1984年，《The Seven Cities of Gold》面市，标志着一类交易/探索/战斗/冒险沙盒游戏的诞生。这类游戏通常以太空或海洋为游戏背景（自由的重要隐喻）。这款游戏的继承者不胜枚举，比如《Starflight》(1986)、《Pirates!》(1987)、《Star Control》(1990)、《Privateer》(1993）和《X (1999)、《Freelancer》(2003)、《Darkstar One》(2006)和《SpaceForce 2》(2007)，等等。
《模拟人生》在商业和文化上都获得巨大成功，它代表了这一类游戏的崭新开始——意味着我们也许可以忘记这个类型的源头《Little Computer People》（1985），尽管后者也风靡一时。
The History and Theory of Sandbox Gameplay
by Steve Breslin
It’s such a buzzword nowadays — sandbox. It is a very abstract concept, like “liberty” or “love,” so there are a lot of varieties. Modern sandbox games draw from a wide range of design structures: from open-world design to emergent behavior, from automation of believable agents to multi-threaded or non-linear story.
Being applied in such a broad range of situations means that the word “sandbox” risks its meaning becoming watered-down, confused, and sometimes forgotten.
On the other hand, it remains the single most important design issue for current and future generation games. It’s a great blessing to spend a while in serious thought, on such a critically defining idea.
Let us take this opportunity, then, to reflect upon the different ideas we as gamers and designers have of the notion. Let us think about where the whole idea came from, and consider where we’ve come to, as we look toward the many futures of this wonderful little concept.
Just to get rolling, let’s consider the concept in abstract:
The Ironies of the Metaphor
The concept of sandbox-style gameplay, as we know, suggests more-or-less undirected free-play. The metaphor is a child playing in a sandbox: the child produces a world from sand, the most basic of material. This in contrast to a game where the upper-level content is presented fully formed and ordered.
The metaphor of “sandbox” suggests something pure and free. It implies that it is a young child in the sandbox (and a pre-videogame child at that, with no toys), and assumes an idealized childhood imagination, an unlimited creativity. It is a good metaphor, and a useful one, but the metaphor is also a little misleading, insofar as it suggests a sort of dream-world imaginative capability of the audience, which is not always justified.
The implications of the metaphor are not necessarily carried over by game designers: we anticipate that less imaginative players will get less out of a sandbox game, and this is fine. But even so, the idea of leveraging the player’s imagination is quite ambitious, and more than a little risky.
By itself, this design concept is so ambitious — “give them a sandbox, and they will build castles” — that it must be met with a far greater investment in making the sandbox actually work, which generally means much more money and time invested across all levels of production, and particularly upper-level design and writing. It means an especially close relationship between programming and upper-level design, with the anticipation that the upper-level design will often determine the lower-level specifications.
If normal game design is developing upper-level material (missions, etc.) based on an engine, sandbox design is writing an engine to express upper-level gameplay concepts. Of course, it’s very silly to put it so simply as that: indeed, game production is always a back-and-forth between programming and design.
But basically, sandbox design requires the development of engines which enable open exploration in various ways, engines which support upper-level sandbox design by providing systems for the handling of the sandbox elements. It’s fun work for a systems programmer, but it’s not easy. Then, on the upper level, sandbox requires design which emphasizes and encourages free-play, as well as the development and implementation of a wide range of dynamic interactive elements.
And it’s not just the presentation of the sandbox elements and the play space, but it’s handling all of the player’s various interactions, all the possible combinations. To say it very simply, a typical game must respond to correct input, while a sandbox game must reward all input.
While a physical sandbox is very easy to build (compared with most other toys), the sandbox game generally requires far more work than similar, less open and responsive games. Unlike the person who builds a physical sandbox, a sandbox-style game designer cannot simply offload the creative effort onto the gamer.
