As the title suggests, today I want to talk about a specific problem – yes, I’m calling it a problem right out of the gate; you got a problem with that? – that’s been plaguing open-world games for a while now. It’s, at this point, something that most players have accepted as a fundamental part of those games, and I think that’s quite wrong.
To address this, I’ll ask this question first: why do we even play open world games? What is it within the design of those games that drives us to play them for dozens, if not hundreds of hours? For me, personally, it’s all about the sandbox feeling you get, especially with the games like Saints Row and GTA. It’s not so much about what the game wants you to do as it is about exploring things you can do on your own, with little to no influence of the game design itself. For a random example I’ll take a random ramp in GTA. Sure, developers put it in there on their own accord as an intent for you to do something, but as a player you have a freedom of how you wanna use that ramp – whether you want to drive with a high-speed bike and fly across the town, or take a large truck and see just how far can you make it. It isn’t about exploiting games and open world areas that perhaps are bugged or aren’t completely finished as it is about taking these random pieces and playing with them to your heart’s content. And this is where I think the major problem of open-world games stemmed from. When you think of an open world game, you think of a huge amount of content that could potentially drain hundreds of hours from your time. Why? Because these games are designed like that – their fundamental philosophy is to make a player play them as much as possible for as long as possible. And, to do this, more often than not you need to get creative. Another good example is Minecraft. As much as I dislike the game on the personal level, I can’t argue against its genius in design. It gives a player this whole open world to explore, alongside the minimal tools, and lets the player himself immerse into the world any way he or she perceives fit. That’s a creative way to do things. Then, there’s the lazy way. One I’ll discuss today.
Flooding your map, minimap or whatever you want to call it, with random icon-pop-ups that signal the event is a “new” way of designing open world games. That way, developers can use these small events as an excuse, or rather an argument, when someone says their game lacks content. But is it really ‘content’? For games like Just Cause 2, these objectives play into a narrative and tie in with the overall theme of the game. It still provides you with freedom, it just restricts you in the terms of where freedom will be the most rewarding. Then, if you look at the games such as Watch Dogs, you notice an incredible flaw in design. Nothing of these pop-up events matters. Nothing ties in with the overall narrative. Nothing supports the core design of the game. They are, as we refer to them today, busy work. Things littered about the world you’re not forced to do, but are compelled because you always hope that it’ll be rewarding. This design is obviously inspired by MMO’s, without a doubt, but what game designers fail to realize is that the only reason that system works in MMO’s is because they’re MMO’s.
If you think of MMO’s, you think of a leveling curve that eventually leads to the “actual game” (sadly) – the endgame. They can scatter about quests and activates around the world because they’re just means of moving further into the game, and act as a sort of tutorial to get you familiar with your character. Upon leveling second or third character, you’re most-likely to never visit these places again because you’ll learn the optimal way to get to the max level and start doing things the whole game is designed around. While many will argue that it’s a flaw in design and that leveling experience should be as compelling as the endgame, that’s a whole another debate I may touch on some other date. For now, let’s just accept it.
The problem with implementing these things in the single player games is that there is no endgame, hence neglecting any purpose these side activities may have. Or, even worse, sometimes you’re forced to do them, despite them being dull and boring, because game hits you with a sudden difficulty spike and you are required to use these side activities to level up, while it is clear they’re designed solely to prolong the game’s length.
As an example, we can look at the latest Dragon Age, or even Mad Max. Both are great games in their own rights, but the sheer amount of those icons on the map, random things you’re supposed to do, only leads to a single conclusion: none of them are interesting. Which, actually, isn’t the case; there’s a specific side quest in Dragon Age: Inquisition which leads you to a mansion that holds an immense amount of tension and horror, and does an amazing job of immersing you into the role of your character. It showcases just how much can be done with less effort than the average only if you become creative in small ways. And then, you decide to partake in another activity in hopes it’s remotely as interesting as the last one, and it turns out you just have to go across the entire map, loot a ring off of someone, and then travel all the way back to where you started and hand it in. And those are the most common types of ‘buys work’ ‘quests’. It’s clear and obvious as sky and day that this MMO-type-questing doesn’t transition well into single player games. I don’t have clear statistics, but I’m willing to bet that most gamers would rather partake in 10 side quests that have beginning, middle and satisfying end with rewards that mean something, instead of having literally tens of thousands of pointless tasks scattered across the world that have zero impact on the overall story. If you ever played either Prototype or its sequel, you’ll notice that it’s a bit different, perhaps even a game that does it better than all others – but it’s just false masking. You are often tasked with killing infected or destroying nests across the city, and initial feeling is, yes, it ties in to the narrative because you’re clearing the world further. However, these things provide no impact on the actual world – whether you kill them or not, whether you clear these side activities or not, the outcome of the story and game itself won’t change in the slightest bit. So, unless you have parallel narrative within your mind that draws with that of the game, these tasks become menial.
