A Recipe For an Open World Game

Open world games are everywhere these days.  They span across all genres and chances are high that most gamers have played at least one this year.  Since these games are so common in today’s gaming landscape, there are a number of examples of open worlds done masterfully, as well as games that were less successful.  Breaking both the successes and failures down in order to determine what makes a strong open world game is crucial for game developers to continue to innovate in future titles.  Since I have played a number of open-world titles over the years, I am going to weigh in here a little by talking about the aspects of open world games that are most important to get right in order to make an engaging title for players to enjoy.

The size of the open world is the first aspect of world design that must be considered, and there is a sweet spot to hit here.  If the world is too small for the game being created, players will get bored and say that there isn’t enough content.  When the world gets too large, however, developers likely cannot put enough content in the world to go with the large land mass, leaving players overwhelmed and complaining that the open world is lifeless or empty.  While it would be nice to just have a template that says exactly how large an open world should be, the size depends on the type of game.  For example, Just Cause 3 has an enormous map that would be far too big for most titles, but for a game that revolves around flying planes and performing crazy stunts with grappling hooks and wingsuits, a lot of acreage is needed in order to give players plenty of room to have fun.

Everyone is always concerned with the size of the open world, as players want to know how large the map is immediately after a game’s announcement, but the question of how to make a good open world is much more complicated than purely considering the size.  When Mass Effect:  Andromeda came out, there was a lot of criticism involving Bioware’s choice to replace the smaller world designs of the previous games with a small handful of open-world maps.  If the size of the maps were the only factor that mattered, Bioware’s design choice was a success, as every map was large and took plenty of time to traverse from end to end.  Unfortunately, players felt that the maps were barren, meaning there wasn’t a lot of reason to extensively explore the world.  A smaller map, or a map with worthwhile content, would have gone a long way to improving the game.

MEA

Of course, the solution to an empty map seems simple, right?  Just put a ton of content in it!  Unfortunately, attempting to put too much content in an open world can also be met with criticism.  Let’s stick with Bioware here and talk about their other major property with Dragon Age:  Inquisition.  Bioware wanted to make a series of large and expansive open worlds for players to roam around in for this title, so they filled the game to the brim with activities for players to complete.  Unfortunately, most of these activities boiled down to either “kill ten of these enemies”, “Go here and fetch this”, or “collect eight of these items across the map” quests that weren’t engaging the first time, much less after having to do these quests on every single available map.  Cleaning up an expansive map shouldn’t feel like a chore to the player.

Once the open world is set up with activities to do, what’s next?  Now, it’s time to build the rest of the game to support the environment properly.  This can mean a variety of things, but in general, a good world will interact directly with the story and plot.  Players are going to be traversing the world based on the quests they have received, so making sure that they get to explore all of the map areas and don’t get bored staying in place for too long because the plot demands it is critical.  This also means making sure that enemies are balanced properly, so as to give a hint to the player about whether they should be moving on because they are five levels over the enemies, or should be turning back because they are five levels under.

One of the most important aspects of pacing to consider, however, is how to push a player to leave the opening area.  First impressions are important, and when players are committing thirty or more hours to playing a game, these early hours need to be spot-on.  In both Dragon Age:  Inquisition and The Witcher 3 a fair number of people (myself included, in both instances) never left the first map area of the game.  They got so bogged down in little missions that they got bored with the game before the story or the world’s true scope ever got a chance to hook them.  Encouraging players to leave the nest of what is effectively the tutorial to a much larger game is a part of the world-building, and this pacing is something that a lot of games still struggle with to this day.  For example, I spent five hours on the opening island of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and I know I’m not alone there.  I continued on and found a beautiful world to explore, but others quit the game and figured it wasn’t for them.

Dragon Age Inquisition

Overall, I wrote this post mainly to show that there is a great deal of nuance that comes to making an open world.  In fact, in spite of all the different pitfalls I covered here, one of the largest hurdles to overcome is simply accounting for differing tastes.  For example, my favorite open world of all time is The Elder Scrolls V:  Skyrim, but take to the internet and it is easy to find forum posts that say the game is too barren or too full of quests that don’t matter.  I’m also deeply enjoying Assassin’s Creed Odyssey in spite of my complaints about its pacing and my belief that this game is padded out with far too much needless side questing.  I think that there are a lot of considerations to making an open world game, and all of the above topics should be considered and addressed to the best of the development team’s abilities, but I also realize that the best way to create a strong open world is to just keep creating them.  Everyone likes different things, and the variety of open worlds, from Just Cause 4 to Red Dead Redemption 2, means everyone has an open world to love.

