As is often the way with any trend, things can get taken a bit too far. When something becomes popular, everyone jumps on the bandwagon in an attempt to cash in on the success. Where games are concerned, this isn’t anything new. When a new game style or game mode takes off, you can be sure to see many studios taking a stab at it (battle royale, as a recent example). Sometimes, this results in really great games, and the people who enjoyed the trend in the first place are gifted with more great game content. However, it sometimes gets to be a bit much (again, the current discourse surrounding battle royale is a good example). Open world game settings have been around for a long time, but had a massive surge in both popularity and innovation in the mid 2000s. Open world games don’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. While that means more advances as games get better, it also means the potential for more problems. As open world games crept ever closer to the “overdone” line, more people found fault with them. I’m going to be looking at three points of contention where open world is concerned, discussing the (valid) complaints, what I still find enjoyable, and try to brainstorm a few suggestions to make those issue less of a concern.
When it comes to quests in open world games, people have a lot to say. One big complaint is the majority of side quests are nothing more than busywork. Piling in busywork quests often means the writing quality suffers. Filler quests don’t advance the plot or player character in any meaningful ways, while being bogged down by these quests makes the actual main plot of the game hard to follow. The root issue here seems to be the sheer, overwhelming number of quests available. I’ve played games where all of these are certainly true. In the Elder Scrolls games, almost everyone you talk to will offer a quest. Retrieving lost items or looking for missing relatives are favourites of BioWare games. What I will say about non-essential side quests is that I find them almost relaxing in their simplicity. They’re also a great way to roleplay your character, and plot out your own approach to the narrative flow. Not everything in a game always needs to be high adrenaline, and it’s also sometimes nice to have that satisfaction of completing a quest without the hours main questlines sometimes take. Where I think the real problems lie are in quest organization. An example of this is Skyrim, where quests are all just clumped together in a giant list. There is no way to determine which quests are main ones, except for the miscellaneous quest list, which is just an equally unorganized subset. Better organization of quests, either by region or importance, at least solves the issue of the narrative being harder to follow. Another aspect many games are missing that would help with a number of these is the ability to abandon quests. I hate having unfinished quests, but honestly, I don’t always want to finish them all. Having the ability to abandon a quest, or remove it from my log, would alleviate some of the irritation.
2. Map Size
The size of the map in open world games is often variable, but it seems many game studios want their games to have the biggest and most open worlds. If the complaints I’ve heard are any indication, bigger isn’t always better. The world is too big, some say, making it impossible to see all of it. There is too much to do, and the giant map makes for a lack of direction (interesting that these are similar points to the issue with too many quests). Finally, a large map is difficult to create, and may suffer from empty spaces without any actual value, or a potential for more bugs. In my opinion, this is like saying a game is filled with too much fun, but I’m a big fan of open world. For me, it feels like a kid saying the received too many Christmas presents. My own bias aside, I do think there are some positive points for large scale maps. No, you might not be able to, or want to, see all of it in one playthrough. What you get instead is replayability. It also encourages exploration, which can be fun, if the map makes it worthwhile for the player. That’s the catch, and one of the things I think can be improved on. The map needs to be interactive enough that it isn’t just running past scenery for hours at a time. An example of this being done poorly is the towns in Fallout 4. Running past buildings in a post-apocalyptic town and not being able to enter them makes them nothing more than a lot of uninteresting scenery. Another issue is the other extreme from the “too many quests” problem. If there aren’t enough quests or interactions spaced out in the map, it gets boring and pointless pretty fast. A game needs a map with a scope that fits into the size of the story, with a balance between space and interaction.
3. There are so many of them
Finally, the obvious issue, the overwhelming number of open world games. There is only one real complaint here, but it is definitely the most common. “Why does everything need to be open world these days?” This is certainly a valid point. Many studios have opted for the addition of open world in at least some respect. Why wouldn’t they, if it is going to make them more money? People still seem to be buying open world games, and if that’s any indication of interest, for every critic there must be a fan. Now I certainly agree that the decision to give every franchise an open world component isn’t a great one; for the reasons above, and because it just doesn’t fit in all games. Anything added as an afterthought just to make money doesn’t do a service to anyone. However, when it’s done intentionally and given the time it deserves, it is amazing. Look at how well received Breath of the Wild was, or how nicely Assassin’s Creed Origins took something the series had given a bit of effort to in past games and blew it out of the park. When it’s done right, it makes great games.
My final thoughts tie nicely into this point. With every game trend, there are going to be people who don’t like it. That’s fine. There are a lot of games being made these days, and while it may seem like all of them are open world, it isn’t the case. Another thing to remember is that there will also be people who love them, and enjoy seeing them done well. Regardless of what type of games you love, it may not always be the big thing the giant companies are pushing. That doesn’t mean they aren’t being made, and the people making games with passion shouldn’t be overlooked.
Have a grievance I missed, a positive take you want to add, or another helpful (or outlandish) suggestion to improve open world games? Let’s hear about it in the comments.