Sandboxes, Game Design and the Stigma of TOY

Sandboxes, Game Design and the Stigma of TOY

The term sandbox has been around for years now and there is a general understanding of what it means but no concrete definition. It is generally accepted in the industry that sandbox gameplay is non-linear gameplay, often in an open world environment. In interviews, conferences and industry functions I’ve heard it broken down to creative tools, tools for interacting with the environment, activities outside the main objective of the game, side-quests/puzzles/plots and a host of other smaller components under the sandbox umbrella, but there is one word that rarely comes up – toy.

A good portion of sandbox content is just that, a creative outlet and entertaining diversion. However, the word toy has a stigma to it. It is small, trivial, non-important and (worst of all) a developer and their game are less likely to be taken seriously when referring to their game as a toy, something that can be a big hurdle when trying to garner investment money.

Maybe that’s not it, and it’s just the obsessive gamification of everything has made it so that most developers don’t even think in terms of toy anymore. A great example of this is Etch-A-Sketch. It’s a mechanical drawing toy, but when you search the web for a digital version, each one is called an Etch-A-Sketchgame.

Minecraft, a toy blocks simulator, offers a beautiful example of the difference between a game and a toy. Two gameplay modes are provided – Survival and creative. While both are sandbox gameplay environments, Survival Mode is a game, as it offers both challenges and objectives. Creative Mode is a toy, functioning primarily as a creative outlet with the obstacles of having to gather/create your collection of blocks and dodge nighttime monsters removed.

The word ‘toy’ needs to re-enter the developer vocabulary. It doesn’t need to replace intrinsic, extrinsic, interdependency or the other big fancy words as we scribble on glass walls covered in post-its; it just needs to make an appearance now and then.