The Necessary Framework
Unfortunately, sandbox design is sometimes taken to justify the exact opposite: “sandbox” sometimes serves as an excuse for less investment, particularly in high-level design. Sandbox elements can be mistakenly taken as fair replacements of narrative content; indeed, many games have missed their potential because they imagined that free-play would compensate for a lack of narrative. But even for our idealized child, playing around in a physical sandbox gets old pretty quick.
This principle design problem of sandbox-oriented gameplay is already subtly suggested by the sandbox metaphor itself: a child playing in a sandbox needs a lot of direction if they’re going to have very much fun. They need toys first, and they need to be given ideas of things they can do with them. The parent needs to provide a meaningful framework. Just dropping a kid in a sandbox does not work.
The same is true of sandbox design. If the design effort fails to produce a game rich in intriguing potential, it’s very much like shipping a literal sandbox. — Imagine a game-box literally filled with sand: the open-minded player might enjoy playing in the sand a bit, but the gameplay really isn’t worth a lot.
The necessary framework guides the presentation of the sandbox elements as the world develops and unfolds. This is often expressed as a reward system, which can involve new areas to explore and new stuff to do, more difficult gameplay structures to navigate, more story unfolding, more missions becoming available, and so on. It can be based on exploring the space of the game (exploring Liberty City for example), and it can be based on watching the game-world develop over time.
It often means scattering a great number of narrative elements across the game-world for the player to discover. Rather than presenting the sandbox as “here’s a box of toys, goodbye,” the framework gives some strategic order to the game’s elements, a presentational structure — and thus it gives the player periodic rewards for playing.
A common misconception is that the stories of sandbox games are not determined by the game’s developer: instead, the story is supposedly determined and directed by the player. But even designers of the most free-form sandbox games must specialize in producing worlds which are geared towards making that free-play fun. If the sandbox is interesting (and this is by no means guaranteed!), then the game’s potentialities, the potential interest and fun — including the narrative undercurrent and whatever else makes the free-play engaging and worth the time — are all very carefully handled by the developer.
“Sandbox” sometimes challenges traditional narrative, but it always puts something new in its place. — Thus, it does not remove the narrative, but rather transforms predetermined narrative into dynamic, responsive narrative. In other words, the sandbox game distinguished itself by making the responses more significant and meaningful.
This is perhaps contrary to an image of sandbox play which emphasizes pure freedom, but again, sand by itself is not much fun. Automated, complex, and perhaps most of all, directed responsiveness is essential to sandbox play, and the more complex and responsive the world, the more interesting the sandbox.
What is interesting about the sandbox form is not that it allows full freedom, but that it generalizes and parameterizes, it finds arenas for agency and gently crafts the potential space of the game. It fosters a sense of free-play and exploration of that space. It engenders a sense of player control, without actually handing over the reins entirely.
Prelude: Leisurely Play, Discovering Elite
As popular gaming moved from the arcade into the living room, the stage was set for a less frantic, more leisurely presentation of the action — gaming “off the clock.”
No longer was there a need to kill the player off as quickly as possible, in order that he (or the people waiting in line behind him) insert another quarter.
It became feasible and even desirable to give the player a break from the action, some time to thoughtfully explore his environment, rather than race him towards inevitable destruction.
Thus were born a number of popular gaming genres, including the adventure game and the flight simulator.
The adventure game popularly began in 1978 with Warren Robinett’s breakthrough game for the Atari 2600, entitled, appropriately enough, Adventure. 1980 saw the release of the more sophisticated and seminal Rogue and Ultima.
This genre moved through the popular classic Pitfall and the unforgettable catastrophe E.T. (both, 1982). The player now had his leisure — his world was now basically open. Pac-Man had broken out of his labyrinth — and found a real world waiting for him outside.
A seemingly distant genre, the flight-simulator, popularly began in 1980 with subLOGIC’s appropriately-titled Flight Simulator, later licensed to Microsoft. These games were groundbreaking for the sense of freedom — and what better sense of freedom than flying through the open air? Their basic problem was that the air was empty, so there was literally everywhere to go and nothing to do. The game was the movement alone.
