Watch_Dogs: Too Much Sandbox, Too Little Game

Watch_Dogs: Too Much Sandbox, Too Little Game

A sandbox world is supposed to be a good thing in games, but not at the expense of gameplay.

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Yeah I agree with this. I'd say the side activities were done best in the early Saints Row games because you needed them to keep the enemy gangs from gaining a presence in your zones (respect, yo). They also made the world seem more real and the endings to each gang more satisfying for what you had to go through to reach it.

I did not like that system in Saints Row.
I felt like they cordoned off the story until we played with their shiny baubles. And while those shiny baubles were fun and all, I did not appreciate being forced to do them. Especially since they broke the flow of game for a friend and I.

The last bit, about having an item that costs a lot I like. Instead of, like in Red Dead Redemption, getting all my guns and horses through missions make me go buy them.
I'm sitting on the side of the dust trail just thinking to myself "Man I would love a shotgun." Whereupon the game replies "You can buy one at the store for only a mere five grand!"
"Five Grand?!" I then pontificate back at the game. "How am I expected to make five grand?! I only get maybe a hundred dollars for completing a mission." Showing my long removed knowledge of how readily available money is in this game.
"I don't know, gamble or something." Will be it's retort.

The game isn't blocked off until I am having the prerequisite amount of fun, because you can easily get through the game using the starting rifle and pistol. But if I want a shiny shotgun or a horse that doesn't have leprosy I have to go buy them. For quite a bit of money. And mini games are the best source of money.

There are two major types of freedom in games, and I think most developers haven't really learned the difference between them:

  • What to do
  • How to do
Let's give some examples:

Minecraft gives you freedom of both. You decide your own goals, and you have complete control over how you achieve these goals. I don't even need to explain this.

Most sandbox games and MMORPGs, (GTA, Watch_Dogs, World of Warcraftetc) give a ton of freedom in terms of what to do, allowing all sorts of sidequests that you can skip or not, but very little freedom in terms of how. Sure, you might have some control over the route you take to start a mission or quest, but once you get there you typically have to enter a building or cave with a quite linear path and specific goals. You can accept or deny missions, but there's not much variation on how to do said missions.

On the flip side of the coin, you've got Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, which sets your objectives in stone and has no side quests; the closest you get is bonus missions unlocked after you beat the game. No real freedom in what... but the game is intentionally designed to give a ton of how freedom. You can come onto the base from any side, you can exit from multiple helicopter landing locations, you can rescue the hostages in whichever order you want, and there's dozens of different ways even of getting around the same guards. Based on what Kojima's said, it seems like The Phantom Pain will also fit this category. Frankly, I wish more games would do it like this; it allows you to tell a story as tightly as you want, without actually feeling restrictive.

Last but not least is Medal of Honor: Warfighter and its ilk. No freedom at all. Might be okay for platformers and racing games, but in shooters and adventure games it's incredibly annoying, especially when the game pretends to have more freedom than it actually does.

The problem that players have to put up with is that developers like to lump all of the first three types of freedom together into vague descriptions like "open-world" and "sandbox", following whatever conventions they think of without putting a lot of thought into what style of freedom works best for the game they want to make. That's how games like Watch_Dogs are made. With a muddled idea of what freedom is, without a clear concept of what form they want freedom to take (or in fact needs to take, based on how central the game's story is), developers end up making by-the-numbers games from whatever pieces of more popular games they can throw together. If a dev can't decide what they're gonna make, it's a safe bet they're gonna end up making crap.

P.S. Thanks

Very very insightful, now I understand why I could never get into this genre, every time I tried I would just end up bulldozing through the story until I just got tired of the game and gave up.

Yahtzee Croshaw:
All it takes is one stat, which most of these games already have. Money, or XP, or whatever it is that every activity in the entire game gives you a little bit of. You tell the player they can't do the next plot mission until they've earned a minimum amount of whatever it is, a la No More Heroes, and that you don't care how they save it up.

So they just go off and do whatever side stuff appeals to them for a while. As well as granting time to let them appreciate the sandbox world, it puts an effective cooling-off period between story events to really pace things out nicely. Bish, bash, and furthermore, bosh. Sorted. You see, 'side activity' doesn't necessarily mean 'optional activity'. If you let the player pussy out all the time, you might as well stick a big red 'WIN GAME' button in the middle of the city.

