Association of Toy – I mean Game – Developers: Minecraft versus NHL ’11 (and bit of Zombie Panic too)

What’s a game? There’s (at least) one important thing that I require from something to be called a game instead of a toy (or “sandbox game”):

  • Player must be able to win (or end) the game

But now I’m getting bit into a trouble with this definition.

I’m not trying define game as is, I’m just trying to find the difference between “games” and “sandbox games/toys”. That’s why I’m leaving away things like “being in control”, and “set of rules” et cetera, and not bringing movies or other stuff here to compare. I’m now comparing two games: Minecraft and NHL ’11.

Minecraft is said to be a sandbox game since you get to do funky stuff in it, can die, and there’s tons of dirt to dig… and so on. Sandbox game would fit pretty well into that definition.

NHL ’11, now, that’s not a sandbox game, right? Playing an ice hockey game, that must be a “real game”. Wrong. There’s no ending in NHL ’11 if you think about it a bit. For example, there’s a career mode where you can level up your character for quite a long time. There’s Stanley Cup and whatnot to win. You can win matches, and can win tons of trophies and while you cannot dig your own tunnel, you can play online matches and adjust your character quite a lot.

In fact, you can win one battle (a match), but you cannot win the game. There’s no ending.

So… we could agree that one match in NHL ’11 that certainly is a game. Rules, time period and definite ending. But then what? You get another game. And another. And another. And another. All these matches can earns you points which you can spend to get better to earn better shovels I mean, players in your team.

In a very broad way of thinking (not talking about game mechanisms), NHL ’11 isn’t so different to minecraft. I’m pretty sure that you cannot win NHL ’11 (if you can, then they certainly aren’t making good effort in showing my progress). There’s no ending. You just keep on playing more and more.

This reminds me about Zombie Panic mod for half life 2. Excellent game, except of course it’s not a game since you cannot “win” the game. Sure, you can win one round but then what? You just keep going.

So, one could say that Minecraft is not a game and NHL ’11 is… but on what basis?

I guess end result is: who cares? If it’s fun, does it even matter?

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. In the help menu of NHL 11 it states that in be a pro when youre contract runs out than in that offseason you are either re-signed to the team you have been playing for,signed as a FA to another team. If this does not happen,or if youre player is deemed too old,it states the game “ends” i was just wondering if any1 knows what happens and if you can get into the hall of fame

  2. Things like “how persistent world is” affects too. In NHL, you get to play one match with certain setup and stuff can happen… but the ice is always clean the next day you come to play. I wonder what “sandbox ice hockey” game would look like :D

    You know… a game where there’s ice, no (game forced) rules. Just some objects which players can use to build goals, puck to play with and then random folks joining the ice/game with good physics. ;)

  3. Definitely a topic worth thinking about, Juuso.

    I look at both games like life. It may not make too much sense to a player in the start. They are faced with a few objectives daily, weekly and such. As one gets a hang of things (tasks, jobs, passing exams, etc) daily tasks become routine, normal, easy.. and the player sets bigger goals. to achieve bigger rewards. More importantly the game of live would be pushing one’s self, to achieve the biggest possible reward and last the longest to reap those rewards. (One can argue that thats not how everyone lives, .. Im just generalizing)

    I agree with you. Minecraft and NHL is no different.

    Drawing parallels..Taking Minecraft as an example.. you are immediately faced with small missions, like survive a night. The game is designed in such a way that that while trying to accomplish that mission, one innately picks up a skill. This skill may be useful the next time the course of events come by. Now the player is 1up smarter. Again faces with similar situations (with more variables), the player gets more and more skilled till a point where one has mastered the game. Surviving a mission is no more than a routine. Being the most efficient and reaping those rewards probably becomes a mission.
    In conclusion, I feel Sandbox games are definitely a subset of games. They are games with a defined missions and no instructions. They give the player a sense of virtual freedom, but this is only a ‘sense’. They are governed by a set of laws and physics of that game universe. They have objectives, obstacles and multi-directional game play. It has an ending.. a timer that ticks in real-time, that the player brings with them to the table.

    just my thoughts.
    Thanks for initiating this, Juuso.

  4. “to win the games and the tournaments”

    one could argue that in Minecraft you also have clear goal “to dig dirt and craft”. Is that so different from NHL?

    Also… one could argue that in NHL, instead of scoring goals, your own mission might be to win fights or land cool hip tackles to share with buddies. You could say that you try win tournaments since you decided to do so.

    I do get the point that in NHL, the tournaments and games are much more directly told “here’s tournament, which you can win if you win those N games before”.

    In Minecraft the game isn’t internally saying the similar. Instead, you go to YouTube which tells me “to survive first night, find some wood, then do shovel and dig a hole etc.”

    Not saying that I’d disagree with you, just really trying to dig deeper on this matter.

  5. There are several reasons for which I wouldn’t consider NHL’11 a Sandbox Game. First, what you have in NHL’11 (I actually didn’t play the 11, but I assume it’s not very different from older NHL’s and FIFA in concept) is not a game, it’s a collection of games. Second, for me, what makes a game is not the ability to win, but have a concrete goal to master. Tetris could go on endlessly, but you have a clear goal, to hang on as long as possible. There’s no real limit, however… But you do have a clear goal in NHL, even in career mode: to win the games and the tournaments.
    On the other hand, in Minecraft you have no goal. You build because you decided you want to build, you dig because you decided you wanted to dig, there is no goal. That’s a toy for me.
    I don’t think ending is vital to define what a game is. I think the concept of goal is a far more essential one.

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