Movement alone is a fantastic concept for gaming, of course, as has been well demonstrated by recent parkour-inspired games (Assassin’s Creed, Mirror’s Edge), and the closely-related genre of sports games. Also, exploration is the fundamental gameplay concept of open-world games. So, even while the early flight simulators were devoid of narrative or action, they were perhaps the first pure expression of open-world joy.
Then there came Elite (1983), which synthesized these emerging forces, and in so doing shifted the paradigm.
Elite was outstanding in many ways. Its graphics engine was original and groundbreaking: wireframe 3D graphics with hidden-line removal was a big deal back then. The auto-generation of the universe was brilliant, and its combat was clever (although dogfighting had already been incorporated by subLOGIC/Microsoft’s Flight Simulator back in 1982). Its economy was a game just by itself, and it had a rich gameplay all around.
But Elite was truly profound because it presented a game-world space and a freedom of movement and choice that for the first time felt real and unbounded. The game-world no longer appeared to be a closed labyrinth or a hilly continuum, but was now an open universe — and so the game-world metaphor began to operate on a new level.
With The Seven Cities of Gold (1984), this was of course the birth of a genre: the trade/exploration/combat/adventure sandbox, typically in space or at sea (key metaphors of freedom). The successors are far too numerous to list, but they include: Starflight (1986), Pirates! (1987), Star Control (1990), Privateer (1993, and following), X (1999, and following), Freelancer (2003), Darkstar One (2006), SpaceForce 2 (2007).
In the whole history of computer games, there have been only two other innovations which are on the same level as this moment: 1) the explosion of multi-player; and 2) the paradigm-shift from 2D “platform” to 3D world — the latter already anticipated by Elite’s cockpit view, though this was already done in the popular arena by the arcade game Battlezone (1980).
(Technically speaking, Jim Bowery’s 1974 game Spasim was the first multiplayer 3D combat, but as it ran on a PLATO network mainframe, its audience was relatively small and specialized.)
However, it would be about sixteen years before game designers began to use the term “sandbox” to describe this kind of free-form play. Nevertheless, the concept of the open game-world is essentially the same, from Elite all the way to Assassin’s Creed, Spore, or GTAIV.
The intervening years saw many trends in free-play, the most popular of which was the city-building game. It began in 1982 with Utopia, but the city-building genre really came into its own when it ceased to be strategic/competitive and became instead an exercise in “free” building for its own sake.
The genre grew out of the natural pleasure of designing game-worlds — a pleasure that game developers experience all the time. One developer, Will Wright, thought that it would be a good idea to share this joy as directly as possible, and this insight led to the development of SimCity, which became a record-breaking success, defining one of the largest genres of the 1990s.
Sometimes this sort of free play was blended with economic simulation, in such as the Tycoon games, starting with Railroad Tycoon (1990). Various more-or-less competition- and objective-oriented games joined its ranks throughout the following decade, from SimIsle to Capitalism (both 1995).
Opening game design to the player, even to a very limited degree, heralded modern player-generated-content games, from Second Life to LittleBigPlanet to Spore.
Encouraging Player Experimentation
The metaphor of the “sandbox game” finally emerged at the turn of the century, around the publication The Sims and the following year, Grand Theft Auto III, the two games which are traditionally considered the two original and canonical “sandbox” games.
The invention of the term did indeed accompany a new development in game design, but this was not, as the term suggests, player freedom, which was already available by any number of means: non-linearity; the lack of objectives or central storyline; automatic variation of the game-world and game-behavior.
It was in terms of responsiveness and encouraging player experimentation that these games represented a gradual but transformative change in game design.
“Sandbox” was a new development because it indicated a new promise: automated responsiveness to player behavior. In this sense it does not mean “free play,” “non-linear,” and the rest; rather, it indicates that which makes this style of play specifically and particularly interesting in its own right.
