Remember when open-world games were a rarity? Of course, this was until Grand Theft Auto III exploded onto the market and arguably popularized the whole “open-world” concept. Nowadays, this concept has already evolved to the point of occupying its own genre within modern releases. Some would argue that “open-world” is already beginning to become tired and overused, and what was once viewed as something grand and ambitious is now often associated with laziness and skepticism.
I speak as someone who no longer harbors the same sense of anticipation browsing through the “open-world” category on Steam as I would have a decade ago. So what exactly is it that developers are doing wrong with open-world games? I’ll attempt to explain the certain aspects of these games which are leaving me feeling more and more unfulfilled with every new release.
First thing’s first: To me, map size doesn’t mean a thing. I’ve seen for myself, there are people who have done size comparisons between various game worlds using real-life metrics. While these little factoids are certainly interesting to know, I don’t care that, factually, Grand Theft Auto V is larger than GTA: San Andreas by “x” square miles. At the end of the day, San Andreas still feels larger than Los Santos, and that’s all that matters.
Again, looking at the maps, you’ll probably see why — a vast portion of GTA V’s map consisted of desert roads and mountainous terrain. I still remember how disappointed I was when I found that the urban area of Los Santos, where you will be spending 90% of your time, is so minuscule in comparison to how big the world actually is.
Another major problem is the lack of interior space. Obviously, this is something that can’t as easily be addressed in rural locations, but, considering that most open-world games take place in urban environments, this is an issue that has become strikingly evident as more and more games fall into this same trap of feeling “empty." I completely understand this focus on having huge, sprawling environments — it’s to let developers wow everyone with an equally large map to include with the game manual. But it’s not really an “open-world” if the only places that are “open” to us are weapon shops and our houses, is it?
The great thing is, you won’t even need to search very far to understand how open-world can be executed well. We need only look at open-world RPG’s, a genre which has employed the use of open-worlds way before the likes of Grand Theft Auto. I believe that many modern open-world games can draw elements from RPG’s as they provide a clear template as to how to create environments that feel “alive."
Take Bethesda’s Skyrim and Fallout games, for example: You can talk to every NPC as well as enter almost every building, or cave, or whatever you happen to come across on your travels. You just don’t get the same sense of discovery from other sub-genres of open-world games.
There is also a shortage of meaningful side content in a lot of these games. Usually, in RPGs there are also pages upon pages of side quests to occupy your time. Of course, the quality of such quests do vary considerably from game to game, with examples like The Witcher 3 raising the bar for side content in general. But from my experience, most of them will at least attempt to use side quests as a means for world-building and the development of interesting storylines and characters — that is, after all, one of the main aspects of a “role-playing” game.
Contrast this with other genres of open-world games and you’ll find that context is comparatively non-existent, and NPCs tend to exist merely to fill space and act as a source for background noise and chatter. Instead we are usually given trivial, “collectible” tat to find around the world as well as repeated, categorized side missions which, again, seem identical to each other due to the lack of context. This is my method of differentiating between high-quality side content that feels meaningful and content feels menial and inconsequential.
However, this absence of context won’t be as much of a problem if the side content actually feels rewarding to complete, which sadly isn’t the case for most. Compare the rewards you receive from an open-world RPG to, say, a typical open-world shooter. The former will reward you with some cool new items and gear that you probably won’t have looted yet, whereas the latter will probably offer you a certain amount of currency. Which would you prefer?
I understand that the idea of “loot” may be tough, thematically, to implement within modern settings (though this didn’t stop games similar to The Division from giving it a shot), but, again, this problem wouldn't be as noticeable if there were a wealth of things to purchase with said currency in the first place. It’s too often an occurrence where I no longer care about how much currency I have, simply because there isn’t anything worth spending money on aside from restocking on weapons and ammo.
To summarize, I feel that ever since Grand Theft Auto III instigated the emergence of open-world as a common feature, many developers have seen it as an easy way to garner attention. While the masses may have been intrigued earlier on, I think that more gamers are quickly becoming disenchanted by this bare-bones approach to “open-world” as a whole. Ultimately, it's a shame — I’ve always fantasized about the idea of a game with the depth of Oblivion, only set in a modern location. Hopefully this changes in the future, but, for now, I’ll keep dreaming.