Tobold's Blog
Monday, September 24, 2012
 
Sandbox vs. Guided

A roleplaying game can run linearly on rails, following a scripted story, or it can be a completely open world where the players can do whatever they like. I don't like the term "themepark" for the former, as that describes only a subset of it reasonably well, so I'm rather calling it "guided gameplay". As opposed to the unguided or "sandbox" form.

Neither of the extremes is ideal. And as so often it is one of subjects where what people say they like and what they do like are very different things. Blogs and game forums tend to come out overwhelmingly in favor of sandbox games, but the games people actually buy are overwhelmingly guided. And then of course there are a lot of games somewhere in the middle, like Guild Wars 2 for example, which allows for a more sandbox-like experience due to the downleveling feature, but still has the guided elements of the personal story and optimal rewards by following a certain sequence of zones.

It is for that middle I am aiming with my pen & paper Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game as well. On the one side I want my players to have complete freedom to do whatever they want (and then live with the consequences) in my campaign. On the other hand I've observed that such complete freedom often either leads to the players not having a clue what to do next, or to them doing something and then being unhappy with the consequences.

By definition guided gameplay in a pen & paper game is better prepared than sandbox gameplay. If the players follow the proposed story, they'll run into the planned encounters, and those encounters can be very well prepared and thus be run fast, without having to look up monsters or rules on the spot. Even roleplaying encounters can be well prepared, with me as the DM having thought about what the motivation and goals of the NPCs involved are, and how they would react to the most typical behavior of the players. As soon as the players leave that guided series of events, I have to fly by the seat of my pants. I can make the NPCs react in a way I personally consider logical, in view of what I know about the world and the NPCs in question. But if I didn't expect a situation to arise, I'm unable to give the players pointers in advance on how NPCs are likely to react. And as the players can't possibly have all the information, the response and consequence of their actions might come as a surprise, and not always a welcome one.

So as a DM I can find myself between the Scylla of being too prepared (and thus the story feeling scripted) and the Charybdis of not being prepared enough, and the players running into their doom because they couldn't foresee all the possible consequences of their action. With resurrection being significantly less common in most pen & paper roleplaying systems than in MMORPGs, death has a much more painful sting. Even if players might enjoy the freedom of a pure sandbox for a while, they will be a lot less happy if that leads to their characters dying frequently. And even if the sandbox experience ends well, it might have a weaker (because unprepared) story, gaps in the logic, or unbalanced encounters hobbled together on the fly.

So the very least I have to offer as a DM to my players is that there is a prepared adventure with a prepared story, and pointers on how to get from the beginning to the middle and to the end. But these are really just pointers, not rails. Some NPC asks the players to go somewhere and do something, but the option is there to say no. And that option is more viable than the option to click "decline" on a quest in World of Warcraft, where declining one quest might lead to you being unable to get any more quests in that zone. In a pen & paper game there will always be some adventure, regardless where the players decide to go. But a lot of players instinctively prefer going down the guided path. Full sandbox isn't necessarily the pinnacle of fun, and the players know that just as well as the DM.

Comments:
" Blogs and game forums tend to come out overwhelmingly in favor of sandbox games, but the games people actually buy are overwhelmingly guided."

Well I think that we may not take wow into consideration. There are many reasons someone to buy wow and so many analysts try to find why people play wow..some say the social aspect, nostalgia, raids..

For example look at Swtor. Is a heavy guided game although it failed. For some reason I really liked the leveling in swtor even if I hate linear games. Maybe because it was extremely well presented. In wow I cannot do a single area..

For me, Heavy guided games must have an epic story behind and to be very well presented to the customer.
 
For example look at Swtor. Is a heavy guided game although it failed.

So what sandbox game sold 2 million copies? As far as I know the best-selling sandbox game is EVE with its 300,000 "accounts" (not players), and even that has a lot of guiding elements like the agents and missions.

But let's follow your suggestion to eliminate the best-selling game of each category: Once you go to "second best-selling sandbox game" you're counting in tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands any more. SWTOR or Rift are doing a lot better than Darkfall or A Tale in the Desert.
 
I think what bugs me the most is that I enjoy guided gameplay for the most part, and yet the blogosphere has sought to crucify it for a few years now. It sometimes sucks to have to constantly read people proclaiming that EVERYONE wants sandbox and these guided games disgust them...It hurts to stay silent.

Thankfully, it hurts a lot less since the dollar flows seem to back up guided gameplay more in the end. I suppose I just have to deal with people thinking I am somehow have bad taste in games instead of actually losing those games.
 
"So what sandbox game sold 2 million copies?"

Well I just don't believe that people decide to buy or not a game considering if it has linear content or if it is sandbox game. I don't believe that people didn't bought Darkfall because it is not guided but mostly because it was a hardcore pvp game...the idea that if I die in pvp they will loot me is not popular.

