Are Sandbox Games More “Addictive” Than Linear Games?

The house in Windhelm — another reward for whizzing through the Stormcloak quest line and looting everything for more coin.

I like good stories in video games… and vivid characters, and all those rich goodies that make me feel like video games are the equivalent of films and books in making artistic statements and providing emotional impact. For all its size and beauty, Elder Scrolls: Skyrim has pretty much none of these.

But last week I started a new playthrough of Skyrim, after not touching it for about 6 months. And I have to admit: I’m sort of addicted. (But please, I say that lightheardly and don’t mean to get into the deep dirty waters of “video game addiction!”) Diving into the open-world sandbox of Skyrim after months of puzzle games and linear stories like Portal 2, Alan Wake and the Mass Effect series makes me realize just how easily the desire to level up can turn into something like a mild obsession.

To Skyrim‘s credit, it doesn’t have to be the level grinding experience that some games fate their players to face. Sure, it’s possible to aimlessly explore Skyrim, clearing out cave after cave after cave… But for players like me, it’s much more fun and reasonable to level up by joining factions and following their quest lines, all of which have slightly entertaining stories.

Still, when I play a linear game like Mass Effect, I don’t think much about leveling up. I just think about the quest I’m on, how to beat this particular enemy, what my squad mates are doing and what the next cutscene will reward me with story-wise. I’m engaged in the storytelling but not obsessed by the game. The most recent game I played that I could barely put down was Mass Effect 2, which I whizzed through during a week off from work. I was a total hermit for the week I played it, and I enjoyed every minute of it. But being really into playing a linear game feels much lighter than the obsessive need to level up that some sandbox games provide. Playing Skyrim again is a whole different experience than playing Mass Effect 2.

Side quests offer more loot, more coin, more opportunities to level and more marriage partner options.

With Skyrim, I’m constantly thinking of how many items to disenchant before I level up, how many quests I have until I receive the Nightingale armor, where I can set skeletons on fire for J’zargo… It’s all about leveling, getting better gear, gaining a more skilled follower and completing quest lines. It’s all calculations. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, as these are role-playing elements and very much about game mechanics, which is what RPGs are all about, really.

Still, I don’t feel like Skyrim offers the depth of some linear games I’ve played. There are few real consequences for your in-game actions, other than becoming Archmage or gaining the ability to purchase a house from the jarl. Which means that my interest in the game is all about leveling. Which means that, although I’m typically much more satisfied playing a story-oriented, linear RPG like Dragon Age: Origins, sandbox games offer gameplay that’s much more compulsive, if not quite as diverting.

An Escapist magazine article highlights the way game designers use “compulsive gameplay” to keep players attached to their games, with one example — the one I experience most — being the compulsion loop. It aims to give players “a never-ending sequence of new content and goals,” as SixToStart game designer Adrian Hon says. It’s meant to be addicting in a fun way. (And I can confirm that it definitely works!)

When I played Dragon Age: Origins, the story was so epic that I actually wanted to save quests for later, when I could better savor them. With Skyrim, I’m much more apt to say, “Just one more quest”… until another hour has passed without me putting down the controller.

Maybe it’s just me. But I’m finding sandbox games much easier to stay glued to than most linear games… and I’m not even a sandbox game type of person.

— Ashley

17 thoughts on “Are Sandbox Games More “Addictive” Than Linear Games?”

  1. I really can’t get into Skyrim. I tried at my friend’s house when she showed it to me, but it didn’t capture my interest at all. I think I find the world too big to explore. I get really overwhelmed, and I’m the type of person that wants to try to finish as much of the game as possible. I actually like the linear stories with exploration a whole lot more. It has the right balance I’m looking for in an RPG game without the world being too open like Skyrim.

    Leveling up is also fun to do until it just becomes tedious after doing it for so long. This happened to me when I played Final Fantasy XIII. Fighting the same monsters just to level up my paradigms became too much, and I had to put the game down. I’m hoping to come back to it at some point to finish it though.

    1. Yeah, Skyrim can be very overwhelming, like a lot of other open-world games I think. The first time I played it, I collected so many quests that I had to scroll through them to find one to tackle — and even then, it felt pretty pointless to do one because there were so many quests left. This time around, I’m doing one quest line at a time so I don’t get overwhelmed!

