Time limits don't appeal to me, because in games like "Dead Rising" they generally mean I can't do what I want to and explore how I want to, without losing the overall game. Arbitrarly losing all of your hard work is also a "no-no" IMO because it defeats the entire purpose of the game, and if I know that's coming, I'm not going to be motivated to put in the time and effort.

To be honest I think current game designers need to look back to what older game designers were able to do. For example in the old "Crusaders Of The Dark Savant" game a big part of the game revolved around trying to find a bunch of maps that when linked together allowed you to get to the Macguffin the game revolved around. The thing was that there were other factions looking for the same maps, and a timer of sorts in place, if you spent too long faffing about (as Yahtzee put it) one of the other factions would take it, and then you'd have to find the proper NPCs (which themselves moved around, searching) to get it back, which could involve killing them or buying it depending on what faction they were in relation to who you allied with (or you could just kill everyone if you were a complete sociopath, but desicians like that could impact the ending and how the sequel began if you saved and transferred your data).

I'll also say this entire "Jetpack" fixation is starting to annoy me. I understand why a lot of people want them, but all of those reasons are also a big part of why they aren't something likely to be implemented heavily. Simply put, being able to fly over the content tends to ruin a lot of it, in a sandbox game you no longer have to really worry about the police, traffic, etc... in Morrowwind being able to fly basically meant that you could ignore everything except the jillions of cliff racers if you were so inclined. Flying in a lot of games pretty much reduces a lot of the challenge to zero, and also admittedly cuts down on gameplay due to reduced travel times, and requires a lot more work to make sure everything looks smooth from above, where things can be more easily hidden from a ground based player. Unless your point is to trivialize a lot of the general world content (like in a lot of super hero games) and want to retain the challenge, it means having to design with three dimensions in mind. To say make a crime game as challenging if you jet pack from place to place, you'd pretty much have to put thugs with rocket launchers or whatever on every building, or greatly expand the number of air based enemies (police choppers, etc...). In some cases this could really ruin the vibe, especially if you plan to make your game seem at least partially serious.

Likewise, flying would kind of ruin a lot of those collection quests where half the point is to make people jump into awkward places. A good flight system that retains the player's abillity to act normally, kind of makes jumping and related puzzles and challenges irrelevent.

Opinions vary of course, personally I like being able to fly in games (so don't misunderstand this) but I understand why we don't see more of it, and I think a lot of gamers need to understand that, as well as why such abillities if they exist tend to be VERY late game OR limited to specific sections that are built around them.

Vice City sort of approached the whole "demand we buy a car so we can get into the next mission" thing. The "major" properties all had missions associated with them (from races to car-jacking to robbing a bank to... you get the idea). Hell, the final story mission (which, btw, is the bad guys *trying* to steal all the money you've worked so hard for) is only unlockable after you've completed certain of those jobs.

That being said - I enjoyed that aspect tremendously, and wish sandbox-type games would do that sort of thing more often.

Now you've got me thinking, though - what about a time-travel gimmick? I know they're overused, but... why not a sandbox version of Majora's Mask, where you can jump back and forth through a given time period with the "end of the world" coming down the line? Maybe combine that with the Fable 3 mechanic of "the more money you spend, the easier the final fight gets"...

Something worth thinking about, I guess.

Mankind is Yet to Recognize My Genius, would have the rival villain take 1 million dollars (just as much cash the protagonist villain would get from doing all the required story missions right before the final act) right before the final act. Also, jetpacks.
Jetpacks just like in Just Cause 2 (as in costing the same as a new gun/ammo refill).

Speaking of disappointing sandbox games (Sleeping Dogs, not Just Cause), Saints Row the Third really failed by making the hacker dude immediately trash your money account before you would use any money. It would work if you could at least buy one thing, and then Matt's ugly face would show up on a television screen and yell, "CAN'T LET YOU DO THAT, SAINTS' BOSS!"

