Skip to main content

Greasing The Grind: Adding Lasting Appeal To Virtual World Sandboxes

Game design, being about entertainment, is not as much science as art.  We're coming up with interesting things that the human mind likes to chew on that "taste" good to it.  Different people find different things, "Fun," and a game designer is tasked with coming up with fun, appealing things.  As pertains to virtual world sandboxes, I identified three of them.

Challenge Appeal.

Dwarf Fortress and Fortresscraft Evolved have the same end game appeal preservation mechanic: wealth equals threat.  The more money your Dwarf Fortress is worth, the bigger the baddies who will come for you, including a bunch of snobby useless nobles who do nothing but push dwarves around and eat.  The more energy you make in Fortresscraft Evolved, the more and bigger bugs come to shut down your base.  Rimworld does something a little different based off of which AI Storyteller you choose, but it generally adds time to your wealth accumulation when deciding what kind of threats to throw at you.
Minecraft is a chill version of this because there is zero escalation of challenge.  Instead, once you progress far enough, you can voluntarily chose to visit The Nether and then The End, which are progressively more challenging places to be.  A lot of players prefer not to bother, so they sit around and thrive, build, accumulate, thrive some more, hit resource saturation, and complain on their blogs about it.  (Sorry, I think I reverted to telling you my life story.)  But it is easy to see how optional challenges can be missed by a player who has reason not to partake.

So here is one example of an open world sandbox appeal that seems to work.  A challenge appeal is basically all about flow theory.  It keeps things fun by stopping them from being too easy or too hard, but ideally does not allow the player to become complacent either.  Persistent worlds complicate things because accumulated stuff basically needs to a use or it creates a repellent flow condition.

Aesthetic Appeal.

Not so fast!  I am not talking about the game being pretty, as beauty is just skin deep and the player stops appreciating that after awhile.  Remember: this is supposed to be about what the players are doing to keep the end game phase of a virtual world sandbox interesting.  These are things the player can do that give them a reason to play.
I did not need to line up these Botania flowers in such elaborate gardens, so why did I?
As such, the "aesthetic appeal" refers to an activity in which the player is allowed to contribute meaningfully to their environment.  The game becomes aesthetically appealing because the player is allowed to instill beauty that matters to them.  But beauty comes in many forms; this is using a broad definition of beauty ("pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically").

Minecraft has this kind of virtual aesthetic appeal in spades.  Even before survival mode was added, it was popularized by its "creative mode" allowing people to make something cool.  Those giant cobblestone cocks are somebody's idea of adding something awesome and meaningful, and as such are examples of how aesthetic appeal kept those players playing.
If tree farms looked like this in real life, they would be in a museum.
Here is where things get interesting: functional aesthetics.  All those machine blocks in Minecraft, or even just redstone-driven machines, are basically this.  If you can create something that looks good, that's pretty cool.  But if you can create something that both looks good and does something useful then that's even better.  Functional aesthetics complement and enhance aesthetic appeal.  See what I mean about how beauty comes in many forms?  A big ugly machine can have gorgeous mental implications (although having the freedom to make that same machine pleasing to the eye might be even better, depending on the player).

I surprised myself by realizing NPC inhabitants are an example of functional aesthetics.  That is part of the reason I keep dragging them back into my Minecraft mod mix despite the fact a machine block can do their work for them.  A player knows that NPCs are not alive, they are not going to be making any real life friends by having them around.  But NPCs complement the lifeless environment around them by seeming alive.  This is the function of their aesthetic, and the better the job they do at seeming alive, the better example of a functional aesthetic they are.
Animal Crossing villagers are a pretty advanced example of a functional aesthetic component, more interactive than any piece of furniture, but still just fixtures to complement the drapes (sometimes literally).
So the "aesthetic appeal" described here is a bit of a broad term to describe virtual world sandbox activities that allow the player to interact with the environment in such a way as to heighten its appeal as an artifact.  This might be by building a tree fort, a working factory, or a relationship.  All are reasons that might appeal to the player to continue their involvement in the sandbox.  The wider the array of tools and means you give the player to contribute meaningfully to the environment, the longer this appeal should last before the player exhausts the possibilities.

Narrative appeal.

Of the three appeals here, I think that this one is the most nebulously defined.  Maybe I should work on that.  But basically it works like this: the narrative appeal of virtual worlds is that emergent content allows the player to weave a new story.

