There's no shortage of posts here discussing open worlds and the many issues generally present in their design, but I'd like to explore their unique strengths, why we tend to enjoy them in the first place, and they could be better with a design philosophy that aligns with those strengths, which we can sharpen by trying to break things down into basics. I use a fairly broad definition of "open world," as I am trying to be general.
I have always loved open worlds. The main reason being that I enjoy feeling like I'm inhabiting a different world, and along with that comes feelings of self-lead adventure, immersion, and discovery, but also familiarity, in addition to the game's core gameplay. Out of personal preference, I ideally want to feel more like I'm in another world rather than just being in another game, though of course it's always a balance of both. The more I believe in and am immersed in a world, the more I tend to enjoy slowly getting to know it and making it my world.
Because I love open worlds I've played the shit out of many of them, so I sadly see the validity in the criticism they receive on the basis of their being generic, too big, overwhelming, repetitive, etc. We pretty much understand why, and it's generally simple: It's "easy" to copy/paste content all over the place and sell a game on its big ass map. But I think we all know these worlds could become better, and I think that it has to start with breaking down the elemental basics of their design. Map too big, too small? I think what matters more is how the size and design plays into your feelings of discovery and familiarity, and how those feelings complement each other.
The new and the familiar are the are the yin and yang of the open world experience, every world is a combination of the two. Examples, with their own strengths and weaknesses:
Each player's world/town is procedurally generated to be unique, and in that way every town is new. But the map is very limited, allowing you to become quite familiar with it fairly easily. I think this combination is what drives much of the appeal, your town is unique and it becomes familiar to you. It makes your town feel like your town, and your home, and you grow attached to it. The new is injected through new neighbors, visitors, and items. Maybe the familiarity eventually gets boring, but as long as you retain a sense of invested ownership in your town, the appeal will still be there, and there will always be new things to discover as long as you play.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey/the Ubisoft world
Long-time player of the franchise, I like the old ones and I like the new ones. Huge and beautiful world to discover and explore, but play through all the content of any single zone and you've essentially seen most of the scope of what there is to experience in the game. Also, finish any part of the map and you probably won't have a reason to visit it ever again. Especially if you plan on trying to see the rest of the world, as it just takes so much time to do so. You'd better hope you like the core gameplay of killing and looting/collecting, because that is the extent of your ability to interact with this massive world. And by all means, enjoy it if you do.
This game has a particularly problematic dynamic between the new and the familiar. No part of it becomes familiar enough for me to get to know and love, because there is no reason to revisit the places that I've been. The only thing leading me on is new parts of the map, which are all filled with content that is far too familiar. In fact, it seemed like new parts of the map were the only new thing I could experience, but it would only ever be a brief stabby-kill-romp through one zone to the next, without enough newness or character to differentiate them and give me an actual sense of discovery. A world at first blush that I really want to feel a sense of discovery and adventure in, but can't because of repetition, and I'm just not familiar enough with any unique part of the huge world to feel an attachment to it, because there is no reason for any part of it to become familiar.
Ghost of Tsushima
One of my favorite recent open world games. By and large, it plays similarly to Assassin's Creed. I think its gameplay is tighter and more refined, but it doesn't really seem to have more variety in gameplay or content. In terms of world design, what it does have is differentiation between its zones, to the point that they all feel new and distinct from one another. Sadly, though, after playing through all the content in a zone, you have the same problem of having no reason to be there any longer. Your primary mode of interaction is killing, and you've killed everyone to kill. I'd love to spend time getting more familiar with the areas, but there isn't enough reason to. A solution would be to inject the new back into zones somehow.
I think something akin to Shadow of War's nemesis system would work wonderfully here, maybe after beating the main story, with different Mongols/Ronin/etc. instead of orcs. This kind of system is difficult, there's no doubt. I appreciate that Assassin's Creed tried it with the mercenary system but there just wasn't enough distinct character to the mercenaries, and they don't do enough. A game's world always feels more real and immersive when there are other agents in the world that can affect it aside from the player (S.T.A.L.K.E.R. good example). As one example, in GoT, Mongol captains could dynamically raid different villages, if you let enough time pass without preventing a captain from doing the damage, it would affect the town, maybe making it look more run-down/damaged, maybe affecting what the vendors have to offer, etc. Now you have a reason to go back to that town that you like, to preserve it and protect it. You would likely start to feel more of a real sense of ownership and attachment to the world, closer to what Sakai would actually feel protecting his home and his people.
In Minecraft, the world you inhabit is infinite, but because you have such a breadth of ways to interact with it, you can still make it feel like your own world and become familiar with your parts of it. You become familiar with your home and its surroundings, you become familiar with various nearby biomes for the practical reason of needing to gather particular resources from them. Build up, mine down, explore outward. There are unique aspects to all three general modes of play, and all three play into each other. There is limitless new-ness to see in the procedurally generated world, but it is only interesting in context along with the home that you make yours and the goals you pursue. You can easily become familiar with and master parts of your world, but there will always be more new to explore, and I think that's a great balance to have.
It seems to me that open world games need to get better at balancing the familiar with the new, and some good examples often include a degree of procedural systems and generation as well as thoughtfully hand-crafted aspects, and in combination those elements help to give the player feelings of homey familiarity as well as adventurous discovery. Both feelings contrast and complement each other, and that complementary balance should be the focus in open world game design to keep it from growing too stale one way or the other.
I know I left out a variety of other examples of worlds that there is more insight to glean from, what other games can we learn from in this regard?
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