The Problem with Open World Games

This console generation has seen an increase in the number of open world games. From whole new franchises like Watch Dogs to returning franchises like Fallout 4. Even game franchises like Witcher and Metal Gear Solid have new entries in their series featuring an open world. It’s almost like open world features are being included into games like RPG elements were a few years ago. It all seems good, more features are always a good thing right? RPG elements brought a level of depth to the games they were introduced to. Surely open world elements will provide the same. Right? Right?

Well, open world does have it good points – player agency and freedom for example – but at this point there are few glaring problems with it.

1. Cost

The cost of making an open world game is astronomical. It’s not easy to create a good, lived in open world environment. Developers often resort to some story reasons, like a terrorist threat (Arkham Knight) or war (MGSV) to reduce the number of NPCs wandering about. And those that do feature lots of NPCs, like GTA V and Witcher 3, is confronted with the sometimes immersion breaking problem of same face or same voice syndrome.

Game resources are not the only resource that is lacking. The manpower needed for an open world game is huge. It takes hundreds of people working together to get it done in a timely manner. And salary is one of the bigger costs of game development, second only perhaps to marketing. This can also lead to other aspects of game development being looked over due to the focus on open world, such as the story (rushed third acts, anyone?). The freedom of player also means the need for a large army of testers, and more often than not, this is one of the areas that is often neglected.

2. Narrative

The stories of open world video games are often not very well done and are barely present, being nothing more than a bare thread stringing the player from action piece to action piece in the so-called main storyline.

And even when the story is good, the urgency factor is often the weakness that stands out the most. It’s hard to acknowledge that two intel agents need to be saved posthaste when the player can go off traipsing around the country side and complete fifty different side quest before returning to the main quest. Cordoning an area off until a main quest arc is complete is one way used to tackle this problem, as is killing the intel agents if the player completes too many side quests during that time. Both types are useful and I hope to see more of them in future games.

However, another issue, with stories in open world games is that it can often feel disjointed. Good developers will sometimes take into account the fact that players might stumble across certain NPCs or locations and will adjust the dialogue to suit that discovery. But even then, the mere fact that players can take their sweet time doing side tasks before continuing to tackle the story quests can lead to them forgetting about the story.

3. Progression in the Open World

Progression in open world games are also a beast of an issue. How do you keep players from wandering too much? How do you keep players moving in the right direction? Face enemies at the right time? Some games uses a level scaling system, where enemies will scale according to the player’s level. This could lead to the game feeling… gamey, where players might purposely stop leveling in order to exploit said system. Or worst, make players feel that their hours poured in the game doesn’t make them feel any more powerful.

Some games use high level areas to scare off players, which I think is a more natural way of sealing off areas. Brave players can always tweak their equipment or adjust their tactics to beat the enemies, which is much better than sealing off, say, an entire island due to some issues with the bridge which would somehow be repaired during the story quest.

Side quests can also be an issue. There are only so many towers to climb and so many settlements to save before it starts feeling repetitive. Or the enemy strongholds that you need to destroy before you are allowed access to the other side quests in the area. While most of the side quests by themselves are pretty fun endeavors, however, once the novelty of it wears off through repetition, it gets boring. Especially when it’s repeatedly being used in a franchise. Or multiple franchises. I’m looking at you Ubisoft open world games.

The sheer amount of side content can also be overwhelming. This is one of the main concerns in Witcher 3. While side quests can be fun, and some of Witcher 3’s side quests have excellent stories tied to them, it can get overwhelming quickly. You can play for hours and yet feel like you’ve not made a dent. The same thing happens with Dragon Age: Inquisition where many players spent hours in the Hinterlands doing side quests only to realize that there are many other areas beyond the Hinterlands. And many hours more after.

4. Indoor Maps

Indoor maps are dying. Where Arkham Asylum was spent mostly indoors, Arkham Knight barely had indoor maps. It was the same thing with MGS V: The Phantom Pain. Even those that do feature indoor maps tend to have small one room maps. Whether this was done to improve on the concept of seamless transition or merely to increase the over size of the open world map by having more events take place outdoors, we’ll never know for sure.

Now that I think about it, maybe it’s because of scaling. Most open world games tend to have buildings of smaller scale and when the players walks into it, it just doesn’t feel right. Bethesda seems to be the only company that puts more focus on indoor maps though there is quite a load time between the open world and the indoor maps. I sincerely hope that we’ll get an open world game with accessible, non loading interiors one day. Though I would imagine that even if it does happen, it’s still quite a long while away.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, most video game developers are going to jump onto the open world bandwagon. Whether it’s because of the marketability or because they want to take on the challenge. But something needs to be done to improve on the current gameplay of open world games, because it’s beginning to feel more like a yet another World War 2 Shooter in the early noughties than yet another game with RPG elements included in them. Maybe it’s too much to ask for innovation on the current formula, and an improvement on the story telling aspects of open world games, but I hope that more and more studios will take their time to think about how the open world is going to enhance their game, instead of building their game around the open world.

 

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4 thoughts on “The Problem with Open World Games

  1. Have you played either Dungeon Siege or Dungeon Siege II on PC? Those are two of the few “open-world” games that offer seamless no load transitions between indoor and outdoor locations. They do it so well that it’s pretty amusing to end up playing for a few hours and not notice you’ve been running around by yourself and with a close to full/full party through forests, small to large towns and even multi-level dungeons and there’s not loading screen to be had. Er, let’s not talk about Dungeon Siege III (different developer/art style/publisher and a lot less impressive as a result).

    The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind only does this for it’s outdoor areas (dungeons and some buildings load when you pen certain doors), but it’s a game where monsters can chase you into a village or larger city and wipe out a chunk of the populace unless you help put them down. Skyrim brought this back to mixed effect (as in it was fun to see a dragon swoop over that tiny town, but not so fun when it flew back over and started roasting everyone!

    I know there are more load-less or mostly load free open world games, but that’s a case of dipping into the library here and replaying stuff (and having a working time machine so I can do all that and still sleep at night).

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    • I’ve never played Dungeon Siege I or II. I’ve heard about III, never knew it was from a different developer. But yeah, let’s not talk about that. It’s cool to know that older games have that “seamlessness” in them. I’ll try them out.

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  2. The first Dungeon Siege still works on Windows 10 (as far as January of this year when I installed it), but the expansion pack (done by a different studio) doesn’t as far as I know (I need to see if anyone has fixed that dopey issue because the expansion was pretty good). DS II takes a tiny bit of work to get running, but it works as does its expansion. The games are a bit more simple than today’s RPGs, but I like the large party size and flexibility in skills each member can have as they level up.

    There’s a PSP Dungeon Siege game (DS: Throne of Agony) that’s pretty good and not really connected to the other two titles other than being an isometric RPG with loads of quests and many monsters to kill. I just remembered it existed (oops!), but it’s been a few years since I played it.

    DS III was developed by Obsidian which is a hit or miss RPG dev team I usually like when they nail stuff like KOTOR 2, Neverwinter Nights 2 and its expansions. DS III tried to add more of a story and some of the side quests were pretty nice as they added choice to the plot that affected stuff later on. But the locked in characters (no customization at all) and somewhat short length plus the odd interface make it one of those games some like and others don’t. Square Enix published it (!), but it was at a time where they published a bunch of interesting but flawed games on PC and console.

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    • Good to know.

      My PSP has been dead for a few years now. Wonder if it works on vita. *goes and check* Doesn’t seems to work.

      Ah, Obsidian. They really are a hit or miss team. Though usually the sequels they made were pretty great, even from the Black Isle days. Still hoping for another Fallout spinoff from them.

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