Theory: Run Railroads Through Your Sandbox

Although I don’t play role-playing games often, I like to think about them. They’re interesting both from a definitional perspective (is Dungeons & Dragons a “game” if there’s no winner?) and as a source of technical problems to solve. One of those technical problems came up recently online: how to motivate players in a freeform, “sandbox” game. I find that issue particularly fascinating because at its root are definitions–the competing natures of the “sandbox” and the “railroad”–and solving it requires one to break down some of the barriers between them, mixing the two styles of play.

“Sandbox” role-playing games are familiar to video gamers who enjoy the Elder Scrolls series or Minecraft. These games allow players to participate in storylines, or not, as they choose, and provide alternative activities for those who want to explore the game world on their own terms. Star Wars Galaxies, the now-defunct MMO, was a classic example: players could save the galaxy . . . or set themselves up as a shopkeeper . . . or attend in-game dance parties.

“Railroad” role-playing games, by contrast, have a fixed plot that the players are required to follow. They can make tactical decisions about how to negotiate with a queen or defeat a dragon, but the plot only proceeds when the queen gives the players a quest or the dragon is slain. Deposing the queen, allying with the monster, or otherwise deviating from the pre-determined story is not an option.

In recent years, “railroad” has often been treated as synonymous with “bad.” If someone wants to run a railroad game, it’s said, he or she should instead write a book and spare players the experience of going through the characters’ motions. Sandboxes, where the players can do anything they choose, are argued to be a more interesting mode of play for all involved.

The trouble is that setting up the sandbox doesn’t always lead to a great game. People often go to great effort to construct a wonderful, vibrant, fascinating world–and then find that their players don’t interact with it. Rather, the players wait for someone to give them direction, as though they can’t do without the hated rails.

Frustrated world-creators sometimes frame this problem in terms of preferences: they like the sandbox while their players prefer the railroad. However, there’s another way of approaching the issue that makes it far more manageable. The problem, one could say, is that the players are behaving rationally in an unknown environment.

Consider what a sandbox looks like from a player’s perspective. The player is confronted with a very complex system (good sandboxes, after all, have a lot going on). It’s hard to predict the consequences of actions, but given the elaborate weave of the setting there are apt to be unforeseen and even negative ones. How should the player respond?

A player might, completely logically, answer “do nothing.” Since any action could end up badly, and there’s no way to predict which courses will be fruitful and which will get the players in over their heads, it’s sensible for them to wait and see. Rather than empowering the players, the sandbox encourages them to give in to paralysis.

Getting the players moving again is not a matter of changing their gaming preferences, nor is it a matter of locking them into a railroad. Instead, the sandbox needs to change so that players are incentivized to act. The railroad isn’t needed, but the rails are, because they tell players what they’ll be rewarded for doing.

Think about, for example, Red Faction: Guerilla. RF:G tasks players with replaying the American Revolution, with Martian colonists standing in for the Americans and Earth as the exploitative, mercantilist power. Think that building up support among the colonists is most important? Prefer instead to steal industrial equipment? Feel that it’s time to take the fight to the Earth forces? Want to just plain drive fast in low gravity? Players can do any or all of those, and more besides. RF:G is a great sandbox experience, with lots of things for players to do or ignore as they choose.

Yet, although RF:G has freedom, it also has guidance. Players are introduced to the rebellion-against-Earth plotline early, and it’s made clear that in the game world participating in the rebellion will be viewed as a morally good act. They’re also rewarded for participating in the first few missions with new equipment. At that point the player is cut loose to do as he or she will, but missions on behalf of the rebellion are clearly marked on the player’s map, available whenever the player is interested.

By putting players in a sandbox but giving them some initial goals, RF:G avoids the problem of the cautious player. I’ve never heard of anyone who responded to RF:G’s sandbox by doing nothing. Players are incentivized to act by the plot, and have enough information to feel comfortable taking advantage of the additional opportunities available.

Other successful sandbox games follow this freedom-with-guidance model. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has a plotline about stopping cultists from summoning monsters that incidentally helps players become acclimated to the game world; players can stop the cultists or not, but they at least know what kinds of things are available to do. Infamous puts the player in the shoes of a superhero, and lets him or her know the game world’s citizens will be grateful if he or she saves the city before opening the game up. Even Lego sets come with instructions. Incentives to do something are provided along with the option to do otherwise, and thus the player is given both freedom and some forward momentum.

