Monday, February 1, 2010

If This Is an Open World, Why Are All the Doors Closed?

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

I was hunting down another surveillance device on the side of a building in inFamous, struggling with the awkward platforming controls. This was the third building covered in these blinking red devices, and I had to track down each one and get right next to it to deactivate it. I was stuck, once again, jumping up to grab one ledge and accidentally clinging to another, when it occurred to me just how little open world games bring to the table. The formula for creating an open world game seems to be this: Take a normal, linear story, separate it into missions, and require the player to do a lot of travelling to get to each mission. Then throw in lots of dull, repetitive side missions, hidden objects, collectibles, etc. And don’t worry too much about sloppy, over-complicated control schemes or glitches; those have come to be expected in open worlds.

At their very best, open world games offer one of two things not present in most linear video games: the ability to do almost anything and push the boundaries of the world, and a sense of discovery and wonder. Grand Theft Auto, as a series, became famous largely for the former. There is a linear story in each Grand Theft Auto game, but the appeal for many is the ability to do as one pleases. You want to spend all your time hitting on women and eating hot dogs? Fine. Want to be involved in high speed chases with the cops? Sure. Want to see how far you can jump on a motorcycle? Go for it. Will you obey traffic laws, or drive recklessly? Do you want to travel by bicycle or jet pack? This is a valid and useful approach to the open world game, because the openness is about options over environment. Grand Theft Auto presents a playground.

The other approach to the open world relies more fully on the aspect of exploration. This school of thought is based on the appeal of discovering new and interesting places, and relies more thoroughly on visual and narrative design. An excellent example of this school of open world design is Fallout 3, which had several completely optional locations with compelling, insulated stories that outstripped the cliché overarching plot of the game. Some of the vaults that dotted the landscape, for example, oozed with tension, intrigue, and atmosphere. And if the player didn’t go out exploring, they would never be seen. Brütal Legend managed to make exploration exciting simply by virtue of its creative environmental design. Every heavy metal landscape had some bizarre new piece of architecture or natural growth worthy of an album cover. Fallout 3 and Brütal Legend show their seams elsewhere, but they each get a few things right; it’s clear, at least, why the creators wanted to set their games in open worlds.

If an open world game doesn’t provide one of these two benefits, why bother making it an open world game at all? Playing inFamous, I continue to wish that the same plot had been told in a completely linear fashion. Taking breaks in the action to replay the same mission types reduced the enjoyment I was getting from the game. Just because a mission is optional is no excuse to make it boring. Assassin’s Creed was criticized for the same problem; there just weren’t enough different things to do to keep the experience consistently entertaining. If inFamous were a more linear, plot-driven game, there wouldn’t be so much junk on the periphery, spoiling an otherwise fun and exciting premise.

Also, for some reason open world games have become synonymous with poor controls and technical difficulties. It is difficult to get Cole, the lead in inFamous, to jump and land just where you want him to or cling to the right part of the building. The cover mechanic in Grand Theft Auto IV was obtuse and the car controls were needlessly difficult to master. The first Assassin’s Creed gave the player a huge world to explore and the graceful, simple controls to explore it, and then killed the player if they accidentally took a dip in any body of water. And almost every open world game ever made has had problems with texture loading, slowdown, screen tearing, and crashing. What rule determined that having a more complicated world gave the game designers license to make a less functional one that’s harder to interact with?

I can accept technical issues; I prefer a well-polished game, but I’ll take a fun one with a few hiccups. A strange control system is less forgivable, but I’ll learn it if the game makes up for it in other ways. The real tragedy of open world games is that they are still designed just like linear experiences. There is still a main storyline that the player is meant to traverse, at the end of which something climactic happens and the credits roll. Maybe the game lets the player continue after the end credits, but the narrative is finished.

