On Open World Game Design

The hastiness with which open world games have ascended to industry dominance is compelling and profound indeed. A much acclaimed, pioneer of the genre – Grand Theft Auto III – released little over a scant two decades ago, its release considered as a watershed moment for the industry, the release advancing that selfsame industry; Rockstar’s contributions and innovations here were immense. But innovation does not instantly equate to longevity or lasting success. Indeed, Rockstar’s fledgling effort is nigh unplayable today, though its advancements must never be forgotten; the blueprint the developers created must never be forgotten. And the blueprint was an impressive one, the experimentation with 3D graphics and open-ended game design possessive of considerable value. Grand Theft Auto III, though innovative, was also serving the function of refinement, that wondrous title Ocarina of Time characterized by similar experimentation, largely centered around the sprawling Hyrule Field, a connecting region, linking together all other principal environments. The successes here were equally immense, though limitations were understandably in place: the Nintendo 64 – all consoles of the day – struggled with open world game design, while whatever successes were achieved on this front were mired somewhat by poor presentation: texture quality was lacking, draw distances were short, while the sheer scale and scope of the environments were dramatically lessened. In this regard, open world games can be sharply linked to the technologies around which they are constructed. Reflecting this, and connecting back to that earlier thought, there is Grand Theft Auto III, an ambitious title creatable only by utilization of the improved hardware of the day, namely the PlayStation 2. While released quite early in the console’s life span, and accordingly released at a moment where optimization and mastery of the hardware were lacking, still the basic potentialities of that improved hardware were seized upon. Gone was the overdependence upon comparatively less ambitious, constraining 2D game design, like the original titles in the Grand Theft Auto Series, while even the earlier Ocarina is emblematic of this trend, this progression. 3D gameplay generally facilitates and makes more enjoyable the simple act of exploration; A Link to the Past and Super Mario World may be brimming with secrets and environmental storytelling, but these complexities are easily dwarfed by their immediate successors, those crafted around 3D gameplay – and, accordingly, open ended game design. Grand Theft Auto III, building upon its experimental predecessors, those which dabbled in 3D game design, altered the industry forever, changing its direction, modernizing it.

Since Grand Theft Auto III’s release, open world game design has been characterized by a steady – sometimes rapid – march of progress; constant are the innovations, some of them subtle, other more dramatic. While unified by certain principles, different developers have taken the genre and splinted away from its earlier foundations, resulting in a plurality of differing player experiences. At the center of it all, though, is the crafting of a compelling gameworld, be it of darkness and bleakness or grandeur and greatness. Whatever direction is taken, though, one advice all developers ought to cherish and realize is the necessity of dynamic game worlds, those which constantly seem to be in a state of motion or flux, this motion preserving player engagement while heightening immersion. Consider again the Grand Theft Auto series, where countless NPCs may be active on the streets, moving to and fro on the sidewalks, selling food at food stands, or simply navigating through traffic, sometimes advancing rapidly forwards, other times remaining motionless, as the traffic level dictates. Different NPC models may be present, while a wide variety of vehicle types may do that patrolling. These things, collectively, give the illusion of life; Liberty City, Los Santos, San Fiero – all of these cities are united in the impulse to create a bustling gameworld. Technological limitations are again in place, and while the engine Grand Theft Auto V was constructed around is far more powerful and intuitive than Grand Theft Auto III’s engine, that more recent title only has a finite number of NPC or vehicle models, while a cap is in place, dictating the precise number of objects rendered at any one moment; constraints have slackened, though still they persist. Repetition of modelling or overall environmental barrenness destroy immersion; they both must be countered, and while developers are more empowered than ever to execute that countering, obstacles will always be in place; some worlds, even today, are defined by a damning hollowness, quite a large failure, though an easily understood one. Developers do seek to circumvent these failings in creative ways. In Assassin’s Creed II, for instance, each individual NPC model – at least in cutscenes – has a procedurally generated facial structure, helping to cut down on repetition and preserve player immersion. Fog effects may also be used, the player’s visibility being lessened to reduce the number of objects rendered, while when this fog is implemented successfully and effectively, it can serve a compelling secondary function, namely creating atmosphere, mood. Other titles also strive to communicate life, and on this front the Far Cry series is most successful, innovative, the more recent games featuring a diverse abundance of animal species, which roam about the game world, sometimes engaging the player, other times fleeing from the player; their behavior varies, though their presence is a constant, a wonderful constant, resulting in more organic, dynamic sensations. In further games of that series, meanwhile, NPCs roam more broadly than in other titles, where they are functionally static. With this NPC movement comes action and tension, and it is rather commonplace to witness conflict, open warfare, in the act of exploration. This unpredictability is a clever inclusion, evoking engrossing sensations, and thus from a design standpoint, the Far Cry games excel, their crafted game worlds all brimming with life and action, whether speaking of a Himalayan state or the vast, untamed Montana wilds. In these titles, moving from point A to point B is a consistently riveting affair, whereas in other, less dynamic titles basic locomotion may be dull and unengaging, this statement further illustrating the necessity of ever-changing game worlds, for this mutability heightens enjoyability. Rather than relying upon a fast travel system, the player will be eager to navigate the game world.      

