Can games be too open world?

Note: I’m using ‘open world’ in a very broad sense and discuss games that are not really open world at all (like Mass Effect and LA Noire) and are merely non-linear or offer a degree of exploration. The reason for this is that my main focus here is to look at why these elements are becoming so popular in the games industry over strict linearity, so the distinction between true open world games and those with open world elements isn’t particularly important for my purposes.

If you follow my blog at all, you probably know that I love me some of that open world action. In the last decade in particular, the number of open world games has been on the rise and some of them have been incredible. However, it does seem that more and more these days, developers are turning to an open world or sandbox structure and though I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s become the norm, it’s certainly getting that way. Consider how many recent AAA titles in the past few years have been open world games. There’s Red Dead Redemption, any of the GTA games, Skyrim, the new Tomb Raider and Far Cry 3 to name just a few. Old franchises that weren’t previously open world have switched over to this structure. Sequels of franchises that were previously open world in a more limited sense have been lauded as bigger and better with each new sequel, like Assassin’s Creed. Developers have bragged about the size of the maps as if that somehow means the game is now better. To many, it seems that having increasingly expansive worlds has somehow become linked with quality and innovation in a game. My question is, can the narrative or any other element of a game suffer from, in essence, being too open world and expansive? The short answer is, in my opinion, a resounding yes. To be clear, my point isn’t that developers should stop making open world games or that they shouldn’t keep trying to push the limits of how expansive a game can be, because if done well, these types of games often are innovative, entertaining, immersive, creative and can enhance both story and gameplay. If done incorrectly however, the results can be at best boring and at worst game-breaking. To that end, I do think that developers need to be a little more cautious in deciding whether a game should be open world or not as it doesn’t necessarily mean it will automatically make it a better game and that they should also be careful in balancing that openness with other elements that they think are important. 

Firstly, open world does not equal more fun. That seems to be the premise for developers jumping on the open world bandwagon and I think that’s simply not true. I’m not talking about the fact that massive maps can often be quite daunting (especially for completionists), because that’s something you can get over once you become more absorbed in the wold. The truth is, many open world games can be quite boring, especially those filled with travelling and fetch quests. I’m sure most of you have played open world games like Assassin’s Creed where you get to take full advantage of the amazing scenery on your long rides into the next area. The problem with this is that it gets old pretty quickly. There’s only so much time I can spend watching my character ride around on a horse, no more how heroically they do it. Of course, many games get around this issue by introducing fast travel, but if everything’s so far apart (and many games do this) that you have to constantly fast travel, it begs the question, what’s the point of all having this wonderful expansive world? It’s not like you’re seeing it much. There are also games that feature huge maps, but have no fast travel or still require you to travel excruciatingly long distances and have mind-numbingly boring ways of getting from Point A to Point B, which is even worse. It’s true that it’s difficult to make something as repetitive as driving or riding fun and I can only think of a few games that have done it really well, Far Cry 3 being one. The problem then is not simply with making the game open world, but a problem of often making games too massive in size without actually thinking about how a player is actually going to traverse that territory in a fun way and still takes advantage of all those areas you’ve created. 

Having an unbelievable and frankly, daunting number of collectibles and loot items is also a common feature of open world games that can often actually make the experience more boring than fun. I have nothing against collecting or looting items as such. It can be a fun addition to a game that takes advantage of an expansive world and adds optional content that gives you more fun things to do. However,  done wrong, it can end up feeling like collecting just for the sake of collecting and a repetitive exercise that doesn’t really add anything significant to the game other than more hours logged. In games like Far Cry 3, it doesn’t bother me too much, because it’s completely optional and you wouldn’t really miss out on anything from not collecting everything, other than a few extra weapons, for instance. Also games that manage to work the collectibles into the main story work well, because collecting becomes less of a pointless, repetitive exercise. What does irritate me is when the collectibles are artificially made an important element of the game, forcing you traverse the whole map. Sure you don’t have to collect all the items, but then you would be missing out. That’s how I felt with the voxophones in BioShock Infinite. They didn’t just tell you back story, they actually told you crucial parts of the main story or least information that I doubt anyone would voluntarily choose to miss. It feels like I’m being punished for not exploring, which should surely be up to the player. Adding in as much exploration as possible and padding the game with tons of extra items and loot doesn’t automatically make a game fun. How to implement exploration is just as important as deciding to include it in the first place and that’s something I feel developers sometimes forget.