I am careful to specify emergence as a necessary quality because static stories are not why players are excited about virtual worlds.  There is no shortage of places to read a book, watch a movie, or participate in a more interactive medium with branching paths of static content.  But the exciting thing about virtual worlds is their emergence potential, or capability to create new stories through participation.
Examples of virtual worlds with strong emergent narrative appeal include managerial sims like Dwarf Fortress (e.g. Boatmurdered) and deep roguelikes like Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead (above).
Again, we are talking about end game, long term appeals that keep players playing virtual world sandboxes.  Making your own story has little to do with the challenge appeal, though challenge may drive the pace of the story.  Making an emergent story might be slightly related to the aesthetic appeal because it is another way in which the player can build something within the engine.  However, there are so many aspects of this that have nothing to do with either the challenge appeal or aesthetic appeal that the narrative appeal emerges a distinct third kind of appeal to consider.

I find that 4X games are surprisingly strong in terms of narrative appeal.  When Paradox Developent Studio made Stellaris, it often came up about how procedural/emergent storytelling was one of the goals.    After all, they had already made Crusader Kings II, another game whose rich political intrigues and families was a real hotbed for such stories.  But even a decade ago when I played Age Of Wonders: Shadow Magic, I could not help but weave a story.  We often do not think of 4X games as being virtual world sandboxes, thinking of them more like strategy simulations, but I would argue that they usually include features that would support being identified as either.
What keeps those players mashing that, "One more turn" button?  The same thing that could keep players running on a grind in a virtual world if it was done right; a procedural storytelling that keeps the player on the edge of their seat, wanting to know what happens next. 


For a very long time, I have been complaining about how there is not enough meaning to keep playing virtual world sandboxes, even if it is my favorite genre.  So it is quite significant for me to come up with not one such meaning, but three!

Do they really work?  Probably.  When I sort my Steam games list for "sandbox" and "open world" tagged games by player thumbs up, I can not help but notice that the top contenders are ones that perform unusually well in one or more of these appeals.  Excitingly, none of them are really the best at all three appeals, but could you imagine a game that was?  That is the game I want to play!

But, as I said, game design is more of an art than a science, and I doubt that these are the only lasting appeals that can be found in this genre.  Further, I would invite you to come up with better definitions on your own, as this is how the state of game development can be advanced.


Popular posts from this blog

Ancient Warfare - What Is It Good For?

The Ancient Warfare mod for Minecraft threw me for a loop.  I was looking for "villagers" that would perform useful tasks while simultaneously resolving the glut of food with a need to eat, thereby turning Minecraft into a bit of 4X game you can play from the inside.  Millenaire wasn't quite there, partly because recent updates to Forge had broken its compatibility with Minecraft 1.7.10, and Minecolony's development is not quite fast enough to keep up with the state of mods in general (they probably need to make a core API).
In comes Ancient Warfare, which does indeed provide workers and soldiers who need to eat, you can even order around a little army of them to defeat your enemies.  It has working waterwheels and windmills, something I thought was awesome in Resonant Induction.  It has a warehouse with a built-in sorting system, as well as courier NPCs that can move things from building to building, and crafting NPCs that can create things for you automatically - w…

Resonant Induction Really Grinds My Gears... In A Good Way

From about 2pm yesterday until 8pm today, I've been dabbling with my latest custom mod mix for Minecraft 1.6.4, which is this time very much Universal Electricity focused.
Aside from the usual GUI enhancers and Somnia, the primary contenders in this mix were:
Calclavia Core - Of course: this is the base of the Universal Electricity system.Resonant Induction - This seems to be largely focused on increasingly more advanced methods of refining ores divided across 4 ages of technological progression.  It also includes some really cool things such as assembly lines.  I'll primarily be talking about just a few blocks out of this mod today.Atomic Science - A mod dedicated to generating more of those lovely universal electricity volts via the power of splitting the atom.  Build your own nuclear reactor!  Deal with nuclear meltdowns!  You maniac!ICBM - A mod dedicated to generating more destruction using those lovely universal electricity volts (and more than a little gunpowder), it cer…

Stars Above, Earth Below

Now Playing: Stellaris This week saw me revisiting Stellaris, which just released a major overhaul which primarily made it so you have to path through stars in a certain order, allowing for better fortification.  Aside from that, though, how much has the game played since I last played it?
Honestly, maybe it is the fact that the only major game-changing DLC I have is the Utopia expansion, but I feel Stellaris not changed enough; Stellaris remains an excellent storyteller, but only lackluster 4X game.  Some standout gameplay impacts I noticed:
The new emphasis on starbases, their building and upgrading, is a major game changer.  You now have a whole extra source of food and energy that can be generated by them, and an upgraded starbase with defense platforms is basically a doomstack that thwarts invasion through that chokepoint node.Warp travel is so slow that it takes years for my fleets to get anywhere.  Perhaps, once I unlock the warp gates, things will speed up a bit.  As a result…