This describes Just Cause perfectly.

The devs realized that people played their games to dick around on a cool island, so they said "rather than forcing people to play story missions to unlock the good story, creating enough CHAOS will unlock new story." Granted, it doesn't have the same end-end game unlocks, but people are always too busy dicking around to care, because the devs made the game not feel completely like a mini-game completion slog.

Bato:
I did not like that system in Saints Row.
I felt like they cordoned off the story until we played with their shiny baubles. And while those shiny baubles were fun and all, I did not appreciate being forced to do them. Especially since they broke the flow of game for a friend and I.

I second this. The problem with his idea is that if a game has a strong story, said story tends to flow naturally, and putting in artificial breaks is just infuriating.

Take Fallout: New Vegas. Great open world, tons to explore. The thing is, you know what your next step is at any time; Go to the Strip, find Benny, get involved in politics, etc. If you put in breaks saying, "You need more XP to talk to that person," it feels artificial. There are occasional side missions where that works (You need to kill a bunch of raiders to talk to the NCR, or you need a bunch of caps to bribe someone), but then those aren't really optional. Forcing people to fuck about in the open world, marking time in random ways until they can get back to the story, is not the best system for having a cohesive unit.

Mainly agree. One thing that absolutely kills sandbox games, though, is lack of depth. Where the world could be swapped with something completely different and that wouldn't matter. The player needs to find interest in things they find in the world that aren't necessarily side missions, just stuff they can do. If the only structure comes from missions and the world is just there with nothing else in it, it gets boring fast.

Yahtzee Croshaw:
Watch_Dogs: Too Much Sandbox, Too Little Game

A sandbox world is supposed to be a good thing in games, but not at the expense of gameplay.

Read Full Article

Loved the article as always. Funny, yet true in it's insights!
Did you notice your forum post count is 663 at the moment?
Three more posts and... reality will forever be altered, as all actions alter reality :P

Now to have that little wank we talked about...
Actually, no, because I have to fill in the sponsored brand name Captcha first.

I remember Yahtzee talking about how in Mafia II the morning police chase getting to the mission made the game more pleasant, and was possibly more fun than the missions themselves. Otherwise there wasn't too much else to do in the world. I enjoyed stealing cars more than the missions, but I could have really used the occasional open jewelry store to rob or something. (In the game you can rob gas-stations and clothiers from which you bought stuff, but I felt that was poor form.)

I think one of my favorite GTA (III, Vice City, San Andreas, etc.) activities is to steal a really massive truck and then rampage through the streets. In fact, one of the ways I'd look to shake off police while looking for bribes (I called them evasions - the power-ups that remove a star's worth of law-enforcement interest) would be to seize upon the largest vehicle I could find and then plummet through throroughfares, usually plowing through police baracades satisfyingly like they were autumn leaf-piles.

And my preferred sandbox games would be ones that capitalized on dynamics like that rather than, yeah, heists in which the world becomes somewhat locked down and plays by different rules until you finish it.

It's why Far Cry 2 is one of my favorite games, is that the missions are typically no more than go here and do a thing or maybe two or three such tasks in sequence (reminding me somewhat of the Microprose F-117A missions). FC2 game is less about the arrival or the accomplishment and more about the journey getting there, and what fine messes you find yourself getting into along the way.

238U[1]

[1] As of this posting I have not received a US National Security Letter or any classified gag order from an agent of the United States.
This post does not contain an encrypted secret message
Tuesday, June 17, 2014 10:05:51 AM
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I just can't help but wonder why two staple games in the "sandbox done right" style *always* seem to e ignored... Freelancer, and Red Faction: Guerrilla. Freelancer operates on exactly what the EP suggested: you need to be worth $x to take on the next story mission. How do you reach that value? 100% up to you. And Guerrilla, I feel, is the pinnacle example of sandbox done right. The story was written to deliberately take full advantage of the sandbox-oriented nature of the world. It only has 20 or so story missions, but the "requirement" in order to progress fits the narrative of the game *perfectly*, so nothing ever seems shoehorned into place.

