When Open World Goes Wrong

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When Open World Goes Wrong

Yahtzee explores the horror that is open world gone wrong, and how to do it right, unlike basically every AAA game made recently.

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That's actually something I'm hoping doesn't happen really. I mean I love sandbox games a lot, but I don't want every single game to start trying to show-horn in a sandbox style map because they are the "in" thing at the time. Really in this day and age I don't really purchase many news games because you can see how the industry now, instead of making unique and interesting games or gameplay, will just use the cookie-cutter formula of gray-brown corridors and make their games "realistic" (although I take the claim of "realistic" with about 500 grams of salt).
Now that I see how certain trends are I fear that the sandbox genre will become the next "realistic military shooter" type of cookie-cutter for the industry to milk which makes me sad. Although there are a few exceptions to the sandbox genre that I personally don't mind, the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games come to mind.

Two things:

1. A glut of "sandbox" games is inevitable; marketing departments love the term and programmers like the challenge of doing something in video games that such games are not naturally very good at doing
2. Video game sandboxes are not real sandboxes (hence the quotes above); they are collections of programmatically generated mini-encounters in which the possible interactions are tightly scripted/controlled. A real sandbox would require something close to hard AI (or, as is the case in table-top RPGs, a human referee on the other side of the screen).

hmmm, not that I don't see what you're getting at Yahtzee, but the first situation you described is really more bad writing in general rather then the fault of open world gaming in particular. In all the sandbox games I've played, such a taunt would only be introduction to the next stage of the mission. When I take a break from the storyline it's because the chapter is finished and I can drive around and complete sidequests without ruining the plot because the next encounter hasn't been set-up yet (or at most only alluded to like at the end of a cartoon episode).

One thing that DOES subtract from the pacing is the shear number of sidequests. In Skyrim once I became a thane in Windhelm I started to go exploring and questing. Even though I tried to stick to the main storyline I kept getting drawn into more and more sidequests wherever I went, which in turn sent me even farther out of my way. Sometimes I would just be looking for items to use in potions or completing shouts. I ended up being being having initiation into into three different guilds at once, as well as the Brave Companions, quests for individuals and holds alike, and twice being abducted and taken to the other end of Skyrim without even trying. I got so burdened by quests I just didn't care anymore, plus I had grown to hate my character name by then.

craddoke:
Two things:

1. A glut of "sandbox" games is inevitable; marketing departments love the term and programmers like the challenge of doing something in video games that such games are not naturally very good at doing
2. Video game sandboxes are not real sandboxes (hence the quotes above); they are collections of programmatically generated mini-encounters in which the possible interactions are tightly scripted/controlled. A real sandbox would require something close to hard AI (or, as is the case in table-top RPGs, a human referee on the other side of the screen).

And if it was a real sandbox, he'd probably look something like this.
image
He'd make an interesting Dungeon Master.

I honestly don't understand the...CULT of Half Life. I played them; all of them. And at what point were the open world? Yes, when you have the jalopy car you CAN drive in wide circles and occasionally fine a piece of debris that's slightly different from the next, but that was it. Maybe its just me, but a labyrinth(Which I will remind you is different than a maze in that a labyrinth has a central room that all paths branch out of) game with a dozen corridors leading to the same room doesn't feel free. It almost feels cruel. It says the developers took the time to build X number of extra rooms, but did so for its own sake. I don't remember many side-quests in Half Life...or hell, interacting with people at all. I remember being a silent protagonist going from one trooper/alien infested room to the next, shooting everything then waiting for an NPC to tell me to go to the next. Say what you will about bland games like Fable, but you could at least interact with the 20 interchangeable NPCs. Half Life was just...a bland FPS before we called things 'bland FPS'
I hate to be pessimistic about 'open world' games but there's a distinct trade-off. You can either have Mass Effect type games, which are strictly linear combat missions and heavy with character interactions, OR Saints Row games where you can do almost anything you want but the only character interaction is just how many bullets you put in a corpse before you make another one. I've never seen a game with as indepth characters as Mass Effect while keeping the massive freedom of a sandbox. A processor can't handle that type of game!

While I certainly do love sandbox. I can't even wait for GTA V and Watch Dogs, simply because of how awesome the sandboxes look.

Everything in moderation. There is nothing wrong with linearity.

Really, middleground is the way to go, there is no fun in a railroaded campaign, just as there is no fun in a box of quicksand. Unless perhaps there is ice cream and porn at the bottom.

A linear sandbox one might call it. Like Half Life 2.

...Boy, that was an oxymoron if I ever saw one.

