Categories: Opinions | 3 comments

Making and Breaking the Open World

Alright.  You’re a big multibillion dollar entertainment corporation and you’ve just launched a new video games console.  What’s the best way to make people interested in your console and prevent them from realizing that it’s really just an overpriced computer in a box?

Sandboxes, of course!

Virtual ones, I mean.  Open world games.  The ones with the vision towers and the big huge maps and the massive environments that show off how powerful (read: middling in comparison to a halfway decent PC) your new console is.

Seriously, though, making a big huge virtual world for a player to explore is a pretty straightforward move when marketing something that’s supposed to be stronger than its predecessor.  If the lineup for 2014 is anything to go by, most major companies realize this: Dead Rising 3, Destiny, Tom Clancy’s The Division, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, Sunset Overdrive.

The list of open world games to be released within the next year and half is overwhelming, since each will promise dozens if not hundreds of hours of content.

It’s a pity most of them will be trash.

Oh, don’t believe me?  Well then, dear reader, allow us to venture down the horrifying and dreary rabbit hole of CORPORATE PRODUCT MARKETING.

There are going to be too many of these games for their own damn good

Ranks upon ranks of virtual worlds all vying for your attention.

Ranks upon ranks of virtual worlds all vying for your attention.

 The thing about open world games is that they require a certain investment on the player’s part.  We’ll use Dead Rising 3 as an example since it’s been released fairly recently.

If I want to play Dead Rising 3, it’ll probably take me about six or seven hours to plough through it doing the main campaign and a few side missions with minimal exploration.  That isn’t very fun, though, so if I wanted to go for something approaching 100% completion, I would have to manage my time more efficiently.

Dead Rising, you see, puts a time limit on the player.  You are told at the start that the military will be bombing the city in which you are trapped in six days.  Since the main campaign requires a certain amount of time to complete and since each side mission only appears at certain times (noon on day three, for instance, or 6:00 p.m. on day five), you need to budget your time and plan which side missions you want to do.

You also have to replay the game at least twice, and there’s the rub.  I’m all for a developer giving me lots of content, but there are only so many hours in a day.  If I’m interested in playing Dead Rising 3, Assassin’s Creed 4, or really more than one or two open world games, I will simply lack the time to do so properly.  And that’s not even counting things like Destiny or The Division which promise to be ever-evolving worlds.

Sure, I can just sit on my couch for a week and grind it out, but that rather defeats the point.  I want to enjoy a game, not treat it like a chore.

Large often means empty

Dead Rising 3

Oh boy! I can’t wait to explore all this grey and brown!

If you want to show off a console’s power, you make a big world.  If the console in question can render all that open space (and the requisite weather effects, day-night cycles, and pathing issues of a thousand NPCs) at once without stuttering, it must be worth your money.

That’s all very well and good, but the larger an area is, the easier it is to make it feel empty.  Red Dead Redemption, one of the finest open worlds ever to grace consoles, handled this beautifully because the people who made it were willing to spend months and months working on things most people wouldn’t notice or appreciate.  There are hundreds of unique NPCs with their own names, clothing, and behaviours, and they happen at all hours of the day whether the player is or is not there.

Rockstar have such a keen ear for this kind of thing that the engine they use for most of their games, Euphoria, is specifically optimized for running gigantic worlds populated by rather unique NPCs.  Granted, most of these behaviours are playing poker or drinking at the local saloon, and they are not voiced for more than a few lines, but even that level of detail is something most developers don’t bother with.

Contrast this approach to Rage, Id Software’s lacklustre attempt to recapture the fame of Quake and the old Wolfenstein games.  Rage had a lot of technological prowess and it looked very pretty: quest givers would wave the player down instead of having glowing exclamation points above their heads, enemies would react in dozens of differently animated ways depending if they were shot in the kneecap or the stomach, and the entire world map was one gigantic texture to reduce issues with pop-in.

Unfortunately, this meant that Id spent so much time making Rage look impressive that they forgot to make it interesting.  The main story concerned a super-soldier (you) waking up after the apocalypse to discover that the Authority are generally being tools and you should maybe shoot them a few times.

Yes, the Authority.  The vaguely fascist enemies are literally called the Authority.  That’s the kind of creative bankruptcy you buy pretty graphics with, kids.

There’s also the issue that the overworld is generally pretty empty, so you spend most of your time driving between one area for questing and one area for handing in quests, but the Authority?  Really?

No narrative is good enough to survive a mincing

Open world games, by their very nature, leave a lot to the player.  This also includes the pacing of the narrative, which tends to destroy it.

Basic narrative theory time: stories tend to have four acts.  You’ve probably been told it’s three acts, but that’s an oversimplification.  In general, stories have a beginning (first act), a middle (second act), a more intense middle (third act), and an end followed swiftly by closure (fourth act).

In an open world game, you sacrifice that.  No getting around it.

If I’m playing Infamous and I watch a big dramatic cutscene wherein my player character Cole tells me how everything is really getting down to the wire now and things are about to end in tears, I am perfectly free to piss right off and do menial side missions for the next six hours.

This lack of an authored narrative combined with the variance of drama and comedy you get in side missions is a losing combination.  Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood had you alternate between using a working model of Leonardo da Vinci’s tank blueprints and chasing down a sociopathic plague doctor who abused his authority to murder people, and you can bet your britches it clashed.

Player freedom is a great thing, but it clashes horrifically with structured narratives.  Those same structured narratives are the backbone from everything from Hollywood to Ubisoft.  It breeds a sort of vicious cycle: the player has a basic grasp of the main story, but chooses to wander off and do side activities.  The player then returns to the main story only to find he’s forgotten the characters and their motivations.  The player, feeling alienated, does more side missions and drifts further away from the thrust of the whole game.

“What did you see, Mr. Kenway?” “Hours and hours of content I care nothing about.”

Difficult, not impossible

This all sounds like a lot of doom and gloom, and it is a lot of doom and gloom.  But it’s also an important reminder of how easy it is for a video game which would otherwise be great to fall temptation to lazy design.  Games should always strive to make living breathing worlds that players can sink into, not vast sterile ones to help a CEO complete a checklist.

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  • EddieVan

    Great article to make you think about the ‘new world’.

  • Sort

    “In an open world game, you sacrifice [the story]. No getting around it.”

    While I agree with the majority of this article, in my own experience it seems like a level of immersion with the proper depth can counteract, nay, develop a story more in tune with the personalized actions of the player than some sort of overarching prophecy set in stone by the developers.

    While this type of console game remains in an infantile stage, the potential for more dynamic and intricate stories is undeniable, eventual, and preferable to the average gamer.

    • Jack Parkinson

      You sacrifice the pacing of the story, not necessarily the story itself. I guess I didn’t make that clear enough.

      Having a shandified narrative (‎) does allow for a greater degree of player immersion and personal connection to a game, but it’s also much harder to design. Investors and stockholders also like it much less because designing vast amounts of content that no-one will ever see doesn’t seem like a strong business strategy.