Open World Games are Bad Games

That inexplicably manage to be entertaining as hell.

If you'll forgive the blatant, kotakuesque attention-whoring title, I'd just like to pose the question "what is it that attracts (or repulses) you from open world games?"

Games like those in the GTA and Elder Scrolls series somehow manage to keep me coming back time after time in spite of what should be crippling flaws in their design. Somehow, though, I easily overlook the pain-in-the-ass controls that would have me scratching any other game-disk with my house keys and manage to have a hell of a lot of fun.

I have logged more hours in Oblivion than is healthy for any one person, and have yet to finish the main story quest. I happily abandoned my sworn duty to deliver some amulet to whatever secret heir, instead opting to do almost anything but: from rescuing townsfolk turned invisible by a spell gone awry to beating on blind monks. All those infinite sidequests, in Oblivion, and disconnected missions, in GTA, are what keep me coming back time after time. Hell, sometimes I just screw around just to see if I can get in on that emergant gameplay you guys are always going on about.

With GTA IV's release there's been a lot of discussion on what it takes to build a believable world but, even though I agree that suspension of disbelief is of great importance, in the back of my mind I always remember that time a friend and I nearly died laughing having spent the better part of an hour disrobing nobles with a magic spell and watching them carry on about their lives as if nothing had happened. It's these weird, unique little moments that attract me to these games and somehow they are compelling enough to make shoddy controls or frustrating mechanics nearly irrelevant to me. This is in no way meant to be a defense of half-assed game design, but I was just curious as to all of your thoughts on the subject.

Open world games are perfect for today's ADD-riddled youth. And since it seems like 90% of kids these days are being diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, open world games are big money.

I blame MTV.

The idea of an open world is, in my opinion, far more pure to the medium of video games than the idea of a linear, directed experience. Even open world games aren't all the way there yet, but the only way that video games will ever have a player deciding what to do based on the situation at hand, as opposed to trying to figure out what the designer wants him to do, is through open world design. Look at the difference between, say, Deus Ex and STALKER. Deus Ex set out to give the player more agency, but even though you can approach the battles in different ways, you still only have a couple of choices that the designers consciously set up for you. In STALKER, you can size up a fight, and actually decide how you want to approach it - you're now looking at the environment as a system to be interacted with, rather than a maze you follow just to find the exit.

I like both linear and open world experiences in games but the case of open worlds, the experience of existing, exploring and affecting the world in a possibly non-linear way (allowing the inhabitants to respond to me accordingly) is what draws me in.

I really like games like Morrowind, Oblivion, Boiling Point, Stalker, Freelancer and Privateer for these reasons and while not every one of them covers all the points i note above i usually feel a real agency in the world - not forced through narrative like for Gordon Freeman and many other strictly linear stories.

Funnily enough i never had this feeling with the GTA games. Sure, they're open world but i feel as if though i'm just a nobody. I don't get a reputation with the general population, i can't seriously affect the game world in any lasting or meaningful way that wasn't programmed into the storyline anyway.

Open world games have the benefit/problem of relying heavily on the player for their own fun, as well as the developers having much less control over things like pacing, gameplay styles, storytelling, etc.

I think that's why open world games like Oblivion, STALKER, GTA, Assassin's Creed tend to have a far more divisive range of opinions than linear titles. In a typical shooter, it's easy to discuss whether the level design is good or if the combat variety changes up enough. In these sandboxy games it's all about the environment and the toys that are left for you to play with in that environment, and whether or not it compells you. I think this is why so many of them end up with people either saying one of these games are unbelievably engaging, or it's repetitive with nothing interesting to do.

I don't think all open-world games are inherently bad games. In fact, I think there's quite a few of them that are actually very good.

What usually brings me to open-world games is that I can set up my own goals to complete. In Oblivion, I wanted to get strong enough to throw a horse. I never did get that strong, but I did chuck corpses off a cliff or the roof of a house whenever I could. I also spent a whole in-game week stealing from every single house in a village. I really enjoyed piling silverware on top of the sleeping people. The side missions comprised most of my gameplay time, though. Think I only closed one Oblivion gate, right before I stopped playing.

