[The second in Gamasutra's 'Game Design Essentials' series, following '20 Difficult Games', looks at the roots and design lessons of 'open world games' - titles in which the player "is left to his own devices to explore a large world" - from Adventure through Metroid to Grand Theft Auto.]
Defining 'Open World Games'
When we discuss "open world games" in this article,
or sometimes "exploration games," we mean those games where
generally the player is left to his own devices to explore a large
world. What all of these games share is the seeking of new,
interesting regions at whatever time the player deems fit. No force
forces the player's motion into new areas. There's no auto-scroll,
and there are no artificial level barriers.
A couple of games, such as Air
Fortress, push this by offering many mazes, but they are more like
many individual games than one large map. One of these games,
Cadash, is presented for contrast, but technically fills the
description. Most of the games take closely after Metroid
games, or are one of them. Fully half of the games here contains
substantial side-view platformer elements.
At the core of the open world game is
consumption. Once a place is seen for the first time, it cannot be
unseen and seen again. To an extent, the game is a maze, and once
the whole thing is seen the game cannot be played the same way again.
Perhaps it can be played for a good score or a good time, but that's
a substantially different kind of experience.
Some games attempt to offer
replayability through randomization. Roguelikes and strategy games
in the mold of Civilization do this. Some allow the player's state
to vary, allowing them to reach a given point in the game world in a
variety of ways, each with its own implications for the situation
found there. However, no game in this list uses randomization in
Notes On The Chosen Games
Some particular comments on the games that were picked for this list:
1. As with all such lists, some things
had to be left out. Morrowind and Oblivion are
particular games in which exploration plays a prominent role, and
their absence, or that of any other game, should not be taken as a
slight against them. There are other reasons they are not mentioned
here, one of them being that I think it's best to possibly save them
for a later article on RPGs.
Also notably absent are any adventure
games, either textual or graphic. This is also not intended to short
that genre. Also missing is the notable Commodore 64 game Phantoms
of the Asteroid, but it was covered last time. Another Commodore
game that could make the list is Spindizzy, but the fact is I
don't think I have enough experience with that game to write well
2. As with the previous article, 'Game Design Essentials: 20
Difficult Games', this is not intended to represent the best
open world games, or the ones that are most "explore-y,"
although some of them are pretty nice. The games are chosen for
their instructive qualities and general interest, not to compare them
using a meaningless yardstick. They're here because I could
illustrate something important using them as examples.
3. Some out there in Internet Land
snarked, concerning the previous list, that it was biased towards
older games. Yes it was, and I make no apologies. Older games tend
to have more elemental designs, presenting their mechanics strongly
rather than submersing them between a sea of what a game is "supposed
to be." This is particularly useful for explaining and highlighting design conventions.