Tag Archives: sandbox

Linear Or Sandbox Game — Why Not Both?

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The sentiment I’m starting to sense is that a lot of people are speaking out against the sort of resurgence of open-world games we’ve seen in this new console generation. I believe I already covered how I think we’re just getting too many bad open-world games, but I think another problem is how right now it seems like we have to choose between open-world or super-linear. There used to be a middle-ground that mostly isn’t there anymore. Continue reading

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Why Doesn’t Content Bloat In Witcher 3 And Metal Gear Solid V Annoy Me?

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Right now I’m trying to juggle two massive games: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and The Witcher 3. While trying to reconfigure my wake/sleep schedule I’m also realizing both of these games do exactly what I’ve hated about open-world games for some time now… but I’m thoroughly enjoying them.

You know those games, usually coming from Ubisoft, that just put icons all over the map for treasure chests and side missions to the point where it all ends up feeling like busywork? Or they throw in a lot of extraneous features like crafting materials and team management simulations? I think MGSV and Witcher 3 figured out how to do those kinds of games properly. Continue reading

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Do Sandbox Games Even Need Main Missions?

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Yeah this is a brazen question to ask and it is partly to draw attention, but it get’s at the conflict I’ve been seeing in many open-world games made over the last few years, mainly action sandbox games in the Grand Theft Auto tradition. Of course sandbox games can have good main missions, but in a great many of them, main missions seem to actually detract from the central appeal of the game. Continue reading

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Saints Row IV And Sandbox Deconstruction

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I originally didn’t plan to bother with Saints Row IV after recently finishing Saints Row The Third, but that free weekend and $5 sale on Steam took me by surprise (and is actually the same way I tried out and bought The Third). A ways into the game, it’s got me wondering about what’s happened to sandbox games and where the game format is headed.

Open-world game design is getting pretty stilted. I hope new hardware can inspire some evolution on them, but the last few years of open-world games have brought us some design that’s so formulaic it’s starting to feel like busywork. SR4, mostly in purpose but sometimes unintentionally, has brought me to a point of deconstruction with open-world games where I’m starting to wonder why the game’s city is even there anymore. Continue reading

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Late to Space Games Part 1: Elite (1984)

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One game genre that’s mystified me over the years has been space flight simulators. The buzz surrounding No Man’s Sky convinced me to finally plan to investigate them this year. Part of the reason people are so mystified with the game is because it’s part of a genre that almost doesn’t exist on consoles. So, for a while you might see a lot of posts on this blog about space games. I decided to start off with one of the first and probably the most influential — the original 1984 Elite, well, a version of it at least.

On one hand I was always intimidated by how complex the flying mechanics of Wing Commander or X-Wing look. On the other hand I wondered how games about trading goods like Freelancer could ever be fun, even if it is in space. Even the title “Freelancer” sounds like some kind of economics job description that’s anti-fun. It’s one more area that makes PC gaming look much more intimidating than it actually is. I think I made the right decision in starting my trek through this genre basically from the beginning. Continue reading

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Why I’m Optimistic About Assassin’s Creed Unity

It’s easy to understand that a lot of people are “Assassin’s Creed-ed out.” Despite that, the information we have so far on Assassin’s Creed Unity is just interesting enough to make me want to at least pay attention to the latest franchise entry, yet again.

The franchise, and arguably Ubisoft games in general, have gotten increasingly formulaic since around 2009 (Assassin’s Creed II to be specific). It seems like multiple Ubisoft games from multiple franchises have followed the same formula: experience points to collect, skills to upgrade, things to craft, an economy system, and much of the time an open world with a map full of icons to travel to. The AC games have become annual with their own tried-and-true formula of hay barrels, backstabbing, tailing missions, and other automatic failure stealth missions. If you actually pay attention to what we know about Unity though, it seems like it might try to make the most fundamental changes to the series’ formula since the original game.

Reddit actually has a pretty great, fully-sourced list of currently-known facts about the game. Most of it seems to be tidbits from interviews. What intrigues me is Ubisoft is apparently willing to sacrifice long-standing elements of the AC structure — a structure that I think has gotten bloated over the years. I haven’t played my copy of Black Flag yet (which I was only interested in because of the pirate theme), but if you ask me Assassin’s Creed III could have had half its content cut and maybe gone for a more focused, more polished game. Did running the Assassin’s guild and building a homestead need to be in there? Again? I’m not saying Ubisoft is taking a meat cleaver to the formula for Unity, but it sounds like they’re taking a good look at what really still needs to be there and what doesn’t.

Most importantly, it looks like missions in Unity will be more open-ended. What I and a lot of other people hate most about AC games is stealth missions like the tailing sections where getting seen once or not doing something in a specific way results in an automatic fail state. To put it bluntly, the AC games often seem anti-open-world despite supposedly being sandbox games. In interviews Ubisoft has said that in Unity, a tailing mission instead may start as a tailing mission, but could change into something else if you get seen or if your target is killed. The only real objective there would be to figure out what information that guy had on him, or where he was going.  Apparently you’ll also be able to repeat missions and complete them in different ways. Ubisoft is calling this “Adaptive Mission Mechanic.” This basically sounds like what I’ve always wanted AC to be, even since the original — a game where each mission is nothing more than a place and a goal.

