No man’s sky and the infinite possibilities of Sandbox games

On August 10 the british indie studio Hello Games released for PlayStation 4 and PC “No man’s sky”, a space exploration video game set in what is probably the biggest virtual universe ever created. Thanks to a special algorithm, the galaxy of No man’s sky is made up of 18 million billion (you read that right) planets, each with unique and different geography, flora and fauna.

No Man’s Sky cannot be completed: the aim of the game is to explore planets, harvest resources to improve the player’s spaceship, trade or fight with other players but there’s no real end goal. This, together with the vastness of the galaxy, makes the game virtually endless and potentially very long-lived. In the world of video games this is not an absolute novelty: for few years the so-called “sandbox” (or “open world“) video games have established themselves successfully alongside the more traditional products.

The “sandbox” games do not have a linear plot or a specific end goal. They are games where a player can move freely through a virtual world and they have a nonlinear gameplay structure. You often can play these games forever, exploring the potential of the surrounding environments: examples of “sandbox” games are the Grand Theft Auto series – where you can explore entire cities and engage in criminal acts, but also do many other activities, such as playing golf and parachuting – and Minecraft, a simulator of a 3D procedurally generated world where players can build structures out of textured cubes, explore the surroundings and fight with other players.

The success of sandbox games is not accidental and keeps pace with the growing personalization of the entertainment due to modern computer programming, the Internet connectivity and the social media. The freedom of the players is slowly becoming the main objective of the software houses: in many cases, rather than provide a thrilling gaming experience, video game companies prefer to give customers the tools to build “their” experience or adapt it to their tastes. The “additional layers” and “expansion packs”, which exist since the ’90s, now have been replaced by fully working open worlds or by sets of tools that can prolong or expand the games almost indefinitely.

Similarly to what is happening in the film industry, studios now prefer to invest in creating fictional universes, to build customers’ loyalty, offer them a experience more prolonged and – in the case of video games – also customizable, with appropriate updates through Internet or the purchase of additional tools. In fact, let us not forget that connectivity allows developers to add new features to the game even after its release and often significantly improve its playability.