Gamers love open worlds, because going wherever and doing whatever we want while sitting motionless in front of a console is fun. And scientific proof that irony can’t reach lethal levels. But some of the developers playing god aren’t fit to play snakes and ladders, which is why we’ve extracted some lessons for open world games. Here’s hoping they’re applied to tomorrow’s release of GTA V, because there are plenty examples below of games that didn’t learn their lessons.
1. Open Means Open
You know you’re in trouble when you have to explain 50% of a two-word phrase. Slapping an open world map onto a game that’s not ready for it is a worse combination of freedom and terrible ideas than Arkham Asylum security. In some “open” worlds the designers shoo you away from private areas as if they were their pretty pink panties.
If you want to carefully stage your players through crafted stages in a set order, that’s fine: make any other kind of game. If you must lock off the next section of your open world, be honest. Don’t leave players grinding our faces against grey boundary textures in the hopes of finding a weak point. When Metroid Prime wanted us to turn around it said “You need a Power Bomb“, and we didn’t mind because:
- it meant we weren’t wasting ten minutes trying to jump over invisible walls
- in an inversion of real world issues, the knowledge that we’ll soon be going through a security door with ultra-powerful explosives stored in your body cavities is relaxing and fun
- it wasn’t, and this is just a random example, tell using that our super-powered building-climbing electrical spree killer couldn’t get over a damn chain-link fence. Cole.
Infamous gifted the players with the powers of climbing, flight, and more ways to electrically screw people than Zeus’s genitals. This made it pretty hard to funnel the player, which is why they created a more ludicrously impossible prison than the one in The Prisoner. Apparently a man made of angry lightning bolts can’t defeat chain-link fences. It was like the Devil himself rising through a searing magma rent in the Earth’s crust, then being told to “stay!” by a priest with a rolled up newspaper.
2. Quality Beats Quantity
Bigger isn’t always better – that’s why so few women date Sumo wrestlers. Just Cause 2 boasted the biggest open world ever with four hundred square miles – then hoped we wouldn’t notice that it was the same oil refinery, military base and town-made-of-gas-tanks a hundred times each. The world would have been twice as big if the designer’s fingers hadn’t cramped up in the ctrl-v position. Luckily all those things exploded, so it was still fun, but it didn’t help that the three rival factions were nice enough to share the exact same mission profiles despite being mortal enemies.
On the other end of the spectrum you have Hitman. (Well, you had Hitman, until they screwed it up). Their levels were often only building big, but each was a Groundhog Day of gleeful murder. You could play each level ten times in a row and only kill targets the same way twice because you’d found your favorite kind of killing. In the Opera House you could assassinate the target with a garrote, a chandelier, antique guns, modern guns, the plot of the opera itself, or just rampage through the upper echelons of society with a stolen hammer like a demented Morlock. All this in a level you could complete in sixty seconds with a sniper rifle. But so much fun you’d only do that easy method when it was the only thing you hadn’t tried yet.
3. Save It
Save points in an open world are like leeches in an ER. True open world games are about setting up more “Watch This It’ll Be Awesome!” stunts than a redneck working in a Budweiser & Monster Truck factory. You should be able to quicksave at any time so you can retry things to get it right. Or because it was awesome. Seriously, ever programmer ever: back/select to save, and shoulder button + back/select to reload the most recent. This is what the BACK button has been waiting for all this time on Xbox controllers? Why do you think it’s never used?
This will save more time than the Prince of Persia with a TARDIS, and be capable of more physics-defying madness. Never again will gamers drive ten miles across Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas only to be shot to death and have to do it again. Although that mission was an amazing art-house movie on the fragility of life, where a long, beautiful ride was brutally ended by horrible catastrophes over which you have almost no control. Otherwise known as “Grand Theft Auto gunfights.”
4. An Open World, not an Open Level Select
If people wanted endlessly repetitive aggression without any redeeming qualities they’d read YouTube comments. An open world should be an integrated playground of locations, not a loading screen you have to walk through. Again, there’s no problem in not being able to create enough stuff to fill a world. Just make a regular game instead. Otherwise you end up with apocalyptic wastelands like Fuel. Which truly represented a post-catastrophe Earth, by being mosty empty and boring as hell.
Fallout 3 and New Vegas used their open worlds by turning them into libraries where every book let you blow people’s heads off. The mechanics didn’t change but the stories did, and you chose to go through them because you always had complete freedom to shout “screw this” and shotgun someone into shutting up.
It made randomly wandering into a radioactive wasteland an enjoyable experience. That’s the opposite of both real life and Bionic Commando.
The greatest open world of all time is to be found in Burnout Paradise. They took the scenic route, and then filled those scenes with ramps you could jump off. Their open world was made of everything from mountain paths to downtown traffic and you can get from one to the other at an average speed over a hundred miles an hour. It was stuffed with breakable barriers, hidden dirt tracks and even an entire airfield rebuilt to launch cars into the atmosphere instead.
The world was so distinctive you genuinely learned your way around as you played. All the annoying wrong turns in the early game became race-winning shortcuts later on . The game created a real world which didn’t just let you play, but got more fun the longer you lived there.