In GTA4, I wanted to be a jerk. I wanted to push people over and annoy them by nudging them with cars and stuff. I did that pretty early on, but I've always enjoyed the rest of the GTA games so I happily jumped into the story and all the side missions. Enjoying myself quite a lot.

What attracted me to Crackdown was simply the superpowers and the building climbing stuff. That was the first time that the core gameplay mechanics in an open world game attracted me more than the ability to pretend I was something specific. Also, I really liked jumping on people's heads while singing the Mario theme.

MechaSlinky wrote:

What usually brings me to open-world games is that I can set up my own goals to complete. In Oblivion, I wanted to get strong enough to throw a horse. I never did get that strong, but I did chuck corpses off a cliff or the roof of a house whenever I could. I also spent a whole in-game week stealing from every single house in a village. I really enjoyed piling silverware on top of the sleeping people. The side missions comprised most of my gameplay time, though. Think I only closed one Oblivion gate, right before I stopped playing.

Ah yes, I can relate to this. Oblivion: the only game to have caused me to develop raging kleptomania.

kuddles wrote:

Open world games have the benefit/problem of relying heavily on the player for their own fun, as well as the developers having much less control over things like pacing, gameplay styles, storytelling, etc.

I think that's why open world games like Oblivion, STALKER, GTA, Assassin's Creed tend to have a far more divisive range of opinions than linear titles. In a typical shooter, it's easy to discuss whether the level design is good or if the combat variety changes up enough. In these sandboxy games it's all about the environment and the toys that are left for you to play with in that environment, and whether or not it compells you. I think this is why so many of them end up with people either saying one of these games are unbelievably engaging, or it's repetitive with nothing interesting to do.

I agree almost 100% here. I struggle with open world games, largely due to that need to create my own entertainment. I need to be guided to an extent. The most 'open' game that resonated with me was Mass Effect. It had the perfect balance of story- to side-quests.

Part of the problem is my drive to do everything in the game. So if there is too much to do then I burn out.

MrDeVil909 wrote:

Part of the problem is my drive to do everything in the game. So if there is too much to do then I burn out.

I have that problem too. Sort of the "Gotta Catch 'Em All" syndrome.

I started gaming long before I was on a pay scale to support the habit, so I developed an affinity for making my own fun in fairly short demos. The one I can remember most was the original Hitman - I got more time out of that demo than I would have if I'd bought the game, because I virtually exhausted every single possibility in the one tiny level provided, from completing actual in-game challenges, like finishing without killing any civilians, to total insanity, like piling all the corpses in a naked pile in an alley, Abu-Ghraib-style.* If I can get that much fun out of one level, all I need is a bigger world to hurl hours into.

...Although I remember finding it very hard to get into Oblivion for quite a while. I had two or three false starts where I was too paralyzed by possibilities to have any fun, though it eventually consumed my free time with alarming ferocity.

*It was this which drove my mother to ban Hitman from the household, and, considering my age, that was probably a good call.

I like both linear and open world games, but I have a hard time being convinced that they're really all that different.

In reality, both are linear games, in that the content is beyond the player's control. The only thing the player controls is when those missions start. Sure, if you play, say the Dark Brotherhood quest line, and then do the Fighter's Guild quest line, versus being an Arena star and finishing the Mage's Guild quest line, you've had different experiences, but the experiences are hard-coded into the game. The arena quest line will play out the same way each time you do it, and so will the Mage's Guild. There are, of course, only so many options you can build into a game, but I think games need to start moving away from absolute requirements for the completion of quests/missions. Oblivion sort-of does that, but not in any meaningful way. For example, if you assassinate someone, but end up killing the guards when you were told not to alert anyone, you just lose your bonus, rather than any real consequences occurring. What if because of that, someone tries to get revenge? Or if you were sloppy on your stealth, you get followed back to the sanctuary, and it's raided? There are so many more options available to make things non-linear, yet Oblivion remains largely a to-do list of linear quests. GTA suffers even more from this. It's a big, open world, but the missions are totally linear, with extremely strict requirements. Everything you do outside of the missions is window-dressing.