The stealth you’ll employ in these missions has also apparently undergone a complete overhaul. If you saw the E3 gameplay presentation, I think you saw Ubisoft employ a crouch or “stealth mode” that’s manually activated. AC thus far has been about large-scale stealth — hiding in crowds and infiltrating large areas. Infiltration of small areas has thus far resulted in the aforementioned frustrating missions. Maybe Ubisoft wants to allow for stealth on a more intimate scale. I still don’t think this is going to be like Splinter Cell or Thief, but it seems like Ubisoft is at least trying to build an actual stealth game here. I have no idea how well it’ll actually turn out.

Another big change seems to be the scale of the world. Ubisoft already confirmed Unity is going to have the biggest world in an AC game which isn’t hard to understand with the move to new hardware. What might feel really different though is that Unity’s locations will apparently vary between two thirds of real-life scale (2:3), and actual real-life scale (1:1). Where locations in previous AC games have been around half of real-life scale (1:2), Ubisoft said Paris will be at or near 1:1. On top of this around a quarter of buildings will have explorable interiors. That sounds like a big leap from just running through buildings in AC3.

Traversal seems to be getting some of the most interesting changes in Unity. A big thing is that hay barrels are gone. If you want to get down a building you’ll have to parkour down there, for which they’ve tweaked the system. There will also be no guards on rooftops. At the very least it looks like Ubisoft is trying to change how AC players perceive rooftop traversal.

There’s a lot more at the Reddit link that I won’t go deep into here. The new combat and skill upgrade system sounds interesting but Ubisoft hasn’t had a lot of luck in that department over the last decade. Co-op sounds like it might be good but I’m not extremely interested. Let’s just say overall Unity sounds like it’s trying to be a true next-gen upgrade for the franchise.

BULLETS:

  • Man, I really want a new Red Faction Guerrilla game on next-gen hardware. Judging by the sense of scale we’re seeing in games like Unity, Batman Arkham Knight, and Witcher 3, it could be amazing. Just imagine what Red Faction’s Destructibility might be like on modern hardware. Oh, and as I write this I believe Guerrilla is like $2 on Steam.
  • Evo Moment 37 happened 10 years ago. http://t.co/xakbCVSu7p
  • I didn’t realize Dark Horse’s release of Blade of the Immortal reached volume 29 back in May. Volume 30 comes out in October, and it looks like Dark Horse will conclude the series with volume 31 (Samura published the conclusion in Japan in December 2012).
  • Nice article from Wall Street Journal on benefits companies for freelancers. http://t.co/boqklMRDYI
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ArmA III And The Future of Open World Scale

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After playing enough of ArmA III to actually enter its main phase, the one thing that is consistently impressive about the game is the variance in scale of its open world. Like its predecessor it takes a different approach to scale from most sandbox games which I hope is indicative of all the open world games the new consoles seem to be getting.

Every developer that tries to make an open-ended world in a video game, especially one that’s supposed to represent landscapes of plains, mountains, and cities, has run into the problem of scale, each one making its own compromises. Classic RPGs have you run across a map as a miniature character and visit cities with less than 10 characters and half as many buildings. Games with world sizes closer to reality have 90 percent of their doors locked. More recent games still have their worlds significantly scaled down from reality (the land of Skyrim would be much bigger than 16 square miles in real life). Other games choose to render a smaller area in higher detail. It’s like a push and pull. ArmA III’s main map has convinced me that hardware advances are beginning to loosen that push and pull.

The island of Altis is massive, feels realistic in scale, and is potentially capable of surprising density and interactivity for its size. Officially Altis is around 270 square kilometers (104 square miles) — about 75% the area of the real Greek island it’s based on. Some measurements pit it at maybe twice the size of Grand Theft Auto V. Yet, you can enter 100 percent of Altis’ buildings and open around 99 percent of its doors. ArmA III’s gameplay in this world ranges wildly in scale between indoor corridors and battles seamlessly ranging across mountains and cities. It’s the only game I’ve played where I can look at distant mountains and towns that in other games would be background images or at best simple set-dressing and say “I can go there, and I can go inside all those buildings without seeing any loading screens.” Even the fields, hills, and all the wilderness between towns looks like it’s scaled either 1:1 or closer to 1:1 than most open world games. If ArmA III makes any compromise, it’s that its world is nearly barren of civilians — it feels like a vast ruin.

A lot of the PS4 and Xbox One games we sat at E3 were open world, and I hope ArmA III is a preview of what modern hardware can do to reconcile scale versus density. The Batman: Arkham Knight demo was particularly impressive for its sense of scale. Witcher 3 developer CDProjekt RED likes to talk about how you’ll be able to explore everything you see in the distance in its cityscape screenshots. Even Zelda director Eiji Aonuma said basically the same thing about his game. John Davison on his F!rst for Gamers podcast claims he saw AI characters go about real daily routines and ships follow shipping routes in real time in a Witcher 3 demo. Ubisoft claims that Assassin’s Creed Unity’s world will be 1:1 or nearly 1:1 scale and that around a quarter of its buildings will be fully explorable.