Just thought I'd stoke the memory of those two great games that, I feel, remain unmatched in "open world with a point" gameplay.

I think what Yahtzee is trying to say it that Just Cause 2 should be the goto example of how to make a sandbox game. Can't agree more.

I dunno, your solution seems to just cause the GTA problem all over again - there's the story missions, and the "rest of the game" missions. Forcing you to go do side stuff before you can get to the next story section doesn't do anything to address the "story stuff is where the real game is" problem.

For example, No More Heroes did not in any way need to be a sandbox game, and the sandbox part was both poorly implemented and added nothing to the game. A world map where you could jump to the shops and side jobs would have served exactly the same purpose. And it's not like you get much from exploring the town.

Yuck, arbitrary gating in a sandbox, no thanks. The problem is you've identified a problem with a lack of cohesion but solved the problem by taking the entirely unrelated pieces and hammering nails through them until they're kind of stuck together.

Adding a random Though Shall Not Pass Until You Guess A Number Higher Than The One I'm Thinking Of, doesn't tie together the elements meaningfully. To make it work you need to look at each individual piece and find a narrative structure that's built out of all those little bits so that playing in the sandbox is the story. Doing little adventures is what defines your character and in each adventure he learns something about the world which has some ongoing impact. And that's hard and takes a lot of work and intelligence, but then it's not too earth shattering that making something better requires work.

EDIT: Actually thinking about it more, the arbitrary number can work as long as you tie it into the hard work. So you're trying to clean up a corrupt city, each side mission or random piece of screwing around fixes a small problem and lowers the area 'crime level'. Nice people show up, the streets look less dirty and crimes are less frequent as you wander around. After the crime level hits a certain point it triggers an event, where the criminals hire a psychopath to take you out, or the call their ultimate weapon into the sandbox. And now the world is a little different again.

This could be annoying still because people might want to muck about without actually advancing the game, but maybe designing the triggers properly or making the changes not too devastating can fix that.

Baldur's Gate II actually did something very similar to what Yahtzee is suggesting. After completing the first segment of the game (the introduction chapter), a character is kidnapped, and the player is told to gather a large sum of cash for the thieves guild to get information on where to find her. Cue running around doing sidequests in the huge, very fleshed-out city. This is then followed by a number of more linear chapters, before the player is let back into the city again.

I've been thinking for a while that what games in general and "open world" or "sandbox" games in particular could use is a system that adapts to what the player is actually doing, rather than or coexistant with the "narrative" one that says "go here, do x".

The more difficult implementation would be one that starts cobbling together a sort of narrative, including backstory, based on the kinds of activities you've been doing. Are you a vigilante? A serial killer? An anarchist? A courier? Here's some more things to do along the lines of what you've been doing: track down the murderer of your brother. Target the family of the detective assigned to your case. Dump twenty tons of shaving cream into the police commissioner's office. Find out what's really going on with these packages you've delivering, and why so many of the other couriers assigned the task have been turning up floating in the river. Your vigilante starts killing prostitutes? Your serial killer starts taxiing people around the city? Uh... We've got an explanation, hold on.

The implementation I thought up that would be easier to work into existing games would be a kind of "flavored" experience points. If you choose to level up your driving with experience you got from a stealth mission, you get better at tailing people; if you level up your driving with experience from a combat mission, you get better at ramming people. Various degrees of "flavor" based on what you've actually been doing, some possibly quite subtle- maybe you varyingly get access to a sub-machine gun with a higher rate of fire, a silencer, greater armor penetration.

Thunderous Cacophony:

Bato:
I did not like that system in Saints Row.
I felt like they cordoned off the story until we played with their shiny baubles. And while those shiny baubles were fun and all, I did not appreciate being forced to do them. Especially since they broke the flow of game for a friend and I.

I second this. The problem with his idea is that if a game has a strong story, said story tends to flow naturally, and putting in artificial breaks is just infuriating.

Take Fallout: New Vegas. Great open world, tons to explore. The thing is, you know what your next step is at any time; Go to the Strip, find Benny, get involved in politics, etc. If you put in breaks saying, "You need more XP to talk to that person," it feels artificial.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't you need 2000 caps to get into New Vegas? Seems like a pretty spot-on example of exactly this trick.