Secondly, I don’t think that all genres or stories are inherently suited to being open world. Not all first-person shooters, for instance, would benefit from the open world format for instance. Much as I adore Mass Effect (that’s probably one of the biggest understatements I have ever made right there), I do feel that the first two games suffered from attempting to balance action and exploration and as a result fell a bit short on both at times. It’s a difficult line to walk and I’m not suggesting that they should have cut out either (God no!) My point is just that it is difficult to balance exploration with other elements of a game and that thought needs to be put into how to do that or whether it would enhance the experience at all. There are many games where the open world elements can feel completely superfluous, like LA Noire. Driving around and completing little side quest frankly felt like a chore and took away from the important parts of the game. Rather than add to your experience, those extra elements just feels pointless and you end up either just ignoring it or just grinding through it. There’s not only no need to add in open-world elements into a game, it can end up just diluting what would otherwise have been a fantastic experience on its own.

Thirdly, games that have huge open worlds can sometimes suffer visually as well, with each area having have less detail than those of more linear games or those with smaller maps. For some games it doesn’t matter, for instance sandbox games such as Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress. The point is to have an extremely expansive world, which you can control or manipulate and the graphics are deliberately basic for that reason. However, the bigger the world the more likely there are to be horrendous glitches. Red Dead Redemption, for instance, has some absolutely hilarious ones (check it out on Youtube). Also there’s often less to do than it first appears. In many open world or non-linear games there are big open spaces that you have to travel between or areas for exploration, but there’s actually very little in them. It’s mainly an illusion of space and all the items and quests could have been packed into a much smaller area, rather than forcing you to traverse the map just to collect one little thing. Bigger is definitely not better and if you have a huge map, but with very little actually going on in its various parts, then personally I would prefer to play a game with more detail packed into a smaller map. That doesn’t mean that open-world games are inherently less detailed at all. Batman: Arkham Asylum and Far Cry 3 did very well at packing tons of detail into fairly large areas. It’s all about balance and not simply expanding for the sake of expanding. 

Lastly and most importantly to me is that the story can suffer for adding in open world elements for no reason and the result is that it feels less like a less coherent world. Too many side quests can detract from the apparent urgency of the main plot and make it more difficult to suspend disbelief at times and can even lead to narrative inconsistencies. I’m sure everyone’s come across a point in an open world or non-linear game where a character tells you ‘quick! Get to the next area and talk to so and so or we’ll all die! We’re counting on you!’ Instead of taking this to heart, your character wanders around for the next three hours collecting things and talking to NPCs and ‘exploring’. It can lead to a feeling of disconnect when you do continue with the main mission, only for everyone to act like you weren’t just a complete douchebag for abandoning them in their time of need. Also, running around talking to tons of characters can mean that the characters you do meet are less developed. The benefit of more linear games is that it’s easier to follow specific characters around and there’s more time dedicated to getting to know them. Here there is a major difference between a non-linear game and a truly open world game. The more open world, the more these dangers exist. Sometimes having millions of possibilities can feel more like a lack of direction and that can take away from the main narrative. It’s not a surprise that many games with the best stories are linear or at least more linear than a fully open world or sandbox game, although of course not exclusively. As many point out, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a story being linear. In fact linear stories are tried and true. When was the last time you read a non-linear book?  It’s all about finding that balance and figuring out whether your story would benefit from your game being non-linear. Personally, I don’t think games should be open world unless there’s a real reason to do so; in other words, if it would really further the plot or if the exploration aspect of the game is simply more  important. 

