It all started with Grand Theft Auto... "the sandbox game". When GTAIII first hit, the concept was sooo next-gen: "you can do anything in this game. It's beyond genre-definition. It's revolutionary!". Technologically and conceptually, yes, the GTA games (and a handful of the so-called "GTA clones") were groundbreaking, but do we really need to do EVERYTHING in one game?If you think about it, GTA was revolutionary primarily just in the way it combined genres. In essence, it was just an action/adventure+racing game. Oh, and it was big. We're getting to the point now, though, where most games are big, and a lot of genres are breaking out of their molds because, technologically, they can. Sure, let's throw some running around into our racing game, or some deep story into our shooter, or some minigames into our adventure game. These are all enriching to genres if done right, but I think we should just shoot the concept of a "sandbox" game in the foot right now.
Developers who jump on this bandwagon need to remember that calling your game a "sandbox" game really means that its defining characteristic is that it is big and manipulable. C'mon, so is Second Life... and look at the sort of "creativity" that goes on there. I really enjoyed (as did many critics) the recent XBox 360 hit Crackdown, because it accepted limitations. The developers focused on action and draw-distance in the game, at the reasonable expense of a long, complicated plot.
Just because a game can be huge and varied doesn't mean it has to be. I waited until San Andreas to actually buy a GTAIII game, and I got sick of it, because, honestly, it was too damn big. Sometimes it would take over 5 minutes just to get to a meeting point for the plot line, and 4/5 "missions" ultimately had absolutely nothing to do with the main plot line. For me, the game got old before I even reached the third city.
Let me leave this post with two arbitrary examples -- Katamari Damacy. Take a game like this, where the only thing you do is roll a ball around and collect objects that are smaller than you. I'm sure tons of people might have thought, "Hey, this game would be a lot better if it had minigames like bowling a Katamari or letting you destroy cities with the King's lasers." Don't listen to these people, my friends. Sometimes it's best to leave a game to one function for gamers to enjoy. Would Super Mario have been better if Mario had a rifle or a car? Nobody knows for sure, but it sure as hell could have been worse.