So, uh, where you at?
Seriously, a problem I’ve found specifically in AAA gaming at the moment – at least in the genre of games I am interested in – is that they haven’t been very fun lately. And I know exactly why; developers want you to play their games in an obsessively specific way and get scared if you don’t. And a lot of games are updating or patching themselves in ways that are restrictive to the player. What’s so intriguing is that I see this happening not in story-orientated or linear games, where the player is predisposed to play the game by it’s own rules, but (oddly enough) in sandbox-orientated games.
Sandbox-orientated games are ones where the player is put in a difficult or scenario and given a set of tools to get out of it or achieve whatever objective the developer has set. These tools can conventionally be weapons, pickups, powerups and pregame customisation of loadouts, perks etc. But anything from movement speed, environmental objects, in-game physics and creative ways of combining multiple of these things together also counts as the sandbox too. And it doesn’t have to all be about action, but puzzle solving, using crafting mechanics and platforming too. Any way you’re interacting with the game’s mechanics and environment, regardless of if it’s a way intended or unintended by the developer, is a use of the sandbox, and sandbox-orientated games lean into using it creatively to overcome challenges, while more linear games typically have set solutions that aren’t too hard to find.
You might find yourself asking why on Earth developers of sandbox-orientated games would want you to experience their games in weirdly specific ways instead of in a variety of different ways each time you play… And I don’t have an answer for that. They shouldn’t want that, as it contradicts everything their game is designed around. And yet, they clearly do want that.
Let’s hop into some examples of developers doing this and see what it’s all about:
Turtle Rock Studios – Back 4 Blood:
In my review of Back 4 Blood, shortly after it launched, I praised the ludicrous amount of customisation one could do prior to the game. Specifically I mentioned how I could make a speed-orientated loadout to outrun the majority of melee focussed enemies in PvP, by stacking speed buffs in an order detailed enough that I could unlock most of them relatively close to the start of every match.
Turtle Rock killed speed. In fact, they killed speed so much that they also killed speedrunning. And they did so needlessly. Now, speed was an incredibly powerful build, especially in PvP where you could beat the enemy team not through violence but by outlasting them and avoiding their attacks reliably. But it was also counterable. Like, very counterable. There is a zombie type who pukes acid on the floor which limits the ground speed players have to work with. There’s a zombie type who shoots webs and literally pins people in place from afar. There’s a zombie who can pounce half the length of the map on top of people and drag players towards their friends. Speed was very powerful, yes, but it was never without an answer.
I think the greater issue Turtle Rock had wasn’t in PvP though, it was with players unlocking all their speed cards and running to the end of campaign levels at the speed of sound without engaging in most of the game’s content. And because, at launch, one could not unlock anything unless they played online with randoms or a friend, it meant people speeding through the game like this was a determent to non-speed players. But even here speed isn’t a problem. The problem is that the developers forced people to play online to get any progression out of the game, leading folks to speed through levels online as fast as they could to unlock more stuff quicker. Basically, the developers failed to realise that by putting progression into the game people would grind for their desired unlockables, and then gave them only one way to grind for those items; in online lobbies to the detriment of first time or slower paced players.
At the end of the day, all Turtle Rock achieved by killing the efficiency of speed builds was removing a fun way of playing the game so that player’s would experience the game in a predetermined way, instead in a way that was unique and expressive of their chosen playstyle.
343 Industries – Halo Infinite
Nearly six months after launch, this supposedly live service game released it’s season 2 content. Fans got angry first at the lacklustre amount they were getting, but then mostly at some of what season 2 had removed. On a few maps, 343 had chosen to remove static environmental objects that players had been able to use to perform jumps to other parts of the map that clearly weren’t intended to be made. I say clearly weren’t intended to be made not because these jumps were exploitative or game breaking, or allowing players to exit the map in any way at all, but because 343 just didn’t intend for people to inncoently go from A to B in such a fashion.
But why all the fuss over some boxes and barrels? Well it’s because these weren’t easy jumps. Because 343 hadn’t designed the maps believing these jumps could happen, it meant skilled players would need to perform momentum-boosting movements, as well as getting some good positioning, to make them work. Essentially, instead of looking at a few clips of guys and gals jumping really far using a few barrels and thinking how cool it was to see players using the sandbox in ways they didn’t even think of, 343 decided to remove said barrels in the service of what they believed was the correct way to play their sandbox-orientated arena shooter. All this in a game that has so few maps that it is dire need of stuff like these weird jumps to keep them fresh, and in a game with a clamber mechanic that specifically exists to extend the range at which players can climb onto ledges while jumping.
If that isn’t completely contradictory of your own game design in the service of limiting player freedom then I don’t know what is.
Creative Assembly – Total War Warhammer 3:
Okay. So far we’ve talked about some stat changes and boxes. But Warhammer 3 is something else. It’s not an example of a company changing a mechanic in sandbox game in service of how they think it should be played, but rather an example of a company trying to build a sandbox game, in a sandbox franchise, uncompromisingly around what is a linear and on the rails story you must enagege with to win the campaign. Strap in.
