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.
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.
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!