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.
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.
Resident Evil REmake as an open world case study
The original Resident Evil isn't technically an open world game. Its exceptional remake (which was originally released on GameCube and has since been re-released in HD on PSN, XBLive, and Steam) isn't technically an open world either. But changes made in the REmake still offer a valid and worthwhile example of a game that originally suffered from a poor use of space, but which revised its mechanics to make better use of the space and turn its original weakness into a strength in the re-release.
The original Resident Evil game on the PSX was a great game for its time - a revolutionary game, in fact. But it suffered from severe problems in design and implementation. One of the biggest criticisms of the original game was the excessive backtracking that most players inevitably had to sit through while playing. Re-exploring previously-visited rooms for puzzle items or clues that you missed (or supplies that you'd left behind due to limited inventory space) could eat up a huge chunk of time thanks to the size of the mansion, the slow speed of the characters, and the frequent load screens between rooms. For the most part, these backtracking experiences were very dull and boring, since any possible threats along the paths had been dealt with long ago. You already killed all the zombies, so there was no real gameplay derived from having to backtrack around the mansion to look for stuff you'd missed or the proper place to use one of the game's many asinine puzzle items. It only served to waste time.
The Crimson Heads of REmake added an element of risk-assessment to the previously-trivial task of backtracking.
But the GameCube REmake (and, by extension the HD re-release) took an effort to fix this problem. It didn't change the underlying design of the mansion, or the basic controls or mechanics. The rooms weren't any closer together, the character wasn't any faster, and the loading screens between rooms were retained. The trek across the mansion to revisit an old room is just as long as it always was. What changed is that the designers added something for the player to do during these backtracking segments - or at least, something to think about - through the introduction of the "Crimson Heads" mechanic. Zombies that you had previously killed, but which you didn't burn, could wake up as a stronger, more deadly zombie. You didn't have enough kerosene to burn every zombie that you came across, so some areas of the mansion had to have Crimson Heads left behind.
This added a strategic risk-assessment element to traversing the mansion, and pathing or routing your character through the mansion became an active gameplay mechanic. You had to ask yourself if you had the health and resources to take on any possible Crimson Heads you might run across. If you didn't think that you could reliably make the trip, then you'd be better off taking a longer, less dangerous route. The more backtracking you had to do, the more danger you could possibly put yourself in. You could avoid this by taking alternate paths that you know are safe, which still results in long, boring treks across the mansion. But at least that is an affirmative action taken by the player using a mechanical risk-assessment process. It's not simply a waste of time, it's an active element of strategic gameplay. You're choosing to take the longer path because it's also the safer path, and in a game in which resources and health are a precious commodity, safety is important.
You could argue that games like Skyrim and Witcher III and Assassin's Creed have enemies in the map that you can fight and which pose challenge. That's true, but these games also have auto-regenerative health (or at least, healing can be accomplished without expending resources), so there's little cost to these encounters as long as you don't outright die. The rewards for engaging in these fights are also minuscule - if present at all. And the openness of the map and general lack of obstacles means that following a straight-line path is usually the fastest route and the path of least resistance. There's no cost or risk-assessment. So once again, even though there is some engagement with the combat mechanics, there's little engagement with the map or traversal mechanics. Yeah, sure, in Assassin's Creed you'll be climbing up buildings and performing parkour, but these actions are all automatically handled by holding a single button. You don't actually have to do anything besides point in the direction you want to go, hold a button, and let the character do it for you: waste of time.
Examples of games that use their open world space
Of course, there are examples of games that actually do a very good job of utilizing the space of their open world and making it meaningful to the experience or challenge of actually playing the game. Typically, these are games in which you learn and use the game world's space, or in which navigating that space requires some sort of skill challenge or resource-consumption that creates an interplay between the very act of moving in the space and other game mechanics.
