I didn’t always like open-world games. The first I remember is Morrowind, and my first impressions of that game were terrible. And yet, my girlfriend was hooked to the game, leaving me quite perplexed to say the least.
So I tried it and didn’t change my mind until I uttered “Screw it, I’m ignoring the main plot from now on.” I then shifted my focus towards what else the game had to offer. I fleshed my character, modded the game to my liking and crafted my own story.
Years later, I still reinstall that game from time to time.
I have a soft spot for exploration and discovery. I'm ready to forgive a lot of faults in a game as long as I have a good time just running around and keep wondering what's hidden behind the next bend.
Quite a few games now sport “open-world” as a selling feature, but open-world games used to be uncommon, and for good reasons:
- They require more art and design assets. Otherwise, the world can end up lacking variety, an essential component in engagement and orientation.
- The typical developer toolset relies on some linearity.
- As a designer, it’s harder to control the player’s experience and ensure the game has a good flow. You have to design your games so that even when the player makes the most boring decisions possible, the game remains at least somewhat engaging.
- Performance optimization in games has a lot to do with a level’s structure. The more you can hide, the more details you can inject in the graphics. It’s harder to do that consistently in an open-world game, and that’s why open-world games often look less polished visually than their linear counterparts.
A different approach
The best examples of open-world games are densely packed with things to do. They are digital theme parks. As such, they are busy, noisy and full of side paths which won't take you where you initially wanted to go.
That last bit is quite uncommon by game design standards. You see, most games are very much about achieving something or, summarized in one word: productivity.
Think about it:
- A goal is typically set for you during the first few minutes of the games.
- You are then presented with the tools to get things done and the training to take full advantage of it.
- Your work is then broken down into smaller, manageable tasks.
- You then complete those tasks in sequence until you’ve achieved your goal and won the game.
- Some of your favorite games start to sound similar to a 9-5 job now, don't they?
In contrast, open-world games, if they present you with goals at all, let you complete them at your convenience or even set your own.
It’s not perfect
I totally get how some people might not be too jazzed about this genre. These games are unfocused and can grow stale quickly unless the game’s most mundane activities are engaging.
Storytelling is still a useful tool in those games. It does, however, lose a lot of it’s driving power because the player has the ability to deconstruct the plot; accidentally or on purpose. Moreover, with all these distractions, it becomes difficult to craft an intense experience.
If we were to compare a linear game to a movie, then playing an open-world game would be comparable to catching up on a TV series via re-runs on multiple channels.
The player engagement is what makes those games work almost exclusively. So, until one finds “his/her thing” in the game and gets personally involved, the base experience will feel diluted compared to a linear game.
Choosing the right open world experiences
There’s a relative abundance of open-world games on the marketplace these days. Minecraft has shown how indies can tackle the open-world genre, and we now see its influence spreading in games of all origins.
If you’re on the fence about a particular title, keep in mind open-world games’ strong suits:
- Feeling like a renegade (or as a freelancer at the very least): In open-world games, you typically fight a system rather than progress along a single story.
- Procrastinating: Be ready to spend hours in the game and walk off, having made no real progress.
- Comedy: Open-world games don’t always think of themselves as funny but by nature, they will practically always end up throwing you into comic situations. Based on the game’s description, do you think the occasional wonkiness would enhance or hurt the experience? If that sounds like the kind of experience you’d enjoy and the game themes align with those themes, it might well be worth your while.