...massive, lurching disconnect between sandbox gameplay and story missions.

I see this point come up a lot and I think it's moot. It's like if I played (say) Hitman on the easiest difficulty, and just proceeded guns blazing, mowing people down left and right, yet the game still lets on as if Agent 47 is halfway competent. Or if you take Half Life 2, and spend the entirety of the game chucking grenades at friendlies for funsies, yet further on down they'll still treat you like Jesus. You're defeating the purpose of the plot through the gameplay, but that's only relevant to the person playing - it was a conscious decision to not care about the story. And it was enabled by the developers. Maybe people would disagree, but I like it like that.

I think giving the options to do races (or whatever) between missions is just another flavour of that. If you're invested in the story and choose to be immersed, then you can skip the races or wait until it comes to a point in the story where side-questing is more sensible. If some other bloke just wants to blow off the epic final battle in favour of collecting butterflies (because who cares about authenticity, amirite?) then the experience for him hasn't lost any impact. That's how he chose to play.

EDIT: I forgot to bring up an important point - that sometimes open world games FORCE you to side quest (like Saints Row 2), or they put you in a position where it's somewhat unavoidable, or at least obstructive (like Skyrim). But I don't personally consider that a fault with OWGs in general - it's sloppy design - like the finite lives system of old platformers. It's widespread but not inherent and I hope it's something that developers acknowledge and work to avoid in the future.

Silentpony:
I honestly don't understand the...CULT of Half Life. I played them; all of them. And at what point were the open world?

He wasn't calling it open-world.

In fact, he was using it as a direct example of linear progression done correctly in video games.

I like organic movement along a linear path. And for what I consider the best example of that, look no further than my own love interest, Half-Life. It is presented linearly, but each individual area has several routes and interconnecting hallways, and it frequently loops around and revisits areas to provide opportunities for environmental storytelling.

OT:

And there are inherent problems in open-world gameplay, most importantly the fact that it's absolutely disastrous for pacing.

This is the biggest problem I tend to have with open-world games that take themselves seriously. The only way the pacing is ever anything resembling reasonable is when I impose it on myself to ignore all of the side-stuff they're shoving in my face, and it always feels like the story is being dragged down as a result of that.

@Silentpony - It mainly comes down to when you played them. At the time (1998 for Half-Life 1, 2004 for HL2), both games were astounding. They offered huge sprawling levels that naturally led from one to another. They created huge set-pieces that didn't feel like you had to watch them. They never took you out of Dr Freeman's perspective.

Since then, everyone copied all the bits that worked, and a few that didn't. Its like watching an 80s film for the first time now. By today's standards, it will look terrible. But back then, it would have been ground breaking.

Silentpony:
I honestly don't understand the...CULT of Half Life. I played them; all of them. And at what point were the open world?

I think Yahtzee's point was that Half Life was not open world & was better served for it

There was open movement through linear environments, which let them keep the story nice & tight, while still allowing for variations in play style

I don't know if they exactly qualify as "open world" because areas are gated behind objectives and gear tests but the Holy Trinity did "freedom" gameplay right.

STALKER:SoC, Deus Ex, and System Shock 2 (other than that linear tutorial).

Deus Ex had a mission structure but within the missions you had total freedom to explore the environment including (gasp) running away from "boss" fights.

STALKER had just about the most immersive environment since all of the buildings could be explored. Sadly CoP failed to create this same immersion by making the maps amusement parks with points of interest clearly marked and nothing in between.

System Shock 2 was closer to the metroidvania gameplay where you went back and forth between levels with new levels opening up based on objective completion. But again freedom to explore how you wanted to.

The lack of "open world" was very clearly noticeable in Last of Us even though the developers were subtle about it. Instead of a door looking behind you they made you drop off a ledge that you couldn't get back up to in order to transition between set pieces.

I don't really think i've ever tried a game where the open world added anything aside from hours of boring transportation time. Realms of Arkania 2: Star Trail might be one of the few where it actually made sense, because it was all about the journey, you had to prepare and anything could happen when you started travelling. Normally you are just running from one point to another, chasing a floating mission marker, which is probably placed in the other end of the town/world because that makes the game longer^^.

craddoke:
Two things:

1. A glut of "sandbox" games is inevitable; marketing departments love the term and programmers like the challenge of doing something in video games that such games are not naturally very good at doing
2. Video game sandboxes are not real sandboxes (hence the quotes above); they are collections of programmatically generated mini-encounters in which the possible interactions are tightly scripted/controlled. A real sandbox would require something close to hard AI (or, as is the case in table-top RPGs, a human referee on the other side of the screen).

