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Why Open-World Games Often Fail

How To Make The Best Open-World Ever .

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The term "open world" is one that has become a staple in the gaming industry, offering players an unparalleled sense of freedom and immersion. In short, these kinds of games allow players to explore vast, intricate worlds, interact with unique characters, discover hidden secrets, and last but not least, take a lot longer than usual to get around quick — and don't you dare talk about fast travel to my face! A common misconception is that creating an engaging open-world game is an impossibly complex and challenging task that either results in failure or is as dull as it can be. While some open-world games have been unsuccessful in the past, many others have not only met expectations, but far surpassed them, meaning that disappointment isn't the single way to feel about these humongous releases.
 

This same genre has been around for several decades as of now, and it continues to captivate and amaze players all over the globe with its vast and immersive virtual worlds. From titles that attempt to imitate real life like Grand Theft Auto to the high-fantasy medieval landscapes of The Elder Scrolls, open-world games offer players the freedom to explore, interact with the environment, and complete quests at their own desired pacing. However, with this much freedom comes also a set of unique challenges that game developers must overcome in order to not have their 'happy day' spell doom over their entire careers. 
 
Today, we'll be taking a closer look at the history of open-world games, the challenges that developers face when creating them, and potential solutions to issues that unavoidably arise during the development phase. We'll be examining how open-world games have evolved over the years and explore some of the more common problems game-makers are likely to encounter, as well as how to effectively combat them. Additionally, I'll be offering tips and suggestions parting from the realm of my own point of view and personal opinion in an attempt to help devs improve their open-world games and deliver an experience that engages and satisfies their audiences.

 

Through this, I hope to give you a deeper understanding of the open-world genre and its potential for future growth and innovation. As players continue to demand ever-larger games, it is crucial that those manning the ship understand the complexities and intricacies of designing a masterclass of an open world and strive for nothing but excellence with their creations.
 

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Written by: Caius | Date - 07/03/2023

A Troubled Past: History Of How These Games Came To Be .
 

With a rich and fascinating history, the roots of the so-called "open-world" games date back to the 1980s, where games like Elite and Mercenary were among the first to offer players the opportunity to explore and interact with these vast, open universes — although on a much smaller scale than today. However, it wasn't until the release of GTA III in 2001 that the genre truly came into its own. ​As a matter of fact, the game was so groundbreaking and such a milestone for the genre with the introduction of a fully fledged 3D world, that players now had an unprecedented amount freedom to roam around and engage with the game's environment and characters in ways that were previously unimaginable.

Fair to say, the sudden boom of popularity of GTA III and its subsequent sequels, as well as the rise of new technologies and platforms, ultimately led to a proliferation of open-world games in the years that followed. That said, it wouldn't be too far fetched to say that the success of these earlier titles were what paved the way for the genre's continued growth and stability we see today, meaning that newer games will, whether they like it or not, always be following onto the footsteps of those that came before.

 

Since then, the genre has continued to evolve and grow more than ever in popularity, with developers pushing ever-further the boundaries of what's possible in terms of world size, complexity, and interactivity. Recent games began to set newer standards that were more often than not unattainable by the least capable, offering players massive, detailed worlds filled with intricate quests, a diverse casting of characters, and engaging narratives.

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The dynamic and responsive world of GTA III is what keeps players hooked

While some mechanics and systems have existed for a long time, many developers have tinkered with adding a few of those pre-existing creative gameplay elements to the genre. For example, not-so-simple mechanics like tower climbing and being able to choose who we want to be in a roleplaying environment are among some of the most beloved systems, offering fresh and new experiences for players, and addressing the sentiment that these types of games often felt hollow or lacking in terms of giving us a sense of purpose. These additions, although not absurdly innovative, have proven that the genre is adaptable enough and that it can also continue to evolve and adjust itself as necessity arises.

However, despite the successes of open-world games, there have also been numerous failures. Major titles, even, like Cyberpunk 2077 and Fallout 76 serve to remind us the risks of such a massive undertaking for a somewhat well-regarded developer: frustration-en-mass and lower expectations for future releases. These failures have led many to question whether the open-world ecosystem is sustainable and whether game-makers can continue to create stories within these worlds without having to constantly reconsider their capabilities or their scope mid-development.

 

All in all, open-worlds have come a long way since their inception into the world of gaming. The genre has continued to evolve and grow over time, with new games setting newer standards and dragging forward the limits of what's possible and also what isn't as of currently. While there might have been some who didn't quite make it to the top along the way, due to its art and beauty, the genre remains one of the most popular and exciting in gaming today, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere — at least not any time soon.

Problems, Issues And Everything In Between: Not Always Sunshine .
 