This isn't to say that the games I'm about to list are perfect. In fact, they may not even have perfect world designs. Rather, they do certain things with the interplay between their mechanics and their maps that make me feel like the map itself (and the process of moving around within the map) is as engaging a part of the gameplay as the questing, combat, or any other mechanic. These are games in which your location on the map, and the geography of the map feels important in some way.
Racing and sailing uses the environment to challenge the player
Ubisoft's games have kind of become the poster-child for everything that is wrong with open world games, and sadly, they have become the template that other developers (such as Mad Max's developer, Avalanche Studios) have used when creating their own games. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, however, gets kind of an honorable mention as a stand-out exception.
The first Assassin's Creed game had a relatively novel concept and core mechanics. Its focus on using parkour to keep out of eyesight while you identify a target, pursue him to an ambush, assassinate him in an ambush, and then escape the crime scene actually worked well within the game's open world setting. As the games have gotten older, and new ones have been released at a rate as high as three per year, these mechanics have gotten old, the maps have gotten bloated, and the open world has degraded to the trite checklist of missions and collectibles that it now is. At the same time, missions have focused less and less on open-ended assassinations, and more and more on scripted set piece action scenes. Black Flag still has all those same problems, but it does have one thing going for it: much like the first game in the series, it introduces novel new mechanics that shift the gameplay out of those scripted mission set pieces and back into the open world sandbox.
Games like Black Flag and Burnout: Paradise are about navigating the space,
and the environment itself can provide challenges and rewards for learning the layout of the world.
Transitioning the gameplay from the rooftops of historic cities out onto the deck of pirate ship on the open sea revitalized the game's open world. Giving the player this new way of exploring the game world makes that open world suddenly relevant again. And unlike the zip-line of Syndicate, the ship in Black Flag is actually a tool for navigating the world, rather than a tool for avoiding that navigation. Black Flag is let off the hook in my book for the same reason that I don't typically attack open world driving/racing games like Burnout: Paradise: exploring the environment with a tool explicitly designed for navigation is the game's central mechanic.
Even without scouring the map for not-so-hidden collectibles, the simple act of steering your ship, finding trade routes to plunder, and then engaging enemy ships is consistently engaging and fun. The geography of the map is far more relevant than in other Assassin's Creed games because (unlike the parkour features) you can't press a button to make your pirate ship hopscotch over an island or sandbar. The game is very forgiving with its mechanics involving ship-to-ship collisions, collisions with the environment, and beaching your ships (compare these mechanics to the analogous mechanics in the board game Sails of Glory), but in general, you should be very aware of your surroundings. Picking the appropriate location to ambush a trade route and its escort and plunder its cargo is almost as important as the mechanics of actually lining up your guns and pressing the "fire" button. Admittedly, this becomes less true as you upgrade your ship.
And then there's the weather effects that actually changed the gameplay. the ship becomes harder to maneuver, enemy ships disappear over the stormy waves, visibility becomes limited, and lining up shots in the choppy water becomes more difficult. Similarly, rain in a racing game might make the roads slick and affect the handling of your car. The environment itself is now challenging the player! And in the case of a game like Burnout: Paradise, the player is encouraged to learn the layout of the environment, its various nooks, crannies, re-useable power-ups, and shortcuts, and then use that knowledge to improve your performance in races and time trials. The game engages the player in the act of using your vehicle to travel the space and do things within the space, rather than simply fast-traveling to a destination to play another set-piece mission or linear dungeon crawl.
Surviving the wastelands
Besides racing and vehicle games, there's another sub-genre that does a pretty consistently good job of presenting the exploration and travel around the map as an actual gameplay mechanic that needs to be managed: wasteland survival games.
Exploring the wastes consumes resources, which forces you to plan your movement through the environment.
