Sandboxes — Collection of Choices

I am going to start this entry with a quote from Whitelight, from one of his videos about Watch Dogs 2 (4 years later) available bellow.

“If we associate fun with decision making and we understand that depth is the sum of balanced choices the Watch Dogs 2 is going to be most fun when you are considering as much of the sandbox as possible. For that to be the case you need to be willing to experiment. To excuse taking risks you need the ability to make small mistakes and recover from them.”

“If the game is overwhelmingly difficult you degenerate to the most reliable, exploitable strategy so the depth of many options is reduced to the safety of one option.”

“In an unbalanced game the option becomes far to clear, far too quickly”

“Degenerative strategies in Watch Dogs 2 are like demons on your shoulder if you crank the difficulty way too high.”

“Though it can encourage satisfying engaging complex plays the game doesn’t have the balance to uphold its realistic difficulty”.

This got me thinking because it’s something I believe to be true. The relationship between difficulty and the number of valid balanced choices is one of decay. The more difficult the game is the more obvious it is what strategies are best to use.

This is, after all, how metas are created in all types of video games (from call of duty to fifa). In situations of high difficulty/stress the most balanced options shine the brightest.

This leads to a sad fact that implies that no experimentation is necessary past this point, since it has become clear for everyone what needs to be used for the player plan to be optimal.

Optimal however is not interesting. It leads to repetitive grinding behavior that helps nobody. While some may enjoy this type of gameplay, this is not what Watch Dogs is about.

So in order to enjoy the game to its fullest, considering the fun will come from experimenting with the systems, we will need to lower the difficulty.

This is something that is valid for all open world games. Lower difficulties facilitate more facets of exploratory gameplay and allows the player to be more creative with his choices.

Fun rises as more options become available. More options become valid as the difficulty Lower, because experimentation becomes possible.

As the chart above indicates the amount of balanced choices decreases as the difficulty rises.

The player’s tendency is to use the most effective tool for the job. If in high end scenarios the most useful weapon will be the “gun” that’s what the player will use to “win”.

However in games like Watch Dogs 2, where the systems are what generate the “fun”, restricting the number of choices seems to work against the game. The fun factor is simply higher when the difficulty is lower.

Player retention increases with the number of strategies available and how deep the system generating them are.

The reason for this is simple:

  • Difficulty increments are artificial. The game was not designed with them in mind, but with a general global difficulty factor that got augmented post factum.

This is why games have a recommended difficulty level. Everything outside of that is fluff and will not be optimal in any way. And this is true for most video games.

Player retention increases with the number of strategies available and how deep the system generating them are.

Player engagement rises if:

  • The systems are deep enough to produce interesting results
  • There are enough systems for the player to play with
  • The systems are usable in the sandbox in sandbox and non sandbox situation

This is one of the reasons why games like GTA Online for example are so popular to this day.

The players engaging with each other in the online environment might appear to do so chaotically, however there is are rules to such chaos and they are ultimately dictated by:

  • Systemic Depth
  • System interactions
  • Simple and Repeatable Content.

Again! The results might be chaotic but the rules by which they are governed are undoubtedly tied to the systemic depth of the options available. And the sandbox supports these options/choices further enhancing the feeling of “freedom” or as we like to call it “player agency”.

Traditionally we like to conceptualize choices as being a chain of decisions that lead to effects.

But the truth is that instead of looking at things as a finite chain of choice in fact the entire system is cyclical. More than often if we examine our choices we will notice that we have a tendency to repeat them, or at least choose between similar things.

The Choice Wheel

Conceptually we are sitting in the middle of a circle surrounded by a finite number of options/choices.

Choosing one option simply takes us into a difference circle of choice.

This reveals the cyclical nature of choice. We get to build a tapestry of choices that create effects that lead to the same set of choices but in different configurations.

Exploring the depth of this systemic framework leads to an emergent narrative that is personal to whoever experiences it.

The Carrot and the Stick

However, having players explore this set of interactions for the sake of just exploration is generally a hard thing to do since people are generally lazy, unless stimulated somehow by “treats”.

Having a good set of systems interacting with each other is great but the player needs a reason to do so.

So what we can generally do is associate a goal with the player progression, giving them a target that they need to “resolve”.

And we lock it behind the Solution possibility space. If the player wants to complete the goal he needs to interact with the possibility space.

This means that ultimately the goal itself does not matter (although it does) as long as the player is “tricked” into discovering the complexities of the solution possibility space.

The purpose is not to facilitate the completion of the Goal, but to allow the player to spend as much time as possible in experimenting with solutions and discovering the complexity of the systems.