In designing open world games, developers can rely upon vastly different wells of inspiration, meaning that open worlds can be dramatically different from one another, evoking different atmospheres and sensations, though most commonly presented are sprawling cityscapes, environments prone to beauty, certainly, though the impactfulness of such worlds is lessened when considering their great ubiquity; such environments trend towards dullness, larger, more diverse open worlds typically more compelling, though with largeness sometimes comes overambition. But cityscapes dominate: consider the trio of Grand Theft Auto games first released on the PlayStation 2. The first two titles dully adopt conventional cityscapes. The titular city featured in Vice City is uniquely beautiful, certainly – the stylized 1980s aesthetic achieved here has never been duplicated. But for all the glitz and glamor, the world building sometimes fails, suffering greatly by nature of its urbanity. San Andreas of course countered this world design blueprint, offering three distinct cities alongside a rather sprawling collection of rural environments. In this regard, additional innovations were made; Rockstar again display themselves as pioneers, and the state of San Andreas is a mostly compelling achievement. But whether crafting an urban environment, a rural environment, or an environment which features both landscapes, developers seem more empowered whenever they construct completely original environments, in that this originality fosters greater creativity. Grand Theft Auto IV’s atmospheric Liberty City, strongly modeled around New York City, is so striking and impactful precisely because it is not New York City. It is something greater, something different, and relying upon preexisting locations limits and stifles developer creativity. Taking reality and then promptly distorting it leads to the greatest successes in world design, and an environment like Liberty City will always be more compelling than an environment neatly replicated from reality, like Spiderman’s New York, which, while beautiful, is unspectacular. This is not to suggest, though, that game worlds devoted to reality cannot be profound, engaging game worlds: consider the litany of Assassin’s Creed games, the earliest efforts largely clinging to reality, with reconstructions of Renaissance Italy, Constantinople, or the American colonies. But, crucially, such environments, so temporally removed from the present moment, can never be visited, tangibly admired. In this regard, these games serve an almost escapist function, while critically, the New York City featured so commonly in other open world games can in fact be visited today, diminishing more exciting attributes.  

Something similar could be said of Sleeping Dogs’ Hong Kong or Watch Dogs 2’s San Fransico. These game worlds are frequently beautiful game worlds, though being situated in the present, in easily explorable locales, again greater impactfulness and player resonance is lessened dramatically – world design here is safe rather than inspired. It is only when creativity is embraced that the greatest design feats are executed; the more and more removed from reality a game world becomes, the more profound it becomes. Games like Shadow of Mordor illustrate these points, the environment being drastically removed from dull convention, boasting expectantly well developed lore. Such swelling creativity can be applied to tired cityscapes, too, this injection of life tempering the dullness typically characterizing cityscapes; one need only look at Arkham City, a moody, brooding environment teeming with atmosphere and place, an environment easily eclipsing in greatness and beauty comparatively bland New York City. And then, building upon the design edicts in Shadow of Mordor are the completely fantastical open world constructions, the greatest achievements on this front largely lying within the fabled Elder Scrolls series. With Oblivion’s Cyrodiil, Bethesda display a creative mastery, the game world brimming with diversity, despite its comparative smallness. Vastly removed from reality, featuring an almost Mediterranean cityscape (Anvil) alongside a frigid, snowy cityscape (Bruma), and manifold other cities, here is great innovation. The world may indeed be a hollow one – releasing towards the beginning of the Xbox 360’s lifespan, it follows limitations were in place owing to unfamiliarity with the hardware – though still Cyrodiil must be reckoned as an additional pioneer, the experimentation defining this title directly contributing to the construction of Skyrim, that lauded, immersive, immensely popular title.  

