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Curiosity about the unknown: how to motivate players in open world games

Open world is a super hot topic in the game industry. But it might not be suitable for every game developer to try out. This article tries to discuss the elements and some notes of open world.

Yongcheng Liu, Blogger

April 7, 2022

8 Min Read

In recent years, with the continuous optimization of computer configurations and console platforms as well as the continuous advancement of gaming technology, players' requirements for games are also improving rapidly. The concept of metaverse has further blurred virtuality and reality and has been a huge impact on games as if the virtual world in games is not apart from the real world, and now games are moving step by step toward a more realistic simulation of reality.

Open world, as an expression of the game's pursuit of realism, seems to have represented a general direction for the future of the gaming world. The popularity of several open world games proves its potential, and a number of new games that added open world elements have been launched recently.

1. Quick review of open world game

Open world is a type of game-level design in which the player is free to explore the virtual world and choose when and how to finish the tasks in-game. This type of game is also often referred to as an "exploration game" or, loosely, as a "sandbox game". "Open world" and "exploration" mean that there are no barriers or obstacles for players to get to different places in the game, and there are usually no invisible obstacles or loading scenes of different maps, which are common in linear level design.

For open world, it is more about stepping out of the task framework settings of the game, no longer stuck to tasks and levels. It is a concept contrary to the level game, as the logic of the game process is not to select the level or follow the map routine. Most games in the market now, indeed, do not provide players with an open world, instead, it gives us only tasks, levels, and its core gameplay.

For an open-world game, it is important that the game brings more surprises than disappointments when players wonder "whether this/that works".

2. Potential ways to make players fall in love with the open world in the game

Build a story framework for players themselves

Building the player's own unique story framework brings the player a much more immersive experience. The game wants to weaken the "scripted" traces of its own plot so that what happens is more like an experience that the player naturally encounters in the process of exploring the game world.

Take Far Cry 5 as an example, no matter where the player is, Hope County always has many spots for you to capture and many secrets to discover. In one of the stories related to the "Doomsday Prepper Pack", players may experience it in a variety of ways: it may be that the player follows a river west of the map through the forest, stumbles upon a rainstorm, and then finds a makeshift camp, and then discovers everything that follows; or it may be that the player misses the above process and finds a note in a nearby house which indicates the location of the chest; or you will also encounter an NPC to tell you the location of the chest, or will first find the subsequent clues to the corpse and bear, get the key but do not know where it belongs.

All of the above elements make the plot flexible, and each player experiences it differently, and can eventually piece together their own unique story.

Space to explore freely

Open world games give players enormous space to explore, whether you want to complete a mission or run wild. You can fight with gangs for territory in Watch Dogs 2, or put C4 to a plane and fly it into enemies in GTA Online.

In the Legend of Zelda, for example, you can throw metal weapons near the enemy in a thunderstorm and wait for it to be struck by lightning; you can use flames to create updrafts and fly above the enemy; you can use stasis to build up energy for your target and then fly to the ends of the earth.

The little details and interesting gameplay in the game are almost endless, making the player's experience incredibly rich.

However, free exploration does not mean a full free open world, for it might bring big problems for user experience. Especially over a freely-designed open world shown in the beginning phase of a new player entering the game, the player could be lost quickly because of the difficulty of understanding game mechanisms/gameplays or fighting challenging enemies.

Excellent and rich side quests

Open world games would like to entice players to stay in the game after they complete the game, or give them something to do in not only the main storyline,

so that these side quests are added to the game to make it richer and more interesting.

Vampyr, for example, is set in 1918 in London under the ravages of the Spanish Flu, and the player takes on the role of Jonathan Reed. The game's main quest is to find the source of the vampire bloodline, and the rest of the time you will spend time talking to officials or foraging for food on the streets at night. As the player learns more about the townspeople, not only will they survive easier, but they will uncover more secrets about their interlocutors and subsequently gain some new opportunities.

Players will encounter a variety of people and things in London, many of whom may become the player's prey, allowing you to obtain more experience points and become stronger and stronger. And when the player kills and upgrades, the whole city will also change accordingly: people close to the victims will become depressed, and some streets will be deserted and full of villains.

Freedom of exploring in a big world

Both the horses in Red Dead Redemption and the cars in Grand Theft Auto provide players with a convenient way to travel around the world and explore grand territories freely. These ways, too, fit naturally into the world settings within the game. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2 provides players with the various traditional horses, while also with paragliders. Horizon: Zero Dawn, on the other hand, gives players the ability to "turn enemies into friends" - transforming dangerous mechanical cows and horses into their loyal mounts.

And the movement system in-game is closely connected with the soundtrack: when you fly to the top of the mountain, sweep through the canyon, the music will be stronger, giving people a sense of "everything in control" - even if you are actually just flying around aimlessly.

3. How to motivate players

Even if a real game world is built through systematic design, if there is no motivation design, then it can only be considered a sandbox game, not an open world game.

For the players, the open world can be assumed to be another new logical and rational world. It can be anything, from a modern world like GTA, to a fairy-tale magic world like The Legend of Zelda, to a vivid depiction of the old days like Red Dead Redemption. Different worlds give players different experiences, and also give them a higher degree of freedom, which brings more imagination and curiosity.

For developers, in the process of building up an open world, they need to have the ability to measure the degree of freedom of the game, make a compromise between the game design and the player's game experience, and not throw all elements in it. All things in the world, there must be rational and logical. For players, as far as they can see, people in all directions are doing what they should do.

And this is also a test for developers who would like to design an open world game. How to let players explore the designed places with a high probability so that they feel that the world is not empty but concrete and convincing. And this basis of a game could arise the curiosity of players.

In other words: to give the players a framework, and then let them fill flesh and blood in it all by themselves out of curiosity.

When you build up a world, let the player "travel" in this virtual world, understand the story, and then, introduce them to a general plot and setting, determine their range of action reasonably, and set a rule of action for them.

Curiosity about the plot and tasks would drive players to continue to explore what happens next, and even when the plot advances to a certain extent, the open world itself may produce changes, so that for players there would be a brand new world they never experienced before. Thus, it re-raises the desire to explore the new world. This is the core driving force of the open world for players.

Open world game, as one of the mainstream genres in recent years, its popularity is not separate with extremely high freedom and interesting imagination space. And we are sincerely looking forward to more well-crafted open world games in the future.

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