Game Development Reference
Writing for Sandbox Games
So you're on a project with a huge team developing the next great game set in a
sandbox environment. Sandbox games have great potential to be fun, but what is it
that would make them so? What is a sandbox exactly, and how do you write for one?
This chapter is meant to go through the basics of what is generally required to write a
sandbox game. Keep in mind that this is introductory. The methods included are by
no means the only ones that exist, but it should give you a good enough foundation
for you to eventually do things your own way.
13.2 Defining the Genre
The Word “Sandbox”
Before jumping into how sandbox games are written, let's explore what the word
“sandbox” actually means to us. Conceptually speaking, the word sandbox may con-
jure up the vision of that square box filled with sand at the local park. As children,
the most fascinating thing about sand was its malleability. You can just dip your
hands into it and, with a little water, begin shaping whatever comes to mind. The
sudden removal of all barriers to sculpting any shape, or even the ability to destroy it,
is what makes it so enthralling. You've got a toy that offers full freedom to your play.
The essence is the same when applying the word to a video game. Sandbox
games need to offer players the same type of freedom of play. Certain sandbox games
don't need to have objectives; SimCity is an example. The need for objectives arises
when dramatic stories are included. With this insertion also comes the addition of
directed motivation. Players suddenly perceive the game through their characters'
points of view and are motivated to pursue their interests. Narrative in a sandbox
game is basically, in the best case, a story that is shaped by what the player does. In
the simplest case, a set story is told in a sandbox environment, where players have