I have a confession to make: I don't like open worlds. Not to be confused with open world games mind you. I can enjoy an open world game decently well if it manages to overcome its deficiencies in enough ways, but that's the problem. If I'm able to enjoy the game at all, it's always in spite of the open world; never because of it, and this isn't even to say that I don't like the concept of an open world in theory. Obviously the idea of wandering around and exploring a vast landscape discovering hidden secrets and stumbling upon pleasant surprises can be quite tantalizing. The desire to explore and discover is in our nature as human beings; most of us are curious creatures after all. We want to feel like explorers.
The problem with open world games however is that they rarely seem to tap into this desire and actively work against the concept's main strength, instead replacing it with mundane checklist fulfillment. Head to this location here and acquire this thing, traverse across a bunch of copy-pasta buildings and trees, then head to that marker on the map over there so you can kill that guy. Check it off your list of arbitrary and repetitive things to do; rinse and repeat. There's no discovery there. I wasn't just wandering along the road at my own pace, going wherever I want and doing whatever I feel like before suddenly happening upon a treasure and being rewarded. No, the game had to explicitly point it out to me and throw a dot on the map so I knew exactly where to go.
Developers don't seem to trust players to find things on their own. They feel the need to hand-hold you every step of the way or else you might miss something. But here's the thing: you probably should miss things on your first playthrough. With many of these open world games clocking in at 60+ hours of content, it's not as if you were cheated out of any of your value even if you end up finishing the game having only experienced half of that. And don't forget that it's not hard to start up another game and begin anew again, or just keep trekking onward on your current save file after you've beaten the main quest line. It's not as if all this missed content suddenly disappears forever just because you didn't do it at the right time, so developers shouldn't be afraid to let players miss things. That's part of the fun to discover it all.
Going beyond exploration, there's also the issue of the quest objectives themselves feeling like afterthoughts, as if they're just there to pad the game out and give you something to do in order to justify all the wasted space in the world. There isn't as much attention to detail and variety put into them as you might find in a more linear focused game. Open worlds present many technical challenges for developers; much of which I feel are never properly addressed, and now with Horizon Zero Dawn just on the... horizon (OHHH HO-HO +20 WIT), Zelda: Breath of the Wild launching with the Switch next month, and Hideo Kojima just recently confirming that his own latest project (Death Stranding) will be open world as well, it seems unfortunately that the open world trend isn't going away any time soon. Thus, I would like to take a moment to offer up a few ideas that could possibly help fix the common pitfalls of open world games.
1. Get rid of quest hubs.
Part of how we end up with this pile of quest markers all over the map and discouragement of actual exploration is that open world games tend to always have towns and cities that serve as "quest hubs" for players to pick up a bunch of new objectives. Instead of heading out into the world and happening upon various points of interest on their own, players simply scoop up all the neatly-labeled quest markers strewn about the city, and then proceed in a systematic mechanical fashion to check them off in rapid succession. While in one sense this could be construed as a convenience, in another this serves as the primary source of deflating the excitement and mystique of exploring an open world. When you know exactly where to go and what to do, it starts to feel formulaic and perfunctory. There's no surprise to be had, and if there's nothing to discover or explore in this world, then why have it be open at all?
Imagine if towns served mostly as places to restock goods and supplies for yourself, and as you're traveling along in the wilderness, you suddenly stumble upon a band of thieves robbing an innocent merchant. You can choose to hide somewhere nearby and wait for the thieves to carry out their crime so as to avoid an unnecessary conflict, or you can help the thieves in exchange for a cut of the loot, or of course you can play the hero and save the merchant. In a more traditional open world game, this scenario would likely instead play out by going to a quest marker in a nearby town at which point one of the locals expresses concern about their shipment, and they slap a new marker along the road where you'll find the thieves. Not only does this setup take away the sense of discovery from running into it on your own, but because it's all neatly wrapped up in the form of a quest objective, your course of action is already made up for you as well. In order to complete the quest, you need to save the merchant. In the former scenario however, since you were never told this is a quest objective that you must complete and you just stumbled into the crime, it's completely open-ended for how you want to tackle it, if at all. Now this is a fairly rudimentary example, but imagine if the whole world was littered with "events" like this that players just run into on their own through exploration rather than because a generic NPC was standing on the street waiting to tell you a rigid quest objective to follow. Imagine that the player's main motivation for progressing through the game is not driven by constantly rummaging their quest log and overworld map to make sure all the markers are checked off, but rather that they just want to keep exploring further into the wilderness and checking areas that they haven't been to before to discover something new, whether that something is a hidden treasure to be found or a conflict between the world's inhabitants that unfolds in the heat of the moment. By eliminating quest hubs and forcing players to have to explore in order to find things to do, you can ensure that your open world actually feels open.