One of the biggest challenges when creating open-world games is balancing size and complexity with engaging gameplay. A massive world is impressive on its own, but if it's filled with repetitive tasks, boring side quests, and uninteresting characters, players will quickly lose interest. This is often referred to as "bloat", plain and simple, and can be a significant problem for games in the genre. To avoid it, developers must first and foremost strike a balance between the size of the world and the content within it, ensuring that players have enough to do without feeling overwhelmed nor bored.
 

Similarly, a complex world with intricate systems and mechanics can also be overwhelming if it's not presented in a clear, accessible way. There are cases where the game might come off as unwelcoming due to having a much-too-steep learning curve, which can quite frequently discourage new or casual players from giving it a shot. Therefore, it is crucial for developers to ensure that their games are approachable by beginner players, while still providing a flavor of depth and complexity for those who seek it.
 

Another recognizable variant is having to maintain a consistent tone and atmosphere throughout the entire game. For larger games, they frequently feature a mix of serious, dramatic moments and silly, sometimes over-the-top elements, and finding the right measure of those two can be admittedly quite difficult. If the tone is too serious, players may lose interest in the game's more lighthearted moments, and on the other hand, if the game comes off as being too silly, players may not take storylines as seriously as they should. This is especially challenging in games with player choice, where the player's actions can drastically affect the tonnage of the game.
 

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The singular world structure of Elden Ring is nothing short of magnificent

In addition to this, it is also important to note that open-world games often struggle with pacing, seeing as due to their open-ended nature, it can be difficult for developers to keep players from losing sight of the main story. Some players may get lost in the world, spending hours exploring and completing side quests without ever feeling compelled to advance the main story (looking at you, Skyrim...). To combat this, developers must carefully place guides and clues that lead players to that main road, and walking the beaten path, while rewarding, should merely represent a fraction of the incentives to explore they'd find if they followed those quest markers.

Moreover, there should be a clear sense of progression throughout the game, in more ways than simply leveling up. Regardless of the methods used, players should always feel that sense of empowerment, with actions having tangible consequences to the in-game world. Without this clarity, players may feel like they're simply going through the motions, which can lead to boredom and ultimately disengagement. For these reasons, it is important that developers craft their games to provide a sense of growth and development for the player's character, as well as a feeling of impact on the world around them.

 

Finally, technical issues are among some of the most common issues plaguing open-world games. With so many moving parts of a whole, bugs, glitches, and performance issues are bound to happen — it is nigh inevitable. These issues can range from minor annoyances to game-breaking problems that render the game unplayable. Additionally, open-world games often require significant processing power and memory, which can cause issues for players on lower-end systems. As the complexity of open-world games continues to increase, developers will need to find ways to optimize their games for a wider range of hardware configurations.
 

The Solutions: Always Prefer Sooner Rather Than Later .
 

To address some of the more aggravating problems mentioned in the previous chapter, it is of vital importance that, while working on a behemoth of a project such as this, efforts are spent on the creation of engaging and meaningful content that takes advantage of this larger-scale format rather than leaving it underutilized or the space it provides wasted. This means developing quests and side activities that are varied, interesting, and relevant to the game's world and story, and that make players feel that their decisions have some sort of impact on the game and that their choices matter, in one way or another.
 

To achieve this, developers should prioritize quality over quantity, rather than filling the game's world with countless side quests that are unremarkable and unimportant — basically, the sooner they draw the line, the better. Since we can all agree that bigger isn't always better, the employment of a smaller subset of side quests and activities that are well-crafted enough and can provide unique experiences that actually stick is a severely underrated way to achieve this. These quests should be designed with the game's world and story in mind, and provide meaningful rewards that make the player feel like they have accomplished something significant.

In addition, game-makers should focus on creating a sense of immersion in the game world, and this can be achieved by paying attention to detail, providing dynamic and responsive environments (day and night cycles, weather changes, npc schedules, etc.), and creating characters that feel authentic and alive. However basic some of these additions might be, they still help make players feel like the game world is a living, and breathing entity that changes over time alongside them, and in turn, they will feel more compelled to invest their time in the world and its inhabitants, leading to a much more satisfying experience overall.
 

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Assassin's Creed Valhalla entices for its otherwordly take on the nordic era

Another way to improve open-world games is by allowing players to have more agency in the explorable regions. This means giving them the freedom to make choices that affect the story and the world itself. It also means creating more open-ended gameplay mechanics that allow for a greater degree of creativity and experimentation. For example, giving the player different ways to approach a quest (multiple endings are a plus) or allowing them to choose the order in which they tackle tasks can provide an immediate sense of agency and control because, you know, if we were to be stuck on a predetermined path, we would be playing a linear game instead.
 

On a separate note, game-makers should consider implementing community feedback to improve their games, both to optimize performance and to improve points that could have been overlooked during development. This can involve monitoring social media, forums, and in-game analytics to identify areas that players are struggling with or providing consistent feedback on. By listening to players' reasoning and words and then implementing changes accordingly, developers can create a game that is tailored to their audience's needs and desires.
 