So you mean something like STALKER :P . That there is AI, true it is buggy and sometimes resource heavy, but that IS AI.

So many games can learn from the STALKER series. Yet so few do.

@rembrandtqeinstein
Right on, thought id say CoP is still quite immersive. A lot happens outside of those areas, its just that the devs massed up some of the elements that make that exciting. Ive seen many a Loner raids slam into the Monolith forces at the streats in Pripyat, yet its still too rare :P .

Silentpony:
I honestly don't understand the...CULT of Half Life. I played them; all of them. And at what point were the open world? Yes, when you have the jalopy car you CAN drive in wide circles and occasionally fine a piece of debris that's slightly different from the next, but that was it. Maybe its just me, but a labyrinth(Which I will remind you is different than a maze in that a labyrinth has a central room that all paths branch out of) game with a dozen corridors leading to the same room doesn't feel free. It almost feels cruel. It says the developers took the time to build X number of extra rooms, but did so for its own sake. I don't remember many side-quests in Half Life...or hell, interacting with people at all. I remember being a silent protagonist going from one trooper/alien infested room to the next, shooting everything then waiting for an NPC to tell me to go to the next. Say what you will about bland games like Fable, but you could at least interact with the 20 interchangeable NPCs. Half Life was just...a bland FPS before we called things 'bland FPS'
I hate to be pessimistic about 'open world' games but there's a distinct trade-off. You can either have Mass Effect type games, which are strictly linear combat missions and heavy with character interactions, OR Saints Row games where you can do almost anything you want but the only character interaction is just how many bullets you put in a corpse before you make another one. I've never seen a game with as indepth characters as Mass Effect while keeping the massive freedom of a sandbox. A processor can't handle that type of game!

Yahtzee's entire point was that Half-Life wasn't open world. And that that linearity was one of the reasons it was such a good example of storytelling in games.

And while you're correct in the broad strokes, remember that many of the reasons we call things bland nowadays was exactly because of games like Half-Life that popularized those aspects and made it into an industry standard. Which made subsequent games copy those aspects and make it bland.

Yahtzee, your rant seems to be almost a decade old.

There was already a time where everything went open world, and many people (me included) hated it. It was the time GTA 3 was the next big thing, and everyone was trying to get a piece of the cake. Everybody claimed to have the ultimate open world experience, when in reality it just meant having maps that were as wide as long. It was the time we got jewels like True Crime, Mercenaries, Just Cause 1, Total Overdose, Spiderman 2 and The Godfather. Ride to Hell is not even the first one to disguise linear missions under an open world pretense; games like Mafia 2 and L.A. Noire already had that fake open worldness smell to them.

Personally, I hope we grow up from it (like we eventually grew out of "all games had to be polygonal"), and that those attempts on established franchises to get into open world (looking at you, MGS5) end up failing, so that people will understand that open world is not an objective, but a design choice.

This is why I prefer set-pieces to true sandbox. Or Deus Ex/Dishonored style open "zones" with quests scattered throughout them. You cut out the faffing around from location to location that plagues series like GTA, while still allowing the user to dick around and approach the plot in the way that they choose.

Ubisoft seems to be listening to you, Yahtzee! (maybe)

From the talks and demos of AC4 they seem to be pushing this, "everything is always available" approach. They didn't show us any core story missions, so we don't know if they'll put on the retard blinders there, but for the optional bits they opened up to allow many different approaches. From the Watch_Dogs footage it looked like the same case, but until critics can get hands-on with them this all could be a grand play of smoke and mirrors.

Silentpony:
I honestly don't understand the...CULT of Half Life.

I thought the games were OK. Personally, I thought Doom 3 was more fun than Half-Life 2 and both came out around the same time. I suppose having strong preferences is fine, but don't see the series as a benchmark. I think its the same with Mario fanatics. There is no convincing them.

JamesBr:
This is why I prefer set-pieces to true sandbox. Or Deus Ex/Dishonored style open "zones" with quests scattered throughout them. You cut out the faffing around from location to location that plagues series like GTA, while still allowing the user to dick around and approach the plot in the way that they choose.

I love the implementation of zones. When devs stop trying to be buzz-wordy and just make a solid product that is cohesive in itself, even if limited, they are almost always better for it.

I've never heard a single bad review for Arkham City, and the developers explicitly stated that they were not trying to make a sandbox. They called it sandbox-like in some cases, but made it abundantly clear that the larger world was there more to give the game atmosphere and a 'feel' than to be "Oh look our game is a sandbox." By limiting themselves and stating their intentions they actually boosted the public's perception of the game.