The connection between gameplay and open world game design is especially profound, complicated. In earlier titles – and even in certain titles of the present moment – these two design pillars are divided, rather than existing harmoniously; worlds may be crafted with presentation as guiding principle, the developers lavishing much attention on how a game world appears rather than how the player will navigate and engage with that game world; this is a monumental failing, one present since the birth of the genre, where gameplay was poorly developed when viewed alongside modern gameplay. Once gameplay saw an expansion – once increased traversal freedoms and locomotion systems were implemented – open world design saw a considerable, wonderful expansion, and central to this expansion was, perhaps, Ubisoft’s original Assassin’s Creed title. For all its failings, for all its repetitions, manifold were the innovations made, the Crusader era Holy Lands brimming with place, defined by originality, while traversal freedoms were immense, Ubisoft utilizing the knowledge gained from their earlier Prince of Persia series and applying that knowledge towards a more open-ended environmental construction. In 2001, with Grand Theft Auto III, the protagonist Claud could execute a meagre leap; that was the extent of his on-foot traversal. Now, with Assassin’s Creed in 2007, the player is able to ascend mosques and minarets with ease and grace, able to leap from rooftop to rooftop, able to plunge downwards towards a carefully positioned haystack from a considerable elevation; the genre again sees expansion. Subsequent titles would build upon this expansion in sometimes considerable ways, many games seizing upon the relative believability of Assassin’s Creed’s traversal, other titles discarding believability for more exaggerated locomotion. Greatest displays of exaggeration are most readily observable in the superhero subgenre of open world game design, titles like the Crackdown series serving to empower the player, permitting them to leap about with ease, to scale buildings with similar ease, to leap from those buildings with little fear, in that even the most drastic of drops deals no damage. With these games, and with games like Prototype, the joys of exploration were heightened considerably, the simple act of navigation seeing a resurgence in enjoyability. Given that one of the greatest aims of video game design is to incite joy within the playerbase, these games, though iterative and unremarkable in many aspects of their construction, are fulfilling that aim. They seem a logical extension of Grand Theft Auto III’s principles, in that the exploratory emphasis is seized upon and prioritized above all other functions. The narratives may be abysmal and unengaging, while these titles may be deprived of innovation, though they manage to distil the more wondrous attributes of the genre into a neat, easily digestible package, deftly fusing together gameplay and world design.   

But while such fusion can be obtained, another balancing act is constantly being waged, namely the struggle between gameplay (exploration, mostly) and narrative. In so many open world titles, gameplay comes at the expense of narrative, a considerable portion of open world games possessive of poor narratives, the Just Cause seriesbeing a particularly cruel offender, the narrative laughable, unnecessary. But San Esperito, and Panau, and Medici are all defined by world building strengths, embracing an exaggerated and thus compelling environmental diversity, each game featuring manifold different biomes. Here, with this beauty and diversity, the overall bland narrative is countered; gameplay and enjoyability soar, even as the player is never engaged in some excessively cerebral, poignant, or emotional fashion. Interacting with the world, reveling in its sweet diversity, brings its own joys, though this precise series is defined by relative mindlessness, rampant repetition. The mistakes made here, though, are commonplace to titles of the open world genre; few are the instances where compelling narratives, compelling gameplay, and compelling world building are simultaneously joined together, the achieving of this more universal greatness difficultly won. Amongst the greatest displays of this union rest within Rockstar’s masterful Red Dead Redemption series, each title offering innovation, though the second game of the series advanced the genre – the industry – in a manner not dissimilar to Rockstar’s earlier Grand Theft Auto III some seventeen or years so earlier. For all their successes, for all their genre advancements and innovation, Rockstar have of course borne ample criticism as of late, notions of greed being especially, perhaps justifiably, abundant; a heavy emphasis upon microtransactions exists, Grand Theft Auto Online supported and updated consistently – though in sometimes lazy, meagre ways. But with Grand Theft Auto Online, its considerable longevity and immensely lucrative nature, a general push towards multiplayer or co-op open world games seems to be thriving in the present moment; the landscape is being altered. Ubisoft had earlier experimented with such design decisions in Assassin’s Creed Unity, while that same development studio saw further experimentation within Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Dying Light embraced these principles, too, while diligent modders have sought to implement co-op gameplay components within Skyrim or Just Cause 2.  The experiences offered by these titles can be uniquely enjoyable, certainly, many players deriving considerable pleasure in exploring with a friend, or encountering living, breathing human beings during the act of simple exploration, their presence pointing towards life, vitality. The existence of these titles, their relative thriving, makes uncertain the future of the open world games – will purely single player open world games be displaced, dethroned? Is this subgenre doomed to die? It is a frightening question indeed, the existence of this uncertainty. Not every game needs multiplayer implementation; single player experiences like unmodded Skyrim and The Witcher III must thrive always, though that thriving is now in threat, directly competing with open world games with a multiplayer dimension. In due time, the open world genre’s fate will be known; ideally, single player and multiplayer open world titles can exist in tandem, harmoniously, for such harmony means innovation will be preserved, enjoyability enhanced; diversity matters.

