We’ve hit peak open world….I hope.
The open world genre is undoubtedly dominating the video game space. From genre luminaries like Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry to lesser lights such as The Division and Watch Dogs to genre newbies like Final Fantasy and Mass Effect, developers collectively have concluded that the market wants more open world games. There certainly is something appealing about the genre. The ability to explore new worlds, take on a variety of challenges, and change your environment for the better are all something that open world games do very well. Sadly, newer entries have taken their cues from the Ubisoft model which significantly degrades their long term prospects. I’ve already written on why that model doesn’t work, so this will be on how to fix it. We’ll start with something that should be obvious:
Every game mechanic should meet a threshold of fun
Playing games is a voluntary act. We all pick up the controller because a game promises a good time (however we choose to define that). We don’t play games for the prospect of large quantities of boring activities which is where most Ubisoft style games land these days. Rather than emphasize the entertaining nature of their gameplay, many open world games promise hours of stuff to do in the hopes that the player will find something to enjoy. Unfortunately, this approach results in shotgun blast side quests that are quick, unspecific in their aim, and often variations on the same theme. Final Fantasy XV demonstrates this issue by having a map full of activities that rarely elevate beyond “kill this monster” or a straightforward fetch quest. The end result is a world full of activities of which few are actually worth doing. This is a trend we’ve seen in countless other games including Mass Effect Andromeda’s deluge of shoddy side content and Far Cry 4’s multiple variations on item collection. Developers need to ask themselves if every major mechanic in the game (open world or not) is fun on its own. If the action isn’t, than strip it from the game rather than rely on the myriad of other activities to pick up the slack. Quantity doesn’t make up for quality.
Systems are your friend
One of the greatest missed opportunities in games is the chance to apply broader mechanic systems to open worlds. Rather than try to craft each event, developers should establish worldwide systems that create gameplay opportunities. Saint’s Row 2 provides a simple example of something that could be incredibly complex. When the player takes territory in SR2, the player’s gang replaces the opposing gang thereby turning a once hostile territory into a friendlier place. When the player goes on missions, the gang will support them in the territories under the player’s control. This system isn’t particularly deep, but it creates a more strategic element to the game where the player could take certain territories before missions to ensure they had back up during the big fights. Open world games are perfect for this kind of worldwide system where the player can have an important impact on the look and gameplay of the open world. Rather than making maps a collection of static icons, developers ought to code dynamic systems that create gameplay by themselves and through their interaction with other systems.
Please stop forgetting about the story
Given the considerable energy that goes into creating enormous environments, players ought not be surprised at the sacrifices developers make in other aspects of the game. Story often suffers as the developers must devote limited resources to creating a story wholly within the open world environment. Whereas other style games can move character’s through new cities, different continents, and even other planets, many open world games must focus on a single place. The evolution of the Saint’s Row series shows how this works in practice. While the early games focused on small time street thugs trying to carve out territory in a major city, SR3 & 4 envisioned the eponymous Saints with global aspirations. Given the limited nature of open world environments, the stories of SR3&4 had to both justify a) why the Saints had to take over yet another city and b) why everything important seemed to happen within the confines of that city. The end result was a hackneyed plot about space aliens destroying Earth who then put the Saints in a city simulation for, you know, reasons. I’ve focused on the environment, but characters, narrative arc, and every other aspect of the narrative declines as soon as the developer utters the words “open world”. By refocusing on making great stories, developers could create an interesting new direction for the genre.
If the open world fad is anything like its predecessors, we can expect it to fade as it collapses under the weight of over indulgence and its lack of innovation. If open world games decline to the point of just a few tent poles, then developers will have missed out on an opportunity to do some incredibly interesting things with the genre. These games should not have a future if they continue to mirror the Ubisoft industrial mold, but could create a whole new generation of fans if they’re willing to try something new.