Monday, November 7, 2011

Sandboxes and the Rebirth of Grinding

With the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim just a short week away, many gamers are stoked for what they feel is the return of the king of sandbox games.  More so than being a competent RPG, Skyrim and other Elder Scrolls titles are concerned with providing players with huge, open-ended experiences where they can play as the characters they choose, and set their own goals for gameplay.  I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what the end product actually looks like once it hits shelves and the hype dies down.

More generally, though, sandboxes are all the rage these days for a variety of reasons.  The first is simple market trends - publishers are happy to adopt any characteristic they think might help enhance their games.  Second, a lot of players appreciate the feeling of control they have over their experience by being able to play in the way they choose.  Third, on a more esoteric, design-oriented level, sandbox games bring us closer to that nigh-unattainable ideal of a game which is able to provide us a truly interactive, responsive, and entertaining virtual world.

However, truth be told, I am not at all satisfied with the design of modern sandbox games, whether they're shooters, RPGs, or platform games.  While many of them are still enjoyable to play through and provide a large degree of freedom in what tasks the player is able to perform at any given time, I find that the modern sandbox design falls victim to significant problems - chief among these concerns, and the one I will focus on in this article, that they almost exclusively revolve around the act of grinding.  In addition to making for less interesting and compelling games which rarely lives up to that ideal, on a more basic level, it also makes me question whether such experiences even qualify as games to begin with.

Grinding for XP and Profit

Traditionally, when we think of grinding, we think of a game like Final Fantasy, or Dragon Quest.  In such games, a lot of time is taken up by fighting the same repetitive monsters and enemies over and over, as random encounters on a world map and inside dungeons.  Combat-heavy RPGs are nothing new, of course, and there's nothing wrong with this at its heart - attrition is one of the defining aspects of many RPGs, and being able to plan intelligently around the long haul rather than just the short term is a key distinction between players of different skill levels.

Castlevania II is infamous for revolving around grinding for currency, making up the majority of gameplay.
 Where heavy combat begins to turn into grinding is when a game presents the player with an obstacle so difficult that it can only be defeated or surpassed through a drastic leap in the player character's ability.  This can be manifest in a few ways.  Experience level is the most common one, especially in RPGs - the game will throw a tough enemy at the player he or she can't possibly defeat until growing to a greater level, usually only possible through fighting lesser enemies over and over again.  Another similar method is to bar the player from the next point until he or she has achieved certain arbitrary gameplay tasks (usually missions or side-quests), usually seen in several JRPGs and Western titles like Grand Theft Auto.  The third form of grinding most common is to require the player amass some quantity of money in order to purchase a necessary item, buy off an NPC, and so on - Baldur's Gate II does this early on, as does Castlevania II: Simon's Quest.

Usually, grinding is regarded - rightly so - as being an artificial barrier to advancing the game, put there solely to pad things out and stop the player from completing it "too quickly."  Sometimes, an alternate take sees it as a way to make sure the player is prepared for more advanced challenges, though I contend that this is just rephrasing the same problem in a more positive light.  Either way, however, grinding, especially of a mandatory nature, is rarely looked upon positively.  Some players enjoy the ability to grow in power and strength, but it's a fine line to walk between allowing upward mobility for the player, and forcing potentially hours of boring, completely insubstantive gameplay for the "privilege" of advancing the plot.

The Grindbox

As I mentioned above, usually sandbox games are well-regarded as a way of giving the player freedom to play the game in a way beyond what the designer explicitly set out, and ultimately to help reach that singularity point of a game whose mechanics and narrative are 100% reactive to the player's decisions.  The truth of the matter, of course, is that most games fall perilously short of this lofty goal, and most games settle for providing a linear storyline with optional content on the sideThe fact is that even the biggest games have only a fraction of the budget or time in development to ever capitalize on those sorts of promises, so they have to settle for something simpler.

The approach some developers take to get around this is to effectively create a large world with a ton of content in it, without linear restrictions on how the player can access this content. Though there are paths of progression, they are obscured by the fact that the player will often have many going at once, and that they frequently interact with one another.  For example, in Morrowind, the player may be concerned with leveling up, with getting new equipment, with advancing his or her standing with one of the game's guilds, and with moving the main plot forward all at once.  Progression in the guilds is linked in part to level progress, which in turn is made possible by better equipment, and in making progress in the guild, aspects of the main storyline can be uncovered and explored.  This inter-relatedness of different progression elements, including both at a narrative and gameplay level, is extremely rare to see, but when it's pulled off, it works extremely well; as far as approaching the ideal, this is about as close as one can get.

Far Cry 2 is one of the few games that suffers from a "50 km2, and nothing to do" problem.
The problem is what happens when a game doesn't manage to nail this complex interplay between elements, or ignores it entirely.  Most sandbox games are ambitious if nothing else - Far Cry 2 offers 50 square kilometers of land to explore both on foot and by vehicle, and Just Cause 2 has one of the largest game worlds to date - but usually they break down in actually giving the player anything interesting to do.  Far Cry 2 makes almost no use of its open world - at best it's a way to provide multiple tactical approaches, at worst it's a collection quest for diamonds and full of tedious hikes from one map marker to the next.  Just Cause 2 masks many of the same faults by draping them in a gown of explosions and 80s action movie cliches.  Contrast with a game like Fallout 2, where the interconnected world is governed by (and governs) the player's own unique progression, and the outcomes of the stories and quests of that world consequently change as well.

