Discussion: Open World Design



  • I hope this post doesnt scare people away lol.

    This is a topic I think about pretty much every time I play a game or think about design in general. I want to discuss open worlds and how developers are incorporating it into their games. I know this is a long post, but I had a lot to say on it. Hopefully, we can get some discussion happening.

    At this point in time, I feel that the use of open world has become tiresome. It was an interesting design feature when it was first utilized because of how it could immerse you into a game and its world. However, I find that instead of being immersive it does quite the opposite. Open world games have a long way to go, and I believe that developers are jumping the gun. The design of open worlds seems to be defined now by adding big open spaces with numerous repetitive tasks to complete to make consumers feel like they’re getting the best value with the game. I can’t talk about every game here because it would become longer than it is and I acknowledge I don’t have experience with every game ever released. I am speaking from my own personal experience with the games I played and where and how I find value in them.

    As far as I’m concerned Open worlds need to be re-evaluated in how they are designed. Too much thought is put into making the biggest world with the most shit in it. This every time guaranteed has stopped me from playing. The biggest issue happens in games like the Witcher 3 and Dragon Age Inquisition.

    Open World issues
    The Witcher has a massive world to roam around in, but what’s the point? At first, I get excited but quickly I start to realize that the encounters I experience are nothing special at all. There seem to be several types of encounters that are developed and then spread around the map at random. These encounters have never offered anything remotely interesting. Once I took care of an enemy encampment several times I just stopped. I ask myself what did that offer? How does this make the game better? In my opinion, it doesn’t. As for Dragon Age, the most glaring issue I had was the pointlessness of exploring. In one scenario, I went wondering off. I saw a hidden cave and entered it. It looked to be lost ancient ruins. I solved the puzzle and was rewarded with an item that was underpowered and added no value to my gameplay. In that game, anything you crafted was 3 times better than anything uncovered. This game was full of situations like that. The endless amounts of pointless loot also bog these games down.

    On a side note, In FF XV I’m 20 hours in and literally nothing has happened, so fun!

    To be a little less critical, the one things that the Witcher does well is meaningful side quests in terms of story. It's so easy to become engrossed in a side quest that leaves you wanting more in that game. But when you aimlessly travel around the world to experience those things, it becomes less impactful.

    Open world positives
    When it comes to open world there seems to be a bit ambiguity in how people define it . Open world games don’t have to have a giant empty map to explore. They can be situated in smaller areas such as cities or something like a simple overworld in older rpg's. Many may not consider Final Fantasy games open world game. Despite being limited by tech back then; I think they are. It's game that offers the player some freedom in moving around the world.

    For Final Fantasy VII The one thing that stands out to me about a game like this is that it had great pacing. Something most games lack today. Just to say quickly there are tons of other RPG’s that do this, but I decided to use this game as my example. In this game, I was always moving the story forward and was given periods of time that I had a little more freedom. At no point, did I ever feel that I was doing something not worthwhile. For example, some of the optional quests in the game reward you. The trouble you go through with breeding Chocobos gave you the most powerful summon in the game. Hunting weapons was a nice challenge, obtaining Yuffie and Vincent in your party, going to the Gold Saucer to obtain some rare items and Materia, obtaining rare skills from enemies, and obtaining master level limit breaks and weapons. Everything, for the most part had a purpose and your efforts were never undermined. I didn’t receive Clouds best sword just to realize I made a better one at the crafting station. I understand this may not be enough for some gamers so obviously advancement in games like this is needed. Games now lack simplicity and subtleness in this regard. They become a chore list of quests to check off that do nothing. I didn’t have to check a damn thing off in FF7.

    Another example is Bloodbourne and Dark Souls. These are well crafted open world games. The level design allows you to explore how you wish when you want. The subtleness of it is also far more immersive.

