My Favorite Sandbox

Suddenly beset by an unusual amount of free time, I had an urge to recapture a little magical chunk of my youth during the remaining months of my pre-career life. Using only $5.99 on Good Old and a nifty application called Winebottler, I made my past dreams a present reality – I’m able to play Roller Coaster Tycoon again.

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Just beat Leaf Lake with this fabulous park, holding a company value of $175,000

Whenever I’m asked to choose my favorite game of all time, I usually end up picking RCT. Whenever I’m asked to pick a single game to play for the rest of my life, I always pick RCT. I could write and talk forever about why RCT is absolutely amazing in essentially every regard. If you haven’t noticed, it’s the banner at the top of my blog, and will always remain there. I could even make an argument for why it’s one of the best games of all time. That discussion, however, is inherently extremely subjective and I would be heavily biased in promoting RCT. I just have too long of a history playing the game. Instead of doing that, I’m going to focus on one particular genre: I believe Roller Coaster Tycoon is the best sandbox game of all time.

That claim is easier to defend than “best overall game”, but there is nonetheless one looming opponent to defeat. Namely, this one:

Less of a sandbox, more of a desert

Hold on, you have no idea what that is. Let’s zoom in a bit.

Lifelike graphics are so yesterday

Minecraft! The gargantuan behemoth of a game that has sold well over 100 million copies worldwide and has over 40 million monthly players. It has education applications that span grade levels and has inspired educators on the national level. It has been under continual revision since its inception in 2009 and reached massive new mobile audiences after Microsoft purchased the game for $2.5B in 2014. It is the epitome of a sandbox game, allowing complete freeform manipulation of the truly unreasonably large map.

And somehow I’m going to argue that Roller Coaster Tycoon is a better sandbox game.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Minecraft. I joined moderately late in the game during my junior year of high school and basically spent the second semester of my senior year constantly playing. I’ve fought zombies and skeletons, built four-story victorian mansions, and farmed wheat and sugarcane from sunup to sundown and back again. Yet whenever I’ve tried to get back into the game after years of not playing, I can’t get hooked again.

During my early days of Minecraft, there was magical wonder-dust sprinkled throughout the whole game. I climbed every mountain and spelunked every cave with the burning desire to know what was around the corner. Would I look down upon gently sloping plains or a massive verdant rainforest? Would the next corner reveal diamonds? A bottomless pit? A zombie right in my face? Everything was new and shiny and surprising and wonderful. On the sandbox side, there is an endless ladder of construction rungs to climb. You want diamonds? First you have to chop down a tree to make a pickaxe to mine some stone to make a better pickaxe to mine some coal to make some torches to go deeper down the caves to find iron to make an even better pickaxe… You get the idea. Just about every block of the world is usable and even necessary for some pursuit.

There comes that moment in playing Minecraft, however, when you suddenly look up bleary-eyed at the clock that now reads 4:31AM and wonder why you just spent eight hours moving virtual blocks around. With all the freedom granted by Minecraft comes a disconcerting openness: challenge and goals and achievement within the game are almost entirely self-determined and self-enforced. Yes, there are achievements granted for picking up new resources. Yes, there is now a “final boss” to defeat to “win the game” that was not present in the early versions of the game. Both of these elements are so secondary to the main mission of the game – do whatever you the heck want – that they feel irrelevant and almost artificially attached.

The “challenge” of Minecraft is not game-like at all. Rather, it is much more similar to gaming’s distant cousins, art and design. The game is effectively a blank canvas. It’s up to you determine what you’re trying to accomplish and to find some meaning in self-defined achievement. Many players have created scale replicas of famous locations and structures both real and fictional, while others create mine track rides or functioning computers out of redstone, the game’s electricity equivalent. The options are, quite literally, endless.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s worth noting that it makes Minecraft fairly unorthodox when compared to most games, so much so that it’s actually hard to justify calling Minecraft a game. There’s no score, no adversity beyond a few monsters aimlessly walking around, and no meaningful goal. Sandbox? Sure, so much so that at this point Minecraft is the textbook definition of the gaming category. Sandbox Game? That’s harder to claim.