My biggest problem with the way many sandbox games are constructed, and I think it's mainly the fault of GTA, is how arbitrarily restrictive the missions often are. There's a mission early in Assassin's Creed 2 where you have to escort your family out of Florence. So, OK, you can't just do your free-running shenanigans because your dragging a couple of family members around, which is fine, that makes sense, but then there's also checkpoints that you have to walk through for no reason other than the designers don't want you to wander off their plan for the quest. What's the point of making a big open city with lots of paths if the story missions are going to render them irrelevant? Actually, no, I've got that the wrong way around; what's the point of the story missions if they render the big open city irrelevant?

My main problem with open world games is the 1st point Yatzhee mentions. In fact, I didn't like GTA 4 because of the dissonance between story mode Belic and shenanigans Belic.

Story mode Belic is not amoral, which pulls me off the game. I am sorry, but I can't take seriously his dark and angsty past, where you may have killed or lost someone one moment, and then travel to the next mission in a road paved with dead pedestrians...

The time dissonance is a symptom of the same issue. Its hard to take any time sensitive threat seriously when you can loose yourself in sidequests. A recent example of this is Arkham City, where you can

or just go spend several hours trying to get some collectibles or solving puzzles.

Yahtzee Croshaw:
What if you did the standard sandbox crime game thing for the first half of the game, gradually acquiring more and more money, luxury apartments, fancy clothes and powerful vehicles, but then at the start of the second half your character falls for some dastardly trick and the villain steals everything you have?

In a sandbox game such as this, I think that'd be a terrible move to make. I'd just load back up the last save before I lost all my cool stuff so I could have a blast on the town.

I disagree with everything. Timekeeping is irrelevant. What Dead Rising did was extremely frustrating. And you will always end up with money that you won't be able to spend in a free roaming game.

The money issue: The best thing you can do is add as much stuff as you can and lock some of them until you reach a specific part of the game. And make it extremely hard to earn money. At least in the beginning. Like in Scarface: The World is Yours. At first you can only do small drug deals and buy cheap stuff. But as you progress you start making more money and you unlock more expensive things to buy. And it also made perfect sense within the story. And the fact that you could put all your money in the bank made your HUD look cleaner and you never felt like you had an insane amount of money that doesn't do anything.

what about fairly linear games like mass effect?

I was more taken out of that series by the simple fact that your were racing to save the galaxy and you had to divert to find minerals, stop off to do something or other, or have half the galaxy to explore yet, me2 sort of combatted this by killing more of your crew after the point of no return point if you messed around too much, but all the games had a certain lack of urgency that you would expect when the entire galaxy is in danger of annilation.

front loaded it is not so bad, but when your near the end of the game then it seems a bit late for the good admiral to call you up to spend a few days exploring some rock on the far side of the galaxy. nm slogging around planets in that buggy.

There is one more thing to do for clear timelines - character appearance . IN ac2 , Ezio looks the same throughout most of the story . Thats the same EP as the spider man one , you can see that Batman , or Walker or whoever has come a long road since the story began .
Ac revelation did that actually with Altair`s story , you can see how he gets older and more mature .

I've been thinking about the issue of money in games, and I agree with Yahtzee that at a certain point in the game, you've accumulated so much money that spending it all becomes impossible and needless, and acquiring more asinine. So, I've thought what if a player could use ones money to affect the degree of game-play (outside of purchasing more/better equipment)? What if we could use money to lower/raise difficulty of game-play?

Example: you have a mission where you need to enter an enemy stronghold and eliminate the boss. There are two potential game-play outcomes. 1). The standard mode where the player storms through the front entrance and engages in prolong fights with the boss' minions before reaching the boss and taking him/her out. 2.) OR, with a little ingenuity and exploration on the part of the player, the player could discover a disgruntled janitor/security guard in the outside sandbox world who, with the right persuasion of money, could allow the player into the stronghold mission undetected, completely bypassing all the fights with the boss' minions and head straight to the objective.

