Sandbox titles have typically appealed to me more than on-rails experiences, in large part because experiencing something that happens due to multiple factors coming together is more exciting than seeing something scripted happen to you and everyone else playing the game. Lately however I’ve been questioning what makes a good sandbox game, vs a game that is just a bunch of pieces thrown into the mix that never really come together to give you something enjoyable or unique.
I’ll start with a recent major release, Crusader Kings 3. A sandbox simulator of medieval times, CK3 has a LOT of stuff going on. Marriage, alliances, culture and religion, technology advancement, warfare, vassals, etc etc. However the most basic cycle of CK3 is you go to war, you win and acquire territory, and you repeat. And because warfare isn’t especially exciting in CK3, and all of the other ‘stuff’ doesn’t directly factor into it, the core loop is both shallow and very repetitive. All of the other toys in that sandbox are interesting, at least the first time you see them, but they don’t perform great the 10th time around, and in a sandbox that is critically important. CK3 isn’t a bad game, and it certainly has its audience, but IMO it’s an example of a sandbox game where things aren’t tied together in one cohesive approach.
Jumping to a much smaller indie title that just debuted its demo recently, we have Going Medieval. The game is a low-graphics city/kingdom simulator set in, surprise, medieval times. You build your buildings square by square, your people collect resources, you research tech; if you have played a game like this, you know the deal. The issue I have here is I don’t see anything that Medieval does that other games don’t, or that it provides any reason to build and progress other than ‘because that’s the game’. What is the vision here? Why make/play this game over Stonehearth, Forest Village, Banished, Dawn of Man, or any number of other similar titles?
Finally there was Songs of Syx, a pixel art colony sim. At least here the ambition is to take a game like Rimworld and expand it from running a city into running a really big city…? It was hard getting past the graphics, because they are just terrible. It’s not just the style either, but the fact that it was really hard to understand wtf was going on beyond “this guy is moving in this direction”. But beyond the graphics, this is another title that within the first hour you are left questioning why you are playing. And I think that answer is still ‘build to build stuff’, and the early building isn’t anything new or interesting. If you have played a game like this, you have done these exact same steps before, and seen the results.
The last two titles mentioned, and maybe to some extend even CK3, suffer from the fact that they aren’t ‘done’, but in Early Access, Beta, Alpha, whatever the devs want to call not being done (CK3 is released, but in a year from now will most likely have a lot of DLC that fleshes out the game, perhaps so far as changing even the core loop of just playing to expand/conquer). That model of releasing early is fine if what you have is already worth playing. If your unique hook or blend of design is there, and the edges are rough, go ahead and release early. But if all you have is the bland vanilla gameplay loop, what are you expecting players to get excited about?