Sandbox Video Games: What they are, Characteristics and History.

What makes titles like Minecraft and Assassin’s Creed considered sandbox games? What sets them apart from other releases? Find out more in this article.


What is a sandbox video game?

Sandbox video games are characterized by a gameplay with a wide margin of freedom; that is, by the few limitations compared to traditional level-based games.

Some define them as “open world games“, although we will examine the differences between the modes later.

In sandbox games, it is possible to roam through different scenarios in multiple directions and, in general, without restrictions.

Some examples of sandbox games are Minecraft and Assassin’s Creed.

An interesting fact before we continue: “sandbox” translates to Spanish as “sandbox”. That’s not casual.

It happens that these gaming releases take inspiration from how children play in sandboxes, using blocks to build objects with creativity, freedom, and imagination.

Features of Sandbox Video Games

Sandbox video games have the following notable features:

  • The limitation of movements is minimal.
  • Players can move at will and sometimes modify the scenarios.
  • In this sense, they are different from progression games in which you advance through levels with a pre-established narrative.
  • They have a non-linear nature.
  • In these games, itinerancy prevails, a concept that in the gaming world refers to the possibility of traveling alternative paths.
  • Exploration and discovery are fundamental in these proposals.
  • The user has more decision-making power, for example by selecting certain tasks.
  • In addition, completing specific missions is not a requirement for continuity.
  • These titles do not have segmented areas or numbered levels.
  • From the start of the adventure, the player has access to all the scenarios in the game.
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As we have seen in this list of sandbox game features, these are largely defined by opposition.


The best way to understand what a sandbox video game is to compare it to a traditional level-based game, in which the gameplay is more closed and you only advance to a new instance by completing a level.

The history and evolution of sandbox video games

The history of sandbox games dates back to the 70’s and 80’s, when titles such as Spacewar, Rogue, and SimCity began to circulate.

While these games were simple compared to the complexity of today’s sandboxes, they did justice to this genre by allowing users to experiment with scenarios and mechanics that were absent in previous titles.

Towards the end of the 90’s and the beginning of the new millennium, games like The Sims and especially GTA revolutionized the industry, deepening the sandbox proposition.

Unlike games that imposed their own rhythm and progress, these proposals began to offer large margins of movement to users.

While Mario and Sonic (to mention two paradigms of digital entertainment) required advancing through levels by performing specific actions; sandbox games opened up the spectrum to more directions, without “forcing” certain tasks to be completed.

The evolution of sandboxes exhibits this deepening, where users became accustomed to playing at their own pace and exploring.

This also influenced the development of games, where repetition is not perceived as a disadvantage but as an opportunity for discovery. Additionally, games increased their usage time this way.

As mentioned above, updates and expansions launched online helped these games to stay active, with new proposals deployed periodically.

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A relevant clarification, taken from Techopedia. Despite the features mentioned, the variants of sandbox games that have arisen impose restrictions at some stages. “This may be due to design limitations, or they may be short-term exceptions, such as areas that are unlocked once certain milestones are reached,” the source indicates.

Differences between sandbox and open-world video games

While many sandbox games are open-world, not all of them are. What’s the most obvious difference between these types of video games?

Open-world games, such as the successful Grand Theft Auto, don’t have a defined endpoint. It’s possible to play without a time or space limitation within the title, even after the story has ended.

The good news for this type of open-world games is the release of updates and/or expansions, which keep the adventure fresh and renewed.

To understand the difference between sandbox and open-world video games, we can establish the following equation:

While all open-world titles are sandbox; not all sandbox games are open-world.

10 Most Popular Sandbox Video Games

Here are some of the most well-known sandbox games, according to PC Games.

  • Minecraft
  • Grand Theft Auto V
  • Red Dead Redemption
  • Terraria
  • Assassin’s Creed
  • Hitman
  • The Sims 4
  • Elite Dangerous
  • Arma 3
  • Just Cause 3

Looking towards the future of sandbox games, it’s expected that their evolution will continue, especially considering the involvement of powerful industry players like Microsoft (owner of the Minecraft franchise originally created by Mojang studio) and Ubisoft (which develops Assassin’s Creed).

Moreover, it’s estimated that advancements in virtual reality will further deepen their connection with video games and that sandbox games will continue to evolve.