    When it comes to open world games, I think Elder scrolls does the best. It has its issues but you get the sense you’re in a dynamic world. You are truly free to do a lot more in this game than in any other. In Witcher and Dragon Age I can run through a city full of people and buildings that do absolutely nothing. In Elder scrolls, you can interact with anyone on multiple levels. You can pickpocket them, kill them if so wish, break into their house that is somewhere in town. Every item can be interacted with. You can be whatever you want in a lot of ways. Now they just need to write their story a bit better. But maybe they need to move away from having a main story and focus on many awesome stories in that world. Nobody plays it for the main quest lol.

    A hope for the future
    I want developers to take a step back and change how they approach these games. I miss a lot of games in the past that I have played where I can walk around a city and get immersed in it by the people I talk to or the things that are happening. You just don’t see that anymore in my opinion because the concentration has been on the world size and loot. I think there needs to be a fine balance between linearity and openness that hasn’t been achieved yet.
    Leslie Benzies said this about his new game,

    “We want this game to be less restrictive than other games. While the game has multiple narratives, we also want players to create their own narratives that include characters with a real personality. If we do this right, we’re going to give players the chance to really live out their fantasies, not just the limited fantasies that most games set up for them, and do so in a deeply immersive way.”

    Todd Howard talks about their vision for Elder Scrolls VI not being technologically viable yet. These concepts excite me because I believe that developers are limiting themselves.

    I believe the open world concept needs to be applied on a smaller scale. I would like to see more complex interactions with the environments and NPC’s. Completely remove the peppered world maps with side quests, loot crates, hidden treasures, towers, pots of gold, four leaf clovers and mythical unicorns that do nothing but waste my time. Give me side quests that are far more engaging and impactful on you as a character and the story and stop making me run peoples errands around the city or map. Give me amazing rewards for finding challenging and subtle questlines in the world and not have them be things I could have crafted at Lvl 7. Anyways that’s my opinion on open world games.

    What are your opinions on open world design?



  • It works when the narrative is directed to discovering new things in the world, and when the player is limited in their ability to utilize the world, up to a point in the narrative when exploration can be used to "grind" or express additional narrative paths.

    The best open worlds offer additional content for those interested, options for character empowerment when needed and the expression of an expansive world.

    Best example I can think of, FFVI. There are others, but even the older FF games do it better than most. GTA III and Vice City also do an admirable job, imo. Few do it well.



  • If I can be honest, I think removing or at least limiting tracking will be a big boon for open world design. The major issue with the "modern open world" formula (aka the Ubisoft formula) is that these games feel like checklists. The idea of an open world is to encourage the player to go out an explore, even when there is no reward and it's just empty space - that's half the fun of exploration - but progress tracking instead encourages players to go from point of interest to point of interest, with the open world merely being used as a backdrop.

    For instance, I turned off all markers and mini maps in The Witcher 3, and I didn't get that Ubisoft problem from the game. While I recognize that most of the open world dots like enemy camps are just thrown in there, they are much more satisfying and add life to the world when you just encounter them by happenstance on your way to town, rather than going to the location with the explicit idea of "clearing" it



  • I started Horizon Zero Dawn the other day and while I agree with OP that the open world meme is getting a little tired, I can appreciate how it is done here.
    At the recommendation of a friend, I started the game on the highest difficulty setting with the "minimal hud" option enabled, so even the smaller creatures can 1-2 shot you, and the screen isn't cluttered witg unnecessary bullshit.

    At least in the beginning hours, I'm finding the open world beneficial to the game's overall design. I'm climbing to higher ground to observe enemy patterns, check where the best spot to set traps is, and just absorbing the (holy jesus so pretty) environment.

    If it is done well, like Horizon or Witcher, an open world can be amazing. If it is just an open world for the sake of having an open world, like pretty much any game Ubisoft has made in the past decade, then it starts to wear thin.



  • I agree with @Galaxy40k. Whenever possible I have been turning off the minimap and certain tracking. When they are on I find myself just staring at the minimap to find objects nearby or just making my arrow point towards the marker. I can't help it and it definitely detracts from the game. I don't care about collecting all 900 Korok seeds at all, but it was fun just finding one of them while exploring. If every Korok seed was marked on the map like they probably would have been in another game that joy would have been gone and it would have been another checklist item.



