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It's A Small World After All.

I tear apart the open world genre and look at 5 key points holding it back.(warning, bring a snack as this is a long one).

Josh Bycer, Blogger

June 23, 2009

8 Min Read

This weekend I picked up Red Faction Guerrilla from positive impressions and after spending 4 hours with it I'm about ready to return it and pick up Prototype. Playing RFG, I realized that my main problems with this title are the same design issues I've seen in just about every other open world title to date.

The problem stems from Grand Theft Auto 3 which made the genre famous and gave everyone a neat little guide for making open world titles. The open world genre seems to be stuck in a rut in my opinion and there is so much potential that is missing from it. Without further ado here are the mechanics that drive me up a wall in these types of games.

1. You're alone: When it comes down to it there are two main types of open world games, those that have the player above everyone else in terms of ability and those that have the player on equal footing. This complaint is aimed at the latter and one that RFG fails at spectacularly. Why is it in most open world titles when I'm apart of a group or something I spend all my time alone? Where is this group that I'm supposedly apart of and why is it I'm doing all the work. Here's an example from RDF that ruined the game for me, it's a mission that has you evacuating a town that is under an artillery strike. According to the briefing this place is of high importance, so then why the hell am I the only one actually doing anything!? Another thing that irritates me is the game's currency that is mainly gotten from destroying buildings and from completing missions, if this stuff is so valuable why am I the only one who is bringing it in? What are all those nameless NPCS doing while I'm out there getting shot at?

2. Growth is a one sided relationship: As I mentioned in my article on replayability, escalation is one of the key drivers in my opinion and while most open world games escalate the player's action they never do it to the world itself. In a lot of open world games the world never changes, I'm still performing the same "grunt work" from start to finish. If I supposedly owned half the city in Saints Row 2, then why am I the only one out in the field doing missions? I want the environment to grow and change as the player does, have their actions actually affect the city and not just make an icon disappear off the map. The only sandbox title that I think somewhat meets this was ScarFace in the sense that I could just order henchmen or weapons to come to me which showed that I and the world were at a different point then at the start of the game.

3.Asking too much of what little you have: Interacting with the world is one of the main selling points of open world titles however one of the biggest issues I've seen with these titles is a limited interface that is expected to do everything. Playing RFG, the game asks me to attempt stealth options and navigate tricky jumps but there are no systems in place for these 2 completely different mechanics, which in turn forces the player to use an interface not designed for them. Stealth in RFG is close to impossible as the player can be easily detected and the only effective quiet weapon is his hammer. For a game that talks about guerrilla warfare there are not really any sneak attacks. Making things harder, the player has no way to climb up walls or ledges which leaves us with a pretty unconvincing jumping model for any kind of athletic endeavors. This issue is also one of the causes for my next issue which is coming up; basically the player is asked to do too much with not enough tools. The problem I think is that in these titles the interface is setup to be too general. If the game wants me to be stealthy then I want a full stealth interface that lets me slip in and out of places and if it wants me to fight close quarters then I want a convincing hand to hand combat system and not just me swinging repeatability until dead. The base game mechanics of the title should be available from the start for the player and let them grow from there, not forcing the player to unlock the skill "be stealthy"

4.Something to do: Now for one of the bigger issues and one I think that has been holding the genre back, the missions themselves. Many reviews can be cited for describing the missions as the weakest part of an open world title and I can think of three reasons for it. First, missions have to be designed around the base game mechanics of a title which if there aren’t a lot of them leaves the designer with few tools for creating interesting objectives. Which could explain why if I remember right, every mission in GTA4 involved killing someone or driving somewhere, as I mentioned above the open world genre needs to give the player a greater ability to affect the world and in the process will open up more mission variety.

Second, is how disconnected the actual missions are from the world itself. There are two types of missions’ standard for open world titles, those that are placed into the world and those that are built in the world. The former is the standard model for open world games and usually involve linear scripted approaches to mission design. The latter has seen a rise in popularity thanks to Crackdown but still needs more work which I'll talk about next. In order for the genre to improve itself I feel that missions need to be designed more with being built in the world itself as that way it can make the world seem less static.

Third and another major issue in my opinion, is what the player is trying to achieve. No matter how many ways the designer comes up to complete a mission if there is only one objective then it was all for naught. Take Crackdown for instance, yes you have many options for reaching your target but the only thing you can do is kill them. Now this issue will require some designing and programming skill to fix as missions need to be designed not only with multiple ways to do them, but multiple ways to win them as well. I think Crackdown was on to something but it needs to be expanded, for instance take the popular "ruin the bad guy" objective seen in many titles. In most open world games, this is done by having to play multiple missions in a row before the climatic mission. However what happens if that is the only mission and everything else is up to the player? The player can explore the city looking for key targets to hit and do any of them at their leisure; if they want to try tackling the objective head on they can do that as well. Whatever targets they complete will also change the world around them and make it easier to complete the main objective. The more the design is built around multiple paths and options the better the game will be in my opinion.

5.Getting from point A to point B: One thing that has annoyed me for some time in open world games is reaching each objective. For this point I feel that open world titles where the player is above the NPCS is better as being able to leap over buildings or get around in an non orthodox manner is always fun for me. This problem is also made worse depending on the game space, don't give me a world the size of Texas and only make an area the size of Rhode Island interesting. Designers are getting smarter about this with putting in random events that can pop up during the ride which break up the boredom. To be honest for me there aren't many ways of fixing this where the player is a regular person other then shrinking the overall game space which it seems more designers are leery of. Random events that have more of an impact on the world could work such as driving right into the middle of a bank robbery or fight and have the player decide how to react.

The open world genre is one that I feel is underutilized, every game that is released under it's moniker seems to be a third person action title shoehorned into the genre with few exceptions. The problem is that to truly develop something that is "open world" requires an extraordinary amount of resources and top notch designers. Giving the player a wide world to explore is easy; filling that world with things to do is another story all together.


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About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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