It feels like for a while every game developer was obsessed with open world sandbox games. They were the buzzwords to watch out for during announcements and they are still the go-to game style for a lot of AAA titles. While it might seem like providing gamers with a big open world to get lost in is a guarantee of success for your game, you still have to, you know, produce a good game.
So what makes a great open world game? Let’s dive in and take a look.
While it might seem somewhat counter-intuitive, the most important ingredient in an open world game is the story. The world can be rich and expansive as you like, but without a good story driving me to explore it all that detail is just gonna go to waste.
Think about it.
Fallout’s story drives you across the wasteland in search of your father, your son or a stolen piece of mail. Red Dead Redemption has you chasing your former gang mates across the old west. And Skyrim sends you into endless dungeons after Elder Scrolls and the words of power you’ll need to defeat Alduin.
Without the plot there to drive you from one end of the map to the other the world would no doubt still get explored, just look at Minecraft. But there’s a reason I’ve logged over 700 hours playing Skyrim and not Minecraft, and that’s because exploration without a story gets boring after a while. At least for me.
But you can’t just stick any old plot onto a beautifully rendered world and hope for the best. It has to be both high-stakes and engaging. I have to really care about either the central conflict or the characters or both.
I think this was the point that Mass Effect: Andromeda fell short: the world was expansive and the conflict was certainly high-stakes, but I struggled to stay invested. I just couldn’t relate to the plight of a few plucky humans a galaxy away in the same way I cared about helping Shepard and co save our own galaxy.
I mean, this should be a fairly obvious requirement of an open world game: having an open world to explore. The bigger the sandbox, the better. Usually.
One way to ensure the gamer stays involved is to put barriers in the way of exploring. Whether that’s having some areas locked until the plot is progressed past a certain point or just making you walk the entire way, there needs to be something in the way. Some challenge for the player to overcome.
Nothing annoys me more in a game than being told I can’t do something. Nothing guarantees I’ll find a way to do it anyway like being told I can’t.
But while bigger is often better, some games really work with a smaller map, such as the earlier GTA games, which only give you a single city to play in at any given time.
The key to making an open world game’s map really work is to provide the player with plenty to explore and the key to that is variety. If every area is the same as the last, then there’s little incentive to go exploring for exploration’s sake. I’ll just stick to the areas I need to go to for plot and leave it at that.
Even with GTA V there’s a variety of environments to enjoy, from the hustle and bustle of the city to the desert areas by the Alamo Sea. There’s even a mountain to climb. Then jump off.
Skyrim even has different micro-climates for each hold, which leads to differences in plant life and wildlife. And of course in the types of monster that’s trying to chew on your spine at any given moment.
Mad Max might be set entirely in a post-apocalyptic desert but there’s still variety to be had. From the piles of garbage in the Dump around Gastown to the Reek Hills in Gutgash’s territory and the endless sand in the Dunes, no part of the map is quite like the other. That variety is an important part of making the player want to keep playing.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt if all that varied scenery pretty too. I counted the number of times the special edition of Skyrim made me cry just because of how goddamned beautiful it is. It’s not a dignified number. Same with Horizon: Zero Dawn.
Variety is the spice of life and it can be the difference between a bland as hell game and a true masterpiece.
3. Robust character creation and customisability options
For me, character generation is a huge part of these types of games. While there are notable exceptions (hello, Assassin’s Creed franchise, how are you?) most of my favourite open world games come with a robust character customisation engine. Which means that even if everything else about the story stays the same, I can try things over and over again and role-play different approaches.
To be honest, my love of having character creation options probably stems from being forced to play as a mediocre white dude in so many games that I will automatically love any game that gives me the option to play as a woman. I loved Evie in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and I am looking forward to playing Kassandra in Odyssey more than I can say.
I’m not gonna lie, I love the character generation process itself. Playing around with the options, working out the bounds of what’s sensible and what isn’t and finding out in cutscenes that you’ve accidentally created a horror, and not just in a Monster Factory kind of way either. One of my favourite Inquisitors I ever made had extremely prominent cheekbones. So prominent, in fact, that whenever he spoke, his teeth clipped through his cheeks.
Despite its flaws, if someone could give me the option to just play around with the Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition character generation engines on their own, I might never get anything else done.