As a genre, open world games are brimming with unique potentials for greatness, potentials oftentimes lacking in smaller, more linear experiences, which may possess equal or greater ambition, but which are impaired somewhat by their narrowness. The ability to postpone a game’s central narrative is perhaps the defining attribute of open world games, an attribute mostly lacking in linear titles, though games in the RPG genre may feature ample secondary content which serves to delay the narrative in a somewhat similar way. Open world developers, then, value player freedom above all things. Accordingly, players are empowered, such empowerment resulting in greater player engagement. If a narrative loses its luster, or if the player grows bored of the primary mission thread’s gameplay, then they can walk away until that luster returns, a remarkable ability. The moments of quiet exploration present within many open world games, meanwhile, offer their own sorts of joys, minigames like Far Cry 5’s fishing being one useful illustration. Spending an hour at the water’s edge serves little practical function, though it can offer ample enjoyment; it is relaxing, almost tranquil in nature, the catching of a large bass being a triumphant affair. The absence of such tranquility could be reckoned a failure. If this train of thought is continued, then the Just Cause series meets with failures. While collectables can be sought out in these titles, while races and other such diversions can indeed be engaged with, the titles generally seem excessively bombastic, explosions and gunfire being almost a constancy, the games directly thriving on this bombasticness. Accordingly, the games can grow tiresome; lulls from the central action are mostly absent, when such lulls possess considerable merit, serving a refreshing, relaxing function. In a conventional linear experience, meanwhile, these lulls are even scarcer, a typical FPS campaign featuring very little down time, which, again, results in player exhaustion, a lessening of player engagement. Being able to balance the loud and the quiet at will – as is the case in a conventional open world title – also serves an empowering function.  

But damning failings are easily committed, of course, in that a protracted span away from the central narrative contributes to that narrative’s destruction, its potentials for resonance lessened, whereas this destruction is absent from more linear, highly focused experiences, predisposed to narrative greatness. Player agency is vital, absolutely, no matter which genre of game is being discussed. Lofty stakes are a dire necessity – some villainous figure, some larger antagonist with frightful aims, should be introduced, and swiftly, such introduction grounding the narrative, giving it life. But clashes emerge. Far Cry 5’s great manipulator, Joseph Seed, may seek to extend his reach over all of Hope County, oppressing the populace, slaughtering them, converting those who submit in fear, those guided by self-preservation, those too weak and demoralized to resist; matters in that quaint Montana vastness are bleak and distressing indeed. And yet, the player can fish, can hunt deer and other wildlife, sometimes for hours at a time? The conflict here is immense, intense, and this conflict exists within almost all open world games; it is easily their greatest failing, as player urgency, the threat of the overall antagonist, is minimized with the passage of time, temporal removal from the central narrative. If the quality of the secondary content is of a spectacular sort, though, these failings can be overcome. The narrative may indeed lose focus and pacing, but many players value enjoyability above all else, being indifferent towards narrative weakness, narrative resonances. This class of player is absolutely and instinctively drawn to the open world genre, swelling with opportunities for enjoyability, though admittedly some secondary content is pointless, superfluous, largely serving the lazy function of fluff. And indeed, open world games are typically more protracted affairs, their overall length easily eclipsing the length of games in other genres, save perhaps the RPG genre.

Such protraction can indeed be divisive; if the player is engrossed with a game, a game rarely grows overwrought – immense, exaggerated length is an asset rather than a failing, in that increased length results in prolonged pleasure. Matters go in another direction, too: if gameplay grows tedious, the length becomes a menace, a deterrent, preventing the average player from seeing the narrative’s conclusion. In many scenarios, then, a considerable portion of any given open world game’s player base never achieves completion, while it can be assumed that linear experiences – FPS games, third-person shooters, and so on – are more easily and commonly completed, meaning the player has insight and exposure to the narrative’s entirety. This is absolutely a good thing, a blow to open world games. Other open world games, meanwhile, are essentially endless – consider Skyrim, Morrowind, and Oblivion, or Bethesda’s other flagship series, Fallout, where, if bored, the player can simply reroll a new character, then promptly plunge again into the gameworld, capable of interacting with it in an oftentimes new fashion. Such endlessness should be regarded as a strength, though undoubtedly long video games – and open world games are, again, frequently protracted affairs – possess many intimidating attributes. It follows, then, that open world games are oftentimes intimidating. But intimidating or no, open world games are oftentimes very compelling experiences. They may be overabundant in nature, certainly – presently, they seem to be dominating the industry. But despite that potential overabundance, their possibilities for greatness are not diminished. Humble Rockstar, some scant twenty years ago, never could have imagined where precisely Grand Theft Auto III would take the industry.  

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