2. Reduce or remove quest markers.
Keeping in line with the train of thought for quest hubs, devs should be reducing reliance on quest markers as well, but this isn't to say that these games can't have more traditional quests and perhaps even a quest log to keep track of them. In the real world, not every job or task that people pick up is something that you can simply do on-the-spot. Sometimes that means traveling to another location to deal with the issue, and since the task can't be done right away, it would be nice to have it logged somewhere so that you can revisit it later and have a general sense of what you need to do when you're ready to return to it. The key words here though are "general sense", as I still think the game shouldn't just spell out exactly where you need to go. If somebody gives you a quest to deliver a message to another person in a different town for example, don't just slap a marker on the map and make the player go to it. The quest log could just state that you need to go to such-and-such town to deliver the message to so-and-so, but beyond that there's no marker on your map for it, and once you arrive in the town you might need to actually use a little detective skills. Ask around the locals for directions or if they know / might have seen the person you're looking for. Maybe use a special skill like Assassin's Creed's "eagle vision" to find clues, or insert whatever random ability your game decides to invent for the protagonist. There should be some sort of thought put into it that makes the player feel more like they're discovering rather than merely referencing their checklist.
There is a delicate balance to consider here though as of course you don't want to end up on the opposite extreme where quests are too vague to be able to figure out and it feels like they're just wasting your time, as I saw this with Xenoblade Chronicles X wherein a quest would have you acquire a certain item with absolutely no explanation of where to find it, and considering how absolutely massive Xenoblade's world is, you could easily spend an entire evening scavenging the countryside only to come up with nothing. It just became an exercise in googling the location instead of challenging myself to find it on my own, so players should be able to find things within a reasonable time frame with the tools at their disposal and enough due diligence.
Ultimately though if a quest log or markers are to be used at all, they should be utilized conservatively. Players should always find themselves running out of markers before being able to advance to the next major segment of the game, as once the objectives dry up, the only way to advance is to shift focus to exploration, which again is the entire attraction of an open world and should be the goal to encourage after all.
3. Reduce or remove fast travel.
I know this is more of a hard sell, because backtracking can be tedious at times and you just want to get to where you're going, but part of appreciating an open world too is actually being required to traverse it and really take in just how large in scale it is. If you're just teleporting around from point A to point B like you're Mega Man, then once again you have to ask yourself if the open world setting is really necessary. You're just skipping over most of the landscape and not really taking in the scenery. If you don't actually care to traverse it, then why does it need to be there?
We don't often stop to think how little conveniences and streamlines can make larger impacts on our gameplay experience than we realize; impacts that go beyond saving us a few minutes of riding a horse across the road. They change our larger perception of the game as a whole, sometimes in negative ways. This was especially made evident to me over the years with Blizzard's famous MMO, World of Warcraft. As the game streamlined itself over time, they provided more and more ways for players to get around, but as we were repeatedly given more and faster options, the world continually kept feeling smaller even though objectively it was getting bigger with each new expansion. As a result, the sense of scale was lost, and you don't feel like you're part of a big living and breathing world anymore, but a series of isolated zones that you teleport to on-command. More importantly, these changes also make real impacts on player interactions. I belonged to a PVP server, and during the early days of Warcraft, it was a fairly common occurrence while heading out to a dungeon with my group that we would encounter a band of opposing Alliance faction players and engage in small skirmishes or games of cat and mouse. Sometimes these skirmishes would prove to be frustrating, other times they would be satisfying, but in almost all circumstances it helped build a sense of camaraderie with my team, and the dynamic nature of these encounters made the world feel more exciting regardless of outcome. Yet after Blizzard introduced the dungeon finder system that not only automates assembling a group but also teleports you directly into the dungeon, suddenly all of these encounters were taken away, and as more systems were introduced to teleport around the world at will, you were less and less likely to find players wandering along the landscape from both factions, increasing the feeling of emptiness and decreasing the spontaneity of gameplay. These are just some of the ways how simple little changes can have costly rippling effects that should be taken into consideration.