What I’d like of the single player open world games is to abandon the principle of “quantity over quality”. If you look at any Assassin Creed’s game, even the way-back first ones, you’ll have noticed a plethora of things to do … yet none of them matter. Sure, they might some decent rewards, some decent XP perhaps or even an item you could use, but I think it’s at this point where you should drop playing the game altogether – the moment the game forces you to clear these obviously fifth-thought designed activities in order to actually progress into the game. Another problem with them is repetition; because most open-world games have several different large open areas, you oftentimes have to fill two to three large places with things to do, which leads to repetition. Things you’ve done game will ask of you to do again, and again, with only difference being the aesthetic of the place you’re doing them in. Jump through those hoops … but now we have smaller buildings instead of large ones. Race down the mountain … instead around the town. While yes, the argument can be made that these are just things you can do when bored, that would imply that they are designed as such – which they are not. They are designed in a sense of prolonging the game experience. If we say that the main story of the game lasts 10 hours, but you completed the game in 20, it’s obvious what you were doing. As someone who loves exploring open world games, every crook and crack, I don’t like entering new area and immediately be showered with “DO ME THINGS!!!!!” that lit the screen despite me not knowing what the hell this area is, and entering it for the first time. Now, some games don’t do this and instead slowly open up the map, but it’s still a cheesy way to mask it. Rather create a smaller, dense area with interesting things to do, than a large, nigh 1:1 replica of something scattered with pointless things, where everything relays from point A to point B in dull and repetitive fashion.
Yes, I hate busy work. Why on earth would someone who’s clawed hundreds of demons gather plants for some old lady somewhere up on a hill? What’s the point? Why would the Inquisitor, the leader of the army solely designed to battle against evil, be bothered by killing five whatevers in some random desert where no one lives?
These things are just a clutter, meaningless means to stretch out the game’s longevity for as long as possible, and they have no purpose being integrated in the game whatsoever. What’s the best way to design open world games then, you ask? It’s actually quite simple – open world game should be about exploration. On player’s first playthrough, remove any means of teleportation, but also remove massive backtrack quests unless it’s at the end of a large quest chain and you’re returning home to celebrate. Second, remove the clutter of side-activities and instead replace them with dynamic events that stem from the main story; say you are fighting a group of bandits, but their leader somehow escapes you. You forget about him, but say five hours of gameplay down the line, you start hearing chatter about this large bandit group that started pillaging the villages on the outskirts of the city. Or, instead, you fight an army and you kill a bunch of guys, but families of those guys begin feeling resentment and are out to get revenge. You can create second-hand activities with creativity so easily, instead of just cluttering the screen with pre-determined objectives which serve no beneficial purpose. Third, and probably the simplest one, make a world where people want to explore. No, I don’t mean creating beautiful graphics in your Frontload 9.0 Next Gen Engine, I mean something much simpler than that – world lives on its own, without you needing to push it forth with doing the main quests. Say your main quest requires you to go someplace and assassinate someone. However, you prolonged it for so long that that someone gained immense power and is now guarded by dozens of people. Instead of assassinating him, your quest now turns into trying to win him over to your side. Wouldn’t that be far more fun than the idea of world literally stopping its course until you decide it’s time to finally move it along? Yes, dynamic words may be a bitch to create, and may require more effort and time than simply adding fifty variations of “kill bunch of dudes”, but they’re not impossible. Some games, definitely, have done something similar, but for some reason we’re starting to escape from that premise and turn it all into shoewhoring bunch of menial tasks that can’t possibly make you feel any fulfillment when you complete them.
Find a balance; yes, you can actually throw some of these around as just random events that players can explore if they stumble upon them, but don’t shoewhore them in our faces. Don’t put markers on map that indicate where and what you will be doing once you reach the point – make it a surprise. Perhaps make false quests, something along the lines of your character learning about this mythical creature plundering the caves near the ocean, but once you get there there’s nothing but beautiful scenery. Yes, your players might feel betrayed, but at the same time it won’t be the type of betrayal you consider to be bad – it’ll be along the lies “Oh, you got me” – and that’s the whole point, making your player enjoy the experience without determining where it will be enjoyed and just how much. Another thing they should remove is things known as quest markers and quest objective locations. This makes something that could be phenomenal into something as simple as clicking an icon on the map. What’s point? Say, I talk to a random person in town and she tells me her husband has gone missing when he left the town. I have no fucking clue where he left, but damn me to hell I’ll find that dude. You explore, and through exploring you learn things about this massive world, you encounter interesting people, creatures, places, and you reach that damned husband and bring him back. What’s the point of literally telling me what’s the goal and where can I achieve that goal? That means that there’s no mystery, everyone knows where these things are, and can just as easily kill them themselves (lazy fucks).
Open world games have massive potential to be the best thing in gaming, no doubt. But if we keep cluttering it with pointlessness and random things that don’t matter, it’ll never evolve. Instead, it’ll become stale and even upon hearing the description ‘open world game’, you’ll immediately know it’s just a bunch of filler content no one wants because developers and designers either lack creativity, will, drive or simply funds to do anything better.
Thanks for reading guys. Until next time.