I think the original Deus Ex is a good model to follow. There are separate "levels and maps" that you progress through, but each one is an expansive multifaceted area with lots of secret subsections and features to explore. You also return to certain areas multiple times throughout the story (such as New York) where there differences such as the gradual evacuation of civilians. So there are separate areas with finite space but lots of unique stuff such as characters sidequests and environmental stories in them, as opposed to huge squarefootage with nothing but copy-pasted assets.

The worst kind of design is when there's tons of space with not much to do in it. Far Cry 2 was big offender in having massive maps of very shallow content. You could go the Skyrim model of having a huge open world just packed to the gills with content, but that's a very time and money intensive process.

Interesting article, though I wonder about the last paragraph stating that if sandboxes are the norm then we'll get a lot more ride to hells/rides to hell.

I think that with more regularity comes better automation. If sandboxes truly become the norm then we'll see better development tools or engines become available that will make it significantly easier to have sandbox elements. This doesn't help them in the short term though.

How I know the feels, I exceptionally hate and loathe how the community uses 'linear' like a racial slur.

Yeah, not too excited about a slew of open world games. Basically for the same reasons. Commuting and terrible pacing.

On the other hand, I actually like the idea of an open world Mirror's Edge. Since it's a game about movement, a bit of commuting could be fun. They could still fuck it up of course, but the potential is there.

I liked how the first 3 Metal Gear Solids implemented it, with linear corridors and rooms you can revisit at anytime to go back for more weapons and Items, and with more of the game "world" opening up as you advance. I thought Arkham Asylum did a good balance between linear/sandbox gameplay as well.

JamesBr:
This is why I prefer set-pieces to true sandbox. Or Deus Ex/Dishonored style open "zones" with quests scattered throughout them. You cut out the faffing around from location to location that plagues series like GTA, while still allowing the user to dick around and approach the plot in the way that they choose.

I think Human Revolution did that as well.

rembrandtqeinstein:
I don't know if they exactly qualify as "open world" because areas are gated behind objectives and gear tests but the Holy Trinity did "freedom" gameplay right.

STALKER:SoC, Deus Ex, and System Shock 2 (other than that linear tutorial).

Deus Ex had a mission structure but within the missions you had total freedom to explore the environment including (gasp) running away from "boss" fights.

STALKER had just about the most immersive environment since all of the buildings could be explored. Sadly CoP failed to create this same immersion by making the maps amusement parks with points of interest clearly marked and nothing in between.

System Shock 2 was closer to the metroidvania gameplay where you went back and forth between levels with new levels opening up based on objective completion. But again freedom to explore how you wanted to.

You just gave me an idea! How bout we combine those three game types together into some metroidvania/Semi-sandbox videogame set in a Desert sci-fi setting with spaceships. Of course how they would work together would require alot of thorough thinking.

OT: I can see what he means by "organic" interaction but trying to do that with an open world is.... difficult to say the least, as well as expensive. I'm pretty sure the Dev team can't think of everything for this kind of gameplay, especially when someone else finds their own solution to use that wasn't supposed to be a part of the game or was considered to be.

On the other hand it would be nice to see more metroidvania games, I'm not sure what Dark souls counts as but whatever it was I'd like to see world access in more games like it did.

Zombie_Moogle:

Silentpony:
I honestly don't understand the...CULT of Half Life. I played them; all of them. And at what point were the open world?

I think Yahtzee's point was that Half Life was not open world & was better served for it

There was open movement through linear environments, which let them keep the story nice & tight, while still allowing for variations in play style

Maybe I misread, and that's entirely possible. But he does say there was an organic exploration to the levels, that you could approach problems from multiple angles and I guess my point is I didn't feel that. Maybe I'm bad at exploring levels, again entirely possible, but I never noticed any of the raised platforms or air ducts to ambush enemies from until AFTER I had killed everything.

CrossLOPER:

Silentpony:
ISnip

I thought the games were OK. Personally, I thought Doom 3 was more fun than Half-Life 2 and both came out around the same time. I suppose having strong preferences is fine, but don't see the series as a benchmark. I think its the same with Mario fanatics. There is no convincing them.

I honestly really like Doom 3. It was legit scary(which may be from the fact I was still a teen when it came out) and I loved the sense of exploration in that I never knew where I was supposed to go. I would be given a mission: shoot the daemon in the reactor room, and I had to explore the entire base to find said room and daemon. It fell off the rails when I went to hell and it was just a punch of stone bridges over lava pits.
And no one get me wrong, Half Life was a fun game, but its old now. It had its time in the sun, now its time to move on.