Nor I believe that people buy wow because it is guided. If you see in the forums, the last thing people like is the leveling in wow...they do like though the end game, dungeons and raids while in GW2 everybody loves the leveling though they are bored in max level. Though I don't consider GW2 pure sandbox because it does guide you a little with the hearts..

It comes down to 2 questions..

1)Will people decide to buy or not an MMO depending if it is sandbox or guided?

2)Will people decide to stay or not for a long time in an MMO depending if it is sandbox or guided?

I don't think it has a great impact after all.

Although I can agree that guided games appeal larger audiences nowdays. Since the MMO games had a huge injection of players last years that may never played a single player RPG or players that were playing facebook games...

 
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I think "guided" is a good word because it demonstrates your problem. Once you say "the [Generic Artifact] has been stolen by [Generic Bad Guy]," there are no real decisions left. Your party is going to find and defeat [Generic Bad Guy] and recover the [Generic Artifact].

At that point, there can be nothing "sandbox" about it. You are simply deciding how well or poorly you are guiding them. But this is a matter of challenge, not choice.

Claiming that the ability to refuse a quest makes a game sandbox is like saying all games are sandbox because you can "choose" to stop playing them.
 
Most players will want some guidance most of the time.

However if a game gives players a *single* linear path the game loses its replayability value which kills retention. AoC, TSW, Rift, Aion, Swtor etc are all examples of this imo.

What these games need are segments of guided content which the players can chain together in different sequences providing different pathways through the game.

WoW has always done this more than most of the games that have followed simply by having multiple start areas scattered around a game world with different adjacent zones. This automatically creates alternate pathways through the game but the principle could be greatly extended.

In D&D terms this might be something like

1) Multiple start settlements, one for each race choice each with their own lvl 1-3 mini story. Players would be taken through their settlement separately or in groups depending on race choices.

2) The game map set up in such a way that there is a viable fast travel option from the start settlements to some central spot - probably a sea town where the players meet up.

3) Multiple separate lvl 4-6 mini-story quest chains set up in advance. The players choose one of these and play through it.

4) Future story hooks uncovered during (3) including some random ones maybe i.e. a potential npc companion chosen at random from three options each with their individual story hook, leading to a choice from multiple lvl 7-9 segments after the 4-6 segment is complete.

5) Rinses and repeat

This method would take a lot more initial work and in my view would only be worthwhile if the setting was re-used i.e. if it was repeatedly replayed but with different choices. However it's perfect for a Baldur's Gate type game or an mmo where that initial work can keep players replaying until the expansion / sequel.

For an individual D&D DM i guess the best compromise might be the players are set up in a central spot to start and you have a rough idea for six separate level 1-3 chains with the hooks in the central spot and the first encounter of each chain set up.

The first session would then just involve running the players past the story hooks, letting them pick one and then going through the first encounter. The rest of that segment can then be filled out before the following sessions.

The other segments wouldn't neccessarily be wasted because once the first segment is chosen the rough drafts of the remaining five lvl 1-3 segments can be reworked into lvl 4-6 versions. This way the original six lvl 1-3 segment choices would become six sequential segments: lvl 1-3, 4-6, 7-9 etc.

 
If the characters already have a way of feeding themselves and obtaining shelter AND they have absolutely no larger goal in the game world - that's why a sandbox wouldn't work.

For some reason people think they can make characters who don't care about anything, yet have thrilling adventures that their characters and them care about.
 
I object. Sandbox is perfect for sandbox style of play :)

Isn't sandboxing about places to go and check what is there? You might know that a wizard lives in a tower nearby but have no idea what is going on there. You might know that a dragon was seen in a valley nearby. You could have heard a rumor that there is gold in one of the rivers in the Dark Doom Mountain Range. And that some areas on the map might contain monsters.

Now, dear pc's, what do you want to do?

For starters, only a map is needed with some general locations, the rest can be rolled up or invented on the fly. The storyline is made by the characters as they play, and I can tell you it will start to expand pretty fast when more places get explored, dragons wounded, gold stolen from a riverbed, wizards pissed off, and so on.
 
I object. Sandbox is perfect for sandbox style of play :)

Isn't sandboxing about places to go and check what is there? You might know that a wizard lives in a tower nearby but have no idea what is going on there. You might know that a dragon was seen in a valley nearby. You could have heard a rumor that there is gold in one of the rivers in the Dark Doom Mountain Range. And that some areas on the map might contain monsters.

Now, dear pc's, what do you want to do?

For starters, only a map is needed with some general locations, the rest can be rolled up or invented on the fly. The storyline is made by the characters as they play, and I can tell you it will start to expand pretty fast when more places get explored, dragons wounded, gold stolen from a riverbed, wizards pissed off, and so on.
 
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