I'm not sure I'd agree that GTA "suffers" from what you're describing, nsmike. Speaking for myself: In terms of consequences, the closer games come to realism, the less fun they become. If making a mistake in Oblivion resulted in my sanctuary being raided, I'd restart the game from a save prior to when I made the mistake. You'd be hard-pressed to find a gamer who would behave differently.

Is "open world game" the currently-accepted nomenclature for games of this type? In the past, I've heard "non-linear game" and "sandbox game", and I'm not sure that any of these terms accurately reflects the sort of experience that I personally look for in games of this type. GTA4 is a recent example: First it sells you on your character, then it sells you on the world your character inhabits, and then it starts throwing gameplay options at you. I need to be able to make that commitment to the game world before I can enjoy non-linear games like these.

Nijhazer wrote:

I'm not sure I'd agree that GTA "suffers" from what you're describing, nsmike. Speaking for myself: In terms of consequences, the closer games come to realism, the less fun they become. If making a mistake in Oblivion resulted in my sanctuary being raided, I'd restart the game from a save prior to when I made the mistake. You'd be hard-pressed to find a gamer who would behave differently.

I would disagree. It all depends on how the game handles it. Initially, in betas of WoW, players would be penalized for playing for long periods of time by reducing the amount of experience you would get from kills. This was so vehemently opposed that they had to come up with another solution if they wanted to keep this option in place. So they switched it to Rested experience. Instead, the game rewards you for NOT playing, rather than penalizing you for playing. The same results are accomplished, and it's actually a bit harsher than originally conceived, because if you don't find an inn or park in a major city, you don't gain rested XP. But psychologically, the difference is staggeringly positive.

If handled psychologically correctly, your sanctuary being raided might not seem like a total failure, especially if the reward is something like a more intense quest line. It should be handled in a way that might prompt you to explore exactly what comes of this change rather than see it as a reason to start over. You have to modify the behavior of the gamer through your game, which is no easy task, but the experience could be that much richer for it.

EDIT: When I originally referred to the sanctuary being raided, I was referring to the Dark Brotherhood sanctuary, rather that some player-held home that contained your items and such. Losing your stuff can hardly be conceived as anything less than a penalty for failure.

I think when the illusion of "openness" is shattered, the games tend to lose their luster. That was true of GTAIII and Vice City. So long as you weren't on a mission you could do anything you wanted. Once you were on a mission, it felt like the rules changed and the game often held your hand. Saint's Row suffered from this as well. Sure, you're still in the same "world" but it becomes a lot more linear and a lot more focused. Once you take away the openess then these games tended to be exposed for just being poorly done 3rd person shooters.

Mercenaries suffered from this as well, but I realized that, aside from having the option to be good for a change, what I liked about it was that you weren't always yanked away from the main game world. Aside from Ace missions or the occassional side missions for the different factions, the main game where you hunt down the Deck of 52 was done as part of the same open world "flow".

Crackdown took this a step further and introduced it so that you were never out of the open world concept. How you decided to pursue your targets was left up to the player completely. Unfortunately, I know people who hated Crackdown because they are used to having a game hold their hand to an extent. Upon reflection that's not always a bad thing, but it also exposes a core failing of open worlds.

If you want true "openness" you're going to lose players because they are looking for a structured approach to having fun. Crackdown has no structure, it's up to the player to decide how the character develops (are you more Spidey than Hulk? Speed racer? Punisher?) and how they will pursue their goals. While I applaud that Crackdown lacks a serious punishment for failure, a necessity given it's lack of structure, it totally defies how gamers are used to thinking about games.

Botswana wrote:

While I applaud that Crackdown lacks a serious punishment for failure, a necessity given it's lack of structure, it totally defies how gamers are used to thinking about games.

