Having just spent a glorious month or so playing in parallel through the whole of Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV, exploring other people’s worlds and admiring the God-like creations of some of the finest programmers on Earth, I was fascinated by the advances since I last fired up GTA: San Andreas way back in 2005.

The concept of sandbox games, originating perhaps with the likes of Elite back in the eighties, allows the gamer to roam free, taking their own decisions about how to play the game, in which order, and allowing creative exploration of every nook and cranny in the hope of discovering unique experiences.

This concept was finally properly updated to 3D when the N64 arrived with appropriate power to handle these polygon-built worlds — the much heralded Super Mario 64, which while still level-based, used a hub system to allow you choice of when to play which level — and the underrated Body Harvest, which brought about the vehicular free-roaming in that you could commandeer any functioning vehicle, were landmarks in the genre.

The key to a successful sandbox game is to balance the realism and the level of fun — I recall San Andreas’ gym being especially boring — bashing a button on various exercise machines to build the physique so that you could have a slightly more effective punch, in a game where, let’s face it, automatic weapons are a must.

A friend told me of his experiences with Heavy Rain: ‘I was playing it, sitting hungover, unshaven, in boxers and grimy T-shirt, and the game was making me shave, shower and dress before I could even go downstairs — it took the realism to a new level — the in-game character was more well-groomed than I was!’ These RPG elements are crucial to allowing the player to immerse themselves in a realistic world, yet over-stating them can make for a dull experience.

Shenmue on Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast was perhaps the first open-world game to really open up levels of day-to-day realism and freedom to the gamer, and also first to properly model the ever-changing whims of the weather, which caused NPCs to scuttle along with umbrellas on a stormy day, or strip down to summer clothes when the sun came out.

Sadly, the game also modeled your workplace, mundanely employing you to shunt boxes with a forklift truck. Although Shenmue itself was a ground-breaker with a cracking story, the idea of going to work in real life, putting in a long and punishing shift, then spending your hard-earned cash on a game which makes you, er, go to work, is too much for most people to bear.

There are certain ways to get around this – the night watchman jobs in Red Dead Redemption are fun because, let’s face it, hog-tying varmints is damn entertaining. Luckily the game doesn’t force you to do it beyond initially requiring cash for ammo or property. In fact, little is made of the money management side of games, but as I noticed in GTA IV, it can severely hamper progress if you get in the bad habit of being busted by the police rather than just dying in a glorious hail of bullets, Bonnie & Clyde style. Restocking on body armour, grenades, guns and rockets setting you back a cool $50k. Ouch.

The level of graphical majesty seen in many modern sandbox games also poses a question — the more realistic a game looks, the more difficult it becomes to demarcate the lines between what can be interacted with and what cannot. The pleasing red glow of the pickups in GTA is one way to cope with it, but I did notice that in their cunning placement of first aid kits, on walls and other places where they would likely be in the real world, meant they became part of the wallpaper rather than something you would actually think to pick up.

There’s also an element that frustrates where you believe that your exploring will be rewarded, yet the designs frequently deny you. Where you think ‘Ah, what happens if I go up this staircase instead of down?’ The answer is usually that you come to a dead end. In a world where you can blow helicopters up with rockets while evading a cities’ entire police force, surely a few planks of wood and a ‘No Entry’ sign should not retard the progress of our capable protagonist?

As games progress down the route of advanced physics engines and realistic modeling, it may require careful planning if the gamer is still to be gently steered down the plotted path without feeling lost in the enormity of it all. Examples being those times before you get a phone call in GTA, when there are no mission icons, and you feel terrified the game has malfunctioned, leaving you high and dry without an objective, before inevitably the phone rings and you have to drive off on your way to further carnage.

There is also the potential of enveloping the player even further - among the titles I’ve already mentioned, the collection of subgames that can be accessed within includes bowling, darts, Space Harrier, and many more. This ‘game within a game’ could be developed further so that you effectively use the world as a hub for accessing other games — why the need for separate titles if they are all combined into one uber-game?

Of course, this is perhaps unrealistic, or at least problematic — for a start, the subgames will possibly have been handled better elsewhere when more dedication can be paid to them, or just the complexity of combination meaning that companies will be reluctant to merge and co-operate. Historically as well, games trying to do many things often fail, or just do one better than another. Perhaps fuller partnerships between developers could be introduced, or old games by the same company could be retro-fitted into new ones, like Space Harrier and Hang-On in Shenmue.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the main advances are purely cosmetic, and that the actual games themselves don’t need much advancing. Interestingly, in GTA IV the swimming mechanic was simplified from San Andreas, which allowed you to dive underwater and search for pearls, which was itself a reaction to the two earlier games where contact with water was fatal to the player. This curiously murderous water was obviously something that needed fixing as the game progressed towards the dirty realism seen in IV, yet introducing the diving was obviously a step Rockstar felt was too far, and actually removed it to streamline the game once more — despite the newer game being perceived as an ‘expansion’.

Frequently in discussions about forthcoming GTA games, or imagining what scenarios could be applied to sandbox games, the talk turns, Kirsty-and-Phil-style, to location. It seems everyone has a dream that they can play their own locale, so you can stay dry indoors and roam the rainy streets at the same time. The difference is, in the game you could bomb those chavs down the road, shoot your schoolmaster or punish the poor sap who borrowed your mower and returned it with a blunt blade.

Anyone old enough to remember the plethora of Doom and Quake mods may recall coming across maps people had made of their offices, so you could murder sprite versions of odious co-workers, or the super-geeky Star Wars constructions where you could visit various locations from the famous films and shoot some Stormtroopers.

With advances in technology, how long will it be before mashups allow the data to be streamed direct from Google Streetmaps and converted into games locations? It would certainly be a cost effective way of developing sequels, although the obvious ramifications of allowing people to rampage online through ‘real’ neighbourhoods would lead to more scaremongering from Daily Mail columnists or right-wing pressure groups who have never held a control pad in their lives, let alone unlocked the ‘Warm Coffee’ achievement. Thus the need to pretend it is Liberty City, and not just New York. Basically, to appease the childishness of the media, a layer of reality has to be removed.

Imagine if this barrier were broken? Development costs could be massively subsided by the use of sponsorship as companies vie to be one of the fast food outlets portrayed in-game, or car manufacturers bid to have their latest supercar planted somewhere in a garage in Alderney? I’m not a fan of the trend for product placement in films, but to me it makes more sense to use it in videogames, where you as the gamer are at least given the choice whether to use the product or not. If I don’t like Burger Shot, at least I can go to Cluckin’ Bell…

What about applying the Web 2.0, Wikipedia-style ethos to sandbox game development? Picture an open source city, where anyone from the local area or beyond can chip in and create a little bit of their familiar village, town or city, using pictorial sources from Flickr, Facebook, Picasa, Google Maps, and more. Kind of like Second Life, but awesome, and with guns. You could even have different historical perspectives – imagine a time-travelling game in which locations have been extrapolated from both old and new photographs of iconic locations.

The game could go global — instead of just playing against someone in Singapore online, you could go and fight them in their native territory, and organize huge turf war battles as those more familiar with their towns and cities take control against invaders. With the ever-increasing advances in technology, surely in ten years time this is an achievable goal. ‘Grand Theft Auto: World’, available 2021?