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Embracing the Chaos: Freedom as the Cornerstone for Open World Mission Design
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Embracing the Chaos: Freedom as the Cornerstone for Open World Mission Design

April 6, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[The design director of Volition/THQ's expansive open world action title Red Faction: Guerrilla talks about the transition from being scared of player freedom to truly embracing it, including several case studies of specific missions in the game and they evolved to support meaningful player interaction.]

Designers create experiences for the player. That's a loose enough definition that there's little room for debate. But how much control is implied by that short phrase "create experiences"? Does that mean micromanaging the moment to moment play? There's a school of thought that says that's what designers do, and many of us believe it. And for some types of games it is true.

Then there are open world games. Crafted from the dust of early computer role playing games -- the original open world designs -- the goal isn't to tightly control the player experience, but rather to build a world and turn the player loose in it.

Give the player the freedom to choose his or her own path. Provide meaningful options. Encourage experimentation. Carrying over the hand-holding approach of linear storytelling games doesn't work; an open world is more than just a lobby for starting linear missions.

To truly fit into the open world model, missions have to provide the same sense of freedom that the world itself provides. And to make that work takes a change of mindset. It means letting go of being a control freak and instead embracing the chaos that's inherent in open world design.

There's a certain fear here. Much like some paranoid graphics programmers thought that their worlds were crashing down when texture mapping moved to hardware, some designers feel that they're being outsourced to code-driven systems. That fear is unfounded, even in the games that go to extremes to maximize openness.

I was the design director at Volition for Red Faction: Guerrilla. If ever there was a game that struck terror into the heart of a design team, that was it. Not only was it open world, but every single wall and fence, every door, every building -- including the ceiling and structural frame -- could be damaged and completely destroyed in arbitrary ways.

A tower could fall sideways onto a two story building, tearing through the roof and drilling straight down to the ground floor. A vehicle could explode on a bridge, making the bridge unusable for other traffic. Rubble from a building could fall in the road, preventing reinforcement personnel carriers from getting where they needed to go.

And none of this was perfectly predictable, being at the mercy of dozens variables going through the destruction engine. That tower could have just sheared off the outside wall, depending on the exact forces that caused it to topple. That vehicle could have exploded off to the side of the bridge, still creating a large hole, but one that can be navigated around. That rubble might have blocked doorways instead of the road, or even killed your attackers.

How can you even begin to control the player when all bets are off, when the traditional ploys of locking a door or blocking an alternate path with a chain-link fence don't work?

But that's the extreme case. Before considering that, let's go back to the first problem: How to build an open world mission that emphasizes player freedom?

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Kevin Kissell
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I enjoy the open world game style, it tends to have better replay value, a slower pace (one can think about which route to take), and the graphics are better because the designer know the player will take alook around.

Glenn Storm
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Neat article, James. And I appreciate this illumination on the thought process. I want to raise a counter point idea that probably was considered, which is that while 'not caring' exactly how the player goes about playing may make for a prudent perspective on open world game design, the abandonment of satisfaction opportunities worries me.

I'm reminded of a Game Design talk GDC '09 from Scott Rogers, "Everything I Learned about Level Design I Learned from Disneyland", where Scott shows us how (primarily) environmental aspects of design promote behavior without being obvious or overbearing. This is an example of a 'game' (Disneyland) who's open world status does not preclude it from offering more complex rewards for following through on the subtle cues that are offered. While no one is forced to, a treasure map can be found in Huck Finn's treehouse leading to a nice photo op location tucked away; a relatively strong satisfaction reward in exchange for a progression of discovery, deduction and exploration. One could argue, the fact that this is not an explicitly stated goal makes the reward that much sweeter.

What I'm getting at is that an open world nature and a more complex structure of goals/obstacles/rewards are not mutually exclusive.

sam darley
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This was a good read. Really loved Guerrilla and the freedom you were able to give the player. Can't wait to see what comes next, or if you use the new geo-mod tech elsewhere.

Like a new Freespace.

[User Banned]
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Tim Carter
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"Give the player the freedom to choose his or her own path."

This is SO pretentious and condescending.

If I wanted "freedom", I'd go camping or skiing or join the army again or whatever. I sure wouldn't ask a game to give me my freedom.

Anytime I get into a gameworld like this I'm always saying to the game designer, "Get to the point! Don't make me meander all over the world to find the next plotpoint. My time is valuable."

Ryan Hulse
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"Give the player the freedom to choose his or her own path."

"This is SO pretentious and condescending. If I wanted 'freedom', I'd go camping or skiing or join the army again or whatever. I sure wouldn't ask a game to give me my freedom."

Maybe not surprising someone from the Army likes rigid structure and being told what to do. I, on the other hand, dearly love open world games and enjoyed reading about the evolution in mission design this designer experienced with the RF:G world. Talking about freedom... on the sniper mission I did something quite different. There were some elevated walkways in the area and I jet-packed around the area and was able to counter-snipe the snipers from adjoining hillsides without ever blowing up the buildings or entering them.

This may be tangent to mission design, but in my experience, the overall enjoyment of open world games is most directly affected by how well different 'layers' of the simulated world interact with each other, including during missions. Yes, the complexity of mission design goes up, but it's the magic of how traffic patterns, hookers, cops, pedestrians, ambulances, fire trucks, etc. all interact together that make GTA4 so compelling to play. A game on the other end of the spectrum was FarCry 2. There was nothing modeled in that game except enemies and wildfire. Free play was quite boring and even missions became repetitive.

