Open World Games Need A New Formula

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The gaming industry constantly goes through cycles of ideas. When a game gains success with a certain formula, all the other studios want to eat up the leftovers. We saw this during the PS2 era when every shooter released seemed to be World War II oriented, then on PS3 it was all about “modern warfare,” and this generation it has been “futuristic games.” Another trend that’s been growing for a while now is open world games and, to be honest, I’m starting to hate them.

Open world games are nothing new. We’ve had them since the PS1 era with games like GTA being rather successful with small, yet open, world approaches. Very few developers saw success in going that route at the time. Budgets were not nearly as enormous as they are now so resources were scarce which prevented a lot of developers from even attempting it. Advance a few generations and not only have budgets increased, but resource sharing and game engines have been built to enable more developers to explore new ideas. It turns out creating “open worlds” is where these developers want to go.

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This might sound terrific in theory. Play a game “how you want to play it” and see an entire world come to life. It sounds great and it’s fantastic when done properly (again GTA for example, or The Witcher 3), but when it’s done poorly it becomes annoying. Open worlds need so much fine tuning due to the ever-changing environment, the different approaches, and various play styles and developers need to prepare for all of it. This is a very hard thing to do and takes a lot of time no matter what type of resources you might have. With the evolution of open worlds comes “larger worlds” too, which means even more land mass that needs to be filled with unique items to prevent repetitive tones…Yet this doesn’t happen.

I’ve come to a point where when I hear a developer talking about how large their world is I begin to cringe. We hear it all the time. “Our world is ten times bigger than this” and what do we get in return? The same cars/assets, people, and stiff repetitive environment’s duplicated through “miles” of terrain. Very few games actually go in and make every inch different because it’s time consuming, it’s hard, and it takes a lot of money.

Another issue with open world games is the never ending chores of running back and forth to finish a mission. Go all the way over here to pick something up, then go all the way back to deliver it. The missions become just as repetitive as the world itself. They basically utilize their big worlds to lengthen “play time” just so they can say their game lasts longer than it really does. If you didn’t have to travel across the map to do a simple task then the said task would only take 5 minutes instead of 20.

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In between all the grueling time consuming world exploration is a story that is hard to follow because it’s broken up between side quests and chores. The pacing becomes off because you decided delivering a package on the other side of the map isn’t worth it right now, and then you go get bored of beating up people in the city or roaming towns that feel very similar to one another. It’s fun and jaw dropping for a few hours, then you remember 3 other games on your shelf did the same thing. You find yourself defaulting back to the games that do it right like GTAV, The Witcher, or even Saints Row with its chaotic mayhem approach.

It’s been done correctly though.  I think an “open world” approach is great for many things, but we don’t necessarily need a single open world. What I mean by this is look at Metal Gear Solid V broken down between Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain.

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Personally, I had a lot more pleasure in Ground Zeroes because it was a condensed “open world” adventure. It was basically a single mission from the later game, but you had this small non-linear approach to accomplish a majority of tasks. I think if MGSV set itself up in similar fashion as an entire game then things would have gone over a lot better as well. Instead you were thrown into this massive open world and you spent countless minutes simply finding the next mission.

Much of the map was bland and empty, and random guard posts became more of an annoyance the longer you played. As an MGS fan we are interested in story and personal missions, and the open world nature was getting in the way of it. I expected to rate the game highly, but the bland open world is what kept the game from a perfect score.

This was also a major drawback for Fallout 4 as the aspect pushed away our very own Jordan.

If The Phantom Pain instead placed you into areas similar to that of Ground Zeroes and said “here you go, do your thing”. To me it would have been better. Each mission could have been a large open area with various approaches to everything. The details and finer things we had in Ground Zeroes would have had more meaning, and the maps would have felt more fulfilling than bland desert landscapes. The story pacing also wouldn’t be impacted by long stretches of roaming a big empty desert, or by alert guard posts that made the trip even longer.

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Some games try to do this with “fast travel” approaches, but even those can be broken. Most games require you to first discover a fast travel location, which means you still have to spend time simply getting places to begin with. Instead games should simply put you within a zone and give you a mission. Some games could break out of this zone and lead to a full open world if they have a budget and ability to populate it correctly. For example if you get into a car chase you could end up in the city, no big deal. If players don’t want to play a story, they could explore the bigger map. This is what I’m hoping games like the upcoming Ghost Recon do. Provide you the world, but keep you focused in areas for specific missions.

Other games find the focus, or find a way to populate areas beautifully. Such as Dragon Age or Demon Souls where even basic enemy encounters are actually exciting and worth your time. You spend very little time doing “back and forth” chores, and instead are finding ways in a big world to “advance” and only go back when necessary. These games also keep you confined to areas while you play. Yes you have this rather large map to explore, but your current task is keeping you within these boundaries for the time being. You advance how you want on the map, but the entire map isn’t utilized for a single task.

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Overall I’m not calling for an end for open world games, I’m calling for full dedication or to step away. Not everything needs to be thrown into large open worlds, we still want that linear push games have always offered us. Being “linear” isn’t bad and I don’t see why it is becoming a bad thing. If a story is driving us, action is taking center stage, and games are fun then it’s awesome. Simply putting a game into an open world just to have an open world isn’t a good thing, at all. It gets boring. “Fast travel” could use innovation, and the way games are presented in these open worlds could use some work. The current formula is broken, and the more games we see shoved into it the bigger an issue it becomes.