Sandbox Design (Part 3) – Player Goals

When discussing goals and motivations, it’s always important to distinguish between extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic Goals are set by the game to tell the player what they can/should do. Really common examples are achievements you see in video games. Little trophies or badges telling you to do something just to do it. 

Intrinsic Goals are set by the player simply because they want to do it. This could be things like speed runs, special restrictions, or wanting to turn that cliff face into a skull leaking lava from the eyes… You do it simply because YOU want to.

The game cares about extrinsic goals whether or not the player does. And the player cares about intrinsic goals whether or not the game does. 

Viewing it this way also allows for circumstances where a player can be intrinsically motivated to complete an extrinsic goal. This is what a good sandbox game aims for: the sweet spot where the player’s goals align or encapsulate the goals of the game.

Means to an End – Designing for Intrinsic-Focused Play

Sandbox games are very special in the way they promote intrinsic goals and motivation. It’s often a mixed bag of the two types of motivation, but intrinsic value has a lot more weight in this genre over any other. I think there are three keys to designing to encourage intrinsic goals:

1. Space Out Extrinsic Goals:

Extrinsic Goals should be about encouraging the player to go in a specific direction that will likely lead to other surprises or challenges along the way. They are the End the player is trying to accomplish, but they shouldn’t fully define the Means by which they are done. They highlight long term milestones or tools that often unlock more possibilities. As a result, they feel more like a roadmap to encourage play than an arbitrary checklist you have to complete to “score points” or “win”. 

An Extrinsic Goal should be about meaningful milestone that unlocks more of the game, not about the mundane tasks it might take to get there.

Minecraft’s main form of extrinsic goals are advancements, which basically make up a tech tree of different materials or tools you can build. It shows the logical progression and prerequisites that you’ll have to complete to reach certain points on your own. They are things like “Craft a Pickaxe”, “Craft a brewing station”, or “Travel to The End”. For instance, “craft a brewing station” sounds mundane, but one of the required items (flame rod) can only be acquired by killing floating fire demons from the Nether. The advancement is inviting the player to “build this cool item so you can brew potions in the future” NOT “kill 5 fire demons”. Because it’s defining the End and not the Means, it also leaves the option open for the player to find fire rods in treasure chests or by trading with villagers.

2. Invite the Player to get Side Tracked:

Extrinsic goals should not be at the forefront of the player’s mind. They should be few and far between and simple enough to remember so that the player can refocus on them when they are ready. They act like a compass if the player needs direction, but otherwise can sit quietly in the background. Minecraft’s advancements are tucked away in a menu that you can completely ignore if you want to. You might see the little visual queue in the corner when you achieve one, but its not a major visual focus.

The journey between different extrinsic goals should have different aspects of the game sprinkled between them to invite the player to go “Oh what’s that?!” Something in the distance that triggers the player to change course and investigate. In Minecraft, this could be anything from the dark mouth of a cave to a towering temple that stands out against the natural form of the terrain. 

“I’m gonna go check that out!” is something you want your player saying (or thinking) a lot.

These situations are most rewarding when they are unexpected and not even highlighted at all in the game until they are found. The player feels special for discovering something that they could have missed because it makes their experience feel unique. Minecraft does this naturally since all the terrain is procedurally generated, but the systems are designed and tuned specifically to set up these types of situations. Minecraft has the added advantage of the player changing anything anywhere, so even a simple location like a grassy field may be exactly what someone is looking for their next base.

3. Give the Player Options

While the player is trying to accomplish a goal they should be able to decide when and how they go about it. This doesn’t mean you need to supply them with endless possibilities for everything, but you should should consider multiple ways to accomplish any mundane task. There may be more optimal or reliable ways to do something, but it feels good to the player when another option is viable and makes them feel clever when they can take advantage of them. 

Give the player tools and space to inspire their own goals.

Minecraft has many forms of interacting with different systems of the game. This is not a conclusive list, but gives you a good idea of the type of variety that is involved.

  • Causing damage (different equipment, different materials for equipment, special blocks like TNT, falling damage, AI allies/companions)
  • Obtaining materials (mining/grinding them from natural sources, trading with villagers, finding them in chests)
  • Travel/Exploration (different biomes, structures, flora/fauna, filling in maps, riding animals/boats/minecarts)
  • Block Variations for Building (different kinds wood, stone, brick, etc.)
  • Optimizations (redstone power/logic system, equipment enchantments, potions)

Interacting with different systems is one of the core aspects of Sandbox games and deserves a lot more focus that I can’t provide here and now. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Tune in next week for Systems and Emergent Gameplay!

If you’ve read all of my posts so far and feel like I don’t know how to conclude something… then you’re right. I’m trying to get better at it and I appreciate your patience. However, sometimes I may just ramble and ramble and then say “Well, that’s all I’ve got!” and you’ll have to deal with it.

On that note… Well, that’s all I’ve got!

Read Other Parts of the Series:

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Design Theory
Carla Kopp

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