Obsidian definitely attempted to make exploring the Mojave Wasteland in Fallout: New Vegas into an actual mechanic via the game's "hardcore mode". The inclusion of survival mechanics means that traversing the space involves the challenge of keeping your character fed, hydrated, free of radiation, and well rested. Failure to budget your food, water, and sleep results in significant penalties when trying to do virtually anything in the game world. The result is that the simple act of walking to a location on the map requires some degree of a cost-benefit analysis. So walking feels like actually playing the game, rather than just waiting to reach a place where something happens. When you walk past a decrepit building, you may feel like investigating it because "why not?" (much like the dungeons and caves of Skyrim), but you might also need to go check it out because that building might have the valuable food and water that your character needs, and maybe a safe place to sleep off the night. This cost-benefit analysis extends to deciding whether or not to take on a side quest or deal with an emergent or ambient event. You have to constantly ask yourself whether you have the supplies to accomplish it. That question may become a more or less important element of gameplay based on the difficulty setting, but it's always something that you have to be thinking about in the back of your mind.
Granted, this game also has a fast travel system virtually identical to Skyrim, Fallout 3, and Fallout 4, so it's not completely immune to the traversal paradox. Fast traveling in New Vegas actually takes up more in-game time than it did in Fallout 3, and it does still consume your resources. Very little in the game is time-sensitive, so managing your time isn't nearly as important as managing your resources. Once you have a hefty enough stockpile of food and water, the whole system becomes trivialized.
The original Fallout [LEFT] used time as a resource to manage,
and Wasteland 2 [RIGHT] limits your exploration by your supply of water.
Wasteland 2 similarly requires the player to expend water in order to navigate its overworld (though it's generally pretty generous about providing water). And the first Fallout used time as the resource that the player had to spend while traversing the world: waste too much time without accomplishing your mission, and you get a game over. Where you chose to go, and how long it takes you to get there is important. Similarly, the more recent Mad Max game also imposed resource-restrictions on your travel. This time, the resource is fuel for your vehicle. That game also lacks regenerating health, so there is a sense of attrition. Wanting to avoid conflict may force you to find the shortest or safest routes to a destination if you're low on health and lack water or food to restore your health. However, fuel seemed to be in surprisingly hefty supply, and it was rarely a problem that I had to worry about. Mad Max also fell victim to all the other unfortunate tropes of sandbox gaming, but I want to give it credit where credit is due.
Mad Max requires limited management of your vehicle's fuel and the character's non-regenerative health.
Cartography and scientific exploration in Miasmata
You probably haven't played this game, but the indie game Miasmata takes a similar approach to its world as the wasteland games above. Your character is ill and has to take medication in order to stave off the symptoms of the illness, so traveling around the map drains your strength and makes you weaker. You have to occasionally stop and rest. In addition, the near pitch blackness of night time means that exploring during the night is almost impossible, so you have to plan out your exploration so that you have a safe place to retreat to when the sun sets. This is all pretty similar to what Fallout: New Vegas offered - just more extreme.
The more interesting component is that Miasmata turns mapping the game world into a mechanic. As you explore, you can discover distant landmarks as points of reference for triangulating both their position in the game world, as well as your own current position. The game map isn't given to you at the start of the game, nor is it automatically uncovered as you navigate through it. You have to stop and actively map the game based on the known locations of visible landmarks.
Miasmata is a game in which creating your overworld map is an actual game mechanic.
Miasmata is probably the only game that I've ever played in which I have ever gotten hopelessly lost to the point that I had to restart the game in order get back to a familiar location. That was a mistake that I did not repeat! This sort of thing is simply impossible in virtually all other open world games that provide the player with an overworld map that marks your exact location and the location of landmarks, objectives, and points of interest.
Procedural villains in Shadow of Mordor reward backtracking
While Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor does have some of the same problems as Assassin's Creed and other open world games (the map sometimes feels like a collectibles checklist), it does a much better job of keeping all the exploration focused around the game's central narrative and mechanical novelty. The inclusion of an RPG character-progression system means that earning experience by collecting items in the world goes directly to unlocking new and better skills. More importantly: one of the primary reasons to explore the map is to acquire intel on the various uruk captains that patrol the map. This intel can be used to defeat these captains, or manipulate them into helping you achieve your own goals, which all feeds back into the core mechanic that the whole game is based around. You can then take what you know and explore the map for the specific tools to help you exploit the uruk's weaknesses. This game is more similar to the first Assassin's Creed in that it gives the player an open sandbox in which to plan and execute free-form assassinations, rather than herding the player into set piece missions.
