Changing a game is always a gamble. Whether it's because of player fatigue, developer boredom, or something else entirely, the risk is still the same. Population: One's upcoming Sandbox expansion — a free update that debuts on December 14 for all players — aims to change up the game with a host of new developer and player-created maps that set the stage for unlimited replayability, forever changing the face of VR's most popular Battle Royale shooter.
Sandbox provides a set of in-game tools that let players build their own maps and share them with the community of one of the best Quest games around. Developer BigBox VR told me there are currently over one thousand community-made maps so far, as players have been able to test out the early access portion of Sandbox for a few months now and have been building maps alongside developers. At launch, Sandbox maps are playable in Deathmatch or Team Deathmatch modes.
In an exclusive interview, I got to sit down virtually with BigBox VR founder and head of studio, Chia Chin Lee, and BigBox VR producer Casey White. We talked a lot about the upcoming Sandbox update and what it means for the game and the tight-knit community of players that frequent its virtual halls.
I was also able to play the new update on my Meta Quest Pro ahead of time but will be publishing my personal hands-on impressions in a separate article.
A new side dish
I'll begin by addressing the elephant in the room. While Sandbox is designed to introduce a significant amount of variety to a game that's primarily been focused on consistency, Battle Royale mode is not going away. Lee told me the team's goal for the core battle royale portion of the game is to still offer an experience "that players can master before we even change anything."
In other words, the team isn't interested in a Fornite-style update structure. In summation, that means a game where weapons might change every week, often alienating casual players that never have enough time to feel like they've really mastered something.
Lee used a great analogy that I thought was fitting. You can watch any episode of Seinfeld and never feel lost. The characters are always consistent and the general storyline doesn't change much. It's familiar and yet still fun, whereas a show like Game of Thrones has to be followed regularly and in order. Miss one episode and you might wonder "why the heck is everything different?"
POP1 Sandbox, our UGC game creator, is launching soon!🛠️Sandbox will be found within your POP1 app for free at launch🛠️Sandbox launches to everyone in early access Dec. 14thThere is so much Sandbox info to share, let us know what you want to know next! pic.twitter.com/A7dseK6p0KDecember 5, 2022
I asked Lee and White if they were worried about alienating the core audience by shifting focus to something like Sandbox and duo responded with an emphatic "no." Lee told me that players have been asking for more map variety for a while now and that Sandbox was the best way to deliver that.
More surprisingly, Lee told me that Sandbox had been planned from the game's initial design but the team wasn't ready to debut it because they wanted to grow the Battle Royale component first and foremost.
That being said, BigBox VR says it's still planning on working on plenty of new content for the Battle Royale mode. The rocket launcher just came out on December 6 for all game modes and players should expect more big map updates to the Battle Royale map in the future.
In fact, White told me the team is "working on more tech stuff in the background to make it a lot easier to update the game without having to push out a new version." That's great news for returning players.
Battle Royale is still the game's main entree, if you will. Things like deathmatch and Sandbox are intended to be additions to the game that keep players coming back regularly and enjoying time with their friends.
It's sort of like those side dishes at Thanksgiving. Sure, you might show up for the obligatory turkey and gravy because it's good, but who wants a Thanksgiving meal without the stuffing and the copious casseroles that go alongside it? It's all better together.
Building the Sandbox
As was briefly described in the intro, Sandbox is a set of tools that allows players to create their own levels entirely from scratch. Players will begin by selecting one of three environments — grass, snow, and Moon — and can build to their heart's content in that environment.
The tools include existing Population: One structures as well as plenty of new ones that fit in various different themes — Viking and Sci-Fi are two such options right now. While there is a limit to the number of objects that can be placed, that limit doesn't appear to be significantly limiting based on what we discussed.
In fact, part of dropping Quest 1 support was to open up some technical restrictions that previously held the team back, now allowing them to "make the game look better and push the bounds of Quest 2 hardware."
Lee told me the team has developed "Cutting-edge modeling tech that culls meshes on the fly. This helps when combining multiple objects to keep resources under control."
As an example, players can build large structures or complex objects by combining several simple shapes together. For instance, clouds can be made by taking a sphere, squashing it down, stretching it out, and cloning it to combine multiple similar shapes together.
The engine takes the parts of those spheres that players can't see and effectively "deletes" them to save on resources. What you end up with is a billowy cloud that can now be used as an object to battle on.
White told me the team has been focused on making this toolset "really easy for anybody to go and use" rather than making something complicated that only veteran game developers could use. As a result, there's no support for external modeling or scripting tools at this time, although that's not out of the realm of possibility for future updates.
