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Rethinking Open World Games

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The post-E3 news has been all about the new consoles, the Xbox One controversy, DRM, just what the heck Nintendo execs are smoking, and, of course, how painful the wait is going to be. Most of the big news came from differences: how each company plans to distinguish itself from the others and make their product the one you want to drop big bucks on day one. If there’s one thing they could all agree on, though, it is this:

Open worlds are totally sweet.

Seriously. A HUGE chunk of what was announced or shown off at the expo is planned to be “open world” — to the point that I’m not totally sure what it even means anymore. See if I figure it out after the break.

Months back, it was big news when the Metal Gear franchise announced it was going to open up its world. In retrospect, This probably shouldn’t have been such a surprise. It seems everyone had the exact same idea. Established franchises across the spectrum are blowing apart their traditional design: besides Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Dead Rising 3, The Witcher 3: The Hunt, Mirror’s Edge 2, and Dragon Age: Inquisition are expected to bring their franchises into the sandbox.

And those are just the weren’t-before-now-are sandboxes. Lest we forget the established open worlds: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Infamous: Second Son, Dark Souls II, Need for Speed: Rivals, Saints Row IV, Grand Theft Auto V, Lego Marvel Super Heroes and The Elder Scrolls Online. Then are the new open world IPs: Destiny, The Division, Watch Dogs, The Crew, Mad Max, and Dying Light.

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And here I thought The Last of Us just reminded us how awesome a linear game can be.

It’s getting a bit ridiculous. I’m all for wide world exploration, but by the end of the show and post-show news the term “open world” has officially lost all meaning to me. It’s become one of those terms like “immersive” or “revolutionary” that PR execs trot out like a fit horse in front of the audience not as a selling point, but to evoke a feeling.

The basic, broad definition of “open world” refers to a style of game design in which players  roam through an enormous virtual world, with minimal restrictions on what they can do, where they can go, and what they can see. When these games first came to mainstream prominence in the late-90s/early-aughts, they were a big deal. I’m thinking of Shenmue, Grand Theft Auto III, Driver, and early Elder Scrolls, among others. (Indeed, I don’t think any so-called “open” world has come close to the size of The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall, aside from maybe Minecraft.) Open game worlds had existed as early the mid-80s — games like Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario 64 come to mind — but it was the technology offered by later consoles that really allowed designers to blow traditional linearity out the airlock. MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft and EverQuest, took “open world” to the next level.

The trouble I’m having is pinpointing exactly what it means to be “open world” in today’s gaming landscape. We have games like Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim, others like Batman: Arkham City and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and still others like Dark Souls and the Metroid Prime-verse. All have been described as open world. It seems a bit bizarre to lump these games into one blanket category.

For example, I think a lot of people would debate whether or not the Legend of Zelda franchise really constitutes open world. Each game has been set in, yes, a big world you can roam through at your leisure. But Hyrule — or Skyloft, or Wind Waker’s Great Sea — tends to act as a hub, an area connecting a number of dungeons which, arguably, contain the meat of the gameplay. Arkham City, and to a lesser degree Arkham Asylum, are designed similarly. The titular city and asylum act as hub worlds from which Batman can enter “dungeons,” various buildings and factories, to take down whatever supervillain is the current thorn in his side.

Arkham City

In both franchises, there’s a ton of freedom: lots of side quests and optional missions. But where you’re “supposed” to go is always pretty obvious. On top of that, the worlds are  not that open. Borders and barriers are generally pretty obvious, and there’s plenty of closed off areas. Dark Souls is in the same boat: Lordran connects its numerous towns and burbs, but once you get into an area your path is usually pretty obvious. The central hub section connects the more linear bulk of the gameplay. (None of these, by the way, are complaints. I’m talking about three of my favorite franchises.)

In contrast, look at a game like Skyrim. It’s pretty damned open. After the opening sequence, Bestheda plonks you down in the middle of the forest with a tiny little arrow telling you where to go. But you don’t have to. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. You should explore. You could easily play the game for 100 hours without touching the main quest. Ditto for Grand Theft Auto IV. Liberty City is absurdly huge. Again, like Batman, Zelda, and Souls, where you’re “supposed” to go is usually telegraphed, but there’s almost no limit to the amount of random trouble you can get yourself into without going anywhere near a story mission.

After that, we get into Minecraft territory, a level of openness that frankly scares me. It, and its spritely offspring Terraria, are undeniably the endgame of “open world.” I have a lot of difficulty boxing it and Arkham City into the same category.

minecraft

I don’t have a problem with games opening their worlds up. I’m sure it offers developers a chance to let their creativity fly, to not be hindered by perceived linearity. But when nearly every company spends E3 screaming open world, OPEN WORLD, OPEN WORLD, OPENNNN WORLDDDDDDD, my eyebrow goes up. Just how “open” are we talking? Will it contain more traditional, linear levels? Will it follow a Burnout Paradise philosophy and intertwine these levels throughout the world? Or a Zelda philosophy and use the open area to connect them? Will it be borderless and let the player go where they want? Or will it contain an area that’s large, but strict about where the player can travel?

“Open world” is too broad a term to accurately describe all the open world games that currently exist, let alone those to come. I’m all for devs doing everything they can to make their game as good as it can, but at this moment I’m ready to chalk the term “open world” up as a corporate linguistic casualty.

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Posted on July 5, 2013, in Opinions And Editorials and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’m really curious to see where the new Mirror’s Edge goes, as it’s touted to be open world. Despite being a huge fan of parkour/platforming games like ME and the Prince of Persia trilogy, I never got into the Assassin’s Creed series. I didn’t care for how the platforming was streamlined in this game, but I think the open world exploration also kind of killed it for me. The world was built on a macro level, so it felt like there were never enough micro platforming challenges along the way for me to master. It felt really repetitive after a while.

    And that’s got me a little worried about just how “open world” the new ME2 is going to be. I think the game still needs a lot of structure for it to work – they need to build places with the particular intentions in mind – that a lower level player might specifically use move XYZ to surpass, while a more experienced player would notice a shortcut and do move ZXY and jump off a wall to get through faster. There’s achallenge there to not just get through the game, but to get better as a skilled player to shave corners/seconds/extra movements off of their runs.

    I think the really nailed this concept on the speed run maps – which were less linear than the campaign maps. New places to get to emerged on the fly, and you could discover new routes and parkour skills, even after having played a map several times. I’m hoping the new game takes this concept, and just widens it’s scope to create bigger areas with more actions.

    So yeah, I agree with the author – I don’t know what Open World means anymore, but if ME2 goes this route, I hope it’s the “very structured” sandbox definition.

  2. I think it’s become easier to define Open-world Games by what they are not, honestly. Essentially, an open-world game is simply any game without a traditional level structure. Thief II (which I’m replaying right now, and is still excellent)? Not open-world.. but ironically, has better world-building than almost any other game I’ve played. But Arkham City? Technically open-world, even though it relies on a hub, as Joe points out.

    It gets a little foggy for me with games like Dishonoured – does anyone remember if it was billed as open-world? Because it technically has some free-roaming, but it is absolutely a traditional level structure with a fancy coat of paint.

    Or take Dragon Age – the first one was arguably open-world, although you couldn’t freely roam anywhere. Dragon Age II was more hub-based, although the hub was far more interesting than the dungeons. Will the third one be truly open-world, a la Skyrim, or will it be more restricted?

    Good thoughts!

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