Making a good sandbox, then, doesn’t involve completely dismantling the railroad. It instead requires designers to provide both open-ended choices and some direction to encourage players to engage with them. Run some rails through the sandbox, even though the players will be permitted to leave them. If they do nothing else, those rails will help players understand what they can do. The fun of the game will take it from there.

What We’re Doing: Underlying Principles

Today was going to be about awkward rules. However, I realized that while I’ve talked a lot about using legal analysis, I haven’t really explained how it works to readers who aren’t familiar with it. I want to remedy that, and in the process discuss in a bit more detail what is driving this blog. We’ll come back to awkward rules in a little while.

At its most fundamental level, legal analysis works like this: there are some facts. Those facts give rise to an issue–the legal question you want to answer. To do so, you go back through the annals of the law to find the rule(s) applicable to your issue. The you compare the facts to the rule(s) to get an answer; the answer is called a “holding,” but it’s basically an answer. That answer/holding may end up being used as a rule in future cases.

So, for example, suppose John Doe takes someone’s car without that person’s permission, joyrides it around town, and crashes it into a tree. If you had absolutely no pre-existing knowledge of the law, that might give rise to the issue “do these facts make out a criminal offense?” (We all know John Doe stole the car, but again, suppose you had no knowledge of the law whatsoever.) Your research might reveal, depending on one’s jurisdiction, a rule that looks something like “taking another person’s property without that person’s permission, intending not to give it back, is theft.” With that rule one might conclude, based on the facts at hand, that John Doe committed the offense of theft; he took the car without permission, and joyriding it dangerously suggests that he did not intend to return it.

There are many pitfalls in this process. First, one must correctly identify the legally relevant facts. You have to know that Jon Doe’s particular name doesn’t matter; if you think it does and spend all your time looking for rules specifically about John Doe you aren’t going to get anywhere. (Of course, there are occasions when John Doe’s identity does matter–think of signs in subways specifically noting that there are extra penalties for harming a transit worker. Sometimes you need some knowledge of the rules in order to detect the relevant facts.)

Second, the issue must be framed correctly. To give an example from Over the Next Dune’s development, for a long time it was possible for the players to get close to their goal with the searchers far behind them. The searchers would rarely catch up, and so the endgame was very easy. I cast the problem as “how can the searchers be kept relevant throughout the game,” which first led me to try various ways to let the searchers “respawn” in more relevant positions and then, when those proved unsatisfactory, to reduce the size of the board. The latter solution worked well, but I only tried it because I had stated the issue broadly. If I had considered the issue to be “how can the searchers respawn to be relevant throughout the game,” I would have kept going down a futile path.

Third, the rule has to be correct. If your calculator thinks that 2 + 2 = 5, it will give you wrong answers no matter how carefully you frame the question and input the numbers.

The problem I’ve seen in game design is that there are lots of facts and issues, but very few reliable rules. Even the rules which are commonly propounded are, to use a term from my college days, under-theorized; we don’t understand them well enough to know their limits and proper use.

Let me give a quick example. Mark Rosewater, lead designer of Magic: the Gathering, once made a list of rules for game design to teach to kids. One of the rules was that a game should have inertia; it should move toward an ending. That’s clearly true for Magic, but players of role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons might disagree. Role playing gamers often look back fondly on long campaigns, and see keeping their games going as a virtue; these games don’t want to move toward an ending, they want to keep going indefinitely. Similarly, I know people who have sunk hundreds of hours into various Elder Scrolls games, exploring and adding to their homes/castles/wizard’s towers/etc. Those players would be happiest if the game never ended–if it had an infinite amount of interesting stuff to see.

Do those examples mean Mark Rosewater is wrong? He’s an incredibly successful designer, having shepherded a brilliant game–and it is brilliant, as even its detractors (who often focus on its collectible distribution rather than its gameplay) generally agree–for many successful years. We should hesitate to say he’s mistaken.

I think the real problem is that Mr. Rosewater’s rule isn’t applicable to all games. In legal terms one might say that didn’t identify all the relevant facts; the case presented was about making a marketable game intended for relatively short individual plays, but he just presented it as being about games. His rule is right–so long as one understands it thoroughly and knows when to apply it.

My goal for this blog is to improve our understanding of the rules that are already out there, and to develop new rules where they are needed. In doing so, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants–and yes, Mark Rosewater is one of them–who went before me. I’m not sure if I’ll ever see farther than they have, but my hope is that by using a legal analytic structure I will be able to see clearly, and to impart what I’ve seen effectively.