Ever since Ultima (1981) dabbled with the concept of a huge overworld for the player to explore, the idea of a wide open space that could be freely traversed with few constraints was something developers sought to grasp and actualize in order to provide vast and immersive experiences that stood out from their linear counterparts. Such a tantalizing notion gradually became a reality over time, as titles like Hunter (1991), Body Harvest (1998), and the seminal GTA III (2001) began leveraging advancing technology and innovative game mechanics to expand the scope and size games could potentially embody.
Today, the open-world represents one of gaming’s most prominent and multifaceted design templates for developers to implement in their works, with series such as Saints Row, Just Cause and even the formerly linear Metal Gear Solid jumping into the sandbox fray to impart a mammoth sense of opportunity in the player in terms of gameplay and presentation. The proliferation and malleability of open-world titles over the past years also paved the way for a schism to emerge, one that revolves around two subsets of the sandbox formula: “exploration” and “activity”.
While fairly similar in overall appearance and environmental structure, “exploration” and “activity” open-worlds harbor distinct characteristics that define their respective formulas as well as their experience goals. The former puts a hefty emphasis on adventure and unpredictability by dropping gamers into a relatively unsurveyed land for them to unearth and subsequently develop a sense of discovery, while the latter prioritizes accessibility and progress through the completion of tasks to instill in the player a feeling of instant gratification that fuels their desire to tackle every challenge thrown at them.
But plain definitions alone do not tell the whole story about the differences between the two open-world styles. Contrariwise, both “exploration” and “activity” sandboxes exhibit a slew of sizable design characteristics that set them apart from one another, and can greatly influence the title’s underlying systems right down to its gameplay core. As such, developers ought to exercise caution when crafting a sandbox game, as the way they build and present the virtual space to the gamer can determine how the final product plays, looks, feels and is perceived as a whole.
I’ll elaborate on this particular topic by providing a trio of design elements that reflect the player’s initial, tentative and final impressions of a sandbox title (similar to Departure, Initiation and Return from the Hero’s Journey) and can vary wildly between the two sandbox varieties. For each aspect, I’ll offer two explanations: one for activity open-worlds, and another for exploration ones.
1) Player guidance (part of initial impressions)
One of the first design considerations the developer should take into account while crafting an open-world environment is to ascertain the amount of direction they should bake into the experience with regards to how the player will encounter and interact with the game’s meat and potatoes. The type of guidance (or lack thereof) that the designer can offer to the player depends largely on the title’s structure, the developer’s philosophy and the type of content incorporated into the virtual space. This, in turn, not only shapes the way the player assesses their surroundings (and potentially their style of play), but it can also have a sizable effect on the layout of the content and subsequently the pacing of the experience, with one sandbox favoring the destination and the other the journey.
1a) Explicitly providing the player with tasks (“activity” sandbox)
With activity sandboxes, the experience goal the designer is aiming to realize is quite simple: to create an open-ended environment for the player to fully leverage without leaving any stones unturned. Titles adhering to that sandbox style generally keep the player busy by providing a bevy of varied timesinks for them to engage in, with the main deviation from the exploration sandbox being that said timesinks are directly presented to the gamer rather than kept under wraps. Such a design choice is made in the development process primarily to provide a compelling reason for the player to be pulled to every part of the virtual space and to let them get to the meat of the experience briskly, almost as if the developers didn’t want it to rot by the time the player reaches it.
Mad Max is a prime example of an open-world game that provides a conspicuous plethora of activities for the gamer to partake in. In this video game adaptation of George Miller’s post-apocalyptic movie franchise, players assume the role of the titular road warrior and are let loose in a gargantuan wasteland that’s partitioned into several regions, each with their unique layout and identity as well their own set of objectives and locales for the player to complete and visit respectively.
