I think the last few years have brought us to a bit of an inflection point for open world video games -- which I feel have been in kind of a rut for the better part of the last decade. Long-time readers of my personal blog will probably be very familiar with my complaints. The two core complaints that I've had with this particular game design paradigm are:

  1. That the map itself rarely feels meaningful as a game space, and instead serves primarily as a convoluted mission-select screen full of time-wasting filler content.
  2. That the sandboxy nature of the game design means that the world and narrative often feel stagnant (as if in a kind of "limbo").
This blog is mostly a transcript of a YouTube video that I posted.

These problems can be traced back at least to 2001's Grand Theft Auto III, which set many of the conventions of open world games for the next two decades. Companies from Ubisoft to Bethesda, and many others, would copy GTAIII's structure of going to a location on the map to trigger a mission in an aggressively linear, cinematic story, while spending free time on time-wasting filler content that did nothing to move the story forward.

Grand Theft Auto III set many of the standards
for open world games over the past 20 years.

Aside from Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed and Far Cry series, these problems have been present to varying degrees in everything from Skyrim to The Saboteur to Mad Max to Just Cause to The Amazing Spider-Man to Fallout 4 to Metal Gear Solid V, and many more. It started getting to the point that when I would see a game advertise the size of its map, I'd roll my eyes and lose interest. "Great, that's just more wasting my time walking from place to place with nothing meaningful or interesting or challenging to do."

Where you are on the map, where you're going, and how you get there was almost completely irrelevant in these games, which made the map itself (no matter how big and scenic it might be) feel mostly irrelevant. In fact, some games started introducing mechanics that let you bypass the map entirely by letting you fly, glide, or zipline to points of interest without having to engage with the space in between. In the case of Metal Gear Solid V's Afghanistan map, the roads are lined with sheer cliffs, funneling the player along linear paths from enemy outpost to enemy outpost, with practically nothing for you to do in the space between outposts. Even though the stealth action at those outposts was some of the best in the series, I couldn't help but think that Snake Eater provided a much more fulfilling experience of living within an open-ended game world.

I would roll my eyes whenever a game advertised the size of its map or hours of content.

The maps themselves weren't playspaces anymore; they were just the spaces in between towns, dungeons, and set pieces where the actual gameplay would take place. Just point in the direction of a waypoint and walk in a straight line, stopping every minute or so to pick up an umpteenth collectible, or climb an umpteenth tower, or sneak into an umpteenth enemy base and kill the umpteenth recycled mini-boss. Stop me if you've done all this before... A majority of the time with the game was just travelling around the map without any engagement in any gameplay systems or mechanics or strategies, and then playing some rote, recycled filler content to pass the time. And as the maps got bigger and bigger, the filler content just kept multiplying.

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Last November, my girlfriend and I took a trip to Denmark and visited the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. That was a great trip, and the ship museum was pretty great, but there were a couple things that we wanted to do, but which we couldn't because the ship museum doesn't operate them in the winter. For one thing, the museum has a collection of reconstructed Viking ships, including a full-size longship. These ships are usually docked in the harbor, along with some living exhibits of the construction and maintenance of these ships and the ropes and sails used to sail them. During winter, the exhibits are closed and the ships themselves are brought onto land and covered in order to prevent ice from forming and damaging the ships.

More importantly, the museum offers tourists the opportunity to go out sailing the reconstructed ships with a couple of museum guides. This service is also only offered in the summer due to weather restrictions, and we decided that we wanted to go back to Denmark so that we could sail a Viking ship!

Big Ben
Big Ben was the first of several Civilization
world wonders that I'd get to see.

She found affordable tickets to London, and we allocated two weeks to spend in Europe this summer. My dad also expressed an interest, and we offered to take him with us and pay for part of his airfare and lodging expenses as a combined Father's Day and birthday gift (his birthday is in May). We ended up deciding to take him to London, England, to Coppenhagen, Denmark, and to Munich, Germany.

London, Stonehenge, and Shakespeare

Our first stop was London, England on June 26th. We did some of the usual tourist things, like visit the Tower of London and walk by Parliament and Big Ben (one of several Civilization wonders that I would be visiting during this trip!) and Westminster Abbey. We also had fish, chips, and beer in a pub and started two week's worth of gluttonous eating! Despite walking 15 to 20 miles per day, I still gained 3 1/2 pounds during the trip.

The British Parlaiment building was covered with scaffolding, apparently being repaired or remodeled. This would actually become a recurring theme during this trip, as many of the places that we visited would be covered with scaffolding.

We visited the Imperial War Museum, including the Churchill Warroom.
I tried on some World War I-era clothing, which was very uncomfortable and itchy.

The second day (Tuesday), we visited the Churchill Warroom and the Imperial War Museum. I had previously visited the Imperial War Museum in Manchester during my trip to the U.K., so this time we got to see the larger museum in London. I was a little bit disappointed that the museum didn't cover British Imperial history prior to World War I. There were no exhibits about colonial British sailing ships. The museum starts with World War I, and then goes through World War II, the Cold War, and the War on Terrorism. It also included an exhibit on the Holocaust, which was interesting because the exhibit started on the top floor, and then descended to the lower floor as the exhibits shifted from persecution of the Jews in Germany to the full-blown "final solution" period. It was a clever bit of symbolism to descend into the fullest horrors of the Holocaust.

On Wednesday, we did a day-trip with a tour company to Windsor Castle, the Roman bathhouse in Bath, and to Stonehenge (another Civ wonder!)...