Also, I think it's probably possible to pace the story around these breaks. For instance, Red Dead's narrative probably would have felt a lot less padded if you'd simply been forced to raise the money for the assault on Fort Mercer yourself instead of dicking around with Dickens for however many tedious missions.

You could also use this kind of design to add context to the player's actions. What if, once ////SPOILER//// John gets betrayed in Mexico and joins the rebels, the player was tasked with doing side missions to recruit people and help stir up the revolution around the province before any of the big cinematic battles can take place? Suddenly, you don't have to have as many filler missions, and the player feels more invested in the conflict.

Obviously there's the potential for irritation if you're using these kinds of breaks too often or without appropriate context, but used sparingly and thoughtfully I think they could add more to the pacing and immersion than they subtract.

BrotherRool:
EDIT: Actually thinking about it more, the arbitrary number can work as long as you tie it into the hard work. So you're trying to clean up a corrupt city, each side mission or random piece of screwing around fixes a small problem and lowers the area 'crime level'. Nice people show up, the streets look less dirty and crimes are less frequent as you wander around. After the crime level hits a certain point it triggers an event, where the criminals hire a psychopath to take you out, or the call their ultimate weapon into the sandbox. And now the world is a little different again.

This could be annoying still because people might want to muck about without actually advancing the game, but maybe designing the triggers properly or making the changes not too devastating can fix that.

This actually sort of brings up an interesting contradiction: The goals of the player and the protagonist are often at odds. As the player, I likely enjoy the gameplay (at least in a good game) of stopping crimes, saving civilians, or just generally righting whatever wrongs are occurring. Therefore, I want them to not only keep happening, but to happen to greater and greater degrees. As the Player, my interest is in seeing the gangs get access to tanks and helicopters and what-have-you so I can have new threats to take down.

As the Character, my goal is frequently the opposite: The character would rather see a lower crime rate, weaker gangs, and so on. From the perspective of the Character, advancing the plot means making changes that reduce the intensity of the encounters I face. The Characters (usually) wants the world to become a better, cleaner, safer place.

The specific Sandbox/Story Mission balance is going to be different for every player, but personally I tend to save story missions for until I run out of sandbox-y things to do. In Far Cry 3 I pretty much captured all the outposts on the first island as soon as I could.

I don't actually know what point I'm building towards here, so I suppose that I'll just stop now.

tl;dr: The end of the world is nigh, stock up on canned goods.

I've always wanted to see one of these sandbox engines (the GTA4 friendship mechanics in particular) used to make a Harvest Moon game.

Yahtzee Croshaw:
Watch_Dogs: Too Much Sandbox, Too Little Game

A sandbox world is supposed to be a good thing in games, but not at the expense of gameplay.

Read Full Article

I thought you hated saints row 2's respect system. In fact you said it was "Weirdly dictatorial" or something.

I think you also said in one of your racing game reviews that "While I will play driving games, they have been seeming a wee bit redundant lately when a game like grand theft auto can have all the features of a driving game but also lets you get out of the car and kick elderly women to death.". And yet here you say that there's no reason for people not to do that if the mechanics are going to be worse in the sandbox game.

Time changes minds a lot, doesn't it yahtzee? So do you like SR2's respect system now or what?

SnakeTrousers:

Thunderous Cacophony:

I second this. The problem with his idea is that if a game has a strong story, said story tends to flow naturally, and putting in artificial breaks is just infuriating.

Take Fallout: New Vegas. Great open world, tons to explore. The thing is, you know what your next step is at any time; Go to the Strip, find Benny, get involved in politics, etc. If you put in breaks saying, "You need more XP to talk to that person," it feels artificial.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't you need 2000 caps to get into New Vegas? Seems like a pretty spot-on example of exactly this trick.

Also, I think it's probably possible to pace the story around these breaks. For instance, Red Dead's narrative probably would have felt a lot less padded if you'd simply been forced to raise the money for the assault on Fort Mercer yourself instead of dicking around with Dickens for however many tedious missions.

You could also use this kind of design to add context to the player's actions. What if, once ////SPOILER//// John gets betrayed in Mexico and joins the rebels, the player was tasked with doing side missions to recruit people and help stir up the revolution around the province before any of the big cinematic battles can take place? Suddenly, you don't have to have as many filler missions, and the player feels more invested in the conflict.