The map is periodically being repopulated with procedurally-generated uruk captains for you to defeat.
The map itself is also surprisingly restrained. The developers didn't feel the compulsion (as many open world developers do) to create a massive, expansive map simply for the sake of claiming their map is huge. Instead, the map is big enough to enable exploration, but small enough to maintain the game's tight narrative and mechanical focus. Admittedly, that small map can also bite the game in the butt whenever one engagement with an uruk captain draws in other nearby captains and their entourages.
Most importantly, however, is that the Sauron's Army feature creates a conga-line of procedurally-generated uruk captains for you to assassinate, and they routinely re-populate the world. Remember how I said earlier that Skyrim and the original Resident Evil suffered from boring backtracking? Shadow of Mordor (like REmake) makes backtrackig more worthwhile. Beyond simply killing the low-level uruks who fill in gaps left by your earlier assassinations, you can also use and manipulate them for your own purposes. You can trick or mind-control them into fighting against a particularly hard uruk that you have trouble defeating on your own. This can give you reason to go back to places that you've already conquered, and use it once again, and it rewards the player for learning the layout of the map and the connections and relationships between locations and points of interest.
San Andreas makes a war out of the turf war
A few games, like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, have actually had good turf war mechanics. This game preceded the "base capture" fad, but the model employed by San Andreas could act as a lesson to those developers who blindly copy the open world models of Ubisoft. In San Andreas, your character could kill rival gang members and trigger a "gang war" mini-game that would require you to summon members of your own gang to fight waves of rival gangsters. Winning would remove that rival gang's influence from that region of the map and claim it for your own gang. But the rival gangs won't take your conquests lying down. They'll actually counter-attack and can re-take areas that you've taken from them. This turf war is an actual war, and not just a static checklist of regions to conquer.
Rivals gangs in GTA: San Andreas
actually fight to retake lost territory.
If I remember correctly, these attacks on your territory would come from adjacent territories that were still controlled by rival gangs. So the order in which you captured territory, and the relative placement of gang territories actually mattered. The size of the map was also relevant, because these gang wars happened exclusively (or at least predominantly) in Los Santos. So if you were clear across the map in Las Venturas when a gang war breaks out, you'd be hard-pressed to get back to the relevant region in time to defend your turf. It would have been nice if there was a greater planning aspect that would allow you to predict upcoming attacks and plan accordingly, but even without that mechanic, this was a rare example of a game using its space in a meaningful way.
The Saboteur makes free play count for missions
The Saboteur doesn't follow San Andreas' lead by making the Nazis put up any fight to rebuild the infrastructure you destroy or to take back liberated portions of the city. But this game does make its open world a bit more engaging in another way: targets of sabotage during free play are seamlessly integrated into missions. The city is absolutely littered with guard towers, spotlights, propaganda speakers, light armored vehicles, and so forth, and the player has the option to blow up these (as well as sucker punch Nazi officers) to your heart's content during free play. You can buy maps of each region of Paris that mark the location of all structure that you can sabotage, as well as all the game's hidden loot caches, so this game does fall into the trap of having its overworld become a checklist of activities to complete.
Free play targets in The Saboteur are seamlessly integrated into the missions.
However, these free play activities don't feel nearly as trite or tedious as in other games. In fact, The Saboteur manages to make these activities feel downright constructive. You aren't just ticking items off of an enormous checklist; you're actually weakening the German occupation forces and reducing the amount of resistance that you'll face during missions that take place in those areas. Destroying those sniper towers or heavy guns in advance of a mission can make the mission easier, since those infrastructure do not respawn. In this way, the missions of The Saboetuer feel more like they take place within the game world, rather than feeling like walled-off set pieces that happen to use the same terrain. There's a sense of feedback between missions and free play that many other open world games simply don't have.