For comparison, I present Roller Coaster Tycoon.

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Your mission, should you choose to accept it – build a bomb-ass amusement park

There’s something very special about the way RCT displays a fresh map. As shown above, you are greeted by a short description of the park and given your objective. That objective is front-and-center, yet easily dismissable and forgettable. If you are the true sandbox sort, just close the goal window and play your own way. The game doesn’t even notify you when you’ve lost; the specified goal time comes and goes without any popup or other announcement. You are 100% free to play at your own pace with personally-defined goals.

If, however, you’re anything like me, it’s hard to turn down a decorated finish line far off in the distance. It’s like running a 5K for charity, but being told that everyone who gets under a certain time wins a prize. If you know you have a shot at winning, why not try your best and see if you can win? To make another comparison, a true sandbox is cooking for yourself. You decide what you want to make and upon completion decide if you did a good job. A sandbox game is cooking for a friend or customer who says “surprise me.” You can still cook anything you want, but now there’s a clear metric of success. You’re welcome to ignore that metric; it’s your right as a chef to disregard the customer’s opinion as uncultured, unrepresentative of diners as a whole, or plain wrong. The very presence of that metric, however, will motivate you to perform to the best of your ability.

Building an amusement park in Roller Coaster Tycoon is a lot like cooking a meal for this metaphorical friend. Essentially every park requires you to build a “good” park according to one of a few metrics, usually attendance or company value. What’s in a good park, though? Probably a few awesome roller coasters, that’s for sure. Gotta have smaller rides throughout as well. And people need to eat, so we need some food and drink shops. Oh and don’t forget staff or every bench will be smashed and every ride will break down. We need more money? Take out a loan or two and buy some advertising to draw in more customers, and raise park entrance fees but lower ride fees to make sure people keep riding. Good, that worked and our coffers are full; let’s build another roller coaster!

In short, building a “good” park takes a little bit of everything. There are many right ways and many, many wrong ways. That decorated finish line is way, way off in the distance. How you choose to get there is entirely up to you. From that standpoint, RCT is undeniably a sandbox game, containing essentially unlimited choice.

Each different map proposes a different twist on the same essential challenge of building and running a park. Some give you a blank slate, while others have some rides already built, while still others have partially built rides that you have to finish in order to win. Underneath it all is a fairly complex AI governing the action of your guests, from what ride they want to head to next to how likely they are to smash the trash cans and storm out of the park. Building a good rollercoaster requires balancing physics constraints like velocity, vertical Gs and lateral Gs, with economics constraints such as available money and building space. Each component of the game, from finances to scenery to ride construction and placement, is an intricate system that can only be understood via repeated use and study. You need to understand all of them to succeed, and consecutive victory is both thrilling and addictive. Finally, the pride of the sandbox achievement is no less strong. It’s really cool to look at a screen full of intertwining roller coasters and buzzing with people, knowing that it used to be a deserted area full of nothing that you molded into a winning park.

Let’s go back over the checklist. Daunting but simple and technically optional goal set way off in the future? Check. Infinitely complex (essentially unsolvable) underlying subsystems that require trial-and-error to overcome? Check. Full control over park progress, leading to infinite possible avenues of moving forward? Check. Huge collection of maps, each with their own unique spin on the core challenge of the game? Check. Written 99% in machine code????? Check. (Aside – HOLY SHIT. The best comparison I can draw is that Chris Sawyer managed to build a functioning, real-person house out of linkin logs, duct tape, and drink coasters.) Massive replay value? Check. Completing the deluxe version of the game, which has 81 scenarios and a couple extra bonus maps, would take hundreds of hours.

All that for a game from 1999 that you can now get for $5.99. It’s truly miraculous.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to playing in my favorite sandbox.