So with Horizon Zero Dawn nearly here and not that long until the Nintendo Switch and Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild there's been mutterings about how open world games are getting tired, they're getting old. People are getting fed up and tired of them. So I thought it was worth looking back at video games and talking about how we got to this point and more importantly why open world games have exploded in terms of being developed far more.
Well the main thing to look at is how the cost of making video games has exploded as technology advances and is pushed more and more. I've talked about this in a previous C-Blog but and here's how it's relevant here, for a while gaming was trying to compete with Hollywood. I know someone is going to yell bullshit but just look at how often people were on about making cinematic games. In turn Hollywood has responded and one of the bizarre realities of films is the fact practical effects are still often cheaper than CGI effects etc. You only have to get it to work without killing someone once and as such it's going to be cheaper than the rigs and the technology to create the effect digitally unless it so vastly expensive and or dangerous it can't be done in reality. If you want to see what I mean about Hollywood trying to step up just Watch XXX then XXX3 the Return of Xander Cage. Films are removing a lot of what I'd call their "down time". While it makes things look cool and impressive I do think it undermines good pacing of films and creates a situation of having to keep ramping up the stunts rather than have a few good stunts that stand out after a less hectic less action filled build up. Gaming was trying to compete with ramping up stunts and set pieces, less game do that now but the likes of Uncharted do still do it to an extent. Film has one huge advantage over games though, they use the real world so they can go to one country or one region even and find a number of locations that allow them to film said stunts. There's even studios and parts of set in storage at some of them for use on films that require them and the best part, unlike digital graphics the studios don't have to do huge amounts of updating to them other than remove the odd out of date prop. Game studios on the other hand can't just pull out old stored sets very often without having to vastly improve lighting and texture work. This all leads to the fact that Uncharted, The Order 1886 and many other "linear" games have to make sets from scratch and being generally longer than a movie they also have to make a lot more.
What makes Open world games appealing is you make one world and then use that, you don't have to make area after area just for single setpiece events. I mean I remember not being too kind to Enslaved Odyssey to the West because it felt like setpiece after setpiece and that just felt awful. It also costs more and can look worse as using the same location twice is more acceptable to people than copying and pasting assets from one area to re-use later on. Open World games cut the cost by allowing the re-use of areas an assets without actually harming the quality by copy pasting sections from one set piece into another.
It's also worth pointing out there have been pseudo open world games for years it's just they found unique ways to gate off certain things in the Metroid-Vania approach. Which often saw you back tracking thorough previous areas to utilise new items and skill to unlock new sections within those areas.
Now another reason I suspect that open World games have become popular to make is the fact that it allows the inclusion of things to lengthen the possible game time with things like hidden collectibles. Without having to potentially annoy people by making them replay levels or sections of levels just for a single missed collectible. I still remember in a certain game called Hunted the Demon's Forge being presented a choice of two seemingly identical doors, one moved the level forward, the other was a side room containing some extra stuff, as I'd not played the game before I didn't know which was which and so I ended up picking the one that turned out to advance the level, the problem was a metal grill then dropped down stopping me going back. I was pretty annoyed I'd just missed out on something and to get back to it I'd have to essentially replay the whole level. It's possible with analytics from achievements and gameplay companies may have also noticed this via the amount of people who refuse to go back and collect such stuff.
The big problem of the present open world batch of games is the environment designers have put in so much work they refuse to let the game play programmers have a patch of the map people aren't required to visit. Then when the gameplay programmers look towards the writers they find there's a sign on the door indicating there's not really much point trying to ask if they can come up with a story reason to use said bits of the game.
So seemingly the gameplay designers just decide to throw some time wasting activities in there because fuck it that'll shut up the whiny environmental artists. Yes that I hyperbole but there's very few open world games where I've actually found all the side activities really worth doing or actually that well thought out or interesting and that's one of the big problems of the genre at present. Meanwhile going slightly off the beaten track in Metroid tends to get you reward you with upgrades or in Legend of Zelda going off to do one of the many archery mini games or such tends to actually be something approaching fun and also something that gives you a reward.
Oh and while here can I just point out that getting a specific reward is far more enjoyable that being given another few coins of allowance to stick into the upgrade vending machine and told to take my pick. It's like some demented arcade where the stuff I really want is always going to be the most stupidly costly and require me to spend far more time on stuff, except in an arcade generally the progress toward said thing is also fun in its own way.
(Image from Infendo)
There are some open world games that do something more with the side busy work: I've heard Witcher 3 does make some of the side quests actually interact with the main quest, though I've also heard some people praising the more self contained expansions more because they're more directed and focussed. I also know Infamous Second Son likes to hide little extra bits of story and world building behind the side quests like the gameplay designers weren't put off by the sign on the door of the writers office and instead broke in and made off with a load of half finished story idea rejects and threw them into the side objectives.
Another big issue is it seems the open world game has become the latest AAA cock measuring contest with each company loudly proclaiming how big their open world is. Meanwhile there's the odd sod jaded enough by marketing and fed up enough of the industry to risk speaking up and say "Yes it is rather amazing you've managed to get a 27 inch cock but is it really required for you to be able to please someone? Isn't it a little big and going to require a lot of blood to actually fill the thing to actually use it? I mean even EA had trouble with their 18 inch gold plated one and it seems you just got a 27 inch one to say yours is bigger".
You know right before they're escorted from the room and never seen again by people who look suspiciously like NPC guards from one of the company's recent releases .
I can't help but think out there some-one at Nintendo is going "You think at any point any of the idiots will figure out what we did around the time of Zelda a Link to the Past on the SNES. That it's probably better to have a map size appropriately designed to fit the planned amount of content rather make the map first then figure out what to fill it with?" You know while they place bets over if they can get away with making something based on wanking that will both sell and have customers not realise.
(Gif from Techraptor)
The open world design could easily be fixed, it wouldn't be hard. I mean Batman Arkham Knight for all its flaws did make some steps toward this by having certain story beats change things in the environment like having giant plants grow in certain places. But few Open world games seem to want to actually allow any major changes to occur to the map lest one of the giant radio towers fall and crush one of the 300+ collectibles they'd filled the map with like they're the Easter bunny on strong laxatives. If developers won't cut back on the world size at least make it seem like the player is doing something and impacting the world or are they too worried the envrionment designers will get pissy? Either way something kind needs to be done otherwise it's too much like reality you know except for the 30 foot robots and the Nazis roaming the street (you know unless you're someone whose taken to calling everyone who disagrees with you a Nazi). A place where I can go out collect a load of useless crap and when I try to have an impact on the world be told to put down the lighter and stop tipping petrol on that tree and ask how on earth I managed to get into that memorial garden in the first place.
Oh up I'm at over 1,700 words at this point I probably should wrap this up so um in conclusion the Open World games as we know them are a result of games mostly realising competing with Hollywood in the same way will be more costly and after the first time through that train explosion will seeming lose some of its wow factor. Not to mention the fact in term of looks future generation will claim it's aged about as bad as your Mum. Yet other than the smug gits at Nintendo it seems companies are struggling to realise that maybe their dick waving contest isn't as important as making a map that's the appropriate size for whatever the writing department have come up with to excuse the player killing 300,000 NPCs this time. Then again for all this shit I'm giving them they're still actually doing better at this open world thing than Everybody's Gone to the Rapture.
Author's Note: This blog either proves why writing and watching Zero Punctuation is a bad idea or why I should do it more often.