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In my reviews of The Force Awakens and Rogue One, I complained about how the speed of communications and hyperspace travel seems to have shrunk the Star Wars universe. I asserted that the writers seem to have no appreciation for the size and scale of this universe, or for galactic conflict. That observation severely hurt my enjoyment of both films. Star Wars has always flown lose with its science, but even though the original trilogy got a lot of details wrong (ahem, "parsec"!), there at least seemed to be an effort to respect some scientific believability. Even the prequels stayed fairly respectful to the size and scale of the universe and conflict. The new movies, by comparison, seem completely (and deliberately) scientifically illiterate.

Keep in mind that the following analysis is coming from someone with only minimal knowledge of the extended universe. I'm more of a Trekker than a Star Wars fan (a "Warser"?). I have tech manuals of the Enterprise and the star charts of the Federation, but no Star Destroyer tech manuals or Imeprial star charts. So my opinions come from the films alone. Besides, all those novels, video games, and comic books have been de-canonized by Disney anyway. If anyone more knowledgeable of the Star Wars extended universe wants to chip in with corroborating or conflicting information, feel free to do so in the comments. Thanks to Disney's meddling, such knowledge may now be moot.

And oh, by the way, it drives me nuts when Star Trek movies make these sorts of mistakes as well. I'm looking at you, Star Trek V and first episode of Enterprise!

Hyperspace originally analogous to contemporary air travel

Let's start by looking at a frame of reference: the trip in the Millenium Falcon in the first Star Wars movie. While the Millennium Falcon is in transit from Tatooine to Alderan, Luke has time to receive some rudimentary Jedi training from Obi Wan, Han calmly relaxes and socializes in the lounge, and Chewbacca has time for at least one game of space-chess against the droids. This hyperspace trip is presented as being analogous to cross-continental (or intercontinental) plane flight: at least enough time for passengers to unfasten their safety belts and wander around the cabin.

Star Wars - lounging in the Millennium Falcon
A hyperspace trip in the Millennium Falcon offers at least enough time for everyone to lounge about.

But an estimate of hours is on the low end of the spectrum of possibilities. As far as I can tell, there's nothing in the movie that negates the possibility of this trip to Alderaan taking days. That would certainly be plenty of time for Obi Wan to teach Luke enough of the basics of Force-sensitivity to enable his "lucky shot" in the climactic Death Star trench run. It would also give the characters enough time to socialize, converse and develop some sense of camaraderie with one another. It's also enough time for Leia to undergo at least a couple rounds of interrogation aboard the Death Star...

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My past two blog posts have been focused on open world gaming. These posts have been continuations of an earlier post about the narrative "limbo" that many open world games create via their quest structures. In the first post in this second series, I pointed out what I perceive to be a problem with open world games that insist on turning their sandbox worlds into little more than convoluted mission-select screens and collectible checklists. In the following post, I described some games that I think managed to make successful open worlds by including features or mechanics that made traveling through the space (or knowledge of the space) into a meaningful mechanic. This time, I want to go back to some of the games that I singled-out in the first post in this series, and brainstorm some ways that they could have made better use of the large spaces that their maps offered so that traveling around the world wouldn't become so boring later in the game.

But before I do that, I want to re-emphasize that I don't hate these games. They're just not very good at using their space, and that's what I'm criticizing. Well, the newer Assassin's Creed games have been pretty terrible. Anyway, I pick on games like Skyrim and The Witcher III a lot, but I like them just fine - I bought the DLC for both. I pick on them, not because I hate them, but because I do like them and I want them to get better (or for their sequels to get better). Rather, my objective here is to find ways for these games to make better use of the large, open spaces that they provide the player, so that exploring the map feels more mechanically relevant, more interesting, or more rewarding; and to feel less like a time-sink.

Games like Skyrim and The Witcher III have massive worlds, but do a poor job of utilizing the space.

Bethesda's Skyrim and Fallout titles, as well as CD Projeckt Red's Witcher III and Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto V, already have open worlds that transcend being simple, convoluted mission-select screens like games like Assassin's Creed and Metal Gear Solid V. They populate their worlds with little narrative world-building details that make their worlds feel alive and lived-in (even though they may feel stagnant). So what could a game like Skyrim or The Witcher III have done to improve its open world?

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Last time, I discussed what I perceive as a problem in the way that most open world games (specifically, sandbox games) design their maps and use the space that the maps offer - or fail to use that space, to be more specific. So many open world maps end up feeling less like actually playing the game, and more like a convoluted mission-select and collectible checklist screens. This problem is especially bad in the Ubisoft model of design, and is also a problem (to a lesser extent) in Bethesda's open worlds. Due to the popularity of these developers' franchises, many other developers have been cloning these styles of games to one extent or the other, to the point at which Ubisoft's open world model seems to be the go-to template for any developer trying to make an open world game. These games aren't necessarily bad. They just aren't very good at making the space of their maps feel meaningful in its own right.

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate - zipline
Many open world games have large, expansive maps that mostly feel empty and pointless,
as the player rushes through them simply to get to the next map marker or checklist item.

But now that I've established what I see as a problem, I want to focus on positive feedback. In this discussion, I'm going to look at a handful of games that should serve as inspirations for would-be open world developers. Ironically, some of these games aren't even open world games, but they still pose valuable lessons for how games that are open world could better use their game spaces. That isn't to say that the games discussed here are perfect. In fact, many of them have their own major flaws. But each of them has some element of design that utilizes the actual game map as a component of active play, rather than just a space in which game sequences exist. First, let's take a look at a game that was re-made recently, and use it as a "before and after" case study of map design...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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