What is your favorite open world and why?  Let me know in the comments!

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5 thoughts on “A Recipe For an Open World Game

  1. That’s right, open world isn’t just “biggest map with tonnes of markers for fetch quests” as Ubisoft likes to think.
    I love the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s not too big during the intro and while it looks huge when it opens up, it is still manageable. The collectibles aren’t overwhelming in numbers and of course the beautiful graphics help and photomode help in convincing you to explore and take it all in. If you need to be somewhere quick, you can fast travel instantly.
    I would have liked more “hidden” sidequests, though. The ones you only find by sumbling upon them during exploration. But it’s tough to find the perfect balance between not enough to do and too much at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This year’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption II gave two very different examples of how open worlds can be approached.

    It felt like ACO was made to be very player-friendly with plenty of fast travel locations, more interesting side quests, the ability to climb virtually anything, summoning your horse from anywhere, practically ignoring trees and obstacles as you ride, etc.

    But Red Dead took a different approach, adhering to realism. Fast travel spots are sparse and cumbersome, your horse will only come if it’s in hearing range, and running into trees or rocks is a violent reminder to pay more attention while riding.

    I personally loved ACO’s open world. I never felt bored, or that the many quests were a grind. The world was varied and populated with interesting things to see so I was compelled to just explore. I didn’t love the sea-faring sections so maybe they could’ve added more interesting exposition like God of War did.

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  3. Although I agree about those opening areas in Witcher 3 and AC Odyssey seeming to hold me back, I’m glad they did as until I’d finished them. I wasn’t really ready to face the open world and stumble into trouble. In fact, there are quests that are tough – especially on higher difficulty settings. In Witcher 3 on NG+ (with a higher level Geralt) in Death Match – the hardest setting – even the wolves can one-shot you as a pack.

    Witcher 3 was my favourite open-world, especially the final map, Toussaint. But going back to Ancient Greece surpassed that with AC Odyssey. But then the game suits my play style of sneaking around, silently striking, plus finding legendary items,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I see both sides here. While I admit that I would probably feel overwhelmed dropped right into these huge areas, I think the training wheels could probably be taken off a little earlier for a better overall experience. If I hadn’t read a blog post stating that I needed to leave the first area of The Witcher 3, I honestly don’t know if I ever would have gone back.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Map size is an interesting quality … as long as the developer does interesting stuff with the map, I’m usually game to enjoy it. That said, I do like a fair amount of room. Your example of Just Cause is perfect: it’s a big map but the game is tailored around mechanics that take advantage of that. Fallout, Elder Scrolls, and Assassin’s Creed maps all have their share of cookie-cutter quests/conflicts because the developers have set out a large canvas for the game story to take place in.

    However, most of those interactions are welcome: Fallout has interesting settlements built from scavenged scrap, Elder Scrolls worlds are fantastical settings, and AC give you beautifully crafted maps and environs. They could be smaller maps in each case, but done well, it’s not distracting. Fill the map with interesting stuff and you’ll satisfy most gamers. I recall the first Assassin’s Creed games that were filled with fetch quests and tedious escort missions with stupid AI followers … the maps were smaller but they put lame stuff in them and that made things less fun.

    Sticking with Assassin’s Creed games, right now I’m running across a number of near-bare islands in ancient Greece (Odyssey) and that space feels good/natural. And then I find a small encampment of Spartans within a stone’s throw of an Athenian garrison and, while it “gives me something to do”, it’s a bit out of place. On the whole, they strike a nice balance.

    This reply went on over-long but I think I’m just using this space to settle on my opinion to your excellent question. Size is one factor but a well-crafted world and interesting things to do are what keep me interested or push me away. Give me a great game with quality gameplay, an interesting world, and engaging quests and you can make your map as big as you’d like!

    Liked by 2 people

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