      It’s interesting you mention Final Fantasy XIII, because I was thinking of Final Fantasy when I wrote this too! Final Fantasy games seem to require a lot of level grinding, which Skyrim doesn’t have because there are so many stories/quest lines to pursue to level up. So I feel more “addicted” to leveling up in Skyrim than in Final Fantasy games, just because it doesn’t feel like level grinding. But yeah, I totally agree with you on how leveling up can become tedious. I think it depends on how it’s presented.

  2. I definitely agree. The overall objective of Elder Scroll games is basically to become God, behind the scenes, lol. Seriously, you are the unseen force that masterminds everything for every faction and almost always become the leader of every one of them whilst levelling up and become all-powerful.

    The faction and quests are, as you pointed out, entertaining little diversions that fuel your ascension. What’s great about Skyrim and something that many other RPGs don’t do is that, depending on your difficulty level, levelling up gradually makes you dominate the other NPCs. You just destroy them. Whereas other games scale the enemies up so you struggle eternally, THIS game rewards your dogged persistance with, as I said, near goddliness.

    I don’t know if it would be so addictive if, in spite of all your efforts, you kept getting crushed. The drive to level up is, to me at least, fuelled by the thought of becoming a Master of what it is I’m training it, the knowledge that I will rise above the competition, rewarded with unparalled power.

    In keeping with how diabolical and power-hungry that sounds, I’ll mention that I may have maybe, once, gone on a Sith-like assassination spree in Oblivion, killing all the Master-level trainers (when possible) to stop anyone from ever hypothetically following in my footsteps. As demented as that sounds, it did involve an underwater battle against my former Alteration trainer. Epic. *ahem*

    1. Yeah, that’s a good way to put it: becoming God! I hadn’t thought about how Skyrim rewards you for leveling up by making the NPCs easier to dominate, but that’s a good point. I agree that it wouldn’t be as addictive if the enemies scaled up with you too closely, because you wouldn’t have that sense of achievement. Being able to destroy wolves, then bandits, then frost trolls and vampires and mages and tougher enemies kind of helps me measure my progress, which just makes leveling up that much more rewarding.

      1. Two games that I find reality illustrate that phenomenon well are Kotor 1 and 2. In 1, even at the end of the game, even when you’re supposed to be, like, the Darth Jason Bourne of space, you still get your butt handed to you in even combat. It’s always tough.

        In Kotor II, the game simply threw *more* enemies at you. They didn’t scale with you, so they compensated by having you fight more and more bad guys simultaneously. You felt like the badass you were supposed to be, all-powerful, but they kept you on your toes.

        I just don’t agree with RPGs that scale enemies; I just find leveling-up to find yourself always struggling to keep up to defeat the very purpose of leveling.

        1. That’s a good point. It’s interesting that you appreciate games rewarding you with real combat prowess as you level up, because I like that too… but I also know people who think games become boring when the higher levels are easy. I don’t mind that at all — I appreciate the chance to rip apart my enemies, maybe because I like the stories in games and am always up for shorter, easier battles. And it’s rewarding to be able to do that.

          However, I can see why some players lose interest once they feel they’ve progressed that far. There’s not a lot to do once you can easily beat every enemy. I guess that’s about when you “beat” a linear game, but in Skyrim and other open-world games, the game doesn’t seem to really end… unless you count getting bored with the game and setting it aside “beating” it. Actually, maybe that is the unofficial objective in those games, telling you you’re finished with it…

          So yeah, I can see how having more enemies thrown at you (as in KOTOR 2, as you said) keeps the battles interesting without sacrificing that rewarding feeling of being able to best anybody with your hard-earned skills!

  3. Interesting angle on the addiction thing — not what I expected, per se, when I read the title. I think there are two sides to the coin: games like Skyrim are very easy to get addicted to (you said “glued to”) as you play them, but that “glue” dries out quickly when allowed to set. I did very little other than play Skyrim for the week or two that I got hooked on it, and I agree — it’s amazing how many times you say “just one more quest” as time flies by. BUT I then went a week (due to other “important” obligations) off from Skyrim, and when I went back to play it, I no longer cared. There was no overarching goal I wanted to see completed, no world I cared to save, no characters I wanted to visit. It had just become a toy where I ran around and shot faceless NPCs from far away with my bow. Other games, while less compulsive, have more of a magnetism — they’ll linger in the back of your mind because of the very things that Skyrim lacks.