Both scenarios can suit the game-play style of the player and are perfectly viable gameplay outcomes. However, the second option provides the extra reward to the player for their ingenuity by lowering the level of difficulty, while at the same time giving them a tangible benefit for accumulating money (however the player acquires money in the game). This would certainly alleviate some of the pain from grinding one's way to an even higher money count, because it has some real game-play benefit for the player (and not just providing an excuse to keep employed the players virtual equivalent of an accountant!)

it is interesting to think about how the ending you discribed in this article reminds me of the ending of Max Payne.

The thing is, unless you are in a timed situation. Then you can take you time and mess around in any game to a degree.

It leaves choice up to the player, to get what they want out of it.

I think the real problem with it, is certain developers rely on it entirely too much as an excuse of not fully developing their product. We can look at the likes of prototype(at least the original) and clearly see a "sandbox" but it really is only about as big as a sandbox. Even when you encounter games that do it well like anything from Bethesda, you hear the rally cry of "they are crafting a world" That falls flat when you encounter your first zone wall hidden behind a cliff, or in many cases nothing at all. It is even worse when you see the developer hide behind that justification as an excuse to halfass the narrative of their product into rote gaming cliches. I still do not get that logic, What is the point of building a big open complex sandbox, when you deprive the player the motivation to even bother to go out looking for anything within it.

The timekeeping thing is a really weird thing in some sandbox games, especially Elder Scrolls ones. I remember things taking a lot of time in Morrowind (in no small part because you had to walk everywhere unless you wanted to place your Mark spell somewhere besides that ultra-rich mudcrab or could get to a silt strider), but it felt ridiculous to be the head of a Guild in Oblivion inside of an in-game week. And as much as I enjoyed it in other areas, Skyrim felt worse- I was the Harbinger of the Companions within seventy-two in-game hours.

Both Saints Row 2 and 3 had massive issues with money. I like the mechanic/idea of buying properties as a front for your gang activities but when you're sitting on millions of dollars in revenue from your real estate investments it makes one think that perhaps their character would be a better Realtor than gangster.

A lot of what Yahtzee says in this article has a lot of merit. I've seen the "and then we take away everything you've gained thus far" bit in a number of games, though (albeit usually not out-and-out sandboxes), and I have to confess, I hate it with a passion. It always seems lazy to me- "Remember how hard everything was when you just had the pistol? Ha! Guess what?! Now you'll just have to go through all those suddenly-hard-again enemies you've been laughing at for the last hour again, and the modelers, AI programmers and skinners are all going to go have a smoke break."

I'm not saying it couldn't be done well, especially if you could regain the things you'd lost and put them to new uses. If you'd been taking Louie's Gun Shop for granted as just a place to get free ammo (that you could already get easily any number of other places for a few bucks from your huge stockpile o' cash) and suddenly in the new order the police are looking for you and you can't buy ammo from any of the legal stores and old Louie's is now the only thing holding the eastern front of your territory in place, you'd start looking at it in a very different light.

Still, generally speaking, I'd prefer that game designers worked additively rather than subtractively to increase their play time. Too much money? Suggest I need to up-arm my minions to ward off the increasingly aggressive attacks against my store fronts (and pay for their ammo on a regular basis.) Give me a useful sidekick who needs a medicine I need to re-route my empire towards acquiring. (Emphasis on useful- don't give me someone I'm told I'm supposed to care about who bad-ends the storyline if they die.) Have my slum apartment tenants complain about bad neighbors. There's no good reason that the things we buy and think of as bonuses, useful though they might be, shouldn't unlock new storylines and content of their own.