Another reason some developers don’t create extremely huge worlds though is to tighten the pace of a game. The first two Elder Scrolls games — Arena and Daggerfall, still have some of the largest worlds ever created in video games despite having been made almost 20 years ago. Daggerfall’s size is comparable to the real Great Britain I believe. But I hear in that game it literally takes hours to get from one town to the next. The developers of the upcoming Kingdom Come: Deliverance discussed this problem in a blog post — Warhorse studios wants their world to feel realistically big, yet intricate, but not boring. I think they settled on creating a realistically-scaled three square kilometer map. ArmA doesn’t care, mostly because it’s a simulator going for realism over entertainment. It’s not afraid to make you spend 30 minutes getting from one place to the next. It’s only concession is a time acceleration feature.

One thing that probably governs the size of a lot of open worlds is the player’s main mode of transportation. Skyrim needs to be small because you’re on foot most of the time. Grand Theft Auto needs to be larger because the word “Auto” is in the title. Some of the biggest worlds in games are actually in open world racing games because you spend all your time driving upwards of 100 miles per hour (but those games don’t have on-foot exploration). One reason ArmA needs to be big is to accommodate aircraft. Scale-wise could probably think of the game as an air combat simulator where you can also walk on the ground.

No Man’s Sky seems like the logical conclusion to all this: starting out walking on the ground and ending up flying a space ship all over the galaxy without any break in player control. That game is pretty much trying to be the ultimate realization of video game scale many of us have probably been dreaming about for decades.

BULLETS:

  • Also of note is the island of Skira from Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, which is around the same size as Altis, except they got it to run on PS3 and Xbox 360. I don’t know what Dragon Rising’s gameplay is like compared to ArmA III though.
  • So there’s an Eve Online comic based on actual player-driven events. Do any other MMOs do this?
  • Man I don’t know about Ridley Scott’s Exodus. http://t.co/SuYKe2v8Kt
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Collect-a-Thons Done Right And Done Wrong

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Playing through Betrayer, which I just reviewed on Steam, has reminded me of what I’ll call “GPS game design.” Specifically, it reminded me of how these types of open world games like to handle secrets and collectibles.

In my review I said Betrayer borrows the feel of its structure from games like Elder Scrolls and Far Cry 3. This plays into how you solve the game’s mysteries — by finding clues, notes, treasures, and characters dispersed throughout the world. The primary way to do this is pressing a button that brings up an audio cue which you follow. To me this feels similar to how Ubisoft’s open-world games like to simply throw every secret on a map, or how the first Infamous game has you track audio recordings through radar. I think this is potentially problematic because it feels more artificial than certain games used to.

In a classic Japanese RPG or a Zelda game, secrets are usually placed in deliberately designed areas. Each Golden spider in Ocarina of Time is placed so you have to exhibit a particular skill to retrieve it. Each missile and health upgrade in Metroid is specifically placed so you have to overcome a challenge or be unusually perceptive to reach it. Each extra secret in these games is essentially an extra objective in itself instead of a simple trinket seemingly randomly placed in the world. This is the difference between fun collect-a-thons and boring collect-a-thons.

Maybe newer open world games do this because of how their worlds are designed. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry don’t seem as deliberately planned-out as Zelda’s extremely specific pathways. Today’s sandbox games mostly feel like jumbles of trees or concrete that simply set the stage for actions. I don’t think that should get in the way of more specific and maybe more organic placing and discovery of secrets though. What if, instead of simply putting a secret object on the map in Far Cry, you got a message that told you the object was in a specific building in a specific town? It would feel more like actually tracking something down rather than moving towards an icon on a map.

This problem potentially affects Betrayer even more because its main crux is finding objects to progress the plot. Most of its notes and other clues are somewhat randomly placed in the world, and most of the time the only way to find them is with the audio cue button. I don’t bring this against the game in my review because it’s simply echoing what Far Cry and Elder Scrolls have done.

To Betrayer’s credit, it does utilize its map for the finding of things at times. Actually, the map is pretty much your main tool of exploration outside the audio cues. It displays many interesting yet unmarked places that beg to be explored, which leads to many of the game’s secrets. I only wish all the clues and other things were hinted at in such a way.

I don’t really see this style of placing secrets in open world games changing any time soon because I haven’t really seen it discussed. Some people have come out against “GPS game design” and even the soulless collect-a-thons, but I haven’t seen evidence developers are figuring out more immersive ways of placing secrets.

BULLETS:

  • I really like GameSpot’s review of Ace Combat Infinity. http://t.co/UV3Rh9m41g It shows a real appreciation for what the older Ace Combat storylines tried to do, even if they sometimes came off as usual anime tropes.
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