What Makes an Open World Tick?

After the recent release of open world giants like Saints Row IV and Grand Theft Auto V, I found time to ask Mike Hewitt for his thoughts on how open world games work. What keeps a player engaged in an open world?

Introduction: How does the open world fit in Saints Row IV?

Greg: Say, Mike, how much did the overworld impact the missions in Saints Row IV?



Mike: What do you mean?



Greg: Were many of the missions outside? Or were they in indoor areas exclusive to that mission?

Saints Row IV .

Saints Row IV.

Mike: Most missions were in exclusive areas--hopping into other people's computer simulations in order to save them. All of the side missions were in the overworld, but they weren't really missions; instead, they were minigames. The only true side missions that utilized the world were character specific ones, a sort of hang out with the person you just rescued. Those were probably the best part of the game.



Greg: So, the best part of the game took a story-required element (the character) and put it in the open world?



Mike: Honestly, there is nothing special about the missions in particular. It was more the dialogue that stood out, and most of it serves more as a reminder of previous Saints Row games. If you've never played any of them, it might not mean that much.



Greg: It almost sounds like a Zelda setup, where the most intense gameplay (dungeons/missions) is separated from the world you traverse.



Mike: That's an apt description.



How do missions fit in an open world game?



Greg: I've never gotten into open world games, but it's piqued my curiosity recently. Like, what makes them tick, what makes a good world? Would you say Saints Row IV had a good world?



Mike: Eh, not really. It's pretty much a modified version of the Saints Row the Third's world, same city and all. But it felt much better in Saints Row The Third. There isn't really any world interaction in Saints Row IV, and since most missions take place in other places, the world didn't feel necessary. I recommend playing Saints Row the Third if you want a good open world. And Arkham City. Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto probably have the best open worlds, despite other flaws.



Assassin's Creed 2 .

Assassin's Creed 2.

Greg: Arkham City and Assassin's Creed 2 were recommended to me because you have missions where relevant gameplay takes place in the world and takes advantage of its features. Like in Arkham City, you might use a nearby trap on enemies, or in Assassin's Creed, you could have in mind some escape route when you get in trouble.



Mike: I would agree with that. I left out Assassin's Creed 2 because it was more a series of smaller sandboxes than a true open world game. You travel around through all the major cities in Italy, so it's constantly changing.



Greg: If I understand you, Sly 2 and 3 do the same thing. They had six and eight worlds respectively, but you'd have missions such as stalking a guy through the city streets or scaling some particular building in the world.



Mike: Stalking and scaling viewpoints are prevalent in Assassin's Creed, too. I like Grand Theft Auto IV's open world, personally. There is no real city interaction, but the city feels almost like an NPC [non-playable character]. Angry drivers, gang territories, and police, plus the insane detail.



Greg: Is that to say that there's not a decent amount of story-relevant missions that take place in the overworld, but it's so lively it's satisfying anyway?



Mike: Grand Theft Auto IV had the least satisfying missions of any, that's for sure. But it was more because of how uninspired they were. Pretty much drive someplace and kill everyone. But there were still interesting moments, like a bank heist followed by an escape through the subway tunnels or using a painter's lift to get a vantage point on a meeting to snipe someone. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a better example, because you're a low level gang member to start. So, the first city has you involved in a gang war while you get hints of bigger things.



“Great open world games should actively try to prevent you from doing the main quests, if you know what I mean.”



Mike: There's one thing Grand Theft Auto games lack that I think all open worlds benefit from: a fun way to get around. This is especially true in Grand Theft Auto IV, because they tried to make realistic driving. Arkham City has you grappling/gliding through gothic architecture, Assassin's Creed has parkour, and Just Cause has the sweet grapple hook. Grand Theft Auto more or less just has quick travel, whereas a game like Skyrim supplements the lack of travel with unique random encounters and a plethora of extra dungeons to explore.