    Basically, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure book versus a novel: only one of those is going to demand to be “finished.” And it takes way too long to explore alternative paths in Skyrim.

    1. That’s a good point… Skyrim is more like a “toy” as you said, which makes it very fun to play but easy to forget about or toss aside when something new comes along or a game with more meaning arrives. I also find that when I take a break from Skyrim — like I did 6 months ago — I’m not super interested in jumping back into it. Like you said, it’s like I don’t care anymore. That’s part of why I started a new game last week: I wasn’t interested in resurrecting my old character and continuing her story, I just wanted to start the achievements all over again. So it was much more about the compulsive gameplay than the story, and Skyrim isn’t a game/story that ever feels totally completed, even if you finish the main quest line.

  4. Like simpleek, I just can’t get into sandbox games. I’ve tried playing Oblivion, Fallout, basically all the Bethesda sand box games and they just absolutely bore me. I think it’s because I don’t typically care about “becoming god” as Xandurse termed it. In any game, I’m more interested in the story line than combat, although clearly combat or something like it is important or else it would just be a movie. For me, Borderlands 2 is a nice in between. The side quests and even the main missions are quirky, silly and enjoyable even though the main plot is basically just to overthrow Handsome Jack. When I get bored, I can play co-op with someone which drives my interest all over again. My drive to level up typically has to involve incentive, not in the form of better armor, but it has to help me in some way defeat a boss, or give me a skill to unlock an area, primarily because those events unlock the next chunk of narrative (however small it may be). I’ve realized that to me this is because I”m honestly not interested in better items, to me getting new armor feels like playing dress up. Completing a mission in Oblivion to get a house just made me feel like I was playing the Sims. I agree that for people who like those types of games, the reward system can be very addicting, the rewards offered in sandbox games just aren’t the hook I need I suppose.

  5. Interesting way to think about it. Actually, I like sandbox games like Skyrim. I like thinking about the mechanics of how to make it play “better”. I also like the multiple objective thing. Which is not to say I don’t enjoy more linear games.

  6. It’s evidently not quite the same for different people (which shouldn’t be surprising). I don’t think about levelling up at all when playing Elder Scrolls games! For me, it’s all about the exploration, finding random things I don’t expect. I rarely end up head of more than one faction, or with multiple houses. I’m also usually a fan of story-driven games, but for sandbox type games like this I like the fact that it’s not the scripted story I’m enjoying, it’s the little encounters. When I talk to my friends about Skyrim, it’s always “this one time I was…” or “there was this one dragon, crazy fight, it…”

    I do definitely find that Elder Scrolls games are really addictive and absorbing for a while, then I lose interest and don’t play them again for ages. There isn’t the same urge to get to the end that, say, a Bioware story has, but then again I think the Elder Scrolls have a lot of re-playability when you do come back to them, even years later. The main stories are the same, but there’s always plenty you didn’t do the first time, and plenty of chance encounters to make things feel different.

  7. I think sandbox games (the ones that actually add things to the world) are addictive because you can take part in “living” in that world. It’s great when games provide additional jobs that aren’t part of the story, or mini-games. You also mentioned leveling up, which is something that helps ALL games become addictive, not just sandbox games. I’m currently playing Kingdom Hearts, and their are a lot of things that contribute to it becoming addictive for me, including leveling up my characters and stocking up on items.

  8. Good post. One must also consider what type of gamer you’re referring to. Those playing for incremental challenge or quicker narrative experience may not find an open world game worthwhile. However, those looking for escapism, role-playing, and don’t mind a slower pace will gladly wade in the skyrim sphere.

    I’m the type to be very goal driven, so as soon as my main goals and prime narrative run out, my interest to continue the side missions wanes heavily!

    e-vaughn

    1. Yeah that’s a good point! Even beyond the open world though, I think Skyrim offers amen “addicting” to gamers who like collecting things and leveling regularly. I can be a little goal oriented too, depends on the game though! :)

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