There are ways you can mitigate the feeling of "been there, done that" though when forcing players to have to backtrack through previously-explored land. One such way is introducing more quests and events that weren't previously accessible at an earlier point in these areas, as now that you've progressed further in the game, changes in the story have led to new situations arising. You can also take a page from open world games' older sibling, metroidvanias. Games like Shantae and Metroid are fantastic at actually making you want to go back and re-explore areas because as players acquire new items and abilities throughout the game, these tools can be used to access previously unreachable sections of zones that you've already explored, sometimes providing a way to more quickly traverse back to a certain area you're trying to get to, or other times provide you with even more juicy loot and treasures to be found. By incorporating a similar mindset to modern open world games, you could design old areas to include more routes and shortcuts to your destination that you're trying to backtrack to, but these routes are only accessible once you've obtained a new item that can help you reach them.
Fast travel doesn't necessarily need to be eliminated entirely. If the world is large enough that always making the player travel back and forth will inevitably become laborious, you could still allow fast travel with compromises like placing it on a cooldown that you have to wait to expire before you can use again, or make it cost some sort of in-game currency that is just pricey enough to make the player consider whether it's worth the expense. Whatever the case, fast travel is a feature that on its surface seems like a nice convenience, but if overused, it goes against the point of having an open world and makes the size of it lose its impact and significance. It should be used sparingly.
4. Make it linear first, expand it to an open world later.
Possibly the biggest problem of all with open world games is that the quests can often feel very cut-and-paste, as if the developers slapped some NPCs around a certain area without much thought or consideration behind their placement, and then they give you some kind of basic objective as a justification for why you need to interact with these NPCs; that objective usually consisting of shoot everything that moves. Part of the reason for this is that open worlds obviously require exponentially more development time than smaller and more linear environments, yet the dev times for these games are rarely adjusted enough to account for this so that developers can put the same attention to detail in every area as they normally would with a linear game. To a certain extent this is unavoidable due to the limitations of time and budget, but another reason for this apparently lackluster quest design is that developers often design the open world first without consideration of the quests until later, so what if we reversed this process? Instead of developing the whole world first and populating it with NPCs and things to do later, we strictly design the main quest first and approach it as if you were playing through a more linear game with more thoughtful consideration of NPC and environment layout, how these things will interact with each other, and how we can incorporate exciting setpieces into it. Then with the time left over, we go back through these levels and remove all the invisible walls and conveniently-shaped cliffsides, expanding them out into more open environments and connecting them together. This approach ensures that at the very least if the player only chooses to stick to the main quest line, they'll be guaranteed a very tight and polished experience, and they can do side quests that aren't as engaging at their own pace until they get sick of them.
Of course, there is the possibility that with this approach the devs could spend so much time wrapped up in polishing the main quest and inserting setpieces that they run out of time to actually make the open world, and you end up with something more closely resembling the Tomb Raider reboot than Horizon Zero Dawn, but if that's the case, you know what? Good. Your resources were still well-spent, because Tomb Raider was a blast to play and a damn sexy game anyway, and I'll take that any day over another 50-hour snoozefest of mundane tasks and checklists, which is exactly what you would have gotten if that's all they truly had time for in order to cram that open world in. If you don't have the time to properly flesh out your open world, you probably shouldn't be making one in the first place.
Anyway, these are my thoughts on how open world games could help improve themselves. Now if you'll excuse me, I have another arbitrary fetch quest to get back to.