Greg: So in Grand Theft Auto IV, you'd say that the open world portion of the game is just your Monday morning commute.



Mike: Pretty much. Once you've seen everything, there is no reason to continue exploring it, except to maybe pick up the hidden packages. And there are countless Easter eggs, like the Statue of Liberty and its beating heart. It's a great open world with gameplay that can't match. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had a bit more fun to it because of how big it was, and eventually better options for travel opened up, like fighter jets and jet packs.


  Crackdown .


If you want fun travel, I like games like Prototype or Saints Row IV or Crackdown, where it's basically just running up walls and making the city a playground.



Greg: Crackdown is the one where you get hilarious jump distance, right?



Mike: Yeah.



Greg: That seems like a decent way to tie together open world segments and indoor mission segments. That is, if you're walking on both the overworld and in missions, you have the same kind of gameplay--it's not like you drive on the overworld and then switch to walking for missions.

Mike: I like it because it cuts out much of the fat when you just want to do the next mission, rather than, say, steal a car and follow a waypoint for 10 minutes because the mission is on the other side of the map. I think Red Dead Redemption was a big perpetrator of that; I don't care for its open world the way others do. There was a ton of random travel between missions, especially when you need to cross the river, because you had to travel to a certain spot to get across, which might force you to backtrack half the distance, or at least find your way to a town for a quick travel spot. It was supplemented by a lot of small distractions, though, like flower picking, hunting, and random encounters.

Greg: I always got the impression tactility was an important part of Red Dead Redemption's world--just getting to take in the horse controls and lots of dusty stuff, where it's more a kind of passive, let-the-experience-wash-over-you sort of thing.



Mike: It is, but there are some times when you just want to be someplace. I got bored with the side stuff, whereas other people did it for hours on end. Great open world games should actively try to prevent you from doing the main quests, if you know what I mean.



Greg: It sounds like, for other folks, Red Dead Redemption did a good job of distracting them from the main quest with hunting and flowers and so on. But, if you don't like skinning deer, then the world won't cut it.



Mike: Yeah, I just saw a desert when I played Red Dead Redemption, where others saw so much more. I like the way Far Cry 3 did it. It also had hunting and flower picking, but the world was so full of life: animals, pirates, random caves that could lead to gorgeous grottoes, and among one of the most amazing villains ever. There is something about Red Dead Redemption that might've been one of the best and most subtle uses of an open world, though.



Greg: Oh ho.



Evolving worlds



Mike: Do you mind if I spoil the game?



Greg: Nah, I don't think I care about Red Dead Redemption spoilers.



Editor: You've been warned. Skip to “The Fragile Balance” if you don't want to ruin Red Dead Redemption.

Red Dead Redemption .

Red Dead Redemption.

Mike: Well, John Marston encounters a mysterious accountant, presumably God. The accountant tells John he'll be held responsible for his actions and remarks that the spot he stands upon is “a fine spot.” Later, John Marston dies, and when his son Jack visits his grave, it's the same spot that the accountant mentioned. I love the foreshadowing from that scene, and it's never spelled out.



Greg: I get it, the accountant hints to the place where John's remains will rest. It's a nifty touch. So, that makes use of the world you know for non-verbally communicating the story?

Mike: Right, that's what I love about it. You couldn't do that in a linear game.



Greg: Does Rockstar do that often? Put the world at the employ of the story?



Mike: Yeah, they are the only company that I can name that manipulates the world that way. It's almost never as elegant as that, though. For example, the city in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas progressively devolves into an all out gang war. I know there are examples from their other games, but I'm drawing a blank. Rockstar is the best at crafting worlds in my opinion.


Did you ever play Kindgoms of Amalur?

Greg: No, why do you ask?

Mike: They made this huge, sprawling world, full of unique history and architecture, but they destroyed its implementation with poor pacing and scaling. The amount of time you have to spend in early areas and later areas is vastly disproportionate to their importance. Like, the longer you play, the faster you hop from town to town, and the less you get to enjoy the world. You start out crawling through the world and end up sprinting the last 30 percent.