Most of all, this meant a radical development in design detail. The evolution of sandbox-oriented quality between GTA2 and GTAIII is truly astounding. The switch from bird’s eye to 3D opened the world and shifted it from cartoonish “Hot Wheels” platformer to a realistic city. But the critical part was that the writing and detail followed through on the promise.
As mentioned at the beginning, sandbox design facilitates and encourages a sense of player freedom, while providing a framework for play and a rich and detailed world for interaction. This was definitively achieved by The Sims in 2000, and in 2001, Grand Theft Auto III. Let’s now consider their innovations, starting with The Sims.
Towards Believable Characters: Psychological Games, A-Life, and AI
The amazing commercial and cultural success of The Sims might suggest that it was entirely new — which means we are likely to forget that the genre began with Little Computer People (1985), even though the latter “game” was well celebrated in its time.
This is the birth of the mind game, the virtual seduction.
There were several studies in the 1990s, of what gameplay structures and presentation/interface regimes increase attachment, what exploits the player’s tendency and desire to interact in a seemingly meaningful way with the artificial character. These always somehow literalize the metaphor of the game-world, bring the player into the virtual space and enmesh him there: enabling “physical” contact (mouse-petting), sharing “space” (e.g., the player and the character can manipulate the same on-screen objects), and so on.
Today we are so close to such virtuality that it has perhaps become difficult to observe its mechanism, but a primary aspect of sandbox play is the formation of a psychological illusion of contiguity, if not continuity.
Thinking more towards psychologically effective programming, let us consider the dual nature of AI. As any AI designer or programmer will tell you, the task of designing a “believable NPC” involves fostering an appearance or impression of that elusive philosophical notion of intelligence: the psychological impression of intelligence.
What contributes to this impression, however — the underlying program — is more or less “intelligent” in an entirely different sense. Where we speak of the “intelligence” of the program, we mean only the level of autonomy and generality. This is not the place to get into the specific maneuvers and techniques, but be assured that relatively simple programming can lead to really convincing NPC AI, and really it’s mostly in the presentation.
The NPC programmer’s plan, then, is essentially to write suggestive and interpretable behavior, so that the player will “read in” a lot more sophistication than is actually present. Computer-players can be good at winning a chess match or a combat, which has relatively simple rules, easily-validated success cases, etc.
But beyond this, the question of truly intelligent programming (in that ephemeral, philosophical and psychological sense) is well beyond our technological horizon and may well remain there forever. The question of NPC personality in games is always the question of faking it.
The main reason that this trend towards believable characters is compelling for sandbox play is that the characters are, at bottom, more dynamic and interactable. They help “sell” the game world because they seem more realistic. Not “realistic” in the sense that they can ever hope to pass the Turing test, but realistic enough that they’ll lull you into forgetting about their artificiality. The more intelligently the NPCs respond, the more the game feels like a free and open world.
AI is widely various and can be complicated, but in general it is effect-oriented. The programmer has in mind a goal behavior, and writes code to meet this objective. In comparison with AI, Artificial Life is bottom-up programming, and it’s all about emergence. The emergent behavior is not necessarily even known in advance.
The Sims, and especially the range of games it inspired, was heavily influenced by technological developments in computer science during the 1990s, and in particular Alife. By 2000, this has developed into the art of manipulating automated NPC behavior, even in an otherwise traditional title, as we have for example in Majesty.
In this classic, there is no player-character, and little if any direct action by the player. Instead we have NPC agents whose behavior cannot be directly controlled, but only indirectly influenced in some way: add stimuli and enjoy watching how the automatons respond. It’s a delightful gameplay model, which we look forward to revisiting in the forthcoming Majesty sequel.
Playing with automated systems, watching NPC AI agents interact with each other according to their program, or even watching Alife virtual organisms go about their daily life, has long been and remains a key sub-genre of sandbox play. Further, believable and self-motivated characters have become key to sandbox play, because they produce a rich space for interactivity and greatly help establish the open-world aesthetic. But in another style of sandbox games, the game space itself plays this role….(source:gamasutra)