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Open-world mission design is awful, let's fix it

4:00 PM on 05.24.2010 // Andrew Kauz

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I still remember the very first time I played Grand Theft Auto for the good old PlayStation. It was one of the few games that I, back in the day, became truly hyped for prior to its release. After only an hour or so with the game, I began calling friends of mine, proclaiming the game to be the very best thing that had ever happened. Most of them asked me, "Why?" and, to my recollection, I had no good answer. I just said, "You have to play this."

Looking back, I can see in far greater clarity why this game influenced me so greatly: a world of delinquency at your fingertips, with rockets and flamethrowers causing pedestrians to flee in terror and cars to spin wildly around the streets. Obviously, I wasn't the only one taken by this formula of open-world freedom; we now have a whole category of open-world "sandbox" games, spanning RPGs, FPSes, and even racing games.

Yet there's still one thing about the original Grand Theft Auto that I can't rightly recall. What the hell did I actually do in that game? I mean, sure, I remember tearing around the streets and blowing stuff up for hours on end, but wasn't there a game hidden in there somewhere?

Sadly, I find that now, over ten years later, not much has changed. We have increasingly detailed worlds, with more and more ways to cause chaos. Yet, when it comes down to it, mission design sucks. It's frustrating, forgettable, and downright boring in many cases, even among top-tier releases.

It's time to revamp. Mightily. 

Mission design, as I see it, is all about dots and lines. Across all game genres and mission types, missions can be understood as either following a line or approaching a dot.

A great many games insist that players complete missions by following a line, sometimes quite literally. Essentially, "line"-style mission design asks players to move from point A to point B, giving players essentially one path to follow, though that path may have minor branches; the important distinction is that these branches do not provide a true alternate path to travel. To complete the mission, you still have to follow the line. Myriad games follow this mission design, from the Call of Duty series to the recent Red Dead Redemption.

"Dot" mission design, on the other hand, essentially gives the player an objective, yet does not set out to provide the rules for reaching that dot. The "dot" can be any number of objectives, from getting to a location to assassinating a dynamic target. Or there may be multiple dots, as in Splinter Cell: Conviction's hunter mode: take down the targets in the area, then move on to the next. While you move through the areas in a linear fashion, what you do within each area is entirely up to you. This is even visible in the game's story mode to some extent; Maxime Béland, creative director for the game, suggested that "each environment is built like a small sandbox," and it shows a hell of a lot more than in most true sandbox games.

The main problem of open-world games is that they do not play to the strengths of an open world. While not in a mission, you get to experience all of the joys of an open world: exploration, non-linearity, and multiple approaches to any given situation. You get to play the game your way, which is, essentially, what an open-world game should allow you to do. But as soon as you accept a mission, you're too often put on a path. Go here, do this. All in a very specific way.

James Hague, the design director for the massively enjoyable Red Faction: Guerrilla, seems to be the only other person talking about this problem. He wrote a fascinating article on Gamasutra quite recently that should be required reading for game designers and players alike. In it, he not only talks about the design process for Red Faction: Guerrilla, but he also talks about mission design in open-world games on a larger scale, hinting at the fact that, yes, most of the time, it isn't very good.

One statement of his in particular strikes me: "An open world is more than just a lobby for starting linear missions."

This pretty much encompasses my feelings toward the mission design in Red Dead Redemption, a game that succeeds in nearly every way except those related to mission design. I don't want to pick on Red Dead, because it is not the worst offender, nor is the game bad by any means. But the reality is that the soporific and repetitive missions in the game continually threatened to cause me to abandon the story altogether, making me want to set out to make my own experience out of the game.

So, what's the problem? According to Hague, successful mission design in a game like Red Dead Redemption requires that the developer let go of control within missions, and that seems to be the major failing of the game. In any given mission, each player will experience the event in the exact same way thanks to the mission design. Wiping out a gang means moving in a line toward the leader, and shooting him. There's no room for multiple approaches aside from, in some instances, a choice to take the high road or the low. This level of superficial freedom defeats the purpose of the rich world that the designers created. By controlling each step in the completion of a mission, the designer prevents the player from playing the game how he or she wants to play it, which essentially negates the open world.

Before I propose any solutions, some important concessions have to be made. Designing missions to allow for complete freedom is a nigh-Herculean task, as it presents a variety of ways for a player to break the game, both from a narrative and gameplay standpoint. It also requires the developer to implement the tools required to give players those freedoms -- you can't set up an explosive surprise for a carriage if you aren't given explosives.

Still, the choice to create a game with an open world comes along with an expectation of freedom in all facets of the game (or at least it should), and that means not only giving players the tools to create chaos, but also letting go of the sort of mission design that has driven games for years. What it doesn't mean is abandoning narrative within missions and creating vague objectives with loose connections to the progression of the story.

One basic solution is to insert players into a mission in a location that allows for maximum freedom. It sounds simple, but it's something that a lot of games seem to miss the mark on. For instance, imagine a mission where the player is tasked with reaching an objective at the center of a canyon. If the player is placed at the mouth of the canyon, the expectation is that the player must move forward on the canyon's path, progressing linearly until the objective is reached. However, start the player even just a little bit behind that, outside of the canyon, and suddenly new possibilities are opened up. Does the player enter the canyon there, or attempt to ride up the canyon's slope and attack from behind or even above? Even this simple choice makes a world feel open, and not like window dressing for a linear mission.

Another solution is to abandon many of the same tired mission types that have been appearing in open-world games for years. The first time I played a horse racing mission in Red Dead Redemption, an audible groan escaped my lips as I asked, "This again?" Truly, does every open-world game need some sort of boring racing mission, especially one that is tied to the main storyline? Not only is the racing itself boring, but it stands out as a forced inclusion in a game where it doesn't belong.

Dropping the player in an open world requires an entirely different approach to missions appropriate to the world itself. The Saboteur achieved that in this respect: the world created was all about sabotage, and the missions reflected that, both in the design and the freedom given to players. Sure, it had its fair share of "drive here" missions, but it also had those where destroying an objective could be completed through the use of a car bomb at 40 miles per hour, an RPG from a rooftop, or a few explosives placed directly at the base.

These multiple approaches, combined with the dot mission structure (which allows for any number of paths to be taken to the objective) gives true freedom, and allows the player to create his own story for every mission. Instead of "I went here, I shot some dudes," it becomes, "I started on the roof, sniped a few sentries, blew up a car as a diversion, sneaked in around the side, took out the target, and got out undetected."

Doesn't that sound like fun?

The solution certainly isn't all about varied ways to blow things up; that is, of course, not appropriate for every game. But what can be learned from what The Saboteur does is that a game's theme needs to be written into the very design of the missions, and those missions need to reflect the overall direction of the game. This goes far beyond the cutscenes that lead into the missions; a mission in Red Dead Redemption should make me feel like a regulator, not a damned amateur jockey trying to invent the grand sport of bumper horses.

There's also the possibility of abandoning the mission structure in an open-world game altogether. I have no doubt that this would have serious consequences for any game hoping to tell a cohesive story (at least in our current console generation), but imagine a game that could progress a story without actually forcing you to do anything. Every choice would be the player's own, and never would the player enter into any sort of traditional "mission." Perhaps situations would be dynamically generated to react to the player's actions, progressing the story based on what happens in these situations.

Could that even work? Hell, don't look at me; I just write about games. But I think that day might be coming, and when it does, we'll have an open-world game with genuine freedom that is far more rewarding than many of the experiences we have now.

Andrew Kauz,
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