There seems to be an obsession with open world games or at least with having some open world elements. Personally, I think developers need to be more cautious and I don’t like the trend of simply making games bigger or having more options simply for the sake of it. Of course, in the end it comes down to enjoyment and for some people, exploration is more important. If you’re enjoying yourself, that’s the important thing and there many games that incorporate or focus on the exploration aspect of a game and do it very well and they are no less important than games that depend on its tightly told narrative. Those two types of games are also not mutually exclusive. At the same time, I think it’ll be a while before we see a truly narratively strong and truly open world game. That doesn’t mean we should give up, but there does need to be more awareness that there is a balancing act going on or at least that there needs to be a decision for sacrifice. I welcome more open world games, but I also think it’s a pit trap that many a good game could fall into, never to return.

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20 responses to “Can games be too open world?

  1. I think part of it comes down to the ways and reasons your player traverses the landscape. One of the great parts of FC3 was that it gave you a reason to run to all those different places (delivery games, challenges, and hunting), but implemented a fast-travel system so that you didn’t have to do it every time. Like how dungeons in many games let you open a back-door at the end so you don’t have to do the arduous crawl every time. They also had multiple ways of travelling (Vehicles of all types, zip-lines, constant running, fast-travelling, aaaand I abused the crap out of the wingsuit) Good article!

    • Thanks! That’s definitely one of the things I loved about FC3 as well. There was clearly a lot of thought that went into how to make travelling around in FC3 fun and how to encourage exploration, which a lot of other games don’t do. Many devs seem to think that if you add in a horse or a few cars, that makes it fun, without giving you a real reason to travel or giving you a lot of variety in how you do it. I would totally agree with you that that’s where FC3 excelled. The fast travel system also acknowledged the fact that no matter how awesome the world that’s been created, people don’t want to have to constantly trek across the whole landscape every time. Having that option I thought was excellent, even though I did spend way more time just driving or running around than I normally would do in most games!

  2. Oh I definitely agree. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve seen someone suggest a series should go open-world for its next installment like that is always the answer. When it doesn’t work for certain games. As a platforming fan, I know I think the more open you go the less challenging it generally becomes. Like multiple routes is good (like Mirror’s Edge), but something like Infamous and Assassin’s Creed goes too far. I actually think Arkham City lost some of the tight level design of the first game and was worse for going to more of a sandbox design. Obviously it can have a bad effect on the narrative as you mentioned too. I enjoy open world games quite a bit, but at the same time, I think people sometimes underappreciate the value of more linear or structured games.

    • Exactly! I find it bizarre that so many excellent games have gone the open world route when their more linear structure was partially what drew fans to the franchise in the first place. In attempting to appease fans studios seem to be forcing games that just aren’t suited to it into this massive open world format, which often ends up falling flat. As you said, having multiple routes can definitely add to a game’s experience, but that doesn’t by itself mean that it’ll be a satisfying experience. I haven’t tried Arkham City yet, but I’m definitely interested in seeing what direction they went with it, because the tight level design was one of the things I most loved about Arkham Asylum. I definitely agree that more linear games are definitely under-appreciated these days, which is a shame, because there are so many classics out there that I don’t think would have been what they were without that linearity (Half Life 2 for instance).

  3. I agree, open world does not automatically mean better, and the drawbacks you pointed out — especially RPG elements suffering — are definitely worth considering. They’re the reasons I’m not big on open-world games most of the time.

    I mean, I understand the appeal of open-world exploration… but personally, I find it daunting (as you mentioned it can be), and I’ve never liked an open-world game solely BECAUSE it was open-world. It’s fun when it adds to the role-playing options, but I also find that I get super lost and waste a lot of time trying to navigate to quests. It drives me nuts.

