Thursday, January 21, 2010

What shape is that sandbox anyway?

In the comments to my last post the question arose, what happens if you ignore the town and go out in the mountains to dig for gold? Well, in DitV you are God's Watchdogs, who travel from town to town so doing that would be an error in the part of the player. Basically, you wouldn't play the game, so why did you show up?

This is where I think the shape of the sandbox becomes an issue. Imagine a game where you are playing a roguish character, but stop behaving like one. Imagine a game where you are a preacher and mailman, but stop behaving like one. In a narrow sandbox you would be able to do whatever you want, as long as you stay within that box. The thing is, there's always a shape of that box, be it narrow and long or something else.

I think that while strictly limited games where you can only do what's expected of you is considered bad, the solution to that problem is not the Sandbox silver bullet. I think the wish to be able to go anywhere and do anything is the ultimate dream of Simulationism. I'm afraid I have to use some Forge-speak, since it actually expresses what I mean here. But, for a casual gamer who just want to be heroic this wont cut the mustard.

I suggest that the reason we have adventures is that for those of us who don't want Simulationism, there has to be a Story, of some kind. The effect will be that the sandbox has to shrink, and maybe a little more narrow. It doesn't have to be narrow as a railroad track, but it suddenly gets a bit of focus when the edges are no longer lost in a mist, but can at least be imagined. I have some ideas about how to bring that focus, which I will detail tomorrow.

3 comments:

  1. From what I've heard about DitV, play goes something like this:

    Referee rolls to determine the circumstances of the town. The people exist, the places are there, there is predetermined conflict, and an outcome if the players do nothing or fail.

    Referee rolls up the next few towns too, in case the players finish early.

    Players create their characters.

    Players show up at the game and they do the standard back and forth of discovery with the referee to learn about the town.

    There is some comflict, some dice rolls, and the interesting things happening in town are squeezed dry. Nothing interesting left, we move on to the next town.

    Now if you follow that pattern exactly as above, it'll get old. And it is pretty linear. Within each town players can make their choices, and influence the outcome, but it's still Town A, Town B, Town C.

    So to mix that up you could have a map with the towns spread out in more of a web fashion. They can go at them from any direction, in any order. Events in an earlier town affect later towns. By rolling them all up at once you can create further connections between them. This makes the overall game, the campaign, less linear. Otherwise just make the linearity obvious, and set the game on a narrow peninsula or the Oregon Trail.

    As for individual choices, note that saying "you're a wandering religious lawman" might be like giving everyone Paladin-esque character restrictions. If wearing that coat means you can't take over the smuggling ring, or start a gun smithy, or become the mayor, then it's exactly like a straitjacket-style alignment. And in that way the game becomes very limited because there are only a few possible choices.

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  2. I liken this to video games. Here is an example:

    Super Mario Brothers. This game is incredibly linear, with only a couple choices scattered around.

    Zelda: Link to the Past. This game might look non-linear, but each dungeon you finish opens up more of the map. There really is an order you have to do things in. Less linear, but hardly "open".

    Deus Ex. I loved this game, but it had few actual choices that altered outcomes. Every level had a few paths but they tended to lead to the same places. There were a few approaches you could take, but certainly not enough to call it "open".

    STALKER. This game is actually incredibly linear. You think since you're outdoors you have some freedome of movement, but invisible walls and waist-high fences prevent you from going anywhere but "forward". Again, a few choices to make, but not many different outcomes.

    Grand Theft Auto III - IV. After a short limited section the world opens up for you. But mission availability is dependent on finishing previous missions. You often have a choice among less than 3-4 missions, along with the side games like Taxi Driving and Running Over the Paramedics With Their Ambulance.

    Morrowind. After the intro the whole world is available. Even if you don't have the quest you can go anywhere and experience it out of context if you like. There are hills blocking easy travel but with good athletic skills you can get over them. Like GTA, missions sometimes have prerequisite missions, but at the start you have access to probably a hundred or so, with just as many available as subsequent missions.

    So even though of the example group Morrowind seems to be the most open, due to restraints in programming you can't really make every possible choice. For example, since plants don't grow, you can't settle down to be a farmer. And because of the graphics and physics engine you can't just buy a shovel and dig a hole in the ground. This freedom is a big reason why you'd play a tabletop game.

    Also note that I think all of these are fun games. Linearity does not mean bad. A game with a predetermined story can be fun. I enjoy Final Fantasy games, for example, and they grind you on rails so narrow your sack gets scorched.

    And I don't see why a game of DitV would ever lead a player to randomly (and disruptively) just run off and start selling patent medicines out of the back of a donkey. I could see the fun in playing one of those characters legitimately. I just don't see calling DitV a sandbox.

    If you narrow the "sandbox" enough it becomes a path with few branches. At what point it becomes the other extreme, a railroad, is hardly worth debating. I think we can all agree that an enjoyable game fits somewhere in moderation between extremes.

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  3. Very good comments, it actually ties into my next post. Linearity can work just fine, but it is a different game.

    One thing differ from your description about DitV and actual play, though. You have no "standard back and forth" to discover the town. In fact, Vincent suggest you spill the beans at once and see how the players react. Then it's wide open.

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