Posted by: markfender | July 2, 2014

Sandbox Games

Let’s talk about co-option.

grand+theft+auto+vVideo games already pretty much stole “RPG” from tabletop gamers. Now, the common man has an idea of what a roleplaying game is, and that impression is based on what he sees on his Playstation. Okay, fine. That battle’s been lost. But videogames have recently stolen another term: sandbox.

A sandbox game on the tabletop is a different beast from a sandbox game on a videogame console. Both seems to start from the same place, but diverge after that. Both start with a “living, breathing” world (as much as game designers, GMs, and programmers can manage that feat) that has its own agenda outside that of the player characters. Businesses run without player interference, monsters spawn in dungeons, and the world moves at its own pace. And then some players come in and screw it up.

In a tabletop game, the sandbox is not ‘gated.’ Players can run into enemies much tougher than they can take on. The world has not necessarily been designed for them to survive in it. There often isn’t a plot per se, only what is created through the player’s actions and the interactions of the NPCs within those bonds.

In a video game, there is still a plot, often to the detriment of the game. People like playing with all the functions of the sandbox and often don’t want to engage in a plot. But, those sort of games tend to allow you to ignore the plot if you want. There is a much larger emphasis on “you can do anything!” within the video game sandbox. A fishing minigame? Of course there is. Achievements about trying on all the outfits? Obviously.

In a tabletop game, of course, those are things are just sort of assumed. You can always spend the entire game session fishing if you wanted to because you can do anything in a tabletop game. They are limited only by your imagination/forbearance of the other people playing. There doesn’t need to be an emphasis on subsystems that let you do perfectly ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Which isn’t necessarily true of video games. Someone has to program all those outfits/haircuts/collectibles. And, so they are naturally more limited.

This seems to be the main difference to me: “sandbox” in tabletop is about having a world to engage with as opposed to just a plot; in videogames, it’s about cramming in as many subsystems as possible to create an appearance of a world.

At the present moment, the two types of sandbox games are fairly close together. But, the video game version is diverging more and more, in a similar manner to how RPG videogames were much closer to their tabletop brethren when computer games first started developing. Now, they’re fairly far apart in design, which I’m sure is going to happen to sandbox games. Soon, people will have entirely different ideas on what a sandbox tabletop game is compared to their own experiences with video games.


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