From my perspective, one of the biggest trends in gaming has been the rise of open world games. At first, these games seemed revolutionary.
“You mean I can go anywhere I want in this game world?” said a younger me.
Yep, you can! But as the trend continued for the next decade, I began to realize how shallow open world or sandbox games tended to be. That and there was this perennial arms race to continue making bigger, and bigger open world games.
It’s great to have an epic world in scope, but when a large portion of the world cannot be entered or interacted with in someway it leads to a shallow gameplay. Likewise, because of some limitations in open world games, it’s led to a lot of linear or “been there, done that” type missions.
We all recognize the “this is an escort the NPC mission” or a “tail the NPC stealthily” mission. After a while, it gets boring. But, there have been some games to do some truly incredible things with open world games. One such game is Kerbal Space Program.
One might say, “Hey Forenci, Kerbal is the definition of a literally empty world! It’s all empty space and even when you land on other worlds that’s empty too!” Fair point, random stranger. BUT! Kerbal Space Program of course makes the journey of getting to those empty worlds an enjoyable experience. And like your English teacher always used to say: “Sometimes it’s not about the destination these characters reach. It’s about the journey they experience along the way.”
When I was playing Kerbal Space Program I realized my growing dislike for bland, open world games could be altered. I will admit it helped that Kerbal Space Program is brilliantly designed.
While in the sandbox mode (which is what was only available when I purchased it) there were no missions, no goals, and no achievements. At least, not in the standard sense. But there was a natural progression of goals that simply…happened. Without warning or encouragement from the game. It just happened.
In Kerbal, you begin making rockets that typically fail to even make it to space. Sometimes they explode on the launch pad. Sometimes they explode in the air. But you learn from your failures and keep going. Suddenly, you make it into orbit around your home planet of Kerbin! It’s a glorious achievement to your prowess in engineering.
Next, you say, “hmm..where else can I go?” And you set your eyes to the nearest moon (Mun). You struggle to get there. You fail. You finally make it into orbit around the moon! SUCCESS! Wait, you ran out of fuel trying to land on the Mun and explode. Then you land on the Mun. I’M THE GREATEST – until you realize you don’t have enough fuel to make it off the Mun and have to mount a rescue mission (oh look, a mission that randomly appears without prompting). Then you finally do it! You land on the Mun and safely return to your home world of Kerbin.
All this without any prompting from the game. And even then, you can continue and begin to work on more difficult journeys to further and further worlds. Then you start making refueling stations and refueling bases on other planets.
My point, with this exceedingly long example, is that incredible game design enables you to set goals, missions, and create achievements in a completely sandbox and open world game. It’s something I’ve become more and more likely to do, even in games that aren’t open world.
Take Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. An open world game by definition, although with a clear ending in sight (be the last to survive). While the gameplay itself is rewarding, I quickly found myself setting more and more goals within the game. I wanted to be better and better, so I would set goals for improving my ranking and kill to death ratio with each passing season despite the game not having any clear ranks (it does now, though).
Even in Call of Duty Black Ops 4, which released just last week, I’ve applied the things I’ve learned in open world/sandbox games, and I have applied them to Call of Duty multiplayer. My goal is to unlock all the cool skins in the game because it allows me to diversify my gameplay style and achieve unique ways of playing.
Which I think is the moral of this long winded post. Find what you enjoy in open world games and set goals and missions for yourself that will bring you enjoyment. While I’ve never been a person who likes to build for luxury in games, I know there are people who love that. If you love building epic houses in Minecraft, try setting a goal! Maybe you can recreate Hogwarts in the game. Or maybe build the most lavish mansion you can think of and record an episode of “Minecraft Cribs.”
Maybe you’re an achievement hunter. So, look up all those achievements or better yet: sit down and write some of your own. If you like to role play, get with some friends or like-minded people and act out a scenario or improv. If you’re a competitor set your sights on being the best of the best on the leaderboards or just make sure everyone on the server knows you’re the best there is. At the end of the day, try making some goals or focus on what brings you enjoyment in games and apply them to open world games.
Now, having said all this, here’s my plea to developers of open world games: give us a fun and rewarding area to play in. Give us options to do really cool things. Don’t make the biggest area possible and fill it with absolutely nothing. I’d much rather have something the size of a small city, but I am able to go into all the buildings, interact with interesting NPCs, and give me the freedom to engage in interesting gameplay mechanics.
Give us exciting ways to traverse your open worlds too. I could swing around New York City all day in Marvel’s Spider-Man. I love games with superb movement mechanics in open world games beyond just standard vehicles (cars/ground vehicles).
Fill the world with interesting people, missions, or tasks. Steer away from the mundane escort missions for character X and instead give us ways to connect and become attached to our party members.
Flesh out open world mechanics that allow for a wider variety of play styles. Give us mission editors. Give us role playing mechanics. Give us a ton of achievements. Give us modular building so we can go crazy.
Well, that’s it folks! I’m thinking because this was such an interesting blog to write of making a companion video at my YouTube channel in the coming weeks. Also, be sure to come by and watch me play games live on my Twitch channel. Finally, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic and make suggestions for anything else you’d like to hear me write about on Twitter @forencigames.