As a way of fueling the player’s drive to explore every nook and cranny and fully enjoy everything that the virtual space has to offer, the developers sought to make each world activity/point of interest clearly visible by labeling them with a discernible icon/hue that draws the player’s attention to it. The designers’ gameplay decisions are made all the more noticeable with a mere glance at Mad Max’s world map:
By pointing the player towards content in this straightforward manner, the game designer ensures that the gamer will not only get a lucid idea of what they can expect to do and find in the open-world, but that they will also develop a sense of the gameplay style they would like to pursue while traveling across the virtual space. Whether it involves prioritizing collectibles/equipment upgrades or tackling the region control missions first and foremost, there are sundry ways the player can use the information at their disposal and go about exploring the terrain and pouring their attention and efforts into a particular in-game pastime. This presentation of content thus triggers several urges within the player that will drive them to fulfill the tasks at hand and fully slake their thirst for content.
1b) Leaving the player to their own devices (“exploration” sandbox)
By comparison, exploration sandboxes are a much more restrained affair with regards to content provision. In titles that employ this specific brand of open-world gameplay, it falls on the player rather than the designer to carve out a route that will lead the former to the game’s sundry points of interest and missions/quests scattered across the massive virtual space they will be exploring for dozens of hours. This switch in responsibility essentially begets a greater scope and more daunting sense of scale that defines the whole experience, making the environment more arcane than its activity counterpart. This, in turn, invites the player to explore their surroundings and uncover the game world’s secrets in ways that enhance the feeling of discovery the developers are aiming for.
Dragon’s Dogma perfectly encapsulates this particular sandbox design philosophy. In this 2012 action role-playing game, players are dropped into the vast, fantasy open-world of Gransys as they embark on a epic quest to purge the land of brutes both small and large. The virtual environment itself is purposefully designed to drive home the feelings of wonder and awe the player embodies as they make first contact with the broad landscape that greets them upon leaving the starting area of Cassardis.
To ensure that the epic feeling of adventure is lucidly imparted in the player, the developers opted to leave the geographical nitty-gritty (i.e. minor landmarks and roads) out of the equation from the get-go, essentially trusting the player to forge their own path in the virtual space in order to complete their tasks, free from hand-holding. It’s a design fact that is best visualized by taking a gander at the world map upon whipping it out:
Contrary to the temptation approach employed by designers of activity-centric sandbox titles, exploration-based open-world developers usually withhold gameplay information from the player since they wish to tap into the gamer’s adventurous psyche by shifting their presentation focus on the environment itself rather than the content that populates it. This mental stimulus, combined with the sheer size of an average sandbox, serves to encourage the player to see and experience the world on their own initiative, making the virtual space feel more like a playground than an amusement park: a place that’s still designed for fun, but one that drives the participant to find their own version of it with the space and tools they are provided, making their endeavors more engaging and personal.
2) Core experience flow/structure (part of tentative impressions)
The other open-world component that the developer ought to pay attention to while designing the sandbox space and populating it with landmarks and missions/quests is one that pertains to the way the player is going to tackle what the title has to offer, i.e. the general flow that they’re going to follow while progressing through the game and traversing its virtual environment. Whether it stems from a spontaneous impulse to roam about or a pre-planned itinerary of sorts, how the player is going to proceed through the game world and shape their playthrough can greatly impact the feel of the core experience they personally perceive as well as their outlook on the overall journey they’ve undertaken.
Experience-wise, activity-focused sandbox titles are a rather uniform and consistent bunch that pull no punches with regards to the presentation of content. Games that conform to that brand of open-world design leverage the visibility of gameplay information provided to the player from the outset by encouraging them to analyze their surroundings and determine the best possible way/route for them to enjoy what the virtual space has to offer. These “extrinsic impulses” (i.e. enticing the player with compulsive, visible tasks to accomplish) not only serve as an effective way to pull the gamer from one map corner to another, but they also enable them to cut back on downtime and relish the timesinks to their heart’s content, deepening the title’s engrossment factor.