When such a design begins to break down, or isn't expanded beyond basic incentivization (i.e. collect the trinkets), the game begins to resemble less a wide-open sandbox, and instead more of a checklist, a set of arbitrary goals to accomplish before the game is "finished."  Just Cause 2, for example, houses thousands of collectable items and destructible buildings and objects for the player to hunt down.  This task may offer hundreds of hours of gameplay, but none of that gameplay ties into the story, and has no real influence on the player's own growth and progression in the game - it makes up the bulk of the content and yet as far as the game is concerned, it is effectively meaningless.  Indeed, at a certain point, the sandbox begins to resemble less a genuine player-driven game-narrative experience, and more a time-waster, an entire box full of filler content to grind through.

"Role-Playing" and Player Goals

It's possible to argue that player-driven goals should be able to trump designer-driven goals, and that if a player enjoys playing the game in a certain way, that's something a designer should play to.  I really don't buy this argument, however.  At a basic level, it's a designer's job to craft interesting interactive experiences for players, which includes interesting gameplay scenarios with meaningful stories, characters, and mechanics which drive the experience along - saying "we'll just put a bunch of stuff in the game and let the player figure out what's fun" feels like a cop-out to me, a way to wash hands of responsibility without actually designing a game at all.

Now, I'm definitely a fan of facilitating player customization and freedom in gameplay.  Some players practically live for this, choosing to role-play as a character and adhere to certain rules even if there are no actual mechanics supporting it, such as the aforementioned "eat three meals a day" example.  Certainly, if your game has room for it, give people the chance to do that.  Similarly, if a player wants to go out and hunt down all the collectables, destroy all the convoys, whatever, then the player should be able to do it.

Where I begin to draw the line is when the game itself begins to be designed around these notions of completionism and "role-playing," where the end result is a collection quest, or built around achievement farming, or on creating a consequence-free "virtual world" for players.  Frankly, I do not think that a set of scattered doodads to seek out and the ability to put on any single piece of clothing you like makes a particularly good game, and though it might approach the "sandbox ideal," it is a very sketchy resemblance at best.  A sandbox, after all, is supposed to be about providing the player with a living, breathing, reactive world, where the rules of reality are there for the player to manipulate.

Morrowind offers up an open-ended world, but unlike most sandboxes, seamlessly integrates the main quest with side-quests and other aspects of player progression and exploration.
Morrowind, as I mentioned above, provides enough goals, interconnected mechanics and definite modes of interaction with the world that even at its most unfocused, it still resembles an actual game, and rarely if ever forces the player into performing a repetitive task - there's always something else to see and do, and chances are the player will be able to make progress in one part of the game by making progress in a separate one.  I can certainly choose to play the game in ways not intended by the developers, and even use mods to create a more structured experience around that, but at the end of the day, there is still an actual game there to play.  Contrast with others, including Oblivion, and the examples I've mentioned above, which tend to fall more into the "grind" category, and the difference becomes quite clear.  Whereas one is an open-ended game which provides a huge number of options, and the extra stuff is merely there "on the side", the others resemble a series of arbitrary tasks the player is set loose to complete, and are devoid of any in-game meaning - goals without real context, influence, or finality.

Without any sort of reactivity by the game (narrative or mechanical, preferably both), or to any sort of interrelated progression mechanic, I have a lot of trouble calling the final product a videogame at all.  A game is, by most definitions (and mine), a system of rules which facilitate structure and challenge, and usually includes a completion state and failure state, determined by completion or failure of a goal or series of goals; yet in most sandbox games, any "sandbox" elements are wholly separate from this definition.  Instead, one ends up with a strange amalgam of a traditional game (missions, a story to follow, an end point, failure states), and a set of arbitrary tasks to perform merely for the sake of performing them, almost always entirely divorced from the actual game itself.  When they do link up, it tends to be in awkward and similarly arbitrary ways, entirely in service of the "real" game - Just Cause 2 unlocking new missions, for instance.


Grinding is and always has been a cheap, if completely unfulfilling way of making games appear bigger than they are, and of providing a false sense of forward momentum that wouldn't exist if not for better game balancing and pacing to begin with.  Now, it feels like those worst trends in gaming have become the central focus of so many other titles, whether that's because of an inability to properly rationalize trend-hopping, a lack of resources to actually flesh out a sandbox game in a substantive way, or simple lack of design forethought.  There are exceptions, where a sandbox truly does make for good game mechanics (I have yet to mention Minecraft), but these are few and far between.

I realize that this is a bit of a controversial stance, especially when we consider the many different permutations that videogames can take on and the unexplored potential of the medium.  For my part, I want to stress that I still can have a lot of fun with a sandbox if that sandbox is done well - I had plenty of fun with Just Cause 2 despite the fact that I will never, ever finish it (if it even can be "finished").  At the same time, in examining these games, it's hard to overlook the fact that many of them are, effectively, empty... and to be blunt, I am not satisfied with such experiences.


  1. yeah, I get tired of collection quests and things like that. I'm curious about what an ideal open-world game would look like.

  2. I have always wanted to see a simple world like in Ultima 3 be more of an open-world game. Perhaps with just 30 user cap on a server at once.

  3. In a lot of ways, the old Ultimas were the, eh, ultimate in open-world design, providing direction and interweaving game mechanics, all of which moved forward as the player explored the world and interacted with NPCs. Once again, one of the first games of its kind also shows that it was one of the best as well. It's in light of such games that the limitations of the industry's focus on graphics and cinematic experiences really shine through.