  • @Sazime said in Discussion: Open World Design:

    Best example I can think of, FFVI. There are others, but even the older FF games do it better than most. GTA III and Vice City also do an admirable job, imo. Few do it well.

    Yeah, I like a lot of the older RPG world map in those older titeles. Its give you the feeling transversing a whole word without all the filler. I also agree about GTA.

    @Galaxy40k said in Discussion: Open World Design:

    If I can be honest, I think removing or at least limiting tracking will be a big boon for open world design. The major issue with the "modern open world" formula (aka the Ubisoft formula) is that these games feel like checklists. The idea of an open world is to encourage the player to go out an explore, even when there is no reward and it's just empty space - that's half the fun of exploration - but progress tracking instead encourages players to go from point of interest to point of interest, with the open world merely being used as a backdrop.

    For instance, I turned off all markers and mini maps in The Witcher 3, and I didn't get that Ubisoft problem from the game. While I recognize that most of the open world dots like enemy camps are just thrown in there, they are much more satisfying and add life to the world when you just encounter them by happenstance on your way to town, rather than going to the location with the explicit idea of "clearing" it

    I like that idea of having to navigate the world without a check box and map icon. I know that i stop looking at the environment and instead start chasing a dot. However, a lot of people wouldn't like this.

    Ive heard of people turning off all the icons in the Witcher. Maybe ill have to try that in a future title. Definitely changes how you interact with the game. But i would definitely like to see more complex scenarios happen to you or NPC's as you travel. So smaller scale, and more meaningful.

    @El-Shmiablo said in Discussion: Open World Design:

    I started Horizon Zero Dawn the other day and while I agree with OP that the open world meme is getting a little tired, I can appreciate how it is done here.
    At the recommendation of a friend, I started the game on the highest difficulty setting with the "minimal hud" option enabled, so even the smaller creatures can 1-2 shot you, and the screen isn't cluttered witg unnecessary bullshit.

    At least in the beginning hours, I'm finding the open world beneficial to the game's overall design. I'm climbing to higher ground to observe enemy patterns, check where the best spot to set traps is, and just absorbing the (holy jesus so pretty) environment.

    If it is done well, like Horizon or Witcher, an open world can be amazing. If it is just an open world for the sake of having an open world, like pretty much any game Ubisoft has made in the past decade, then it starts to wear thin.

    Sounds like a good recommendation. I've actually started to wonder if playing on normal settings these days as quietly become the easy setting. It makes it more accessible. Ill have to try playing on higher difficulty from now on.

    @Tragosaurus said in Discussion: Open World Design:

    I agree with @Galaxy40k. Whenever possible I have been turning off the minimap and certain tracking. When they are on I find myself just staring at the minimap to find objects nearby or just making my arrow point towards the marker. I can't help it and it definitely detracts from the game. I don't care about collecting all 900 Korok seeds at all, but it was fun just finding one of them while exploring. If every Korok seed was marked on the map like they probably would have been in another game that joy would have been gone and it would have been another checklist item.

    One of these days ill try Zelda. I have heard good things about its design.



  • I do absolutely love Elder Scrolls worlds, and that's why I love those games... The lore, the interactivity... It's not without tons of issues, of course, because there are so many glitches, and handful of other issues, like the only dozen voice actors, Console UI on PC etc. But I can see through all that (Thanks to mods) and enjoy those games.

    But looking the bigger picture, there are only few ways you can make Open worlds in games, the Ubisoft way of having a checklist to complete and radiotowers to climb, The bethesda way of having huge open area, but due to time and money constraints it's buggy and missing plenty of features, and the third way is to have only "small" open world.

    We'll see where this all goes, but I'm anxiously awaiting TES VI.