Shadow of the Colossus' desolate puzzle map
I've saved the best two for last! This masterpiece of interactive art is a little different from the games previously listed. In fact, it's kind of an opposite. While the previous games listed all give their players things to do in the overworld that make traveling through the map mechanically engaging, Shadow of the Colossus provides us with a completely empty overworld devoid of enemies and [mostly] of collectibles. Shadow of the Colossus deviates from most of the other game listed because it's an open world game, but it isn't a "sandbox" game.
The design of this world certainly does a good job of setting a particular tone for the game, but it also reframes what the overworld is. In Shadow of the Colossus, the overworld isn't a massive arena for finding and fighting bad guys, nor is it a giant yard for hiding collectibles and Easter eggs. You might think that it's just a giant mission-select screen that wastes your time and pads out the game length. That's not necessarily wrong, but it's also a bit too reductive to be accurate. This game isn't a "sandbox" game. You aren't using the overworld to chose which mission to play. Yes, traveling from the temple to each Colossus' hiding place does take up roughly half of the game's play time, but navigating this world acts as a large-scale puzzle challenge. Without obvious map markers or GPS routing lines telling you where to go, it is up to the player to find the correct path using only the compass-like quality of your magic sword as a navigation tool. Heck, even the in-game map is shrouded, and must be slowly revealed as you explore. The linear nature of the game's story also means that these navigational challenges can escalate in difficulty and introduce new mechanics or challenges as the player progresses through the world.
Your destinations are not clearly marked, so exploring the environment to find the right path is half the game.
You don't scour the world looking for quest markers or esoteric nooks and crannies that hide meaningless trinkets or baubles. You explore the world to find the correct path to the next colossus. This is subtly different than the overworld of, say Skyrim. Skyrim allows you to walk in roughly a straight line from any point on the map to any other point on the map, and since your character can usually jump or walk straight up or down a mountain, there's virtually nothing that acts as a real obstacle to your movement if you really want to find the shortest, straight line path possible. That's assuming that you don't just fast travel or hire a carriage to take you where you want to go. Other games (such as GTA or Mad Max) will even go so far as to to outright outline the optimal path for you to take so that navigating the world is just a massive exercise in Simon Says. And even when they try to hide all the landmarks and collectibles, you can usually reveal them with a single "lookout point" stand-in (Assassin's Creed's eagle-eye points, and Mad Max's observation balloons being two obvious examples). Such games don't want navigating their environment to be a challenge at all. The world is just there for everything to exist in, and to serve as a checklist of activities to do. Not so in Shadow of the Colossus.
The time that you spend navigating this world also serves two narrative purposes: it gives the player time to contemplate and reflect on what you're doing and whether or not you're in the right; and it gives you plot-critical bonding time with your horse. All this exploration is used to get the player more familiar with the deliberately clunky controls for riding the horse, Aggro. You have to work at learning how these controls function and practice to get good at riding Aggro. These long exploration segments allow you to do that in relatively zero-risk settings. It also gives you the opportunity to bond with the horse for a traumatic emotional sucker-punch at the end of the game.
You are isolated, with only your trusty steed as your companion.
This gives you an opportunity to develop an intimate connection to Aggro.
If the game were throwing trolls and bandits and horse-devouring cougars at you left and right (like some games have been known to do), then you'd either have to have more responsive controls that would make Aggro feel more like an inanimate vehicle rather than an animal or companion, or else the difficult controls would get frustrating and the player would likely grow to hate Aggro and undercut the emotional impact of the end of the story. You'd also be so focused on defeating these enemies that you might ignore or forget that you're interacting with Aggro and the environment to begin with. So if there ever was a point in design in which there were enemies in the overworld, and the developers consciously decided to remove them, then I'd say they made the right choice.
