Definition of open world, free roaming and sandbox

Grand Theft Auto V has been called a free roaming , open world and sandbox game. The three terms are often used interchangeably, even though they can be used to point at important differences between games, game design and mechanics. So what are these differences and why are they important?

The difference between the terms is important because it is the only way we can define the games we play. If a game journalist uses the term free roaming interchangeably with sandbox, you might end up buying a game because of the sandbox elements described in the review only to find out that it has little to do with the sandbox gameplay you were looking for. But before I go into the importance of the terms, let’s look at the differences.

Definition of open world

The earliest game with an open world is considered to be Ultima, that let players explore an open fantasy world. In 1984 – three years after Ultima –  Elite was released, where players got to explore a whole galaxy. These games broke with the linear level design that was the standard back then. But what is an open world exactly?

Ultima open world

An open world game is defined by its lack of (invisible) barriers in levels or loading screens between area’s and stand opposite to the linear level design. Open world is thus concerned with the level design of a game. So saying that GTA is an ‘open world game’, means that GTA probably has non-linear level design where players can roam a large level without limits.

However, open world games often still have barriers at the end of the world. Take Skyrim: when you try to cross the border to Cyrodill you will get a message that you cannot go any further; the open world of Skyrim thus has its limits. Still it is considered a game with an open world and it should be: you can look around, spot a mountain and chances are you probably will be able to go there.

Skyrim Open world

Definition of free roaming

With free roaming we move on to gameplay and also to a more grey area when talking about definitions. Free roaming let players approach the game in a non-linear way and free roaming games always take place in an open world. The degree of roaming freely can differ though. Often open world games will limit you in your roaming early in the game and let you unlock lager parts of the world as you advance through the stories. GTA Vice City does this for instance by telling you that the bridge is closed due to storm damage.

Open world free roaming sandbox

There are no recent open world games that do not allow you to roam freely to a certain degree, because why create a open world that only bounds the player to a certain path? Therefore free roaming is more a gameplay term concerned with open world level design, than it is a game genre.

Definition of sandbox

Sandbox seems to be the most confusing term as it is often used for open world games that have little to do with sandbox. Sandbox means that you can create your own story within a game and be anyone you want to be. Sandbox is thus concerned with gameplay, the story of a game and level design. Since sandbox says so much about a game it can very well be seen as a complete seperate genre.

Skyrim, GTA, Just Cause and Assassins Creed are no sandbox games by this definition, because you are forced to play a certain story that defines you as Dragonborn, Criminal, Agent or Assassin. You can only finish the game within the boundaries of this character definition. So which game can be considered sandbox?

Minecraft difference open world free roaming sandbox

Minecraft is the most obvious example of a sandbox game. There is no storyline, no objective and you can shape the world in any way you want as far as the game mechanics allow. Other games are in a more grey area. Sid Meier’s Pirates for example does have a storyline and a fixed character, however you could still consider it a sandbox game as you can ignore the story and objectives completely and play the game as privateer, merchant, pirate or however you see fit.

Other games can be turned into a sandbox game with mods. If you install alternative start for Skyrim, you will no longer have to be a Dragon Born and you can be whatever character you want to be and set your own goals. Also GTA V has a sandbox variant with GTA Online, where you create your own character and set your own goals. Of course the game will push you towards illegal and often explosive activities, but you can just as well play GTA Online as a taxi driver.

GTA online open world


That’s your stupid opinion

Language is ambigu, so open world, free roaming and sandbox can be interpreted and used in different ways. I cannot proof to you that what I described earlier is the definition, its very much my definition and thus opinion.

Still I believe it is important to share and think about a more common definition, because we need that in order to define the games we play. When you use open world and sandbox interchangeably, you cannot quickly pinpoint the difference between Minecraft and GTA as far as gameplay is concerned. The same goes for free roaming: Assassins Creed games are open world, but the amount of free roaming allowed at the beginning of the game differs a lot from Just Cause. Sandbox games are even a complete different genre misinterpreting the genre can bring a lot of confusion into the game industry, as happened with No Man’s Sky.

1 Comment

  1. Good breakdown! Really happy to have gotten this insight.


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