Open World Design

What’s with open world games and why don’t people make good ones?

Hmm, this is just a guess on my part, but I think it’s that when you make an open world game, the focus is on the open world, which maybe detracts from the focus on the other elements. Open world has some implicit assumptions in the development process that probably negatively impact the game’s design, because of a need to create a ton of content, even if a lot of that content is recycled. The implicit thought is probably, “What are we making, and how much value can we get from every piece of content we make?” How many times can it be reused? This is something that developers think of in regular games too of course, but in open world games it’s especially emphasized.
A lot of my thoughts on this matter are derived from this by the way.

In general I think that the value in a game lies in the core gameplay mechanics and level design more than the amount of content. Open world is a style of content presentation and level design that comes with expectations about the amount of content, so the main things tend to take a hit. In open world games, the assumption is that you can access most of the points of interest at any time without roadblocks. Progression becomes modeled based on whether certain events have been completed rather than whether you have physically accessed new areas, and left the old ones behind you.

Open world games, like Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, seem to demand you search for a billion trinkets scattered everywhere to get whoknowswhat. MGSV’s side ops and animal collection were lousy with this. This type of stuff tends to exist to inflate the gameplay time, and leads to the game overstaying its welcome as you need to play through the same content over and over again.

On the fun side, you get Just Cause 2, which I think is one of the best open world games I’ve ever played, barring some of the story missions. Hell, story missions in a lot of these are kind of a blight, they set up specific goals typically and don’t let you do other things until you exit the mission, typically returning you to an in-mission checkpoint if you die, fail, or stray. In the case of the Far Cry games, assaulting the various outposts is way more fun than the story missions, which practically seem unrelated. However in MGSV’s case, the story missions were usually more fun than wandering around the map, because they changed the patrol patterns for those and gave them more thought.

Meanwhile Bethesda games don’t really have the same mission or collectible structure at all, and I guess that’s pretty nice on their part actually, just the level design kinda sucks, as does combat with enemies.

This mod has way more care put into its one room than any other area in Skyrim.

Lemme collect my thoughts a little:

Good open world games: Far Cry Blood Dragon, JC2, MGSV, Zelda 1, Infamous 1
Bad open world games: anything by Bethesda, Asscreed
Inbetween: Far Cry 3, Minecraft, Witcher 3

Elements I like: being able to freeroam anywhere, multiple angles to attack objectives from, route planning across the world to hit hotspots,

Elements I dislike: Collectathon style padding, big flat open uninspired level design, sandboxed mission structure (as in, forcibly made separate from the rest of the game, whether by actual geometry constraints, or rules forcing you to follow the mission)

MGSV did something sort of clever in the way they built the world, the mountains serve to funnel the world into these lanes, so you kind of have to pass by most bases in a sort of linear fashion, giving the designer a bit more control, allowing them to funnel you into their level design challenges, so you can’t always go around everything.

Far Cry 3 and Blood Dragon both have shitty story missions that are linear, but they both have really nice capturing of outposts.

It’s nice to have some element of collection driving you across the map, but if you split up the stuff to be collected too much it gets exhausting. It would be better to try to consolidate that aspect a bit so challenges could be a bit more loosely focused on locations instead of sweeping over and collecting literally everything possible. Set some limits on how many times you make someone return to the same place, maybe 1-3 times so they don’t get worn out on it. Try making the collectable elements more important. The places of power in Witcher 3 are pretty nice, a lot of the other collectable things on the map are trash. I enjoy going across the map collecting things, but I don’t enjoy finding out that all of it is just junk, that makes me personally get fatigued, because I’m out there collecting tons of junk.

Just Cause 2 had a cool way of doing it, you had to go around the map blowing stuff up, which caused the enemy to attack you and call in reinforcements. Awesome core dynamic. Then there’s a ton of little things to destroy that don’t net you much chaos (it’s like a currency that goes up and unlocks new stuff when you have enough, including missions), but they’re still sitting there. And it’s not like Katamari where small stuff in great quantities is awesome because you can roll it all up at once, it’s like picking up grains of rice with a pair of chopsticks, it’s time consuming for not nearly as much reward, but you feel obligated because it’s there. Take a hint from Katamari on that one and just totally stop having them once the player outscales them significantly.

The thing is, a lot of this collectible stuff is optional, it’s not designed to be important or necessary for progression, so no effort is put into creating it. Ostensibly, the game is designed so you can complete it without needing to engage with any of that collectible stuff. Why bar the player’s progression for them to collect things that aren’t part of the main story? So the rewards on a lot of them are really weak also, because they don’t want to upset the difficulty balance in the main story missions.

But on the other hand, a lot of these open world games just want to be big hamster wheel things, that’s why they have so many progression systems, they know that their main story missions aren’t enough to satisfy the player alone, because the level and encounter design isn’t very strong, so they add filler content and progression systems to keep the player busy.

So what should they do? Probably take a page from Metroidvanias, and Crysis Warhead, Far Cry Blood Dragon & FC3’s outposts. Keep the collectibles limited. Focus on the locations, the strongholds, make places in the world that are difficult to assault. Make level design across the world that is difficult to pass through unfettered. Metroidvanias are primarily about getting from checkpoint to checkpoint without dying, they set up things in your way that are difficult to get past without losing some health. In Metroid, save room to save room, same for Castlevania, La Mulana, Dark Souls. Exception is Ori and the Blind forest, but it has a really funky checkpoint system and really linear level structure overall to make it work.

The thing to get good at is probably controlling how players approach stronghold type structures, having enemies be better roadblocks in the wild, and a general study in good level design of terrain for moving around the map that allows free movement generally, but still restricts the player on an encounter level. The place to look for this is probably the original Zelda, which had limiting terrain all over the place. Figure out a suitable equivalent in 3 dimensions and you’re set, or start from 2d and work up to 3d.

The other big thing is, more elements in the open world should have more care put into them. A lot of stuff in open world games gets recycled, so the world starts feeling rather samey when you’ve seen that same art asset so much. Dark Souls is a fairly large game, and all of its areas are very deliberately crafted. Rather than aiming to make everything modular and reusable, aim for giving areas distinct touches. Plan how to make the most interesting areas possible. Probably work iteratively, building out from a central place. Quit trying to make a ton of filler content, focus on a smaller amount of more meaningful/challenging content in the open world format.

This was a bit rambley and probably not as straightforward as I could have written it.


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