It seems that every game coming out at the moment is either an open world game or trying to find ways to give you more freedom to play the way that you want. For the most part, this is a welcome move, giving choice to players is nearly always a good thing, however this market saturation is leading towards the point where even games that have no right in being open world or always online feel the pressure to shoehorn it in. So what do developers need to beware of when implementing an open world?
The first and most important question that developers need to ask themselves is what benefit is there to the player in having an open world? Interestingly Ubisoft is both a champion and a villain with this criterion. Two of Ubisoft’s new IPs last year went the open world route to great effect. Tom Clancy’s The Division had me hooked (and still does as I often revisit it) because of the world that it created. The open world continually reinforced the dire circumstances that you were in and allowed the online focus of the game to blend seamlessly. The same is true of Steep. It’s not the first winter sports game to have an open world (Amped had this years before Ubisoft ever dreamed of their game) but the way that it encouraged you to just mess around in the world made this open world choice a winner. On the other hand, I have often thought that both the Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs series would be better as linear games without an open world. I don’t see what the open world really adds to these titles. Imagine if Watch Dogs was a linear game (obviously with choices about how you complete a level à la Deus Ex), the hacking could be more substantial and more impressive as it wouldn’t have to be the one size fits all style hacking that is currently used. With Assassin’s Creed, the number of people who complete each game is quite low, this is especially concerning when the series has a continuing storyline. If they made these games more linear (again with options of how you complete each level) they could really focus on the storytelling and give us a much more engaging and gripping tale.
Speaking of Assassin’s Creed, one of the reasons I rarely finish these games is that I’m a bit of a perfectionist and want to 100% every game that I can. If I see something on a map, like a side quest or a collectible, I want to complete it and remove it from the map. Assassin’s Creed has gone overboard on the collectibles as time has gone on and it’s not even as though these collectibles actually do anything for you in the game. I have just finished playing through Mafia III (I’m trying to catch up on my backlog of games after a hectic Christmas period) and the collectibles are just as bad. Aside from the magazines that you can collect (if you want to see Playboy magazines from the 1960s this is the game for you), you can also pick up electronic components that you need to activate phone taps. My issue with them is that you only need around 150 of these parts but the game has around 420 of them. These sort of pointless collectibles (Mafia III doesn’t even gift you an achievement/trophy for doing it) are used by developers to add length to the game. These games take hours and hours to complete though and a lot of these collectibles are superfluous to the extreme. Not all collectibles are bad though, I loved collecting the orbs in Crackdown as not only was there a challenge to picking them up but they helped to improve your character.
Another issue with open world games is that rather than doing one thing really well, they tend to try and do lots to a much lower standard. As a huge fan of racing games, I tend to find the driving mechanics in these games quite poor. What’s more, the shooting systems are never as good as a Call of Duty or Gears of War. In an open-world RPG like Skyrim, Final Fantasy, or even the latter Mass Effect games, this isn’t such a problem as the driving/riding isn’t so prominent they can focus on the combat. My issue is when these games want you to have races, like in GTA (though this probably has the best car handling of these games), Mafia III, Watch Dogs, and Just Cause. If I wanted to play a racing game I’d load up Forza or Need for Speed. In the Just Cause games I relish parachuting and grappling my way around the maps, but the combat feels kind of stilted and awkward. This isn’t to say these games are bad, I absolutely love playing as Rico Rodriguez and the freedom to create carnage that they offer. I just wish that they didn’t force me to do races with a driving mechanic that wouldn’t pass muster if it was the sole focus of the game.
Open worlds don’t make a game better, in fact they can harm a game. Removing limits to the player can be very rewarding and if every game were as technically proficient as GTA V it wouldn’t really be a problem. The issue is that Rockstar is in a league of their own and have the budget and talent to create a sprawling, living, breathing world like no other. Developers need to be sure that adding an open-world to their IP will benefit the game and not remove focus or compromise other elements. Publishers have to realise that just because GTA V has sold over 70 million copies, adding an open-world to a game will not make it a massive hit. As gamers, we just want great new experiences and at times that will be in an open-world and other times it won’t.