I loved Crackdown. Except that in order to maintain as open a structure as the game had, the biggest thing on the cutting room floor was a meaningful story. Not that it couldn't have been implemented, but that's just something that had to be sacrificed, I think, for the sake of the developers. It was probably hard enough coming up with an open "mission," like being sent off to kill a number of gang bosses. Hell, the final boss had to be confined to the most massive skyscraper in the game to be any sort of challenge. And if you play it enough, the game really ceases to be a challenge.

Nijhazer wrote:

I'm not sure I'd agree that GTA "suffers" from what you're describing, nsmike. Speaking for myself: In terms of consequences, the closer games come to realism, the less fun they become. If making a mistake in Oblivion resulted in my sanctuary being raided, I'd restart the game from a save prior to when I made the mistake. You'd be hard-pressed to find a gamer who would behave differently.

I wouldn't. I'd adore the role playing possibilities of having my place raided. It doesn't even need to be punishment for a mistake, but rather the natural consequences of rising up in the world.

To come back to a ransacked house would be bitching, because there's so many angles to approach it from. Was this just some punk looking for a quick score or do I have some enemies trying to send a message? What was taken and what was left behind? Have I snatched something of greater importance than I was previously aware of? Where's the Thieve's Guild stand on this? If I'm a member then this definitely wasn't a sanctioned hit, and it'll definitely be in their best interests to investigate; but if this was a targetted theft, then maybe I don't want them investigating because maybe I've been doing some unsanctioned thievery of my own.

Then there's the other aspect of roleplaying in a world this sophisticated. How as my house protected? Did I magically lock it up before leaving with a spell that would incinerate intruders? Might I be a little more responsible about these things in the future. Morrowind had a lock spell, dammit!

The typical treadmills where the player must never, ever backstep are so f*cking tired. Sometimes life throws you a curveball, and it's the curveballs that are purposefully missing from these games because players are too wrapped up in the numbers behind the scenes that they can't recognize the inherent fun in a spontaneous, dramatic, sometimes negative event! Would you read a story where the protagonist always pressed forward through cobweb obstacles, facing no real setbacks or conflict?

nsmike wrote:

I loved Crackdown. Except that in order to maintain as open a structure as the game had, the biggest thing on the cutting room floor was a meaningful story. Not that it couldn't have been implemented, but that's just something that had to be sacrificed, I think, for the sake of the developers. It was probably hard enough coming up with an open "mission," like being sent off to kill a number of gang bosses. Hell, the final boss had to be confined to the most massive skyscraper in the game to be any sort of challenge. And if you play it enough, the game really ceases to be a challenge.

So now maybe that we've finally seen a game that fully integrates the open gameworld with actual goals we can get a story? An evolving story maybe? Perhaps we're just taking steps towards something that will finally eclipse the "open but not really" approach of GTA and Mercenaries.

Unfortunately, I think players will still struggle with the lack of structure, and even more so with a story defined by their actions.

Botswana wrote:

Unfortunately, I think players will still struggle with the lack of structure, and even more so with a story defined by their actions.

Yup, and I will hate them for it.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:
Botswana wrote:

Unfortunately, I think players will still struggle with the lack of structure, and even more so with a story defined by their actions.

Yup, and I will hate them for it. ;)

I know you meant that tongue-in-cheek, but.....

A real frustration for me was reading criticism of Crackdown not because of its lack of story but lack of direction and how quickly those complaints found support. The beauty of Crackdown, for me at least, was finally having complete freedom. You get close to that kind of freedom in Morrowind or Oblivion, but not quite. There really is nothing stopping you in Crackdown from going straight to the head boss, if you know where he's at, and taking him down. That might be a hell of a battle if you're stats aren't built up, but you could try if you wanted.

You want to drive? You drive. You want to jump around the city? Fine. You want to get so strong that you can through around cars. Ok, sure. You'd rather be handy with a gun. You can do that to. Want to do it all? Sure, so long as you want to spend the time getting good at everything.