As an example, White told me that there have been instances where the team "will do a demo at 10 am, and by 4 pm that day, someone has already made a map that they want to put in the playtest."
"You don't have to be a master scripter to be able to go and do this."
Like the rest of the game, the building experience isn't meant to be done alone. While you can certainly choose to build an entire map on your own by setting the room to private, BigBox VR encourages players to build alongside their friends and use it as a social space.
Lee told me that one of the earliest goals of the Sandbox project was to ensure that not only should "plopping objects down be a joyful experience," but also that it was easy to invite "like five friends into the same room and collaboratively build together and have fun together."
When the team got it all working together they had a collective moment when they said "holy crap, this has to happen in the game right now."
So far in the development cycle, a good bit of the game's Discord community has been invited into the play session and, according to White, has "already organized two build-a-thons completely on their own." Players then set to work on building maps in a set period of time, culminating in judging the community's creations to see which was the best.
Likewise, once Sandbox launches, all players will be able to favorite a map at any time via the game's UI. The highest-rated maps — judged by how many times a map has been added to favorites — are then collected in a playlist that can be quickly played with a few clicks.
BigBox VR says it's seen the gamut of map types from the community so far. "We have some people who like to make the tried-and-true games from specific references" — that means recreating maps from popular games or other forms of media. White also notes, "and the completely other end of the range who literally made an entire map of tubes and jump pads that have you bouncing from wall to wall."
This, of course, will cause some serious motion sickness in some players. Thankfully, the team says creators can add such notes to a description of the map which is prominently displayed before playing.
White said some of her favorite maps so far include a swamp level that lets players battle it out above or underwater, and a level that she embarrassingly told me was called "Throne King." In essence, it's a world filled with giant toilets and toilet paper and is a total tongue-in-cheek experience.
We've seen the company post-Inception-like levels on social media where the entire city is turned into itself. Players can find themselves standing in the doorway of an upside-down building shooting at enemies hiding behind a sideways car across the street.
The team even described one map that's a bit like the NES classic Duck Hunt where one team is behind a wall that they cannot climb — yes, basic game traits like climbing can also be toggled in Sandbox — while the other team is shot into the air like ducks or clay pigeons. The experimental playlist is wild, apparently.
Maps can be iterated on and improved over time so you won't have to search for a new version of your favorite map to get the best one. Maps can even be copied, so long as the map's creator checks the box to allow such a thing, helping other creators begin from a solid starting point.
Let me just play, dang it
If you're not the creative type, don't worry. Players who just want to play can quickly join a random Deathmatch or Team Deathmatch via one of the team's curated playlists or you can just browse the available list of servers that others are playing in.
Lee told me the team has been working on further reducing friction — a popular VR term that describes the amount of time and effort it takes to put on your headset and actually start playing a game. Right from the get-go, jumping into a match is a two-click affair, helped more by the curated playlists that let players experience something new without having to take time to search for it.
Finding new maps is as simple as going to the Sandbox tab and scrolling through the available sections. BigBox VR has separated them out into sections, including most favorited, latest published, and more.
Right now, White says that there are no thematic categories or motion sickness warning tags — Authors will have to include those things in the map's description — but tags for other categories do exist. Things like PvP-enabled, no-fly, and a handful of others are prominently displayed on a map's card so you know what's up before you join.
Additionally, BigBox VR has totally revamped the end-of-game experience. Previously, when a match ended, players would be knocked back to the lobby with their squads. This added a level of friction because you'd have to wait for the game to load more than once and you would also need to ready up before the next round begins.
Now, players will stay in the room they've chosen and will vote on one of four maps randomly chosen from the server's playlist. This reduces all that extra friction and keeps you with your group.
In fact, this new mode is so effective that BigBox VR says players have already created several hangout spaces where people just chill and vibe together in the evenings.
BigBox VR says that Sandbox is still considered an "early access" piece even though it's launching for all Population: One players on December 14 as a free update. Sandbox has been in active development since the beginning of 2022, undergoing more public testing through the community on Discord and elsewhere.
White told me that the community has been paramount to the development of Sandbox and that the end product is better because of them. Turns out that Sandbox was planned for a slightly later release but BigBox VR has been extremely comfortable with the development trajectory and felt it was ready for further public testing by releasing it for all players.
"We could have spent months and months refining it but, instead, we decided it was ready to be put out there and tried."
Boy am I glad they did. We'll bring you impressions of the update next week as it launches.
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