Failing where no man has failed before.
I suck at Minecraft. This is theoretically impossible as Minecraft has few limits and almost no goals beyond not dying yet I suck at it all the same. I can survive so that rules out the last bit. The reason I suck at Minecraft speaks to the core of the motivation behind playing Minecraft. Whereas most games have a distinct goal (kill this dude, conquer this thing, etc), Minecraft is notable for being without one. As a player, I’m motivated by the goals provided for me and have trouble making them for myself. I suck at Minecraft because it demands the player decide their own direction.
Well, it’s not that dramatic.
Most games I play have a direction. This helps guide my play and give me ideas on how to get the most from a game. I know what the game wants from me, and I just have to figure out how to get there. The directed experience is nice, because it gives the player a clear goal and allows for greater expansion of story elements that may require the player engage in a specific activity. Elements I like in games, such as narrative and character building, are much easier under the direct control of a developer. Of course, directed play has its downsides. Players who wish to engage in other activities don’t have an option. This can be particularly frustrating when there are parts of the game they like and parts they hate. Then the player must go through the annoying bits to get to the gameplay they actually enjoy. Another issue is the lack of emergent gameplay. Some of the best story and gameplay comes from the interaction of game systems. As those systems are restricted, so too is the chance that they will combine into something unique and interesting.
Minecraft takes the opposite approach. It dumps a ton of tools in the player’s lap and says “You figure it out.” Player set goals are the only goals which can become exhausting at times. The true sandbox games wants the player to effectively create their own fun while providing very little if the player loses motivation. The game effectively quits when the player no longer wants to invest the time and energy into creating things from its tools. Of course, that also means a motivated player has considerable freedom to do as they wish. If the player has a goal, or is good at creating them, then the open sandbox is an ideal way to create their own fun. With tons of tools and plenty of potential projects, a solid sandbox game can provide near limitless play. As long as the motivation is there, so is the fun.
The best games are the ones that include both sandbox and directed elements. This gives the player things to work on while also leaving them the option of branching out and accomplishing something strange and interesting. This gives the player a task to accomplish when they want something more directed and the opportunity to do something different when that doesn’t appeal. In my personal favorite game, Crusader Kings 2, the player has the opportunity to do just that. The game never explicitly sets a goal, but rather provides tons of clear goals for the player to choose from. The player can do something more directed, such as conquering a kingdom, or freeform, such as converting the Holy Roman Empire to Hinduism. It’s up to the player to decide what experience they want, but both options are there.