Oddly, that complete freedom is a complete turn-off for people. I actually get why, because of how traditional game design has gone. For someone like me, who was so quick to jump on titles like Privateer simply because of the complete freedom, the evolution of games into more open endedness and less structure has been simply awesome.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

The typical treadmills where the player must never, ever backstep are so f*cking tired. Sometimes life throws you a curveball, and it's the curveballs that are purposefully missing from these games because players are too wrapped up in the numbers behind the scenes that they can't recognize the inherent fun in a spontaneous, dramatic, sometimes negative event! Would you read a story where the protagonist always pressed forward through cobweb obstacles, facing no real setbacks or conflict?

We're not talking about a story; we're talking about a video game. I can understand that you would like to see a game with harsher, less avoidable consequences for failure; after all, I still occasionally run into people who think no MMORPG will ever be better than the first year of Ultima Online, because it was somehow more fun when being ganked by random assholes was the only thing you were guaranteed to get out of the game. Fortunately, you're in the extreme minority.

Nijhazer wrote:

We're not talking about a story; we're talking about a video game. I can understand that you would like to see a game with harsher, less avoidable consequences for failure; after all, I still occasionally run into people who think no MMORPG will ever be better than the first year of Ultima Online, because it was somehow more fun when being ganked by random assholes was the only thing you were guaranteed to get out of the game. Fortunately, you're in the extreme minority.

You're almost certainly correct, but please don't rank me with the MMORPG pansies. I seek a harsher climate because that is one of the necessary components of adventure. Traditional MMORPG's do not have adventure.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:
Nijhazer wrote:

We're not talking about a story; we're talking about a video game. I can understand that you would like to see a game with harsher, less avoidable consequences for failure; after all, I still occasionally run into people who think no MMORPG will ever be better than the first year of Ultima Online, because it was somehow more fun when being ganked by random assholes was the only thing you were guaranteed to get out of the game. Fortunately, you're in the extreme minority.

You're almost certainly correct, but please don't rank me with the MMORPG pansies. I seek a harsher climate because that is one of the necessary components of adventure. Traditional MMORPG's do not have adventure.

You know, about a million years ago I had an old sea-trading game where you could run around buying and selling goods, purchase cannons, and fight pirates. It was barely a step above a text adventure game. I remember that the big money was in Opium trading, but if you were caught they seized all your Opium and fined you heavily. It could put you back near to start, especially if you didn't have the money to fix your ship.

There were safer ways of making money, but generally they were not near as lucrative. Players who opted to go for opium trading did so at a significant risk. The trick was to do it for awhile and then put your money into a bank, leaving yourself enough to continue buying Opium so that one seizure did not wipe you out.

It was a fun aspect to the game. It added tension and it was entirely optional to your success.

I don't think penalty has to be equated with frustration. Like how GTA missions make you start from scratch no matter how complex and lengthy they were. Something that might be more natural, like say having the law raid your warehouse because you've done just a little bit too well for yourself and maybe attracted the wrong kind of attention. There are possibilities here.

Botswana wrote:

I don't think penalty has to be equated with frustration. Like how GTA missions make you start from scratch no matter how complex and lengthy they were. Something that might be more natural, like say having the law raid your warehouse because you've done just a little bit too well for yourself and maybe attracted the wrong kind of attention. There are possibilities here.

It's an interesting thought. Depending on the implementation, I do think something like this could enhance certain games. Do you have any examples of a game, recent or otherwise, that you feel had something like this, and executed it well?

Sadly, the only game I thought did a good job of building that tension is over 20 years old and ran on an Apple IIe.

I loved Crackdown for three reasons. One, crazy super jumping. Felt like the Tick with a rocket launcher. Two, complete freedom. I found it very freeing. Three, lack of story. I love games with story, but Crackdown was a breath of fresh air because I didn't have to sit through cutscenes or long bits of dialogue. I'm the kind of person that, if I buy a game, I feel the need to sit through all the crap even if I don't like it (Boom Blox). Because Crackdown was so freeing and because it focused so little on story, I felt free to completely ignore it. I didn't read all the information. I'd listen to the dude voice telling me about stuff, but that was mostly because I just really liked his voice.

Crackdown was a game I could play for hours at a time, but I could also turn on my own music while I played, which I really like doing when I just need a game to really, truly relax with. Crackdown helped me get through some really tough times. All GTA4 does is keep me up until 5 in the morning because I turned it on to play for an hour or two when I got home 12 hours ago.

