In a world of Triple-A titles, railroad narratives, and oversimplified game-play there are a few games that stand out from the rest and offer us a truly fulfilling experience: Sandbox games.
What are Sandbox games? Put simply, they are games that allow you to change an manipulate the game world in the way you want. Think about when you were a kid playing with building blocks, or (to be more literal) building things in the playground sandbox. There were no limitations beyond your imagination and the only direction was your own. That is the chief quality of a Sandbox game.
What are some of the best sandbox game features?
Let's take a look at some games from the past and see. First we'll start with Star Wars Galaxies. Galaxies was an MMORPG set in the Star Wars Universe. Released in the early 2000's, Galaxies created an environment where you could be the character you wanted and immerse yourself in an organic, changing setting. Players were not limited in their choice of skills or direction. Every class had a place in the economy and game-play. Nearly all of the items you could purchase were made by other players. Healing and resting were also jobs for other players. Many of the cities out across the worlds were player-created. Almost all of the 'quests' and jobs you were on were based on what you were trying to accomplish in the game, rather than set up by some scripted AI.
Next, we'll move to a more recent entry: The Zombie/Survival Simulator, DayZ. DayZ has a lot going on for a game that started as a Mod. Tons of other games have emulated it, but fallen short of the elegance in its original design. The only driving force is survival. Your character gets hungry, they get sick, they have needs and everything in the world, from the weather to zombies, is trying to kill them. The game does a great job in setting you towards goals without forcing anything on you. You need to find food, water, and then maybe a weapon. Moving on from that, in variations of the mod, you might want to find and fix up a car so that you can move faster. Later you might set up a base and so on. The game gives you nothing, but also takes nothing away its attempt to simulate life in an apocalyptic situation.
Probably the most famous Sandbox game is the 'voxel', block based hit Minecraft. Minecraft is quite possibly the ultimate sandbox game: The whole world is randomly generated and can be harvested to build with, there are no directions or even tutorials to push you one way or another, and everything you do is up to you for you. There are places to explore, and (of course) things to mine, but you could spend your whole game simply building log houses or exploring the infinite landscapes. Given the number of imitators this game has had (even a crossover clone with DayZ called Unturned), Minecraft must be doing something right.
What do these games have in common? As much as it is about player freedom and the goals or quests being up to the player, the real thing that makes them and sandbox games so good is the rewards. Players figure out what their rewards should be. It could be that you want to be the best Bounty Hunter on Tatooine, or build up a huge Zombie-proof base, or recreate the entire map of England, or even build entire worlds. The best Sandbox game features are not something programmed into them, they something we decide and make real.
In conclusion: Get out there, grab your blaster or axe, watch your back for Zombies, and “punch tree get wood” because Sandbox games are here and they're only getting better.