The classic example of how the "open world" mantra ruined a game is the Prince of Persia 2008 reboot. There is a perfectly decent, fully voiced linear storyline in there, and a set of platforming gauntlets which can be traversed forward or backward. The open-world structure locks the storyline away into endless repetitions of exactly one bland cut scene with different dialogue lines, instead of playing it in sequence while you go through story missions like a proper linear game would do. Meanwhile, the progression system introduces you to upwards of 80% of the game's levels within the first two hours, then makes you bounce back and forth between them collecting upgrade points for the rest of the game. As a semi-linear adventure like the previous Prince of Persia games, it would have been totally fine; as an open-world platformer with no secrets to find, it becomes a dreary slog through an extremely easy set of jumping puzzles to reach each precious morsel of new content.

It's not like we haven't had a few bad sandbox games already. Mafia 2 comes readily to mind. A linear game with nothing to do outside of the plot (good enough plot, mind) set in a sandbox world for no real reason other than to show off the nice city they built from old maps and old-timey photographs.

You know what would be a better idea than just token open world games? Larger linear games that feature more variety than grey-brown corridors with strategic cover. How about lush forests that don't have chest high walls, but skyscraper sized trees to hide behind, as if they were taken straight of the planet Pandora (Avatar, not Borderlands)? I'd take that compromise, where you change up the cover system. Maybe dig your own in a frozen tundra, or have to try and be strategic in a desert? That would be interesting.

I also want to live in a world where all is good and every once in a while, the skies open up and candy pours down ;)
I like love! the sandbox thing and I hope developers will not tire out of it for a long time and eagerly continue to explore its possibilities.
Yes, it "goes wrong" fairly often, but I cannot blame the folks who make it so. Take GTA - I don't see how there cannot be missions. Now, imagine a truly Open World approach to those missions and imagine the crazy stuff developers have to think about and then some in order to not make the completion of those missions either impossible or like cheating - and everything in between. Take care of every effing single approach a player might take and balance this? A bit of a pointless complaint at this point of our beloved art's technical Status Quo. But I am with you in the land of Wishful Thinking.

Silentpony:

Zombie_Moogle:
Snip

Maybe I misread, and that's entirely possible. But he does say there was an organic exploration to the levels, that you could approach problems from multiple angles and I guess my point is I didn't feel that. Maybe I'm bad at exploring levels, again entirely possible, but I never noticed any of the raised platforms or air ducts to ambush enemies from until AFTER I had killed everything.

You know, for every member of the Half-Life "cult" it seems like there are at least 3 people actively bemoaning those games every chance they get. If you really think they're nothing special then just ignore them instead of tempting us Valve fanboys to rush to their defense, as I'm about to do.

The Half Life games generally give you numerous methods to solve any particular problem, often rewarding you for thinking creatively. They do it by relying on open unstructured environments and game-play mechanics. The gravity gun, for example, is designed to open up all sorts of avenues for how you can approach enemies and obstacles. You can catch a thrown enemy grenades and toss them back, push a trashed car into position to use as a chest high wall, drag health and ammo towards you without moving out of cover. I could (and happily would) go on for paragraphs about all the awesome things the Half Life games do, but the point Yahtzee is making is simply that this kind of sandbox gameplay is vastly more freeing and empowering to the player than creating a large open map littered with specific things for you to do.

Far Cry 3 is another great example of this. I could not manage a proper flow with the story missions and the side missions on the first island that I just decided to go ahead and complete all of the side missions first on the second island. As I guessed about halfway through this process, it was going to take away a lot of the challenge for the story missions as I maxed out everything. It almost would have served to have one island that was just outposts and random crazy shit to do and one island solely for the story. Beat the story and then earn a carnival island of open world fun? I don't know if that would work but the developers need to approach it differently for sure.

I have never been a big fan of open world games. I liked Infamous and Prototype and Assassins Creed, but that was only because moving around was fun. I also liked Arkham Asylum's approach. It too was open world, where it was smaller environments connected by a larger hub. I didn't really like it when Arkham City wen't completely open world.

I just like the more methodical and deliberate approach that linear games offer. It just makes the whole experience feel more tight and consistent.

For some reason it's hard to sell a game on its uniqueness, as opposed to its grotesque abundance of overexposed and overextended elements bunched together for the sake of sheer excess. I don't see how that would be though; there's nothing automatically great about open world, sometimes it's just a bunch of pointless and rote dead weight. Maybe it's a trend, but it's also possible that the current crop of linear games is flawed somehow.

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