Obviously there's the potential for irritation if you're using these kinds of breaks too often or without appropriate context, but used sparingly and thoughtfully I think they could add more to the pacing and immersion than they subtract.

I mentioned in my original post that there was a bribe (thank you for reminding me of specific context). However, that works for a couple reasons:
1) By that point, if you've been doing the regular Fallout thing of scavenging everything within reach, 2000 caps is not a massive price. It's trivial to pay it straight off or go and visit a single nearby location and gain that much (heck, there's probably enough jobs from the Followers, Gun Runners, etc. just there on the outskirts to pay the entire fee). It slows you down, but it doesn't stop you in your tracks, point you away from the story, and say, "Go find something to do until you have the money. Yes, I know the only thing given about your character is that you want revenge on Benny, but you'll have to wait for that story to pay off. Enjoy your vault-raiding while wondering whether a real person could have found another way in."

2)It happens once. If you needed to raise the money every time you had to get into New Vegas, or if there were multiple bribes, I would have started chafing at the yoke (and it sounds like you would too). The way Yahtzee phrases it (and with the example of No More Heroes) he wants regular breaks in the story to do this forced world-exploring, which would shoot the pacing to hell.

Your Red Dead recruitment idea sounds like a good game, but I'm not sure if that was what the article was arguing for. If that were to happen, you wouldn't be doing whatever to gather abstract resources to unlock the next part, you would be following the story mission structure to gain concrete rewards (X joins your cause).

Gathering the resources for attacking the Fort sounds more open, but there would need to be the freedom to attack it at any time, possibly failing because you didn't have enough bullets, friends, etc., then going to gather more stuff and trying again. The strategy that the article puts forth just continues the separation between "open-world messing around" and the narrative, rather than bringing them together in a holistic manner.

You mean that 'respect bar' thing Saint's Row 2 did? You know, the one that everybody complained about, including Yahtzee?

Howling Din:
You mean that 'respect bar' thing Saint's Row 2 did? You know, the one that everybody complained about, including Yahtzee?

That was what I was thinking too. The only difference is that it didn't have a big huge thing that happened when you finished everything... a big huge thing like the neighborhood-destroying Nuke upgrade in Saints' Row 4.

For the record, I never complained about the SR2 respect bar. I found it was wonderful. The strenght of SR2 are its side activities and the respect bar forced people to pay attention to them. If you didn't start an activity to try to play the first mission and then only returned to the missions five hours later, with enough respect for at least 2/3rds of the game, you are a heartless android and have been marked.

Thunderous Cacophony:
I mentioned in my original post that there was a bribe (thank you for reminding me of specific context). However, that works for a couple reasons:
1) By that point, if you've been doing the regular Fallout thing of scavenging everything within reach, 2000 caps is not a massive price. It's trivial to pay it straight off or go and visit a single nearby location and gain that much (heck, there's probably enough jobs from the Followers, Gun Runners, etc. just there on the outskirts to pay the entire fee). It slows you down, but it doesn't stop you in your tracks, point you away from the story, and say, "Go find something to do until you have the money. Yes, I know the only thing given about your character is that you want revenge on Benny, but you'll have to wait for that story to pay off. Enjoy your vault-raiding while wondering whether a real person could have found another way in."

2)It happens once. If you needed to raise the money every time you had to get into New Vegas, or if there were multiple bribes, I would have started chafing at the yoke (and it sounds like you would too). The way Yahtzee phrases it (and with the example of No More Heroes) he wants regular breaks in the story to do this forced world-exploring, which would shoot the pacing to hell.

Your Red Dead recruitment idea sounds like a good game, but I'm not sure if that was what the article was arguing for. If that were to happen, you wouldn't be doing whatever to gather abstract resources to unlock the next part, you would be following the story mission structure to gain concrete rewards (X joins your cause).

Gathering the resources for attacking the Fort sounds more open, but there would need to be the freedom to attack it at any time, possibly failing because you didn't have enough bullets, friends, etc., then going to gather more stuff and trying again. The strategy that the article puts forth just continues the separation between "open-world messing around" and the narrative, rather than bringing them together in a holistic manner.

