Taming an Open World: The Techniques

We’ve talked about how much the notion of Open World differs sometimes from what really is. Huge spaces filled with void assets that makes freedom  a secondary player rather than the main element in the game, with no relevant rules on where, what or why the player should be choosing from or by the contrary, to many pre-established things that dictates the player’s ambition of liberty and choices.

Games, on its background, use a set of techniques, without breaking the technical restrictions of a game, in order to generate the illusion of freedom on the player, and make the experience equally profitable for both sides.

The perfect balance between choices and engagement is the problem to solve: how to draw the playes attention, how to guide them when the environment seems to abandon them, how to maintain the hunger for adventure if nothing seems relevant and how to make a lonesome space attractive and worth playing; this features will profitably balance players to decide to spend their so important life time populating a wild world to tame. Techniques out! :

  • Visual guidance: While watching Steve Gaynor’s presentation on GDC 2013 online (you can already watch it here if suscribed) and the article of Chris Solarski on Gamasutra talking about tips, tricks and rules on how to solve the lack of attention of the player to the game by framing correctly, looked pretty clear for vanishing the mist of the craziness the notion of open world (and its management) gave to me. Perhaps it’s not the best comparison that can be extracted from it, but the amount of visual tricks that open world games uses for drawing the attention of the player, to something more constrained than the actual conception, are developed thoroughly. For a live example, a standard (or just blockbuster) title based on open world has its first level/quest so well detailed that the player can hardly (if it is his first play) be unaware of it: a temple, a church, a huge build, a car crashing, some enormous pop up in the head of a player, glittering stuff, an explosión, a lighting, a dragon, a damn shiny enormous arrow. Blinded folks need guidance, so let’s add a huge visual element to indicate when, where, why and what they’re supposed to do.  Maybe by framing the camera from the start placing in the center the main element that needs to be reached, perhaps by a luminous icon on the top of the core character, a loss of color in the non-interesting areas, a huge colorful path, a dude just in front of you, etc. Driving the player’s attention is so much necessary as thought for this purpose (the first steps) that sometimes does the contrary and just pushes players to break the boundaries because of the tiredness of a so guided railroad.
  • Choice constraint: Constraining the player in order to feel some sort of freedom feeling seems the correct way to go. But sometimes, the lack of choices or the disruptive amount of them overwhelms or bores the player, letting him collapse and surrender. At the early stage of any open world game, the choice seems pretty clear. Whether the player is driven by a main quest or a tutorial, it’s hard to take a peek outside such immovable rails because something is pushing towards a single common thing: the only choice that is left outside is to fulfill the purpose he is in. But when suddenly the map opens and lets him naked on a steppe, there has to be guidelines for maintaining the engagement rather than offering an incredible variety of unclear things to do. It may offer one, three, seven or forty-seven activities to take on but with a hierarchy showing which of them are top relevant and those who aren’t that much important to the mainline, but still valuable to the player. He will feel more secure and empowered on his resolve from choosing on a close list rather than having a thousand things to do.


Even the Invincible in Final Fantasy IX had some hard times trying to guess its next move. Plenty of choices, huh?

  • Some spaces feel very limited: It’s no clue when some worlds can feel ambitious by being bigger than expected, and spending more time going from one part to another rather than developing an activity, and there’s, as well, others that are small enough for recognizing everything just the first time the player gets into it. Small spaces tend to recycle themselves better than bigger ones, but the claustrophobia acts in a way making the player doubt about the longevity of each scenario. When the place is small enough, designers take into account the possibilities to maintain the player’s visual tiredness lasting the exact time before it’s too late, or recalling into the powerful tools of script for creating quests, missions and activities than can push forward the stay of the player. Small spaces try to define open world as “a world where the player is eager to decide its next location and act freely without a lineal binding” rather than “a vast, huge an inmense world”. In such spaces, the important of meaningufl characters and places takes an important role: a castle where all the courtesy has something to do with the player, a road filled with mysterious hitchikers with different stories asking for coming back and forth


Two ways of player travelling and progressing through Open Worlds, A) mostly used in huge and inmense data terrain worlds and B) in small maps

  • External character constraint: using characters to prevent the player from losing his pathway on the game is a recurring technique of indirect control, when designers want to kill two birds with a stone: it helps to move the players where the attention shall be because of the location of heat zones, created by the positioning of a character or by its further indications, helping both lore and allocation. If suddenly a peasant walks towards you, or you find yourself surrounded by a pack of wolves from nowhere, an event, driven by such indirect control is triggered, and there’s nothing the player can do for escaping its wrapping power, whether he likes it or not, it is meant to. It may add valuable information of the quest lines or secondary ones, but it somehow will oppose to the mantra of open world, for some sort of time, the player is fully taken both sense of freedom and freedom and forced to look at without any choice itself. Is it too harmful for the engagement itself? When the road is so straight forwarded that there’s about no choice to take, and it’s a continuous thing to do (from A to B, B to A, A to B, and so on) the game is only offering a nice terrain where perhaps you can walk by it without any reward.
  • Inner character constraint: sideways from the NPC way of triggering events, the player itself is a powerful constraint that can be used for avoiding too much of a commitment with the fact of becoming the lord king of exploration and disorientation. The characterization of the player, its role, genre, job, abilities, past story and goals act as a protective wall that makes the player rebound from side to side when suddenly his mind decides to give a try to something new. A fighter of the light will hardly try to cause any harm to a charming peasant, a low level character won’t be interested on entering a deep cave where everybody says that the things inside are ten times higher in strength, and so on. The main thing to take from here is that it does not so important how your character is constrained by, but how well developed is the one chosen. The player will tend to easily forget about what he is and which role he is playing if there is too much freedom on his surrounding, and nothing else relevant happens to make him remember what his real goal is.


In Prototype, the character is periodically given info about how much pain they made him  suffer by experimenting on his body. With such outcome and powerful power gift, is hard to make the player interesed on picking up a car and drive by, rather than destroying every guilty force that makes him unhappy.

These techniques are a few from a menu that every single game shall consider to take and implement when something ambitious as an Open World is put on the table. If looked closely, is easy to see on such titles how they’ve tackled several of this resolutions and how hard has been to reach the balance for making the player unaware of somebody pulling the strings of his perception and choice making. But sometimes, a title hits the shelves and suddenly something chokes on us: it lacks engagement, it turns repetitive, it becomes overwhelming because theres too much too do and nothing seems relevant or the character itself has a little relation to the things he is supposed to do ingame; things that makes the well packed open world a complete mishmash of nonsense elements. To plan this things as much earlier as possible will make titles from avoiding an outrageous fall direct to the pit of forgiveness, and to become enjoyable experiences where players can trust and put his spare time on. Open Worlds are pretty, tasty, amusing and broad, capable of inmersing the player into something further and more alive than linear titles could but they need in exchange an intensive treatment and caring, a maximization of the resources and a wider perspective on how the player could feel and what he really needs. No frontiers, lots of responsibility, that’s the mantra. Namastei.

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