Taming an Open World Game: What’s the current state?

Driven by the next-generation prophecies, the so called open World breed of games have been populating the gaming scene since its very early stages and from unfulfilled prototypes, up to ambitious titles with tons of things to care about. Lonesome players with thousand yards to explore and interact with, and lots of things to do on something sometimes marketed like if somebody was about to sell a place to the heaven itself. Open World is not a genre, but a conception and a double edged adjective that sweetens titles, but sideways can turn them into a complex system or a simplistic playground with nothing more but  bleakness. Games now, capable of holding humongous amounts of data, seem to whisper to developers that it’s possible and viable, to try to push the technology forward and swap the core of linearity for a whole new place where the limit is set by an incredibly large place.


Nothing as easy as seeking the current blockbuster themes to guess that Open worlds are being added more frequently inside a wide variety of genres, from RPGs to arcade driving simulators. Not a virus, but a tendency…perhaps.

Open world stands for a virtual space commonly used in certain games. It’s referred to those scenarios where the player, from its beginning, is capable to escape from the linearity and take a trip outside the boundaries stablished on the straightforwarded titles. But the term Open World is used so many times, that seems quite unclear that everything could fit inside this description. From first to last, games claim to the users how they can rely so much in the vast immensity of their space, how they can enjoy the ecosystem that surrounds the complexity of those inmense constructions. Minds were thinking about MMORPGS as soon as the word was written in the first line, but also standard role playing games, action titles, sport and race games (perhaps every single genre!) has its titles with the banner of “No frontiers” on its back cover,trying to tell the players that his value of replayabity and engagement is masterfully managed by this component of no-frontier design. But far from that , open world stands for something more relvant that just the space notion, it calls for freedom. Whether the map has just 4 places to go or if it has 46, they’re still open world games as long as they claim to the users the freedom of choice and roam, the capability of reaching multiple objectives in different ways, to escape linearity and pre-established on-rails event and to offer an medium in which such things have a meaningful outcome.

Open world games will be as long as they claim to the users the freedom of choice and roam, the capability of reaching multiple objectives in different ways, to escape linearity and pre-established on-rails events and to offer an medium in which such things have a meaningful outcome

  Now Open World is a dish dressed with a few popular words: freedom, variety of actions, multiple activities, unlimited fun (as it sounds), exploration, tons of elements, mega (add everything you want here, starting from destruction to pony races) and some other cholesterol-entertaining ingredients. Nothing far from it, these vast extensions of meshes, bits, bytes, behaviors and events are anything but void containers where the player can do nothing but feel lost. An open world is a dangerous place, sometimes driven by ostentous desires, others by the requirements of a script, technology or fantasy that was impossible to avoid because of its incredible and immersive feeling; others because it was the genre who asked for it; and others, simply for no compelling reason at all.


Ultima 1 is considered as the first Open World game: a mix between a free-to-roam map and multiple dungeons to explore that equalled to freedom of choice.

So the further the notion has got, the more mistaken the things surrounding have been. Engagement is the core of a game in order to make it interesting, to deliver an experience that is capable of absorbing the players mind for 5 minutes up to a whole life. If open worlds are designed just for its unstoppable marketing need of yelling everywhere that it’s an ambitious project of recreating Manhattan in its early 50s, or to reproduce the old Babylon from the door frames to the behavior of the merchants, it’s just an useless bunch of code and art with a proper intention to amaze, but not engage. The epic/fantastic claims of such void worlds end up being repetitive, dull and nonsense: there is a lack of consistency between the rules, the players, the dynamics, mechanics and lore because of the imbalance between architectural art, (as well as the testosterone-powered need of further, longer and higher) and gameplay.

To tame such a wild thing an open world is, a proper design is required to make the experience corresponding to a game that is engaging. Just as the design of a shopping mall tends to evade the consumer from staring up to 20 minutes to numbers on a parking lot, rather than exploring all the shops guided by the different posters spread along the building, a well game design uses its own tools from keeping the player on a pre-established road, even though it seems there are tons of ways to interact with the world, but with a null feedback as reward. The strategy is the use of indirect control as Jesse Schell defines in The Art of game Design: A book of lenses, a way to shape the freedom it may suppose the game, to turn it into a feeling of freedom in order to manage correctly such an important thing the player’s experience is.

There is a lack of consistency between  rules, players, dynamics, mechanics and lore because of the imbalance between need to achieve architectural-ostentious desires and engaging gameplay.

Of course nothing stops you from going outside your home starting village, quitting from killing gigantic flies in order to gather 20 wings for an unpleasant quest giver, who will give you a rotten stick for hitting dire wolves. You can decide to take a trip to the closest city or common rendezvous point, and to discover there that, as the movies, you’re nothing but a tourist who barely knows how to ask for directions: unprepared, naked, and alone. But it’s there and you can, at least, check outside how the things are evolving, to discover how open is the virtual space on which you are playing, but don’t forget that designers thought about the same, and they’ll make sure to mute your Phileas Fog ambitions by a huge increase of difficulty, enemies that recons you even you’re not seeing them, unavailable actions to take, players that speak in other ingame languages and something deeper, more abstract, but tangible inside games: void (or fog, or end of the tile set, or “everything has an end”, or “it was 20gb of content, wait for an expansion”). There are plenty of ways to make players think they’re inside a perfect world where everything fits his designs, but in the backend such games are managing the player’s road, guessing the next movements and offering the correct choices rather than leaving the player to roam freely elsewhere. This constraining set of rules are the ones that will make the world a place where the player feels comfortable with, rather than abandoned or over-protected, and will be decisive to the longevity of the title, making its core somenthing to tak about, to be experienced and most important, to be taughtBut inside this storm, many titles have found its way to fight alongside this curse, and to drive the player towards an enjoyable experience, the techniques are a few and to make it more entertaining, there is a part 2 of this theme explaining the most common and efficient ways to tame such inmensive creations Open Worlds are.

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