Warhammer 3’s Realm of Chaos campaign wants it both ways; to be the same fun and diverse conquer the world sandbox fans have come to expect from the franchise, while also being a very linear story game with tight goals, deadlines and greater priorities the player will need to consider when playing. Not strategic priorities, but arbitrarily imposed ones by the game’s intrusive narrative.
To win the campaign, one has to go into four realms of chaos and get a soul from each one so that they can take the souls to a big final battle against a boss and win. Every thirty turns or so chaos rifts open and start spilling out daemons (like Oblivion, but it’s a turn-based 4x game). Sounds as though it should be simple enough to just pop in, pop out, right?
Wrong. Only your faction leader, who will be your main and most powerful general, can enter the chaos rifts, which take a good 10 or so turns to navigate. This means you can kiss away any hopes for reliable and continued expansion, especially on higher difficulties, unless you’ve been consistently levelling a backup lord or two the whole time, especially because you really don’t know how long he’s going to be in that realm. He could be in there for five turns. He could be in there for ten. He could have entered too late and not even got the soul before the rifts closed, or he could have been beaten to the soul by the AI which means (in both cases) his trip was of literally no benefit at all. He achieved nothing and is likely out of position by the time he reappears on the main campaign map.
In fact, his trip was probably an active disadvantage because you most likely got a huge debuff from being in a realm of chaos – a game changing trait like minus four public order literally everywhere. In earlier versions of the game these debuffs couldn’t be removed unless you had a specific building built in a level 3 town which meant, if you were on the frontier expanding into less developed territories, you’d likely have a long hike back to civilisation to get the trait removed and thus necessitating a backup lord to hold the front line, draining your income as you pay for his second, third or fourth army. The salt in the wound is that by the time you’ve done that and marched back in preparation for another shot at expansion, another set of chaos rifts is likely opening for you to defend against and plunge into.
Most of this has since changed, but not in a meaningful way and is very telling of just how conflicting the game mechanics are with the sandbox. For instance, now you can build a defensive structure to stop rifts spawning in certain regions, meaning you don’t have to keep either your faction leader or a wandering band of backup dudes to defend everything while you wander into the rifts for your souls. But this doesn’t solve the issue of still needing those backup lords until you develop your regions enough to unlock this building, meaning you’ll still be paying a lot for that big defence army. It also still means that expanding your frontier is difficult since your most powerful character will be wandering around hell as you’re mid-war against your neighbours. You also have to sacrifice a building slot to build it – you could be giving up ecenomic and millitary infrastructure for what is transparently a developers rushed responce to critisism about daemon invasions preventing any expansion. Also, they made it so you lose the negative-traits as soon as you leave a chaos rift. But then, what’s the point in the traits at all if you lose them when they’ll be at their most impactful?
The conflict of interests here between players and developers couldn’t be more clear; Creative Assembly essentially made the acquisition of negative traits and the threat of Chaos rifts so insignificant, in most post early game scenarios, that they might as well not be there. But they are so uncompromising about their linear narrative and campaign objectives that they refuse to officially remove them or otherwise bring about meaningful change to the structure of the game.
So there you have it: An entire sandbox world conquest game where your lead character will spend 90% of his time not conquering the world because he needs to adhere to the extremely linear storyline. In which he’ll have to fight off daemon invasions only once or twice unless you really go out of your way not to build the thing that stops them, and obtain game-changing traits one turn only to lose them one later. To make it all worse, you can’t ignore the storyline (without mods), because otherwise the AI will get all the souls themselves, win the final boss fight and the game will end.
Peak. Game. Design.
Modern AAA gaming really has failed to hold my attention and, if anything, driven me away from wanting to buy more games of that type. I guess I’m tired of developers being so obsessed with how you should play the game that they sacrifice the fun sandbox experiences are supposed to offer. I miss the days of my Morrowind review, where I forgot that I was writing a review and accidentally just wrote a bunch of fun ways I found to break the sandbox. Jump across the map and become immune to fall damage a single second before you land? Heck yeah! Actually flying from town to town? Damn straight! A similar thing happened with my review of Heroes of Might and Magic 3, where I figured the best way to convey why the game was fun was to describe how ludicrously unbalanced the sandbox was and how players can use it against one another. None of this is to say fun sandbox games don’t still exist. DOOM 2016 and Eternal are shinning lights not just examples of how great sandbox orientated games can be, but also of how a developer can keep on expanding and expanding upon that sandbox. It’s just the ones that have released in the past year or so either aren’t in my area of interest or are lacking compared to older games.
That said, to end this whole ordeal positively, I have decided to let y’all in on some nifty sandbox orientated games that aren’t AAA, but do kick ass:
-Madness: Project Nexus
-Totally Accurate Battle Simulator
-Mount and Blade Warband
-Plague Inc. Evolved
-Orcs Must Die 1, 2 and 3
-Worms (literally any of them)
-Stick Fight: The Game
Next up, sandbox games the developers above are affiliated to but whom, at least today, are failing to live up to:
-Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2
-Any other Halo game
-Any other Total War Game.
Finally, the ultimate sandbox game:
Now stop reading this blog and go play a game of your choice in the most expressive and unique-to-you way as you possibly can.