Sandbox Shooter – the Emergent Genre

After playing FarCry2 and having to give up in frustration I had a try at STALKER Clear Sky. It was whilst playing yet another ‘could-have-been-excellent’ game that I realised exactly what I want in a game is a Sandbox Shooter. Somewhat simulationist and realistic-physics (for the most part) are features I’m keen on. Without sounding contradictory, it is a game so it has to be playable and that means your character needs to be able to heal without the lasting side-effects that real bullet wounds will produce. So the mysterious ‘med-kit’ that is a staple of shooters has to slot in there in some fashion (it could even be another device instead of the med-kit).

A list of features that I think make a good Sandbox Shooter:

  • Large persistent environment. Persistent meaning that changes persist, are not reset and have internal logic. That means if my character drops a shotgun somewhere, it will still be there (unless something picks it up) or if a tree is blasted and falls down it stays down.
  • NPCs have to follow the same rules. If they have weapons then they have ammo and that is limited. No unlimited ammo for NPCs.
  • NPCs that don’t all fight to the death. It’d be nice if they ran away sometimes.
  • Med-kits work on and for NPCs, too.
  • Destructible environment (or doors at the very least). I don’t know how many games have wooden doors that are invulnerable to rocket-launcher fire. It is disheartening because suddenly the suspension of disbelief fails when a moldy old door gets a little scorch mark on it from a LAW rocket!
  • Weapon/armour repair from & with other items. This is the Fallout 3 idea that an existing weapon can be ‘repaired’ by replacing the worn out bits with non-worn out bits from another identical item.
  • Repair governed by a progress meter. Alternatively this could tie in with waiting and an “extended repair” could be made that takes a lot of time but has better results and can only be performed when “safe”.
  • Adjustable time-scaling. Many games seem to hover around the 1:8, real-time to game-time ratio. The player should have control over this.
  • Wait option. To wait in one place for a number of hours &/or minutes. The repair option could tie in with this and an “extended repair” could be made that takes a lot of time like a wait.
  • Sleep: a game option choice between; having to sleep, being able to sleep, and no sleep required. Ideally not sleeping will give some kind of penalty like poor distance vision or unsteady hands. It could also be quite good that after a certain number of game-hours the character will ‘nod-off’ if standing still for more than a few minutes (the screen going black and then blurring back into focus but looking in a slightly different direction, perhaps also with a message “You fell asleep but are still tired”). Having the option to sleep also helps deal with night-time. Why should the player have to wait 40 minutes of real time until the sun rises when the character probably needs a nap anyway?
  • Sleeping bag/bedroll: portable bed for sleeping where there is no bed.
  • Weight and volume restrictions for gear. A combination of grid and weight. The grid being expandable with containers such as: backpacks, satchels, chest mounted pouches, thigh-pouches, kidney-packs, etc.
  • NPCs cannot see through walls and bushes. I’m sick of coming under accurate fire by someone who has not yet seen me but one of his mates has. Even worse are NPCs with perfect night-vision but if you manage to survive and take them out there is no night-vision device: this is just bad AI design that detects the character within a certain distance.
  • Upgradable weapons. Part of the “shooter” game is the “shooting” so upgrading the “shooting gear” is part of the fun.
  • Re-spawning of enemies follows a persistent world consistency. Spawn sites should never be in the middle of a map. All spawn sites for anything should be on the edges/joins of a map. The spawned NPCs have to make their way TO somewhere. They can’t just “appear” there because the player can’t just “appear” where they need to! For example: STALKER Clear Sky has renegades spawn next to their NE camp and then make their way to the truck-stop encampment. This is about a 75% right implementation. The renegades should spawn at the entrance to the map, which is about 200m from the NE camp, and then travel to the NE camp where they interact with any remaining renegades. From there the reinforcements, next wave, should head to the truck-stop encampment.
  • Spawn behind. Oh for the love of good games do not ever do this as a game-designer. It is the cheapest, lowliest trick there is. Farcry was particularly noxious for this reason. The game was very sophisiticated in so many ways but the spawn behind is just rubbish.
  • Reactive NPCs or NPC groups. It’s a bit annoying when an NPC is part of a NPC group and you take it out with a silenced weapon. The NPC falls over dead with a moan, bumping into his ally, and the ally just keeps walking like nothing happened. Slowly game-designers are addressing this and it’s a good thing. Still, there’s room for improvement. One thing that must not be done is have the NPC who witnessed the death instantly know where the player-character is located and start shooting accurately. A little bit of time is required (unless the character is in the open or some other obvious thing).
  • Stealth system: ties in with reactive NPCs above. Bethesda did a pretty good stealth system. Based on the amount of light shining on the character and line-of-sight from the NPC as well as the amount of noise the character makes. I found this quite good. More game-designers should implement something like this.
  • Consistent thematic values: STALKER Clear Sky (SCS) has lost a great deal of thematic value. The Freedom camp in Dark Valley has some assumedly funny banter that is just pathetic on the second hearing.
