Linear vs Sandbox

Posted: December 3, 2012 in Interactive Communications, Introduction to Game Design

Ok so recently I was looking into what kind of game I would like my game ideas to fall into and the main types of game are Linear and Sandbox or Open End as it is sometimes called. I’ll break down what each one is a little bit first so that you readers out there that aren’t familiar with the terms know what I’m talking about.

Sandbox or Open End:Linear games are pretty straight forward, they are broken down into a structure held together with levels. The player controls a premade character and have no say over what they look or act like.

A good example of a Linear Game would be Devil May Cry. The player takes control of a character called Dante, a premade character that they can’t change. The only changes they can make to him is how he fights and what he uses in fights. Other than that they have to travel through a preset level structure, complete puzzles in certain places, fight bad guys in certain places, fight a boss at the end of each level and then move onto the next one. That is the basic structure of a Linear Game.


Screenshot of the character in action in Devil May Cry 3. There is a Life Bar and Devil Trigger counter in the top left and the number of souls the player has collected in the top right. The more you collect the more you can spend on upgrading and buying new items and skills for more powerful attacks and combinations.




Sandbox or Open End Games:

These are the more open games, they allow extensive character manipulation and creation, giving the player the experience of creating their own unique character to play with.

An example of a Sandbox Game would be Skyrim. It opens up with  you being a nameless character, then you are given the chance to alter your characters appearance along with the race of the character. This game is different to most games that allow character customization because instead of the player choosing a set path for their character, they can choose how to shape their characters class and skills as they play through the game, meaning they can create a completely diverse and unique character that suits their playing style.


This is a screenshot of a player choosing to create their own half cat type character.





Ok so those are the rough outlines of the two game types, now to discuss some of the advantages of each type and why one game type will suit certain games while it wouldn’t work for another.

Advantages of Linear Games

  • The areas of the game are small and often have a lot happening, such as a puzzle or an area full of enemies to overcome.
  • There is usually an extremely rich experience of play for the player as they have to focus on what they are doing instead of where they are going.
  • Linear games tend to look better as they require less time on the creative side of things, the designers can spend more time on the graphics.
  • The action is better paced and better choreographed.
  • They tend to have a dynamic and significant storyline. This usually has only one ending, whereas Open End Games can have multiple endings.
  • There is a clear narrative sequence. The game play follows the storyline and leads the character instead of the character choosing how the storyline develops.

Advantages of Sandbox Games:

  • The player has more freedom and can do a lot more within the limits of the game.
  • They can provide multiple endings based upon the choices of the characters.
  • The narrative is a lot more flexible.
  • Because of the multiple endings and the freedom to explore more, there is an increased re-playability level.
  • Instead of having a defined character, the player chooses how the character develops.
  • No matter where the player travels within the game there is always something going on.

There is no one game type that is better than the other, they are both equally compelling and expansive game types. Some people would argue that Linear games are better than Sandbox games and vice versa. There is no one correct answer to the argument, it really depends on the type of game you are trying to create, if Skyrim was a Linear game, with one set character, it would be boring and there would be way too many levels for the player to complete and they would get bored and the game would be a failure. If Devil May Cry was turned into a wide world Sandbox game, it could potentially be a disaster, there would be a need to let the player create their own character instead of playing a defined one like Dante or Nero and they would not know what to do first as there would be puzzles and enemies all over the place and the world would be much smaller and it would be completed rather quickly.

It is all about finding which game type suits which type of game. Linear games tend to be First Person Shooters and Platformers while Sandbox games tend to be Role Playing Games and “casual” games like the Facebook game Farmville or the PC and Xbox game Minecraft. It all depends on what style of game the designer is aiming for and is always something that should be taken into consideration before they proceed with the design of their game.


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