    Also, a linear story keeps me engaged and makes every decision feel relevant. I value that a lot more than seemingly endless exploration… but I know some people feel differently, which is cool too. =)

    • I really enjoy the exploration element of games that do it well, but like you I’ve never liked a game just because it was open world. I definitely agree that it’s about what exploration or having tons of options actually adds to the game and if it actually makes it more fun to play.
      Haha I get lost sometimes on huge maps too! I’ve spent hours in some open world games just trying to figure out where the hell I’m supposed to be going!
      Linear stories definitely have that benefit in that it can be told in a very tightly structured way, which often means they turn out to be stronger stories, in my opinion. Of course, there are people who don’t necessarily want or need a strong narrative throughout or just enjoy being able to do whatever they want in games and that’s obviously totally fine too, but like you I definitely like having a strong story to keep me engaged.

  4. I’m currently playing Mass Effect for the first time, and while I love the open-world feel of selecting the next system to jump to, I would be very happy never to have to drive that moon buggy thing across identical patches of rock ever again!

    • Oh my god, the Mako! I think it was fun for a little bit, but it wore me out pretty quickly. Repetitive exploration is rarely fun, at least not for me! Luckily I think the Mass Effect trilogy only got better at figuring how to include open world elements without making them tedious (although other issues may have arisen as a result). I hope you enjoy it! It’s an excellent series (my favourite of all time). 🙂

  5. Great post! I adore RPG games, but I don’t want to be overwhelmed by the exploration aspect of it either. I’m still playing Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and at times I do feel as if the open world exploration is too much. I grow tired of exploring, and just want to go straight into the main story.

    You make a good point about how you have characters in the main story tell your character how we have to hurry and save so and so before it’s too late. And yet, because there’s no timer on how soon you really need to get there, you just continue exploring as if you have nothing better else to do. It breaks immersion into the world, and it comes off as completely silly and weak. I think Mass Effect has been guilty of this in some parts of their game, but not too badly.

    As you said, it comes down to balance.

    • Thanks a lot! Exactly, sometimes I feel like there’s just too much exploration in games and end up feeling overwhelmed. It begins to feel more like a chore that I have to grind through to actually get to the main story. I haven’t tried Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, but hearing that about it doesn’t make me want to jump right into it I admit! Maybe when I have a lot more time on my hands. 🙂
      There were definitely some points during Mass Effect where I did feel immersion was broken a bit, because of the whole Shephard wandering around for ages while there are clearly more important missions to get on with, but as you said I don’t think it was too bad. They at least tried to explain it – s/he was essentially told to travel around a bit, which is more than can be said about a lot of games. I definitely liked how they added in some missions that were timed though, because I felt it added to that sense of urgency and realism. It’s definitely something that I think is often overlooked as the people making the game don’t realise how jarring it can be sometimes when they don’t at least try to explain the reasoning behind all the random exploration in the middle of the story.

  6. I liked the first open world that i played, but you’re right, it’s gotten old . I’ve returned to more focused plaforming, and linear, compact kind. Maybe I just don’t have time to play anymore.

    • Open world games are definitely often a huge time commitment. If I just feel like playing something, I’ll usually pick up something more linear, unless I really like the sound of an open world game. There are a lot of good open world games out there, but there are also tons of tedious or boring ones, so I think it’s important to pick the right one!

