Sandbox Game Design (Part 2) – Challenge and Progress

This week we continue the deep dive in Minecraft and look at how a sandbox game manages player progress and challenge level in an open environment. Last week, we talked about sources of tension and methods of tension release. Read it here

Balancing Challenge and Player Progression

Sandbox games, especially ones with open worlds, provide a unique problem of having to scale the difficulty level of the game with the player regardless of the direction they choose to go. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be locations that are more challenging than others. However, it does mean that the challenge level shouldn’t drastically change without warning. In addition, with any increase in challenge level, there should be an increase in reward for the player. As I describe the different changes in difficulty in the game, understand that it is always accompanied by the chance of new materials to be present or chests with loot.

Here are the different basic aspects in Minecraft (and many other games) that can impact challenge level of an area:

  1. Enemy Strength (health, damage output, unique abilities/behavior, etc.)
  2. Quantity/Concentration of Enemies (# of certain enemies you have to deal with at once)
  3. Environmental Hazards (dangerous/harmful terrain, traps, weather, etc.)

Minecraft has three distinct regions that increase in the baseline challenge level as you go. However, each region has its own set of materials you can find in it, so they never invalidate the value of the previous area.

  1. Overworld – The world you start in filled with various biomes, wildlife, caves, etc. While the surface may be relatively safe, the deeper you go underground, the more challenges you will run into.

  2. Nether – A burning lava hellscape inhabited by herds of zombie pigmen and floating, screaming, fireball-shooting marshmallow-octopi called ghasts.
    • Requires mining obsidian with diamond pickaxe or scooping enough buckets of lava in order to construct the portal. This generally means that the player has traveled all the way down to the bedrock layer of the overworld and spent a lot of time in between there and the surface.
  3. The End – A black void with barren floating islands. It is home to Endermen and the Ender Dragon (Final Boss). There’s not a lot here. It’s mainly a glorified boss room.
    • Requires getting enough endermen item drops and then combining them with an item drop from the a Nether monster, then having enough of them (12 I think) to open a portal that can only be found in a Fortress structure that spawns in the Overworld (you cannot build the portal yourself).

Keep the baseline difficulty of a region similar throughout so the player knows what to expect. Change the difficulty when the player has a reason to change their expectations.

Minecraft is really clever with the way it paces its challenge level. The ambient challenge of a region stays relatively the same by keeping consistent enemy strength, concentration, and environmental hazards. You can wander into more challenging areas within a given region, but they only  alter one of those aspects at a time. In addition, a player isn’t able to access a new region with a higher base challenge unless they already have a lot of exposure and mastery over the previous region.

In the Overworld, for instance, going into a cave, will likely increase the concentration of enemies (from none to some). Going deeper underground will often mean coming across intersecting caves, steep cliffs, and eventually lava, so the environmental hazard goes up. There are many types of structures that can spawn in the game as well. Dungeons and abandoned mine shafts will have mob spawners, which increase the concentration of enemies. Temples and Fortresses, on the other hand, often have traps.

Once you travel into the Nether, the environmental hazard is higher due to the constant presence of lava. In addition, the enemies are different and can deal more damage or tank more hits before dying.

Dynamic Challenge Adjustments

In all the above examples, individual monster strength doesn’t vary for those of the same species. That means a zombie you meet at night on the surface will be exactly as powerful as a zombie you find at the bedrock depth. Instead of varying strength when you wander into a different location, Minecraft alters it based on time spent in an area. The more time you spend in a given area (like your home settlement), the more likely that enemies spawn with armor and weapons. This allows the player to still feel challenged where they are most comfortable and prepared, while still allowing new areas to be as forgiving as when the player first started.

Increase the challenge for the player where they have shown mastery and control over that area of the game.

Equipment as Progression

While the game grows in complexity and danger, the player grows in amount of materials and ways to use them. This gives the player the opportunity to build stronger and more advanced items. However, the player’s gains are not permanent. Every tool or piece of armor you use in Minecraft wears down and will break over time. This feeds back into the core game loop to push the player to go gather more materials when necessary. In addition, it plays nicely with a region’s relatively flat challenge level so that the player’s power will stay similar in the early and middle of the game before they have surplus of materials like iron and diamond.

For more advanced blocks, which ARE permanent, they are not easily transported, so their benefit is only localized, not global. If you want the same benefit in other places, like automatic railways, or enchantment tables, you have to be able to build more of them.

New powers and abilities should make old challenges easier, not completely invalidate them.

Boss Battles (High-Stakes Challenges)

There were only a couple boss battles in Minecraft when I was still actively playing. The Enderdragon and the Wither. In both of those cases, the player has to make a very conscious decision to enter into the battle. In the case of the Enderdragon, you have travel through a portal to The End to find it. The Wither, on the other hand, has to be constructed with certain blocks, but can be built anywhere. These are the main situations where combat is the focal point and the level of monster strength skyrockets, but the Player has total control over when it starts. 

Reinforce the Core Experience

Challenges and progression should always be viewed in the context of your game’s core loop and audience. Large amounts of content should not be gated behind high-stakes challenges outside the core focus of the game. Minecraft is about building and exploring, not about fighting. That’s why accessing new regions is done by collecting materials and building and crafting. For players that mainly want to build and explore it wouldn’t be fun to have to prepare and dive into a major combat situation in order to access the Nether.

Instead, high-stakes challenges for alternate mechanics should be optional. Something waiting for the player to take them on if and when they choose. Upon victory, they can provide materials that can be used for a unique item or a trophy, but that’s about as far as their mechanical value should go. 

However, there’s a special satisfaction for the players that overcome these challenges besides the material reward. They did something that not everyone else has done in the game. They did something that not everyone else had to do.

They did it because they wanted to do it. 

Next week, we will explore this concept more as we tackle player motivations and how to design for intrinsic-focused play.

Read Other Parts of the Series:

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Design Theory
Carla Kopp

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