  • @CGamor7 I feel like turning off icons can only work for certain games. I haven't played The Witcher, and I don't actually have an specific examples, but I could foresee a scenario where said object is really hard to notice in the world without the icons. I guess it all depends on how the developers designed the game. I wouldn't want every open world game to just start throwing this option in there unless they actually made the gameplay support it. I actually just thought of an example. I turned off the minimap in FFXV because I was just running from icon to icon without actually looking at the beautiful world. When I did I enjoyed running around much more because I was paying attention to my surroundings but I also feel like I was missing out on a ton of items laying around.

    One thing I really liked about Zelda which I would love to see more is being forced to make your own map full of icons. Instead of climbing a tower and unlocking every single checklist icon that clutters up the map I really enjoyed finding points of interest on my own and then putting it on my map for future reference.



  • @Tragosaurus Yeah i agree, im sure some games would be impossible to play lol. In FFXV you would never find some of the item boxes laying in the world without it. That is pretty cool that you can make your own icons in Zelda. Makes a lot more sense actually. In an elder scrolls game that would be cool. You talk to someone, you record key information about your quest in a journal and then you use the street signs and names of taverns and other buildings to guide you. It could become a bit tedious in some ways, but i think they could find a way to make it work. Wasn't Morrowind kind of like that?


  • Global Moderator

    I must say I really agree with you! This is something that the whole industry NEEDS to discuss if we not just gonna end up with copy paste games with random main chars and bland stories in. I was gonna write a big an innovative post, but got stuck talking with my housemate for the past 2 hours about games and now I need to sleep! so will try and re-write a big post tomorrow



  • Yeah, the open world needs to be designed to work without icons. A game like Skyrim doesn't work without quest markers because your quest will be "find my friend he went missing somewhere" and that's it - the NPC doesn't give you directions, so the game has to pick up the slack. TW3 was really good in that, in general, you were able to play without markers. Most NPCs would tell you specifics; less "go to Bob's house" and more "go see my friend Bob, he lives in a little hut with a red roof by the docks, you can't miss it."

    It's an extremely delicate balance, and don't get me wrong, TW3 isn't the perfect open world since it makes a LOT of missteps elsewhere, but that's the kind of idea anyway



  • @Galaxy40k That's one thing I loved about Morrowind. You had a map, but no objective markers. NPCs would say "go down the road towards Balmora, take a left at the fork, cross over the bridge and it's the farmhouse on the left." It made you pay attention to the world and not just watch the compass blip. It was also nice that you could pull up their dialogue at any time from the journal in case you forgot what they said.

    I also enjoyed how fast-travel was handled. There were certain boat docks that connected to each other, and you had to pay to travel. Or there were mages that would teleport you to a different mages guild. It was all well-incorporated into the actual game world.



  • @Billy That all sounds like it was executed really well that made sense for the world and would be fun to play. I can definitely see people not liking the complete absence of quest markers though so it would be great if games today were just made like that and you could turn on markers if you wanted. Everybody is happy.



  • @Tragosaurus the one thing that bothers me though is when developer try to cater to everyone. I agree, lots wouldn't like it, but maybe if the developers made a effort to make it really work in a game maybe most would actually enjoy it. When they are busy trying to make features universal it takes away from really optimizing a key feature. But i get the everybody is happy view. But in my opinion thats when games have started to struggle. I think we can see that with games that dont cater to everyone such as Souls games, Yakuza, Bloodbourne etc...



  • I like games that make you discover the world without restrictions or forcing you to climb every tower just to progress in the main story, the latest example Zelda Botw.



  • @CGamor7 I agree trying to cater to everyone can hurt a game. I think in this quest marker scenario though it wouldn't hurt the game, assuming they built it to be played without quest markers, made that the default, and had an option to turn on quest markers for baby mode. If they designed it the other way around it wouldn't work, like turning off quest markers in Skyrim.



  • If you can, try Breath of the Wild. That game broke free of most of the pitfalls of the format. It's a game that never ceases to strike wonderment and awe into those with wanderlust.

    It is the most rewarding, lifelike world ever constructed and the new standard that the industry will no doubt strive towards in the future.

    I can't believe it took only 5 years to make this game. It feels like something that should have taken at least 10 to 15 years.