That said, the key factor to creating a successful open-world game is to strike a balance between providing a vast, explorable world and ensuring that the content within it is engaging, meaningful, interactive, and fun above all else. Developers must consider every aspect of their game world and how it affects player agency and immersion. In doing so, they can create an open-world game that truly captivates players and keeps them coming back for more in a cycle that repeats itself at every release.
 

A Probable Future: Shaping The Tomorrow, For The Better .
 

Needless to say, the future of open-world games looks promising, but there will most certainly always exist room for improvement and barriers to overcome. To me and many others, a major area of innovation would be the use of procedural generation and AI to create massive game worlds that are unique and dynamic without losing that trace of humane touch. For creators, artists, designers, etc. they can use AI to create more complex, believable and authentic game worlds with events that are more responsive to the player's actions in a fraction of the time it would normally take.

As you know, one major drawback of these ultra-massive games is the absurd amount of reused content that is likely to come out as a byproduct of their sheer size. While players may appreciate the seemingly endless explorable regions such as in the case of No Man's Sky, the lack of variety and polish can be a turn-off for many. To address this issue, developers need to focus on finding ways to create harmony between the vastness of their game worlds and diverse, unique content. This could be accomplished through a combination of hand-crafted content and procedural generation, ensuring that players always have something new and exciting to discover.

Also, it might sound horrible at first, but cutting out the boring parts is actually a lot more beneficial than one might think. By automating certain aspects of the development process through the usage of procedural generation, developers can instead spend their attention elsewhere, resulting in a net positive for both companies and players alike. This would basically mean more dynamic and interesting game worlds that are constantly changing and evolving.

 

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No Man's Sky is immense in scale, but sometimes it is too big for its own good

In addition to these developments, we can also expect to see more and more open-world games that blur the line between triple-A and Indie titles and experiences. With the rise of digital distribution platforms and crowdfunding, smaller indie studios have gained more visibility and resources to create ambitious open-world games with innovative mechanics and creative storytelling. On the other hand, larger publishers have started to adopt some of the practices and aesthetics of indie games, such as more diverse representation, unconventional gameplay, and experimental narrative structures.
 

Not to mention, the rise of user-generated content on these fronts will also play a significant role in shaping the future of open-world games. Already, there are several games that allow players to explore massive game worlds alongside their friends, and we can expect to see even more of them offering this kind of experience. Additionally, developers may find ways to make it easier for players to contribute their own content to the game world, allowing for a more collaborative and engaging experience for everyone involved.
 

Moreover, advancements in hardware and software technology will allow developers to create even more stunning and realistic game worlds. With the advent of virtual and augmented reality, we can expect to see open-world games that are even more immersive and interactive, allowing players to experience the game world in a way that was previously impossible.

Overall, the future of open-world games is exciting and full of possibilities. As technology continues to advance, we can expect to see games that are more immersive, dynamic, and realistic than ever before.

Final Thoughts: The Bigger They're In Size, The Farther They Go .
 

As we've seen, creating a great open-world game is no easy feat, for not only does it require a tactful balance of exploration, storytelling, and gameplay, but an unparalleled attention to detail in addition to a bunch of organized effort, which is arguably the hardest part of all. The willingness to go above and beyond for its players is what makes certain games unforgettable, and being able to take risks whenever necessary is key to succeed and reap the rewards where others will most likely give up and scale down. From the biggest to the smallest of them all, the only thing that matters is that they're made for us, the consumers, and not just for our wallets, and are able to provide an escape route from reality that is faithful to our needs and not only to garner financial gain.

In the past, open-world games used to be criticized for being severely lackluster, with players frequently feeling like when they were being fooled in a way, since the supposed 'open-world' served merely to act as a distraction from how short and boring the main path would actually be without so many of those twists and turns. However, recent years have seen a surge of innovation in the genre, making it so that spending entire weeks on end immersed in a single virtual world is no longer a distant/impossible dream.

 

With each new release comes a renewed opportunity for developers to break the mold, to offer players something fresh and exciting that they've never experienced before, and as technology continues to advance and game-makers start to take hold of the untamed potential of AI, we can only imagine what incredible experiences await us in the near future.

As for ourselves, the players, we should learn to never take these incredible virtual worlds for granted and should give developers the time and space they need to cook something truly extraordinary and unique at every announcement that comes around. This means being patient and understanding that quality takes time, even if for such we'd have to wait longer than we would like, for, when working to create a truly amazing experience, it's crucial that we support the developers' creative vision and allow them the freedom to spin the bottle in new and ever-more exciting directions.

 

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Nothing beats a good open world, eh?

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