A truly open world would let the player set their own goal. Maybe they want to end crime in the city, once and for all, by working their way through the crime families and striking fear into street criminals. Maybe they want to be adventurers and thrill seekers, and run a business to finance their every whim. Maybe they just want to find the right person to love, and make sure that they are both safe from the forces allied against them. Adding every option imaginable is an impossible task, but more available storylines will result in a more open world. The credits should never roll on a real open world game. The game world should just present itself to the player and ask them how they want to change it.


  1. I think it depends on your definition - to me, a good open-world game allows the player to create their *own* games within the game. Non-linear open-world games do exist, they're just relatively unpopular and rely on other mechanics to create tension and dynamism (Second Life is the most obvious, although there are probably others).

    What you suggest, to me, sounds like simply masking the linear nature of an open-world game - by reduction, does two independent storyline / endings make it a "better" open-world game? Three? Five? Fifty? At what stage does it become a "truly open world"?

  2. Evan,

    It's tough to say just what would make a truly open world, and it may be an aspiration that is ultimately impossible to achieve. I like your idea that good open world games let players create their own stories and games. Some of the best playthroughs of Fallout 3 were ones in which I decided to make my own story and ignore the main plot, but there were very limited options to do so.

    The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion attempted something a little more elaborate by allowing the main character to pursue multiple career paths apart from the main story.

    There's no set point at which I think open world games will be improved by additional options, but I think that game designers should look at their open world games, ask themselves what players might want to do that they haven't planned for initially, and then allow them to do that. Just a few extra, well-thought out options would improve most open world games.

    Even in linear games, the sensation that the programmers have accounted for a few unpredictable player reactions is encouraging and exciting. It would be even more thrilling with a wide open world to explore, inhabit and change.

    Thanks for commenting!


  3. A lot of people made their own games out of Grand Theft Auto, whether it was trying to make a particular jump or just go on a general rampage. The thing is, none of these were necessarily deliberately intended by the designers; to me, the distinction is whether or not there are specific rewards for engaging in those activities. In GTA IV, for example, there are experiential rewards for browsing the web, watching TV, and dating online. In Crackdown, there's an achievement reward for climbing to the top of the tallest tower.

    The biggest problem with open world games is the lack of direction - I think many just want to enjoy guided play. Creating your own game, while rewarding in its own right, requires effort; it's much easier to have predefined goals given to you. The problem with developers pre-supposing everything that the gamer will is that if you've already done that, why not make it an explicit goal and improve the overall accessibility of the game?

  4. "I think many just want to enjoy guided play"

    Most people want guided play, the problem with open worlds is that people get bored too fast. Most gamers want the best parts of games and movies, they want to move from interesting part to interesting part, where as open worlds leave tonnes of boredom.

    I couldn't stand world of warcraft because I had played diablo 1 + 2, for new players of WoW they had never experienced diablo 1 + 2 and accepted just awful mind numbingly boring parts of the game like extremely long travelling times.

    I don't want to waste my gaming time travelling in a virtual world, the open world gamers piss me off a lot because game developers that go with open world mechanics without travel shortcuts just make me go insane.

    Open worlders are basically a fringe group of the hardcore and they are bad for mainstream acceptance of games.

    Open worlds need structure, Borderlands is probably one of the best open world kind of games but even it sections off it's world into levels and quests to give the player things to do.

    The real problem with open worlds is that you can't do a lot of cool cinematic things like more linear games can, take god of war - god of war 1 + 2 were awesome experiences, you can't do that in an open world game.

    Games are about fun and entertaining experiences, open world games are basically gamers who want to live in their game worlds, extreme amounts of time and effort would have to go into making such open world games. The only kinds of games that could support that model financially are MMO, but MMO's have huge drawbacks, most MMO's make for poor games if you compare them against single player stand alone games.

  5. "you can't do a lot of cool cinematic things like more linear games can"

    The expectation of a directed cinematic experience is, IMO, what has ruined a lot of open-world games. Let go of that expectation, and you are free to create *new* kinds of experiences, instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. But the idea of a "game as cool as a movie" is still too deeply embedded into the AAA mindset. And it's holding the industry back.


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