The premise of living an alternate life in a different universe is enthralling. It’s what as gamers, we all desire. Those of us of a certain age used our imaginations (self constructed images and thoughts in your head) to try and make the best of what was available to us, in the hope that some day, just maybe, we will be able to actually inhabit the game. Oh it was exciting! As the years passed, we saw glimpses into the future, and it was happening! Finally, our dreams were coming true! Then, it happened, open world games arrived…
…and like milk spilt in your car, the smell will never go away.
Ugghh… Where to start? Well, like all games which are 100 miles wide and one inch deep, it doesn’t really matter. I’ll just amble from one obvious point to the next, occasionally detouring to reminisce about nothing important. While reading you’ll gradually start to form a passive but immeasurable acknowledgement about my position, and be distracted by a few flashy things that make it seem a bit more interesting; but it’s all lies, and inevitably I’ll not actually finish this article, and if I do, I’ll keep it behind a paywall.
And that’s my problem. The formula for open world games is so generic, so corporate, that I never feel part of the world at all. I should never be made to feel that playing a game is a chore. I don’t like chores. Going to the supermarket is a chore, and it’s entirely the same experience playing an open world.
Mrs Javidx9: “I require 426 items. You shall fetch them for me.“
Me: “Sigh… yes dear. Do you have a list?“
Mrs Javidx9: “No, they are scattered all over the shop, and to stop you wasting time exploring and enjoying yourself, here’s half a map, it’s Costco so it’s huge, and I’ve put stars at the location of 400 of them“
Me: “Great… what about those 26?“
Mrs Javidx9: “Well 20 of them will only be revealed by asking people where they are…“
Mrs Javidx9: “…and the final 6 you’ll need to go back in a few months. It’ll cost extra because I need to order them in advance“
Me: “Can’t wait…“
Mrs Javidx9: “Now, some of those people in the store will either want to help you, or hinder you“
Me: “Why? The people around here are nice!“
Mrs Javidx9: “No particular reason, it doesnt matter at all, it’s just how it is. In order to get them to help you, they will probably want help with their shopping“
Me: “What all of them?“
Mrs Javidx9: “No. Some will want you to escort them around the supermarket. Others may want you to find things they’ve lost, and some, well they may want to argue with you first!“
Mrs Javidx9: “Sure, you’ll need to collect some skills to out wit them“
Me: “Wait, what? Where will I find those?“
Mrs Javidx9: “I’m sure you’ll find some as you help people. Now hurry up and go. One last bit of advice…“
Mrs Javidx9: “Make sure you get up as high as you can on the shelves at some point.“
Mrs Javidx9: “So you can fill in the rest of your map of course!“
Let’s consider why open world games exist, and why they exist in the form they take. Business. The point of a business is to extract cash from a consumer, whilst spending as little cash themselves in the process. Ultimately all games producers are businesses – we might not like it, but if the company’s employees cant feed themselves or pay bills, then they are not going to be making games for us. It’s also a huge gamble for a company to take. A game has huge production costs over a long period whilst the production team is not generating any income for the business. Then when the game is released, if it’s not a dismal failure, it only has a few weeks to actually sell any copies before it falls out of fashion, or is pirated out of tangible returns. Therefore, what strategies can the business adopt in order to mitigate this risk?
Step 0: Hype! Hype! Hype! Everything about the game is huuuuge and unprecedented. Scream about these numbers, get celebrities to scream about these numbers, and keep telling the potential customer that “they are in control” and its “developed for you” to normalise their expectations of being responsible, and so they can blame themselves if they don’t find it fun. Also, it’s a great way to grab some pre-order cash, since its been 5 years and we’re forcing our staff to work for free.
Step 1: Make the player/customer feel like they are getting value for money. Make sure that at least 100 hours pass before the player sees the credits. Make everything huge. Make it take literally hours to progress through milestones within the game. This is also a good way to keep the players attention for nefarious purposes, such as profile building and advertising – great revenue streams on the side.
Step 2: Make the player feel engaged. All that walking about is probably not enough to convince the player their purchase was worthwhile. So, keep them busy with low effort tasks. Collecting things. Reaching map locations. Collecting things. Reaching map locations. Collecting Things…
Step 3: Make the game appear “deep”. Easy this one – add a crafting system! The player will have to randomly mix stuff together, AND they have to find the stuff, this’ll take even more time. Ultimately they won’t need anything they craft, but make a big deal out of it, make it seem important.
Step 4: Appeal to the “casual gamer”. Make sure nothing in the game takes longer than 20 minutes to achieve. Casual gamer really means “no attention span” anyway, our perfect customer, also means we don’t actually have to design anything complicated.
Step 5: Reduce production costs. Designing stuff is hard, so don’t! Low effort tasks such as “Fetch X Widgets”, “Kill X Widgets”, “Visit Location X” could almost be procedurally generated. That huuuuuge world for the player could be too, break it out into the familiar tropes of the world’s genre, and then re-use the same assets (albeit coloured differently) to fill in all that empty space. As for the story, we’ll let the player decide what’s going on, so all we need to do is have sporadic, vaguely connected mentions of some overall arc.
Step 6: Keep development costs down. Let’s be honest, you just need a 3D map, and a cursor to follow, so the engine doesn’t need to be anything special. Anyway, this is the 5th version of our game, it looks pretty spiffy already due to our incremental changes, and we’ll leverage more CPU power this generation for bonus spiffyness because we can, no need to optimise it.
Step 7: Quality Assurance – don’t bother! We can patch the game and balance it properly once we’ve collected huge amounts of player data. The spreadsheet will guide us here. We can potentially sell “new” stuff in the form of bug fixes, double win!
Step 8: Never let it end. Since the bulk of our game was generated by algorithms anyway, why not have it spit out a few more? Package them up, sell them as “chapters” later on. Then hey! Why not? Actually package the game with the high resolution assets we used anyway and sell it to them again!
There is something to be said for direction. If we go and see a great movie, the fact that it has been written, edited, loved, crafted, directed and cared for, shines through. It was someone’s vision, and they saw it through with every last drop of enthusiasm they could muster. That’s why its a great movie. Great movies we’ll watch again and again, and we’ll develop memories about the time we enjoyed watching the movie, and we’ll want others to watch the movie.
Games should not be interactive movies (they’re historically terrible). But like a good movie, a good game should be treated like an art form. It should intrigue and challenge the player, it should guide the player through a sequence of memorable and enjoyable experiences, telling a story you can’t help but engage with. And this takes considerable effort and craftsmanship from a dedicated team. Ultimately games like this come from businesses too, so we should applaud and support those that say “hey, we want your money, but you know what, we’re damn well gonna earn it!”.
If we consumers keep celebrating and championing the mediocre – we lower the bar – and it’ll be our fault that not just open world games, but all games, suck.