I also have to say that I'm hoping some day to see a game where the characters in the cut-scene hold their breath when I walk into the room and refuse to tell me bad news that could get me killed because I've been making a habit of running over twelve grandmothers and a puppy every time I go from point x to point y. The first time our seemingly non-storyline sandbox activities actually turn out to have a real influence on the storyline, preferably in more than a binary good-or-evil fashion- that's going to be a real kick in the teeth, in a good way. I'm not saying every sandbox should do that, but I'd absolutely adore to see it done, at least once, well.

Something that always bugged me (that ties into the article's wealth problem) about most crime sandbox game is unlimited resources. Example: the best cars in the game spawn at the same rate, even if you've stolen 200 of them previously. Therefore, the only benefit of stealing a really nice car is to go really fast.

This isn't a terrible reason, but I'd like to see a crime game where there's no respawn for resources. At the beginning of the game, these high-value resources have a set level (we'll use the example of 5 cars) following relatively random paths and/or activities, though the possiblity of seeing a Ferrari driving through the ghetto would be less likely than it being in an affluent suburb mansion.

If you steal and total one of the top-tier cars, that car is gone. You only have 4 left to pursue. Not only will this make finding one all the more novel and exciting, but will also provide subtle and potentially rewarding role-playing opportunities. Let's say you find one of these cars. Do you drive it safely to your garage to collect it, a constant symbol of your wealth and prestige? Or do you go get drunk at a bar, pick up a hooker, and wrap it around a tree?

The way, following this logic, to make wealth worth something more in the game is by allowing you to purchase those limited resources. Are you a petty thief who stumbles across one of the only rocket launchers in the game? Or are you a well-funded billionaire criminal who can buy rocket launchers on a whim because of your expansive cash? This would also help you get a greater sense of the rags-to-riches crime story that takes up a lot of these sandboxes by mirroring real life. Rich people have access to more resources than poor people.

Just Cause 2 made money very easy to gain and lose at the same time (what with the black market items being so expensive) the only really big problem was the fact that there was a finite amount of money you could earn in the game. Once you had 100%'d all the settlements, completed all the missions, and found all the resource items, that was it, all the money in the game was found. Unless you get money from challenges if you complete them again (I don't).

I like the way Borderlands did it with a new game+ and raising everything (the enemies' levels, the loot, the mission experience rewards) so that you feel like you have purpose again. Now if only a game could just have NO level cap and endless new game+'s while keeping a generally consistent rate of leveling up so it doesn't feel like a complete time-sink.

Still holding out for Crackdown + Borderlands shooty-looty-superhero-y game like that.

I really liked the one twist Mass Effect 2 did with the timekeeping. It's not really sandbox game, but you can certainly cruise around the galaxy looking for resources and taking your sweet time.

Then there's that place where they tell you 'hey, you better hurry.' And because you know there's never any hurry (you can spend 40 hours with the final boss's finger hovering over the nuclear launch button or demon invasion), you can just fart along like you did before until you're ready to finish. Whoops. Sorry guys!

My favorite sandboxes, Arkham City and Infamous 2, never had a problem with either of the problems.

First problem has never been a problem simply because in Arkham City, you are forced to feel the tension and problems Batman face all under one night while Infamous 2 made it clear how every passing major event, you feel the presence of The Beast closer and closer.

As for the second problem, the solution was the only currency you obtain is experience from conflicts and use those points to unlock more ways to mix it up in combat or travel.

With the amount of recent harping on jetpacks I'm amazed Yahtzee has never reviewed Global Agenda. A game built entirely around "Weeee, jetpacks!"

Anywho, all economic systems in games fail in light of infinite potential cash. No matter How much stuff costs or what it might get you, ay some point you buy everything and money is worthless. The challenge is balancing this so that most players will get most of the stuff before the end but not all of it. Money is only worthwhile while you can get something better. Of course some games cock this up the other way too and make thing ridiculously expensive to the point where getting them seems unreachable and people don't bother. I'm reminded of some MMOs, that force a player to grind for long periods to get the newest thing once they've earned 200 points at 4 pints a day. It's not fixable, only improvable.

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