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My vision for the development of open world shooters and action games.

Small disclaimer: I am a mobile f2p games developer and I not specialize in shooters, narrative design or storytelling.

Game Developer, Staff

March 15, 2021

13 Min Read

The idea has been around for quite a long time. It appeared thanks to my attempt to play Tropico and Ghost Recon: Wildlands at the same time a few years ago. And in general, the idea was forgotten due to the fact that I don’t work with the genres associated with it. But then recently was released a video about the generation methods of secondary / background characters in Watch Dogs: Legion, and everything began to seem possible again.

The problem is that at least in most modern shooters and action games, the game worlds look realistic in a very large number of aspects, but they still don’t behave realistic enough. There are settlements, there are pedestrians and vehicles, there are people who do some type of work, there are patrols, in the end there is a wanted level of the player's character. But the realism of the world is limited to this.

This is because non-player and non-story characters don't really exist. They are mechanically no different from any deer or boars, except that an attack on them can attract the attention of patrols - it's like accidentally entering the stronger mob aggro zone in an MMORPG. They appear in order to fill the world with movement and disappear after fulfilling this their role. This is how it works in almost all modern open world games: FarCry, GTA, Assassin's Creed.

Only the famous (recently reminded of itself) Nemesis system from Shadow of War brings us a little closer to our goal, creating a whole story of relationships between the player, the player's character and the commander of the orcs, who at the same time is not a written into the plot character. These relationships make what happens in the game something very personal to each individual player.

But for some reason we call as immersive sims (games with strong immersion) games in which the level of relationships is much lower. The benchmark is usually Dishonored, which had just a well-written drama. I won't even consider the aspect of choice, because in Dishonored it just didn't work for me.

On the other hand, we have Tropico and almost every other modern citybuilder, from Frostpunk to Foundation. In simpler games, the characters simply have needs that can / must be met. In the same Foundation, the player does not have the opportunity to choose where residential buildings will be built - only the location of production buildings. The game characters themselves choose where to live: where it is prestigious enough and at the same time not far from the workplace. In games that are more complicated, apart from family and friendly ties, political views also appear and the system becomes notably complex.

In Tropico, the political struggle turns into a minefield, on which is simply impossible not to explode - this is the essence of the game. People are raised to revolt by the only dentist on the island, among whose friends and clients there are, obviously, not only rebels, but also industrial magnates and other comrades of the player. These comrades are very annoyed by riots, but if you remove the only dentist, then they, in addition to riots, which obviously will not go anywhere, will also be irritated by toothaches. Give it time and the comrades will turn into opponents.

The level of immersiveness among citybuilder games is quite low, although Frostpunk has made an impact on me. But still not by the city-building part, but the intelligence of the world around building city. Tropico leaves the exclamation “what the hell are you doing, you bastards?” but it still doesn't offer the same immersion in relationships as any first-person games. Still, the dentist-leader of the rebels does not mechanically stand out against the background of the rebels themselves. They all live in this tropical paradise, they all work somewhere, they all have friends ... for us they still remain just swarming ants. The personal factor is not formed.

On the third side, there are games like Rim World or The Sims that are unusually immersive for my taste. We don't have our own character in the game - there is a whole family of socialphobes and neurasthenics who can't do anything useful. But the successes and failures of our characters evoke a very serious response in us as players. These games are not as dramatic as Dishonored and at the same time have a very high level of relationship between the player and the characters under his care. More intense than the same Nemesis can give, simply because it generates opponents, not associates. Both Rim World and The Sims create the very story for the player that he experiences very deeply. And of course, each player's story turns out to be original, which adds some intimacy to what is happening.

All this gives completely different levels of relationships between the player and his character or characters, and between the player and the game world. Everything has its own level of realism, drama, immersion. And it seems the time has come for something deeper. It is clear that with the drama everything depends on the scenario which i can't control at all as i am a system designer. But with realism, we can and should do something.

The essence of the idea is that in the world there should be not just characters carrying out the program of a deer, but characters playing out some role that the world needs. This need is substantiated not by scenario methods, but by the very structure of the world. The fact that everything has some source and some purpose.

Take for example how bad things are with FarCry. Specifically, the 4th about Southeast Asia, I had played only this part of the series. An isolated world into which it is not clear how people, cars, food products get. In this world, there are no even normal settlements, only outposts. Even only drug dealers are engaged in agriculture, and you know what they are producing. It is not surprising that there is a civil war: there are no farmers but i believe everyone wants to eat. This world is incomplete and, as a result, ultraviolence rules there: the plot is based on it, the unrealistic behavior of the game world pushes towards it.

In contrast to FarCry, we have Wildlands or Justcause. There is generally everything you need to make the world look complete. Villages and cities. Farms and factories. Hospitals, police stations, fire stations. Villas and favelas. The world looks unusually correct and even behaves correctly at first glance. There remains a mere trifle: so that the player's actions have more complex consequences than Nemesis allows, and even more so Dishonored.

In the case of Nemesis, the limit is actually pretty simple. Orcs that the player kills left and right really do not matter. Because they are just a collective image of the enemy, whose life is not at all interesting to us. It is very difficult to force yourself to think about who exactly built the fort that the orcs are holding. In general, the action of games, the series of which includes Shadow of War, usually takes place on some ruins, so you don't even need to imagine an orc builder. There are simply no characters in the game that for some reason do not need or cannot be killed.

