Sandbox Game Design (Part 1) – Why so Tense?

Anytime I hear the term “Sandbox Game”, Minecraft immediately jumps to the front of my mind. While it’s a video game, I think deconstructing its design can still provide some really helpful nuggets of wisdom. Minecraft is extremely open-ended, yet massively popular and fun, and it has been even since it was in its early stages. You don’t even need to pursue all the different aspects of the game, like boss fights, redstone logic, or alternative crafting mechanics like enchanting and brewing to enjoy the game. However, all of those things do work together to enrich the player experience.

Disclaimer: I’m deconstructing the Java version of Minecraft that was available for PC prior to Microsoft acquiring it.

First off, let’s get a working definition of what a Sandbox game is. The term can be a bit fuzzy, but they generally have these things:

  • Player creativity to complete tasks
  • Player freedom of movement and progression
  • Interacting systems for emergent gameplay

In this post, I’m going to focus mainly on the first point.

What’s your sandbox about?

What’s your core mechanic? With Minecraft, it is building whatever structures you can imagine. All the other aspects of the game (Exploring dynamic generated terrain, crafting items, fighting monsters, etc.) revolve around this in some way. Even the mechanics that don’t have to do directly with building still impact the core game loop by making it easier to gather resources to build. Boss fights even reinforce it by dropping unique materials or trophy items.

Minecraft’s core loop is:

  • Mine/Gather Resources
  • Build/Craft
  • Explore/Travel (Optional)


While a sandbox game can still be fun without tension, it likely will get boring pretty quick. Tension is there to keep the player moving and making decisions. It provides the them with tasks to complete and challenges to overcome. It can be used as a catalyst to transition the player between different stages of the gameplay loop or to simply break up the monotony of certain tasks. I’m going to refer to these as Situational and Global tension respectively.

Tension provides the player with problems to solve and challenges to overcome.

In addition, a lot of creativity and happy accidents can occur from the freedom players have on how to resolve tension. I’ll mention some generic long-term vs short-term approaches in Minecraft, but keep in mind that it’s really a spectrum, and there will likely be alternatives.

Situational Tension While Building/Crafting

The Building/Crafting state is the least tense state of the game. This is because the player should be focused on being able to construct their masterpieces (or dirt hovels) without the game getting in the way. As a sandbox game, the player is always welcome to transition to a different state of the core loop, but the only hard-set source of tension that will force a transition is…

  • Low Inventory – It’s a really low source of tension, but you can’t deny that it can be a little stressful realizing you’re going to run out of the material you are using before you can finish your structure.
    • Long Term: Go on a full mining/gathering trip to fill up your inventory with any valuable thing you can find. This will extend your mining network and build a stockpile for future builds.
    • Short Term: Go seek out specifically what you are lacking and return to finish your build asap.

This pushes the player to venture out and acquire more materials. And the better the resource, usually the deeper and closer to danger it will be.

Situational Tension While Mining/Gathering

Once the player has left the serene environment of crafting their heart’s desire, they are met with the gritty world of grinding away with their pickaxe. While the specific materials they are searching for and environment they are searching in may vary, the general sources of situational tension remain the same:

  • Low HP/Hunger – While you explore the caverns under the surface, you’ll find monsters, lava, and tall cliffs, all of which can take a chunk of your HP. Even if you’re careful and manage to stay away from external danger, once your hunger bar runs out you are forced to race for safety as it pings your HP every other second.
    • Long Term: Return to a settlement to restock on food and equipment (assuming you have a farm of some sort). Being able to cook food will also restore more Hunger, so you won’t need as much of it.
    • Short Term: Return to the surface to find enough food in the surrounding area to heal up. This way may take longer if there aren’t animals nearby or it may not fill your hunger all the way up since the food is not cooked. Otherwise, you can eat zombie meat that you acquired in the caves, but it has side effects.
  • Full Inventory – Similarly low-intensity to low inventory in the building phase. However, once your inventory is full, you have open up slots somehow to get any more of the materials around you.
    • Long Term: Return to your main settlement to empty your inventory into your storage to be used for later. This will open up as much room as you need.
    • Short Term: Drop or use some materials. Or, if you have the wood, build a chest in a safe spot nearby and dump your materials in there. You’ll still have to transport them back to your main settlement later, but at least you don’t have to go all the way to the surface before you can keep mining.

You can keep yourself underground for a long time to mine, but at some point you WILL run out of wood and have to return to the surface if your tools break. Trees are plentiful above ground, but the only source of wood in the caves are in the occasional mine shafts you come across.

Global Tension (Monsters in the Dark)

Monsters are the only source of Global Tension in the game. They can be present at any stage of the game loop and they can appear in any place. And they all want to kill you. The thing about monsters, though, is that they only spawn in the dark and the despawn (or burst into flames) in the sun. As a result, there are really two facets to Global Tension in Minecraft:

  • Remaining Light – The setting sun, the edge of the glow of your torches, or simply the black mouth of an unexplored cave. The solution to low light is generally going to be more light, which means going to bed to skip the night or placing more blocks that generate light in your area if you have them.
  • Immediate Presence of Monsters – When the you are face-to-face with a monster, are you going to turn back and try to run, or fight your way through?

I didn’t list any long term or short term solutions above because its not as clear-cut with global tension. Instead, its more about risk mitigation and how prepared you are when you face a challenge. The more prepared you are, the less impact these things will have on the other tension factors.

Here are some of the ways the game allows the player to mitigate the risk of monsters:

  • Rest in a bed in a safe place to skip the night. If you are too far away from your home when the sun sets, you can build a new bed, if you have the materials, and make a new or temporary settlement.
  • Build a wall around your settlement and fill your settlement with light so monsters cannot spawn inside. This can completely remove the global tension while in your settlement and you can continue building even as the night goes down.
  • Full armor/weapons made of strong materials. Also, having equipment at high durability or having backups to use in case they break.
  • Animal Companions that can follow and assist you.
  • Golems that will roam an area and attack monsters. These are useful for protecting a settlement.
  • Potions and enchantments to modify damage and other effects.

All these things are starting to sound like goals and progression, which is where we will pick up next time!

Read Other Parts of the Series:

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