Have we reached the pinnacle of game design with the “open world”?

In Features by Sebastian Foerster

Horizon: Zero Dawn, Grand Theft Auto V, NieR: Automata, Breath of the Wild, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Final Fantasy XV, No Man’s Sky, Watch Dogs 2, The Witcher 3 and soon Assassin’s Creed: Origins or Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. These are just some of the games in recent memory that have one design element in common: all of them feature open worlds. This means that you have a vast world to explore with little to no linear storytelling in your adventure. The main story is just one of the many things you can focus on in these games; ultimately, you’re free to make your own story and go at your own pace.

First appearing in the 90s during the 3D Boom (most notably through Super Mario 64), open world games have become the standard design element for most AAA studios. Create a unique world for gamers to explore, give them a rough sketch of what there is to do in this world, and let them be on their way, playing how they want to. It’s a formula that is tried and true.

The raises a few questions for me, though. Is the open world the ultimate core for a game’s design? Will almost all AAA games be designed like this for the foreseeable future, or can games go in different directions? This is what I want to discuss here.

It’s like being thrown into cold water, in a good way

Open word games are fun, and I especially appreciate the usually brief and well-done tutorials that teach you the basic mechanics of each game. Take Breath of the Wild as one example: You start from nothing, go through four simple shrines that teach you some basics, and then off you go. You learn through trial and error, experimenting and trying out different things. You can burn grass and use the uplift for gliding, you can throw rocks to surprise your enemies, and so on. The game teaches you through exploration; it never gives you the full list of things you can do. Instead it lets you use your imagination and your natural sense of curiosity to learn new mechanics.

From a gameplay standpoint, that is the best way to design a game, in my opinion. I’ve been put through tedious tutorials with lots of text and menus in my time, and although the developers mean well, frankly I know how to move the camera with the right analog stick. With the current popularity of video games, I think most developers dive into open worlds without much explanation is because they know that most consumers are mature gamers and that certain mechanics are known to most of them. Of course, this can be frustrating at times — the Dark Souls series in particular has made its mark here, taking the need for trial and error to the extreme. But in general, it works very well and without much frustration.

So, being thrown in without much guidance isn’t bad, especially given the fact that the power of the internet and communities from YouTube and Twitch offer all the help you could need for those who wish to seek it out.

It’s hard to keep a consistent narrative

Open-world games are usually pretty impressive from a gameplay standpoint. However, I find most story-driven open-world titles suffer from a lack of coherent storytelling. I’m not saying that they are bad at it, I’m saying that by giving the player so much freedom, it is hard to tell a compelling story with the interruption of an incredible number of side-quests, exploration opportunities, and other “distractions.”

Of course, I’m not saying it’s bad to have these distractions. I just like a more linear story experience, because I’ve come more and more to play games for their story and design rather than their gameplay. Because, frankly, I can get the gameplay in basically in every other game.

Take Horizon: Zero Dawn for instance. I love the game to bits; it’s so much fun, it’s challenging, and it offers a compelling and emotional story. But take away the story and design, and I’m playing some combination of several other popular RPGs like Far Cry, The Witcher 3, Uncharted, and so on. The gameplay itself, albeit flawless, is nothing new. It works better together than most other games, and the open world feels vast and vivid, but it is the lore, characters, and overall story that is most interesting to me, not the gameplay.

Another recent example would be Persona 5. It is linear in its design, the setting and story are super interesting, and it offers unique gameplay. Yes, most of Persona 5 is typical dungeon crawling and RPG-combat 101, but the social links and the time outside of Mementos and the palaces is unique. And it’s not really an open world. It feels like it, but the world is really made up of several relatively small areas that you “travel” back and forth between.

Persona 5 is a bit too long for my taste as it stands (especially towards the end). I certainly wouldn’t want it to be an entirely open world, as it would simply drag on even more. I like the limitations of its areas, and the effective ways those areas are used to tell the game’s story. Open-world games could learn from this. They might lose their status as being “open-world,” but could possibly provide a better overall experience for players, in my opinion.

Open-world game design is not the pinnacle, but one major pillar

Considering that many linear games are just as good as or even better than many open-world games, it’s not fair to say that open-world games are clearly the best. Any game and design philosophy has its weaknesses, and the concept of the open world is no exception.

That said, I see the open world more as one of the three major pillars of game design in today’s industry. I think the three main pillars are as follows:

1) Open-world

2) Linear

3) Gameplay-focused

It’s definitely not easy to sum up all of game design with three simple pillars, but I feel some combination of these three makes up the core of how most games are made these days.

Open-world gameplay has been a great innovation, and it undoubtedly offers a lot to the modern gaming community. Just look at the beloved and acclaimed games I mentioned in the first sentence of this article! Yet, due to the issues I’ve discussed so far in this piece, I don’t think open-world games are necessarily the best, at least not for everyone. While  open-world games are in general very consumer friendly and easy to learn, some are probably too big to tackle for casual gamers or people who don’t have the time to spend 200 hours on one game.

The next pillar is linear game design. Again, these types of games have their weaknesses, but they can definitely be just as good and successful as open-world games. Titles like Persona 5 are pretty straightforward with limited freedom regarding things to do and a clear focus on a coherent story experience. There will always be a place for these games. They are much more hour-friendly (Persona 5 is a very bad example in this regard, but most linear games are short and sweet) and they’re easier to maintain focus in. I don’t lose myself in a vast world where I can pick flowers, help someone’s grandma find her pan, or ride into the sunset. The goal is clear and every minute I spend playing is focused on the next step in the main story.

The third category (thus completing the “triforce”) is focused on gameplay. This includes games like ARMS or Splatoon 2. These games are unique in their playstyle and put a new twist on established formulas. Nintendo is best known for games like these, but there are others as well, like Playerunkown’s Battlegrounds. With Battlegrounds there is no story or anything, you just pick up and play with your motivation being beating the other players. This as well is a winning concept in today’s industry.

In conclusion

Open-world games are great, and technological advancements have helped to elevate these games to previously unfathomable heights. Yet I don’t believe the open world is the ultimate form of game design. Just as games differ, gamers differ as well. I wouldn’t say that one genre is better than another — it all depends on the individual. Looking at my own game library, I was surprised by how many games incorporated an open-world design. That’s what made me think about this topic in the first place. On top of this, my recent play of the older Spec Ops: The Line showed me how much linear games can have dramatic and effective storytelling, even while using mundane gameplay simply to extend playtime.

In the end, it depends on you. And that’s what I’d like to know now: What type of game do you prefer? What does your game library consist mostly of? Are their different focus points on each platform? Be sure to let us know what you think on Twitter!

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Sebastian Foerster
Contributor
Guitarist, singer, console gamer, general nerd, marketer, contributor @obiliskgames.

Currently obsessed with Persona 5 and waiting for new Switch titles.

I love to talk in movie, game and TV series quotes. Hit me up on Twitter if you'd like to speak about any of those.

Anything else can be found on my website: www.sebarsch.com or between the lines of my articles ;-)