In Dishonored, the world is already much more alive and humanlike. Sailors and merchants hang out on the pier, the villa is filled with just hanging characters who would rather run away than attack the player's character. But attacking them has a very simplified effect on the game world: at the end of the game, points will be calculated, depending on which one or another ending will be shown. Still, Dishonored is a tunnel story shooter, not an open world game.

If Dishonored was Morrowind or Gothic, then with the onset of evening the soldiers would replace each other at the post, and the oppressed residents would go home to sleep. For realistic behavior, it is no longer enough to simply have daily cycles of movement across locations. We already had in Gothic in 2001, just like the alternate endings depending on the player's behavior were, I don't know, in Silent Hill for example.

For all inhabitants of the game world, a fairly realistic scenario of behavior can be created simply based on the description of the game world itself.

If there is a hospital, then there are doctors, ambulance drivers, some accompanying staff. And in the police station, and at the factory, someone works. And not just someone, but a fairly specific number of people of certain specialties with certain skills. The cafe will have two chefs and three waiters. And that's all. If there are 10 cafes in the world, then there will be 20 chefs and 30 waiters in the world, no more. Maybe less, but more on that later.

From the place of work follows the income level of the character. And from the income level follows the place in which the character lives. And from both of these parameters follows how the character gets to work: can he afford a car, what kind of car, does he even need it. It also follows from the income how the character will spend his free time.

All these are quite simple numerical things that allow us to estimate the size of cities and suburbs, the routes of movement of characters, the load of certain paths at one time or another, or even during a week. Here you can exclaim that at some level of quality this has already been implemented almost anywhere (at least it was already any Assassin's Creed), but “at some level” is not enough for us now. We are moving on.

Of course, we do not need to work out each specific character that inhabits the game world. But we can say with a fairly high accuracy who generally inhabits this world and where they are at any given time. If we come to the hospital during working hours, we can confidently say that we will find doctors and patients there. At the police station will most likely be police officers and criminals. If we go to the golf club, we can find high society including businessmen and doctors playing there and various stuff. This all also looks simple and logical, except that the model itself will already be quite complex, but so far we do not need special accuracy.

Any place and time in our game world can be considered a kind of loot box from which one or another set of characters can fall out with one or another chance. And now we finally got to the point of what these characters actually give to the game world.

The opportunity to meet one or another character is certainly not Nemesis yet, because we have not yet begun to interact with them. At the level of my fantasies, Nemesis turns into a rather complex thing, the mechanics of which go quite far beyond the boundaries of the orc leaders. After all, now the player can interact with absolutely any character in the game world and these interactions will be special every time, and not only when meeting with some key characters.

Open worlds are generally famous for the fact that random events are possible in which the player is not to blame. There have been incidents in GTAV where cops chased a non-playable and non-story character. In FarCry, a bear could wander into the territory of an outpost and cause a commotion. From the point of view of the inhabitants of the game world, these events can have two types of participants: witness and victim.

The witness has two types of reaction to some game events: forget and remember. If a character “forgets” an event, it means that there is no record in the game that the event took place and accordingly no reaction follows. If the character “remembers”, then some kind of reaction should follow from this character and the game. I suggest that reactions should not be complex for remembered events and should not generally affect the game world (this is important).

For example, a character can identify a player when he meets him on the street and call the police. He can get into a fight because of a once wrinkled car, or vice versa, thank the player for something done in the past. The waiter can complain to the player about his life simply by telling about the incident he witnessed. In general, such interactions are rather cosmetic, but there can be created a system of flashbacks in the game to remind the player the reason of what is happening - after all, the game knows that the event has been "remembered" in a character's memory and therefore can save the event itself.

The second type of interaction is much more serious as it is associated with various injuries, sometimes fatal for a character, so he becomes a victim. The idea is that a doctor, police officer or even a waiter can get to the hospital or even die in the process of the game world life. And this will have quite serious, noticeable consequences for the game world. Much more serious than death of a single orc.

If the waiter does not show up for work, a crowd of dissatisfied customers will appear in the restaurant. If the doctor does not come to work, there will be a chance that even an arrow in the knee will lead to death, which in turn will lead to some excitement among relatives and neighbors. In the city it may not lead to any serious consequences, but in the village it can lead to riot. Of course, the deceased doctor will eventually be replaced by a new doctor who, like his predecessor, will be integrated into the structure of the game world, no matter where he came from (airport, seaport, university). But in the game world itself, a certain scenario will already develop according to which some region will suddenly become dangerous for movement.

It is in these scenarios that the next generation of Nemesis will be expressed. The number of scenarios themselves is quite finite. From the initial set of professions, we know whose death to what consequences can lead. This is how these scenarios will be superimposed on each other and what outputs will be of them - this is already more difficult task, but also solvable. The main thing is to get from the game world not only a realistic appearance and behavior, but also a realistic reaction to the events taking place in this game world. As a result, this should lead to the fact that the player will have an individual story not only with secondary gang leaders, but with the whole world.

An interesting by the way effect of creating realistic characters for open worlds can be the possibility to find all specific characters in the game world. For example, all employees of all 10 restaurants. The player should be able to interrogate the inhabitants of the game world to find out where other inhabitants live and spend time in order to track them down. This mechanism will work not because it is provided by the game scenario, but because the very structure of the game world allows it to be done.

This is already becoming really creepy, but at the same time it allows you to add some humanity to what is happening. The inhabitant of the game world stops to be just a deer running across the road in front of the car, which is controlled by the player. Abusive behavior or violence towards even just a non-story character should have about the same effect as similar behavior in the real world, even if the number of reactions that the game can support is limited.

The Westworld in all its glory.

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