The Player Gets lost in playing the game voluntarily by interacting with the systems even without an arbitrarily imposed goal. Curiosity is the key here.

And in time the presence or absence of a task becomes a secondary concern since the player is more interested in exploring the system interactions and the anecdotes that come out of this experience.

The player gets to play the game for the sake of play rather than from following directions. True independence.

If you would allow me to make a parallel, the goals act as training wheels for the player, allowing him to catch the taste of the tapestry before wholeheartedly surrendering himself to it.

Games like Death Stranding and GTA Online do this very well, although in very different ways.

Gameplay Styles

Gameplay Styles

Usually players will default to a set of choices within that possibility space, and will articulate those choices into what we like to call gameplay styles.

Gameplay styles have been associated to player typologies and games have tried to build gameplay styles based on those typologies, however the truth is that gameplay styles are not defined by typologies.

Player preferences dictate what those choices might be, however the choices themselves are dictated by the developers.

In general early games were built around a simple set of rules that would qualify as a gameplay style. There would be some flexibility within it to define how you could play it differently depending on circumstances but usually stepping outside the limits of those rules would lead to a hard fail.

Some hybrid games attempted to facilitate multiple gameplay styles but ultimately transitioning between them meant failing at one or the other.

Fundamentally a fail state exists between two playstyles as a consequence of them being considered as completely different from each other.

However this is not entirely true.

A gameplay style is an abstraction, engineered to better contextualize a set of choices the player can make.

Playstyles — A collection of Systemic Tropes

Playstyles can share systems. Transitioning from one play style to another can/should lead to interesting gameplay moments/choices.

This generates a transitional gameplay cycle between playstyles allowing the player to change the way he wants to engage with the game on the fly.

By liberating the gameplay style from the archetype and allowing it to exist as a collection of systems rather than a framework for a player typology the way the game can be structured becomes more flexible.

This leads to a set of more creatively composed gameplay experiences.

Ex: Watch Dogs 1, 2 had a mechanic that would allow players to hide in cars. Hiding in cars allowed the player to avoid patrol cars from discovering the player during a chase.

This got conceptualized very well in a mission in Watch Dogs 1 where Aiden acts as a getaway driver but needs to avoid patrol cars by hiding in the car, turning off the engine and car lights.

Getting back to the idea of difficulty it can be reinterpreted not trough an incremental addition to the stats of the low level components (AI Health, Damage, Etc) but more like an increment to steps needed to complete an action:

- Additional opinion pips in CK2

- Additional mission steps in WD2/Legion

Difficulty comes not from how you interact with the game but from how many steps you need to perform to solve an imposed challenge. For example having multiple objectives.

So, under these circumstances the way we build levels chances since the layout needs to support a variety of possible playstyles. This is where Variety Matrix comes into play.

By listing mechanics/components/systems cross referenced with levels (L1, L2) you can dictate ways of creating systemic interactions in a way that will lead to interesting ways for the player to experiment with those systems, and at the same time to make sure that those combinations are not being repeated across the game.

The point is to try to find interesting combinations between multiple systems that could be articulated into a set of levels, missions that as a whole would be distinct from each other and would shine a line on the inner workings of the game.


  • L2 — Combat, Sniping, Hacking
  • L7 — Stealth, Explosives, Social Engineering.

The player articulates the playstyles by using the systems available in the level.

The systems are facilitated by a set of system driven components that act as the interface between the player and the system:

  • Sound travels through space — Making a noise will attract guards.
  • Animals/NPC can become infected by poison — Infecting a guard that is going into an interior might infect other guards as well
Bear on drugs in Far Cry 5
  • Hacking a junction box will cause it to explode when a guard comes near it
  • Trucks patrolling in and out of bases might allow the player to infiltrate undetected because he can be prone.
  • A dead guard can be used to keep a locked automated door open
Rhinoceroses interacting with vehicles in Far Cry 4

The challenge is structuring the locking mechanics of the level:

- Do you create a linear flow where every choice is gated by another choice?

- Do you create an open layout but as varied as possible in terms of choice?

Player Agency decreases as the number of steps increases
Player Agency increases with the number of options available.

In my experience gating the level too much has always led to gimping the players freedom in an artificially. It leads to wasting the players time.

The general rule of thumb would be — more options rather then more steps.

A sandbox layout from Far Cry 4 that leverages the “Dog” ingredient as a primary theme.

Here’s an example of ingredient distribution in Far Cry 4 from a presentation by Phillipe Bergeron at GDC 2016 (Also available bellow).

Anyway! That’s it for this entry. See you around.

As a level designer I am not a creator, I am a facilitator. Senior Open World Designer @MassiveEntertainment. #Leveldesign #Open World #Design @notimetoulose.