For point 1) I don't think that makes it different from what Yahtzee's suggesting, it's just an example of this mechanic being well implemented. If you've done enough adventuring up to that point to make 2000 caps, awesome, in you go. If not, do some jobs for the guys hanging around outside. It's giving you a reason to interact with the world and build up your character before you jump into the story.

Point 2) well, I think a better example would be if the NCR or Legion required you to gain some status within the faction before missions become available. It doesn't necessarily have to be money as long as there's some sort of stat requirement that needs to be fulfilled, and again the effectiveness of this method depends upon how frequently it's done and how well it's worked into the story. If you're being asked to prove yourself before every task then yes, obviously, it's going to get tiresome. If it's just for important shit like assassinating someone, though, it seems fairly reasonable for them to need to trust you more first.

Oh and RDR. For the revolution thing, people would be the resource. Stop an execution, take a bounty on a corrupt official, do some side mission etc. and more people join the rebels. For the fort, I don't think it needs to be quite that open. John needs the marshal to round up a posse, Nigel for the plan and the wagon, Seth to get them in and Irish to supply the machine gun. Nigel and Irish are both broke so they need you to get money for armor and ammo, and the marshal maybe just needs you to clean up the county by means that'd be up to the player (doing bounties, clearing hideouts, stopping roadside robberies, so on and so forth.)

Thunderous Cacophony:
I mentioned in my original post that there was a bribe (thank you for reminding me of specific context). However, that works for a couple reasons:
1) By that point, if you've been doing the regular Fallout thing of scavenging everything within reach, 2000 caps is not a massive price. It's trivial to pay it straight off or go and visit a single nearby location and gain that much (heck, there's probably enough jobs from the Followers, Gun Runners, etc. just there on the outskirts to pay the entire fee). It slows you down, but it doesn't stop you in your tracks, point you away from the story, and say, "Go find something to do until you have the money. Yes, I know the only thing given about your character is that you want revenge on Benny, but you'll have to wait for that story to pay off. Enjoy your vault-raiding while wondering whether a real person could have found another way in."

You could also buy a pass for 500 caps to get into Vegas, or be friends with the NCR and use the monorail so there was other ways in.

Having to do lame little side quests in order to level up or unlock things sounds awfully like running shitty little errands in RPGs. Way to introduce grind in to a sandbox game.

Read as "Here's another thing Saints' Row did right". By the time I got bored and wanted to see through the rest of the story, I was nearing the respect cap and easily had half to two thirds of the plot left, and even then that got broken up a few times by finding something new en route to the next story mission.

This reminds me of the kind of ongoing discussion right now about skill barriers in modern gaming, and how apart from titles like Dark Souls, this trend kind of died off. If you weren't or didn't become good enough, then the rest of the game remained behind a barrier. The idea that the rest of the game is "held hostage" or whatever the hell people moan about is countered by the idea that you can have it all right off the bat, but none of it means anything. There's no achievement or catharsis to getting everything you want as you want it, it's the setup, expectation, challenge, and fulfillment that make these activities rewarding, not some arbitrary imaginary dollar amount or similar metric popping up on screen.

Does Yahzee realize this was one of his COMPLAINTS with Saint's Row 2, back in the day? My, how the times have changed...

All sandbox games get boring after main game is complete. I loved GTA5 for the writing and banter with the 3 main characters. But once you completed the game it was just a boring game world with the usual pointless mini games to catch up with that became a chore. They can be fun to do while your completing the main mission, but on there own, they are boring.

The Sabatour was a great game in that after completing the game their was still work still to do to kick the germans out of France. Same as i like Mercenaries and Just Cause as well they are a part of the world and not mini games.

Extra Punctuation: talking about problems in video game designs and coming up with solutions since 2009.
Assassin's Creed !V's DLC Expansion, Freedom Cry (or as I've read some fans call it, Adewale Unchained) had it so you couldn't start a story mission unless you did some of the side activities, like liberating X slaves, infiltrate a plantation, or attack & board a slave ship. Doing those liberating slave side activities unlocked upgrades to Adewale's weapons, ammo pouches, and ship.

 

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