A return to classical ideas
Avatar ImageA Tale of Two Open Worlds
By: Michael Carusi | March 24th, 2011

Open world games have become something of a staple in video games ever since Grand Theft Auto IIIrevolutionized the genre. Ever since the technology became more readily available, open worlds have appeared in everything from run-of-the mill Grand Theft Auto clones to World War II games and even quasi-rock worlds. Eight years later it’s a lot easier for developers on tighter budgets than Rockstar North to implement open worlds, but how do you implement them well? When is an open world really an integral part of the game? I’ve come up with a theory that I think explains two successful formulas for open world gameplay and the relationship between them.

The Sandbox

This is an open world where fun, chaos, and catering specifically to the player’s impulses to be a colossal sadist reign supreme. I know the term ‘sandbox’ is ubiquitously applied to open worlds in general, but think about it for a second. Erase everything you know about the connotation of ‘sandbox gameplay’ for a moment. What do you want to do when you’re in a sandbox? Build a castle and then demolish it with your fists? Throw clumps of sand in the air or maybe into a playmate’s face? That’s what I always inferred a sandbox to be: An open world where wacky carnage takes at least some degree of priority.

A common – and critical – characteristic of sandbox environments is your character having the ability to defy physics, ignore gravity, miraculously heal from wounds, and cause more damage than Arnold Schwarzenegger from Commando. Embrace these traits whenever you can if you want a sandbox. It exemplifies the crazy, kinetic action and destruction we want to see – and more importantly, to cause – with fewer limitation or boundaries. The slapstick physics of Saints Row 2 make it a more effective recipe for chaos than the realistic driving in Grand Theft Auto IV (although I know I’m going to get at least objection to that claim). Similar Wile E. Coyote physics in games like Prototype and Just Cause 2 is what makes them standout sandbox games because you can do a lot more with less restrictive environments.


Freedom and the ability to move around very quickly should be paramount in the sandbox, especially to give us ability to cause as much destruction as quickly and as excitingly as we can. Just Cause 2 in particular lets you instantly grapple up tall mountains with a few hookshots or safely fall from the same mountains using unlimited parachutes, or simply by hookshotting into the ground at terminal velocity and magically escaping unharmed.Prototype lets you literally leap tall buildings in a single bound, scale them within seconds by dash-jumping, and glide through the air before immediately crashing to the ground from several hundred feet with no damage whatsoever. I’ve often found that the best sandboxes make the player a virtual god without regard to difficulty.

While it certainly isn’t mandatory for a fun sandbox, explosive set pieces or destructible elements of terrain are fantastic bonuses and can mean the difference between a good sandbox and a great sandbox. Mercenaries 2 andRed Faction: Guerrilla essentially let us go nuts with building destruction, but Just Cause 2 is again at the top of the sandbox class. It gets very proactive with offering buildings, satellites, radio towers, and fuel tanks that can be destroyed to raise your reputation, and certain story missions end with spectacular explosions that are only missing Rico Rodriguez putting on a pair of sunglasses while calmly walking away.

Alternatively, why not give us the ability to raise our own private army? Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and San Andreas both excelled at this because you recruited legions of gangsters to your ranks. Then it became equally entertaining to annoy rival factions, and watch the chaos commence. Saints Row 2 featured this on an even greater scale because there was much more contact between rival gang factions and low-level thugs.

Finally, don’t ever, ever get into the mindset that a sandbox is somehow less artful or sophisticated than the second item on this list, developers. It takes just as much time and craft to create a sandbox as it does a wild, rich experience like Red Dead Redemption, even if the atmosphere and playing intent you’re going for is vastly different. Using a hookshot to hurl several hookers off a tall cliff in Just Cause 2 may be a different experience than venturing cautiously into the forests of the Wild West, but hookshot your way up to the top of the same tall cliff and observe the beautiful scenery and vast, sweeping horizons. If that’s not artful I don’t know what is.

The Frontier

You humbly stand before a huge, dynamic world teeming with possibilities of exploration, danger, the unknown, and not quite knowing what could be over the next ridge. This is the ‘frontier’ open world, where you lack godly powers relative to the sandbox, but the world is deep, rich, and full of opportunities.

First of all, understand that there’s a difference between a physically big world and a deep world. The physical size of a frontier open world doesn’t matter as long as the world actually feels big. The world of Red Dead Redemption isn’t particularly large but horseback travel, galloping in pursuit of a fleeing criminal, or carefully hunting a wildcat lends itself to the world feeling vast and sweeping. A world can feel massive even relatively small by comparison; the world of Red Dead Redemption or even Fallout 3 would probably fit in [i]Just Cause 2’s back pocket.

Having different types of terrains, settings, and unique settlements and dungeons is vital to keeping us exploring. Even in a world with a single prevailing environment like Red Dead Redemption with the Old West, Fallout 3 andNew Vegas with the post-apocalypse landscape, and Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood with Renaissance Italy, subtle differences in districts, towns, or landscapes can mean a lot, like the juxtaposition between the wild ranches of Austin and the civilized nature of Blackwater. Alternatively something like World of Warcraft has vastly different terrains and settings, even more so now that Cataclysm is out.


The best frontier open worlds really make the map itself feel alive. Again, Red Dead Redemption is a class example of this. On any given trek across the wilds you’re likely to encounter hostile wildlife, beggars trying to trick you into getting off your horse so they can steal it, lawmen pursuing criminals, or people camping out in front of a fire. The Assassin’s Creed games all feel rich with life in the cities your characters inhabit, and traveling merchants or vagabonds that can lead into quests are fairly common in the Fallout games. Conveying the sense of the world being alive is what the frontier open world is all about, and pulling it off can make a game unforgettable.

When it comes to fast traveling and making it convenient for us to get around, don’t overdo it. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion made a big mistake by letting you teleport anywhere you want, which made the world feel watered-down and artificial. Absolutely give us a means to fast travel to specific areas we’ve discovered or the ability to take taxis, horse carriages, or flying mythical beasts between settlements, but making sure the map still feels deep and immersive despite this is paramount. If we lose the sense of grandeur that the map is trying to portray it keeps us from believing in the world.

Reconciling the two worlds

The most important thing to remember is that the sandbox and the frontier aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s a constant balance between them. I’ve personally developed the theory that games with open worlds are often on some form of sliding meter between wacky fun and frontier depth.

The biggest mistake is trying to split the difference and include the best of both a sandbox and a frontier. The world of Red Dead Redemption wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if we had the ability to hookshot across entire miles of terrain (which would probably let us traverse the entire map in about ten minutes). Prototype wouldn’t be as fun if you had to manually walk or take a car in between objectives. It’s easy to make a successful open world out of elements of both a sandbox and a frontier, but trying to have both Red Dead Redemption and Just Cause 2 is what causes games to stumble.


For me one of the biggest examples of trying and failing to have it both ways is inFamous. Initially I felt like inFamous had a solid grip on a sandbox open world, but when I opened up the second district Cole suddenly got bogged down with a lot of tedious climbing and the parkour wasn’t nearly as smooth as it was. The game seemed to do an about-face and opt for something more along the lines of a frontier world, but the environment was basically a small slum and generally not that interesting to explore to me. I still enjoyed the game, but after I point I didn’t enjoy the open environment nearly as much as I had in other games.

Join me next time on this little analysis of open worlds, where I’ll discuss how games split the difference between sandbox and frontier – and games that just have no point in their open worlds at all.

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