For my money though, the game with the best character customisation options is Saints Row 2. Very few binary options, everything on a slider and what sometimes feels like unlimited opportunities for ridiculousness and chaos. If we could get that style of character creation in everything that would be great.
But the thrill of creating the absolutely perfect character only lasts so long, and happens at the start of the game. It’s what happens after that that’s the real draw.
Re-playability is a big thing I look for in open world games. Look, I’m a cheapskate, and I want to make sure I get my money’s worth out of my purchase.
The variety of different areas and climates can help with that, because there are always new areas to explore, but it’s not the main reason I play a game over and over again. The variety and choice in everything else is.
Give me an open world game with tons of character customisation and options, branching dialogue and storylines and some tough player choices that change the nature of the game from that point forward and I’m yours forever.
This is one arena in which Bioware excels, as both Mass Effect and Dragon Age feature various dialogue options that not only change how other characters see you, but can open or close off potential routes for you as you progress through the game. The branching dialogue means that once you’ve created your character there’s plenty of potential to get inside your character’s head and see what they do.
Is your Shepard gonna go full Renegade and save the galaxy, no matter the cost? Is your Hawke the kind of person who flirts and jokes their way through everything? Is your Inquisitor a power hungry asshole or a well-meaning idiot that’s just doing their best? You decide.
It’s not just branching dialogue that increases my engagement with a game; the branching player choices during quests is what really seals the deal as far as immersion. Give me a binary decision to make in which both actions have consequences for the characters and the story. If both choices are in a moral grey area? Even better.
The games that stay with me long after the credits roll are the ones that do this to me. I can still be reduced to tears by the words “it had to be me” and I’m still discussing the moral implications of both of the choices Mass Effect 3 offers you with regards to the Geth years after the fact.
These choices will often get me to do multiple playthroughs too, experimenting with the different options. This works better in some games than others; the quest you get bringing down the Dark Brotherhood in Skyrim is a real disappointment compared to the rich gameplay you get for actually joining them. And the choice between Imperials and Stormcloaks doesn’t change much apart from which Jarls you go to get missions from.
That and how many comments you want to hear about not taking baths.
Inquisition does better, as do most of the Dragon Age games to be honest. I’ve played through this game numerous times experimenting with siding with the Templars or not, supporting Celene or Gaspard. The only choice I refuse to change is saving the Chargers. Only a monster would sacrifice the Chargers. That one is just not on the table.
5. A decent number of side quests to procrastinate with
I might be in the minority on this one, but I absolutely love a good side quest. The more stuff available to do before I get back to the world-threatening main plot, the better in my opinion.
Part of the reason I love the side quests in an open world game is that I genuinely enjoy the endless fetch quests. There’s something satisfying about collecting 15 of this and 27 of that. But that could just be me.
The other reason I love them is that it says something about your character, both in and out of game.
In-game, the side quests show that your character has the ability to see the small people and how they’re affected by whatever is going on in their world. It can be tempting to just look at the big picture and forget about the smaller quests, but you’re saving the world for a reason. Your big damn hero is putting themself in danger to save that elf who wants flowers putting on his wife’s grave, or the blacksmith who wants you to fetch a book from halfway across the world. Without these people there’s no point in saving the world.
I don’t know about you, but I find it really difficult to play evil characters, even when it’s an option. I just really like helping people out, okay. Whether they’re real people or not.
Doing all those side quests also speaks to a certain amount of tenacity and determination that I really like, since it takes a good chunk of time to complete all of them.. There’s also the element of completionism with these things, hunting down all these quests and finishing them just for the satisfaction of saying you’ve done it. Which is why when I do my inevitable 15th playthrough of Fable II, I will be shooting all 50 of those blasted gargoyles. Again.
The side quests can make or break a game for me in terms of feeling like I’ve got my money’s worth out of a game. There’s a reason I keep coming back to both Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition. For my money, both of these games hit all the above points, and they do it well. Which means I’m just as likely to start up yet another playthrough of one of these games instead of whatever the current AAA offering is.
It also means I am shivering with anticipation for both Elder Scrolls 6 and Dragon Age 4, but that’s another article entirely.
What do you look for in your open world games? Do you enjoy endless side quests as much as I do? Let me know down in the comments.
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