Greg: That doesn't sound so bad, though--wouldn't you have learned everything interesting by the last 30 percent?

Mike: The world keeps changing, though. I found it jarring, and it made the end forgettable. Plus, the scaling. Earlier, the game tries to distract you with sidequests, but if you meticulously complete them, you will be overpowered by the end, making those sidequests boring. You never outscale the main story, thankfully. Maybe if it didn't have that scaling issue, I wouldn't have felt like I was rushing through the ending.

Greg: It sounds like Kingdoms of Amalur's heart was in the right place, at least. Maybe this example just highlights what a complicated problem open worlds are.

The Fragile Balance

Mike: It's a fragile balance, for sure, and the opposite can be frustrating too. In Fallout: New Vegas, if you try to go left instead of right out of the first town, you find yourself face to face with a swarm of the most powerful enemy in the game. It's not bad here, since it forces you to take a circuitous route to get to your goal, but it can be frustrating from a game that employs enemy scaling. Enemy scaling means you aren't supposed to fight things you can't handle.

Greg: Doesn't that just mean the game is telling you not to go that way, so you'd turn back and head left out of the town?

Mike: Yeah, that's their purpose. But you don't know that when you play it; it's a retrospect thing. And it's important that it exists, but instead of telling you that you are going the wrong way, you feel like you failed because you have the expectation that you can beat anything the game will give you.

Greg: So, they were being too subtle?

Mike: Maybe. I'm not saying that it's a bad thing. Take the Grand Theft Auto series again; they literally break all the bridges to the other sections of the map. repairing them when you are supposed to go there. Or, if you swim to a city too early, you are instantly saddled with 6 wanted stars and a full on police chase, which is a fun way of saying you shouldn't be here.

Greg: Thanks for your time, I think that about wraps it up. 

Postscript: Things you can do, some can't be done

Mike:  Also, there is something I wanted to add, basically another highlight I thought of after we had talked. Or lowlight, as the case may be.

Greg: Oh?

Mike: Since I said Rockstar was probably the best at crafting open world games, I wanted to highlight how their reliance on them has created a result that actually takes away from the game: L.A. Noire. You have a living, breathing city that served zero purpose other than to pad game length between missions. The city was gorgeous and massive, but it was completely disconnected from gameplay. It was an open world game solely because Rockstar makes open world games.

Greg: The gameplay might have been disconnected, but it at least gave you a sense of scope, right? Set a scene where crimes could happen?

Mike: I wouldn't even say that. I mean, yes, the crime scenes exist before and after their missions, but they serve no purpose beyond that mission. The game even discourages exploration in a sense by taking away from your overall score when you cause property damage. Because, well, you play a cop who shouldn't run people over.

So, you spend the game letting your partner chauffeur you around so you can hear their conversation, then you fast travel to the crime scene when that dialogue is done. Essentially, they were on rail segments hidden within the illusion of an open world.

Greg: At its best, the open world was inoffensive, and you could keep it at arm's length?

L.A. Noire : don't run people over.

L.A. Noire: don't run people over.

Mike: Yeah. There were two distinct parts of L.A. Noire, the game and the world, rather than one indistinguishable whole, like developers strive for. I could remove the open world elements from that game and just craft the crime scenes as episodic events, and the game would probably benefit from them.

It's an example that shows that no matter what quality there is in the open world, it doesn't necessarily make a good open world. Bad open worlds aren't necessarily because of poor design. 

Greg: It's got to be a holistic experience.

Mike: We need to think of a term for when gameplay and environment don't match, like being a pyromancer in Ecco the Dolphin.

Greg: Pfff. That's definitely a phenomenon I've observed before, but never put a name to.

Mike: Ludoatmospheric dissonance?

Greg: I'd say that's pretentious-sounding enough.

Mike: That's what I was going for. (laughs)