Oh, and four, an almost complete lack of punishment. Sure, I died, and sure, I now have to jump my way back from the nearest weapons depot and kill all the crap-asses again to get to the boss dude, but that never gets old so it doesn't feel like a chore.

I want to go back to something NSMike wrote a long way above--about open world and linear games not really being different. I think the two are actually on a spectrum that I like to think of as the "Sandbox to Rails" spectrum. At one end, the game is a persistent world like Second Life; at the other, it's a movie. Narrative games (or "performative play practices") and stories both seem to me to lie between them.

I'm starting to think that making a really good narrative game is partly about finding the place on the spectrum that suits the story you want to tell. Of all the games I've played, Oblivion has come closest to nailing it. On the other hand, maybe it can't be nailed, but only approximated.

Botswana wrote:

Sadly, the only game I thought did a good job of building that tension is over 20 years old and ran on an Apple IIe.

Your avatar reversion threw me for a loop!

The only true open world games I ever played was Elite and Dwarf Fortress, and to a lesser degree Sid Meier's Pirates! All other games that people mention in this thread, that I have played, I would not call open world games. Be it GTA, Oblivion, STALKER, or any others. They are just linear games with their linearity leash relaxed to a varying degree.

I think "open world games" are attractive as simulations of reality. In order to be "open world" they have to approximate unexpectedness of reality to some degree. So instead of calling them "open world" or sandbox games I'd call them reality simulators. Whether there is a very short linearity leash imposed on you or not is, I believe, secondary to the fun you can have in a reality simulator. The goodness/badness of such a game is also heavily dependent, for most people on how tight that leash is. The trick is that the tighter the leash, the less detailed the reality simulation can be. So, many developers create artificially tight leashes just so that they do not need to generate complex simulations. On the other hand, you may have tight leashes for the purposes of story telling, but the world may be more complex than necessary (Deus Ex and HL come to mind).

It ultimately depends on whether you're telling a story or not. If you are, then you'll need some level of leashing to guide the player through. If you're not, then the simulation is the game in and of itself. I think this would be Will Wright's notion of a game. When it stops being a game and becomes a toy.

Out of curiosity, would people consider MMORPGs to be "open world" games?

Hmmm...

Actually Sid Meier's Pirates (another sea trading game, go fig) had some kind of penalties that actually added to the gameplay. Mostly because they "fit". I don't recall all that well though as I'm thinking of the original Microprose version.

I think that the most appealing things about open-world games is the freedom from the story but that the problem with them is the constraints on this freedom caused by their lack of depth or the tendency to paralyze players with too-much depth and too little guidance. In open world games, you're only free to do whatever the engine allows you to.

In a game like GTA you can cause mayhem, drive or fly everywhere, etc. but that's about it. There is fun to be had with this but without a narrative, GTA-style games can become boring once you've done everything that the the engine allows. GTA without a story or multiplayer wouldn't stay fun for very long.

On the other end of the spectrum are deep open world games like Dwarf Fortress or space sims (Elite, X3, etc.) where you have a lot more to do in the world and the opportunity to have different experiences every time you play. These have the real risk of intimidating the player (the 'What am I supposed to do?!?' syndrome).

MMO's are quasi open worlds. You have the freedom to do what you want, when you want. But all you can really do in most of these is kill mobs, craft or explore (this is offset by the social aspects of these games, of course).

To stay interesting true open-world games need to provide persistence and growth. Without orbs, Crackdown would have been a pretty but empty game. Without levels in an MMO you could see everything you wanted to within a month. Without better ships and factories to buy, X3 would just be a nice space-themed screen saver.

So either you need to create open-world with an interesting narrative that can be finished at the players own pace or you need to provide some other incentive for staying in the world even after you've discovered the limits of what you can do and how the world reacts to what you do.

Last thought: I would love to see a Sims-like personality system to be implemented for NPCs in a game like GTA. They're too 'samey' right now.