2012’s Sleeping Dogs exemplifies that particular “flow” approach to sandbox structure and design. Taking place in a virtual rendition of Hong Kong, United Front Games’s open-world title provides the player with an enormous environment teeming with a wide variety of main/side missions, challenges and secrets to complete/uncover. With virtually all of this gameplay information at the protagonist’s disposal from the get-go, the player has the ability to evaluate their surroundings via the minimap and world map, and determine the kind of endeavors they fancy doing the most as well as the order in which they want to accomplish such tasks. This “a-la-carte” gameplay style gives the player a sense of control over the way they tackle the game’s content, allowing them to fully reap the benefits and rewards of each activity the designer crafted in a smooth manner and fine-tuning the pace at which they want to go about things in the game world.
With activity-centric sandboxes, developers seek to tap into the participant’s desire to see everything that the game has to offer through visual enticement. By providing clear and useful gameplay information to the player, the designer can encourage the gamer to leverage the resources they have at their disposal to concoct a custom-tailored and gladdening game plan that snugly fits their preferred play style and routine. This combination of pre-indicated content and the player’s virtual itinerary subsequently leads to the overall experience feeling more condensed than its exploration-based counterpart, with the trimmed lulls between activities enabling the gamer to derive satisfaction more swiftly from the title and stabilizing the sense of flow they perceive and relish.
2b) Embarking on a journey full of watercooler moments (“exploration” sandbox)
Exploration-style sandbox titles, by comparison, employ a different strategy when it comes to driving home the core experience. Given their relatively recondite environmental layout, games that fit into that open-world mold tend to rely more on enticing the player to traverse their virtual spaces through intrinsic experimentation (e.g. randomly walking down a craggy shoreline with a salient shipwreck) rather than the aforementioned extrinsic impulses seen in activity-centric sandboxes. By preventing the player to have clear-cut expectations about what they might stumble upon, the opportunities for indelible scenarios that evoke wonder become more potent, so much so that their impact on the player’s experience can be exciting and even cathartic.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. embodies that principle across all of its games with its peculiar approach to environmental layout and non-scripted events. Set in the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. invites the player to roam its decrepit and atmospheric wastes in search of valuable loot while interacting with paranormal anomalies, mutated beasts and hostile/friendly humans who respond according to player actions and non-scripted environmental changes to the game world. From the inauspicious Wild Territory to the muggy Great Swamp, each locale provides its own slew of unique scenarios that will challenge the gamer and drive them to make their personal mark on the virtual space. This, in turn, begets memorable “watercooler” moments that similarly impact the player’s experience in a way that fosters a palpable sense of immersion, one that inextricably binds the gamer’s endeavors to the world they explored and helped shaped.
Environmental minimalism is one of the gameplay and presentational hallmarks of exploration-based open-world titles. Not only does it foster opportunities for the player to make startling and personal findings, but it also bridges the gap between the virtual space and the player, immersion-wise, without the prominent presence of visual indicators that can potentially sully the feeling of discovery. Allowing the player to forge their very own journey through their surroundings with little to no hand-holding makes for a more intimidating but purer experience full of distinct, dynamic scenarios the gamer may not see coming and/or deliberately trigger, further reinforcing the verisimilitude of the world and enriching the player’s sense of place in their trek through uncharted territory.
3) Lasting impact (part of final impressions)
The final piece of the open-world design puzzle that the developer should be on the lookout for while forging the vision for their game is to understand the kind of lasting impression they want to leave on the player once they’ve gone through the bulk of the title, which essentially corresponds to the big takeaway from the experience itself. Whatever the designer does during the development process, they should see to it that their sandbox title imparts to the player a tactile feeling of accomplishment that’s perceptibly reflected in the gameplay/world state in some shape or form, which provides a satisfying sense of closure that caps off the journey in a way that makes the player’s endeavors that much more impactful.
3a) Claiming the world as your own through task completion (“activity” sandbox)
When it comes to crafting an experience with a palpable lasting impression, designers of activity-focused sandboxes generally aim to gratify the player in an explicit manner. This can be done by having the activities the gamer partakes in not only strengthen their character’s attributes and resources upon completion, but also influence the level of control they have on the world’s status (e.g. turn hostile areas into friendly ones) and/or its content (e.g. completing all driving challenges). By taking that long-term goal into account, the developer can successfully drive home the idea that the player’s endeavors not only affected them through sheer thrill, but also altered the game world in a way that highlights the accomplishments they have accrued as well as their gameplay benefits.