  7. Great post! I agree completely with you CheeeseToastie. Developers today often seem to be shifting towards the the orchestration of open world environments. I mean, when a group like id, the developers of the original FPS action horror game, decide to promulgate a RPG based environment (Rage, 2011) you just know the general importance of such a key factor. Additionally, Bungie too have recently jumped onto the open world band wagon with Destiny, and there was a rumor in November 2012 that Half Life 3 might additionally follow suit (when and if that game is ever conceived). I agree with you about open worlds being entertaining only when done well, and in the case of id’s Rage, although it was an alright game, I was quite disappointed when comparing it with their previous projects. It wasn’t the story, but the feel, if there is such a thing. Id were up until then known for creating kick ass action games (I apologise if I seem blatantly rude ma’am) and sacrificed this quality in exchange for a game that felt entirely different right from the get go where one could choose where they went and how they went about it which contradicted everything they had ever done before.
    I also agree with you when you say how RPG’s sometimes do not heighten the overall stress of doing something when they say ‘you must do this now!’ and perhaps a month later your character could still be gallivanting through the fields having a gay old time without fear of any particular consequence because there are no dire ramifications from not moving forward. This is especially prominent in the Elder Scrolls, however, games like Mass Effect and Far Cry 3 successfully found a way around this. In ME, if one was not fast enough, dire consequences such as potential characters dying or being captured by the enemy could indeed come to fruition, and in FC3, one was told to get to a vantage point with a time constraint thrown over their head on ore than one occasion.
    I believe that games like ME did an amazing job at the open world and this may be due to Bioware being known for creating games of an RPG like caliber. Developers the likes of id are not known for this. It is my belief that perhaps developers should stick with what they do best and not sacrifice their want to acquire more money or a larger audience for the amazing games they are known for developing. It is selfish and can at times fail to efficaciously entertain adoring fans.
    Shooters, like Halo are just as fantastic, emotionally powerful and entertaining as any open world game can be. I only hope that not all of the developers forget this. I’m all for an open world, but I would like some solid straight forward, linear action every now and then too, you know, to switch it up a little. Without that, well, I know there will be at least one very angry gamer on the planet – and he’ll look a lot like me!!!!!!!!!!

    • Thanks very much! It does seem that more and more games are opting for an open world environment, but it can be particularly annoying when a beloved franchise makes that jump for seemingly no other reason other than a misguided attempt to appeal to more people. The result is often, as you said, a game that goes against everything it was in the first place and may end up alienating or displeasing their original fans. Half Life 2 is one of the games that I always hold up as an example of how linearity can breed excellent storytelling, so I’ll be really upset if they make Half Life 3 into an open world game (assuming they ever get around to it)! Let’s hope that doesn’t happen! I haven’t played Rage, but I can see why that would be really disappointing!
      That’s a good point that games like ME and FC3 manage to get around the problem of having exploration, but still maintaining that sense of urgency by actually laying down some consequences if you don’t get there in time. It definitely made the story more believable to me and I remember appreciating that at the time.
      I definitely agree that devs should stick to what they’re good at. Obviously, it’s good to experiment and maybe they’ll find something new that will work for them, but making drastic changes like making a game open world is something that needs a great deal of thought and I agree, shouldn’t be done just for more money or a wider audience, because among other things it often backfires terribly!
      I definitely want a mix of linear and open world games too, since I feel both have their place. If games start becoming exclusively open world, I’ll join you in raging!

  8. Excellent post. I *love* open world games, if they’re done well, but yeah, sometimes it’s just being huge to have something to sell the game (X times the size of This Other Game). I think the real key is to have some sort of fast travel system to allow getting around the game world more quickly, whether or not that ‘breaks’ the fiction, because invariably at some point fatigue starts to set in and you’re less interested in exploration than just plowing through and actually finishing the main story.

    • Thank you! I completely agree with you about open world games needing some sort of fast travel system even if it doesn’t really make sense in the context of the game, because sooner or later all that running/driving/flying around starts getting boring. I love open world games too, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten through one without at some point just wanting to get on with it! Even with games like Far Cry 3, which had some seriously fun ways of travelling if I hadn’t had a fast travel system to fall back on, I probably would have given up after a while from sheer boredom!

  9. Pingback: My favourite games of all time or games you should play before you kick the bucket! | CheeeseToastieandVideoGames

  10. I agree 50%, some games should never be open world but I personally never tire of exploring a vast world {if it’s done right} and making my own adventures. Games like Witcher, Elder Scrolls, Crysis, and Far Cry are a few I can think of that really made me love exploring. Games like Risen, Two Worlds, and Gothic made me want to shoot myself after a few hours. So I guess it depends on what type of gamer you are. I prefer having more freedom in my games but as long as it fits the game. Forcing open world on a game that doesn’t need it makes no sense to me but it’s being done and sadly there’s nothing we can do about it.

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