The incredible sense of place in Dark Souls
Last but not least, let's discuss what open world games could learn from Dark Souls. "But wait," you might say, "Dark Souls isn't an open world game!" That may be true, depending on your definition of "open world". It is not a single, sprawling space, but rather it is a series of linear tunnels and hallways that turn and wrap in on themselves and interconnect. The map is mostly seamless, and these interconnections serve to unify the world into one cohesive whole that actually feels like an open world. Every landmark that you can see in the distance is an actual place that you can visit, and the path that you take to get there feels realistic. In all the ways that matter, Lordran is an open world, and it's one of the best and most well-realized open worlds in all of gaming.
Superficially, this map design is similar to the design of MGSV's Afghanistan map. You could argue that both maps consist of set-piece areas connected with narrow passages. And you'd be right. Superficially.
Where they really differ though is in how they interconnect, what purpose those interconnections serve, and how each game employs its fast travel system. Fast travel in Dark Souls isn't made available until halfway through the game. So in the meantime, the world is designed in a highly vertical, helical pattern with shortcuts going across the helix as well as up and down. This prevents the player from having to make long, tedious backtracking trips. After beating the Chaos Witch, you could go back up through the Blightown Swamp, climb up to the ladder to the Depths, run past the slimes in the Depth's gutters, past the Capra Demon boss room in Lower Undead Burg, up the ladder to the Helkite Dragon bridge, back across the Taurus Demon's rampart, down through Undead Burg, through the aqueduct, and then finally be at Firelink Shrine. Or you could use the aqueduct shortcut from the Depths to Firelink. Or you could go out the backside of Blightown, unlock the door in the Valley of Drakes, and simply ride an elevator up to Firelink through the New Londo Ruins.
The intertwined nature of the map makes Dark Souls' world feel like a singular, coherent place.
Every place you visit in Dark Souls, and every shortcut path that you take feels important and gets burned into your memory.These shortcuts force the player back through areas that you've already played, where you'll typically make mince-meat out of the foes that you encounter. This serves to highlight how much stronger your character has gotten, and how much better you (as a player) have gotten at the game. It also incentivizes the player to explore a bit more in the level to find items, enemies, or secrets that you may have missed on your first visit - and Dark Souls has a lot of hidden secrets!
But most importantly, since you don't have a map, you (as a player) actually have to explore this world. Each step forward is a step into the unknown, and this maintains an expertly-crafted sense of tension and anticipation as you slowly wander down a hallway, shield raised in front of you, and fingers poised over the attack and/or dodge buttons. You need to make a mental map in your mind. You need to learn where every important location is relative to each other, and you need to figure out the most optimal path to travel between locations. So going back to the example of Metal Gear Solid V: do you remember where Wahk Sind Barracks is relative to the Mountain Relay Base? Probably not, unless Phantom Pain is a game that you obsess over. But I bet you do remember where the first Bell of Awakening is relative to Firelink Shrine, or where Valley of Drakes is relative to ... well probably everywhere. You probably can't sketch a map of Phantom Pain's Afghanistan based solely off of memory, but I'd be willing to bet that you could probably sketch a pretty accurate map of Lordran if you needed to.
This intimate knowledge of the map is something that Dark Souls II lost when it decided to give the player fast travel right from the start, and I was disappointed that Dark Souls III followed the same path. Maybe the lesson that open world games should learn from Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls is that maybe fast travel is overrated, and that there is merit to building a game around the concept of the player struggling to find his or her way through a hostile world in which credible dangers or obstacles lurk around every corner. The developers just need to give the player the tools to handle those dangers.
So what can other games learn from these examples?
I'm sure there are other examples of games that make good use of open world spaces (or which have valuable lessons to teach open world and sandbox game developers). Unfortunately, I'm not able to play every game that comes out. The ones listed here are just the ones that I'm most familiar with. If there's any other games that you feel have really good open world designs, then feel free to post a comment!
But we're still not done yet! In my next post, I'm going to go back to some of the games that I had singled out as poor examples in my previous blog, and brainstorm some ways that I think they could have been better.