  • Information control: cloud of war, recon-info, etc. A character should never know something without having located a reason for the knowledge. SCS has this problem with the PDA providing a kind of spy-satellite view of squad-leaders moving about, not just the current map but, all maps. It’s never said that the PDA is linked into a satellite system which provides this information and that all squad-leaders have sat-nav tags for tracking. Yes, a bit tongue-in-cheek. A workable solution is that the character can buy a report about enemy/NPC movements, schedules and movement-patterns from various other NPCs.
  • Population density. FarCry has about 400 mercenaries throughout the islands. FarCry2 has unlimited amounts of soldiers and mercenaries that refresh when you re-enter the zone you just cleared – regardless of time past. STALKER Shadow of Chernobyl and SCS have constantly spawning enemies. So does many other shooters. My thinking is that in the STALKER universe after a few-hundred are killed there simply won’t be any more because the Zone is mostly cordoned off AND because there’ll be a lack of people willing to enter it that are “available” to actually do so. The rate of “spawns” should taper off to a trickle: perhaps 3 per day in STALKER. Other games would have different numbers and rates of spawn depending on their “setting”. Yes this means that after a while the environment will become very empty – and it should!
  • Configurable quick travel markers. The player can set quick-travel markers. On setting a marker the game will generate a “time-to-travel-safely” to the marker. This time is shown/known to the player before embarking on a “quick-travel”. The number of quick-travel markers is also limited but could be increased with gear and/or character-attributes such as Intelligence and/or a skill like Navigation for the more RPG based games.
  • A second DVD of background-dialogue and immersion sounds. In a game like Oblivion where NPC contact can be quite high it gets tiresome hearing all the merchants recite the same line each time you engage them in commerce. Instead of having an NPC say either of two things have them say either of 20 things. With at least two of them something quite unusual. For example a list of positive agreements to take action (which took me all of 5-minutes to come up with):
    1. OK
    2. OK, let’s go.
    3. Let’s do it.
    4. Come on.
    5. Come on then.
    6. Alright.
    7. Alright, let’s go.
    8. On with it.
    9. On with it, let’s go.
    10. Let’s get on with it.
    11. Let’s do it.
    12. Come on then, let’s go.
    13. Let’s get moving.
    14. Move out.
    15. Follow me.
    16. Have at it, then.
    17. Let’s get cracking.
    18. Move like you’ve got a purpose.
    19. Who are you? <pause> Only joking.
    20. I’ll get there when I arrive.
  • Climbing! OMG how many times have you been frustrated with the mini-platform-game of getting something from as mundane a location as the back of a truck because your character can’t just reach up, grab the lip of the tray, and climb in – instead having to jump on the next truck along and then long-jump on to the truck. I don’t know about you but my first inclination would be to climb. Rune did this very well. An honorable mention goes to Daggerfall because its climbing implementation was pretty good for a primitive 3D game.
  • Mark-the-map: allow the player to mark and annotate the map. Marks and annotations are removable.
  • Follow-route: extends on the mark-the-map idea. If the player can mark the map, take it a step further and allow the player to marka a route on the map and have the character follow it. If under combat, or a key is pressed, or some other event occurs, the route is broken at that point. A “resume-route” command can be issued and the character will resume the route from the “break-point”.
  • In-game notepad. A little text editor (themed to match the game) where notes can be kept.
  • Various types of binoculars and monoculars. Why limit the player to one type of binocular? There are many types so make few of them available. A few examples: high-power magnification with narrow field-of-view. Low-power with wide-field-of-view. Compact-type/roof-prism binoculars. Waterproof and also those that are made ineffective if they get too wet (droplets inside the body that obscure vision).
  • Configurable ammunition-management: Automatic (this is what most games have), semi-automatic (the weapon doesn’t come out of its holster loaded), semi-manual (have a number of magazines), manual (each round and magazine is tracked and the player has to fill the magazines with a button to load), detailed (a magazine can be loaded in an order with mixed ammunition types. For example: 3 armour-piercing, 1 high-explosive, 1 tracer, <repeat>). The same could be done with belt-fed weapons. It could also be batched and the patterns saved then applied to available ammunition.

So what makes this idea of a Sandbox Shooter an Emergent Genre? Game design is headed there. High-budget promotions of games like FarCry, Stalker Shadow of Chernobyl, FarCry 2, Fallout 3 and Stalker Clear Sky show that the companies not only make them they market them, too. The success of Stalker Shadow of Chernobyl and the respect for its gameplay experience are as much evidence as one could want. A game-design team that produced something with the consistent thematics of Stalker Shadow of Chernobyl, the environmental eye-candy of FarCry2 and the playability of Fallout 3 would be a huge hit. Add to that co-operative LAN play that can be privately hosted and even have the environment saved for later continuance by all players and you’ll have the best game ever!

Sandbox Shooter – the Emergent Genre

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