The Assassin’s Creed series is well-known for offering virtual worlds that the gamer can turn into their own oyster through unremitting traversal and task completion. In each of Ubisoft’s historical sandbox titles, players are granted several opportunities to conquer the game world’s content step-by-step, from climbing towers and mapping out cities to conquering enemy strongholds with the help of recruits. The sundry activities scattered across each world not only enhance the player character’s skills and improve their equipment, but also gradually modify the gameplay state of the world to properly reflect the amount of impact the gamer’s endeavors left throughout the lengthy adventure. This, along with the narrative progress the protagonist is simultaneously making, instills in the player the idea that they are truly in control of how the virtual space treats them, engendering a feeling of personal achievement matched only by the titles’ scale.
One of the primary gratifications that activity-centric sandbox designers wish to convey to the gamer is the idea that through their entertaining endeavors, they are gradually and visibly conquering the game’s virtual space and/or its content, which in turn yields player enhancements and world changes. Whether it involves unlocking parts of the open-world map to traverse or completing side missions that impact a faction’s view towards the protagonist, there are multiple ways the developer can display the player’s progress through gameplay cues and alterations. The tangible feeling of advancement that stems from the successful application of that principle can beget an experience living up to the gamer’s ambition of turning an initially daunting world into their own personal domain.
3b) Developing a connection with the world one inhabits (“exploration” sandbox)
As for exploration-based sandboxes, the lasting impact the experience has on the player is of a comparatively more ethereal and personal quality. As a result of their comparatively emergent gameplay structure and subdued approach to content provision, games of that specific open-world caliber tend to leave the door open to the player for them to carve out their own path in the virtual space. This wholly individualized take on world-trotting and discovery means that the gamer can mold the environment with their unique endeavors, allowing them to forge a link with the world they are interacting with and treating their surroundings as an entity that responds to them in a way that makes the virtual space that much more believable and influential on the player’s impressions of it.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt embraces that design aspect with its malleable storytelling and incorporation of far-reaching choices affecting the game world. While trekking across the expansive Northern Kingdoms, the protagonist will come across several decision-making opportunities with sizable ramifications that will alter the nature of the narrative as well as the content the player will subsequently interact with. These experience modifiers not only shape the kind of journey Geralt of Rivia will embark on throughout the rest of the adventure, but it also serves to lucidly demonstrate the marks the gamer can personally leave on the environment and the space’s treatment of their avatar. This, in turn, begets an immersive player-environment bond that helps the former better connect to the latter, embedding a sense of purposeful belonging that enhances and cements the gamer’s presence and endeavors in a thematically palpable virtual sandbox.
The inextricable link between the player and the virtual space that arises from emergent interaction between the two represents one of the most crucial experience goals the exploration-based sandbox designer wishes to achieve. By putting an emphasis on dynamism with regards to action and reaction on the part of both the gamer and the world, the developer can effectively bake a ripple effect of sorts into each in-game scenario that plays out either directly (e.g. free-roam hunting affecting wildlife population) or indirectly (e.g. rabid wolves mauling bandits). As such, the player can potentially embody the idea that the game world is akin to a virtual home rather than just a land to exploit, highlighting its noteworthiness and the subtly immersive ways in which its underlying systems come into contact with the gamer and their actions and vice-versa.
The open-world’s pliable framework has begotten a peculiar schism between “activity” and “exploration” sandboxes over the past years, with their distinct approaches to the above design elements and their unique feels highlighting the various kinds of experiences developers wish to present and deliver as part of their plan to evoke a sense of scale and accomplishment few other design templates can match. But for all their differences, both sandbox styles do have one fundamental goal in common: keeping the player busy with their vast environments and plethora of tasks & curiosities, and ensuring they have a wholly engrossing time doing it. For sandbox designers, it’s all about hitting the road and experiencing what the whole wide world has in store for the gamer.
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