I played Red Faction: Guerrilla to completion and thought it was a fun game; somewhere between the two, but certainly closer to GTA4 for open world enjoyment. Destroying building was endless enjoyable. As a player, I actually had the same feeling the designer was worried about. After binging on some free-play destruction, and realizing destroyed building didn't respawn, I actually held back because I didn't want to play the story missions in completely empty landscapes (plus destroying some key bridges hurts your mobility too).

Kevin Kissell
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The first FarCry game had an open world fel to it. I remenber this one level, the player started on a small rubber boat. The player objective was to make his way to the top of the mountain and destroy a bunker. Anyway, the player had many different paths to choose from to complete the objective. The fun was in the freedom given to the player. I could head to the main shore, fight about 12 NPC's travel up the trail, fight somemore, and then reach the toip about 30 minutes later, however if the player looked around and explored the area, they could find other routes that could either bypass more NPC's all together for a mort stealthy approach if they wanted to. I once found a deserted hummer with 50mm machine gun with rocket launcher and took that up the trail, up the stairs and into the bunker. Now I know that the game designers did not intend to have a vehicle go up the stairs, however the open world gave me the freedom to "do what I wanted to do"

Sorry Tim, in the real world, there is more than one way to skin a cat, also more then one way to complete the mission. Freedom to choose your own way, very refreshing.

Bart Stewart
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I am so tired (both as a gamer and someone who's interested in game design) of the current trend toward attempting to micro-manage every nanosecond of my play experience. I'm capable of finding my own fun -- if your gameworld is interesting enough. I do not need to be led by the nose along a linear path and told constantly how I'm expected to react. (Unless the whole point, as in Portal, is to subvert that sort of experience by highlighting it.)

I just did a search on Red Faction: Guerrilla and it seems that the PC version does allow the player to save games at will (something not found in all PC ports of console games). Given that, and as a direct result of James Hague's design that respects the gamer, I will be buying a copy of this game.

William Bibbiani
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Though a nice and informative feature, I was disappointed that a recurring issue with Red Faction: Guerilla, and one that was fundamental to the design choices discussed here, was not addressed. Since all of the man-made environments in RFG were destructable, and most of them are accessible by some or another means as soon as their area of the map is unlocked (and almost always rather easily), the designers had to contend with the potential and even likelihood that a building necessary for a "plot point," like the tower in "Death by Committee" for example, would have been destroyed by the player at an earlier point in gameplay - even immediately before beginning the mission proper. As such, the building had to suddenly rematerialize at the start of a mission.

By allowing the player - such as myself - open world freedoms, RFG created many situations that actually called attention to scripting issues such as these and hampered immersion. While these matters were hardly a dealbreaker for an otherwise very enjoyable videogaming experience (which I reviewed very favorably), it was a design issue that I rather hoped would have been part of the dialogue here. Oh well.

ferret johnson
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Red Faction was probably the most fun I had playing a game last year. This isn't to say it was my absolute favorite (Demon's Souls wins that one), but I'm sure many place 'fun' pretty high up there in terms of importance, for good reason.

For me, Death By Committee is a perfect example of the beauty of the open world mission design; I did something far more 'fun' to take out the businessmen, using the nano rifle to dissolve supports at the very highest level, causing the roof to collapse straight down - an absolutely controlled demolition. I brought the building down before the business men even knew to get out of their seats. That I could win what I expected to be a difficult mission (them escaping, chasing them down, etc.) in such a simple, yet incredible way is important to me as a gamer - I got to do it my way, and that is pure gaming satisfaction. There is nothing worse than being forced to solve a problem in a way you don't actually want to.

You know you have a winner when someone replays missions trying to beat them in different ways.You're definitely on to something with Red Faction, and I look forward to more games designed in this manner. Just triple (or more) the number of demolition challenges next time!

Tim Carter
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@Kevin, sure there's more than one way. Look at Chess. After eight moves, there are millions upon millions of possible ways the game can turn out. But it is a very structured environment. Eight by eight grid, 16 units per side.

There is a more sophisticated relationship between structure and chaos than people here understand. Someone commented on the Army being structured. The reason why the Army is so structured is because army guys deal with probably the most chaotic undertaking known to man - combat. In that environment there is total uncertainty and things are extremely unpredictable. And they deal with it through a radical imposition of structure because otherwise they'd fall apart. Army guys are the best at dealing with lack of structure. Civilians just go to pieces in the same environment.

But the notion that a game needs to "give you freedom" is just self-indulgent. If anything a game needs to shape an experience, because we have our own freedom and a game costs time to play. If you can only exercise freedom through a game, you're a sad person. There's a big wide world out there full of lots of "games" to play - such as go to the nightclub, become an artist, get an education, start a business, climb a mountain, etc. Look at all those games out there, and not one of them needs to be played on a computer.

Glenn Storm
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Because I feel my attempt to bridge the gap between two extremes utterly failed, I will make another attempt before letting this go.

From the perspective of a strictly authored experience, open world freedom is appealing, giving the variety of experience that lacks in the structure extreme. From the perspective of an open world, authored structure is appealing, giving conventional, yet targeted and powerful experiences that lack in an unstructured extreme. To say either one is best to the exclusion of the other is truly simple, and those extreme viewpoints marginalize the audience.

The balance outlined above is between variety and structure. Many forms of art have demonstrated this balance is not only achievable, but desirable. Understanding the merits of both extremes is useful, but let's not abandon either aspect out of some sense of genre purity.

Jeff Waite
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"This is SO pretentious and condescending.

If I wanted "freedom", I'd go camping or skiing or join the army again or whatever. I sure wouldn't ask a game to give me my freedom."

It's your comment that comes across pretentious and condescending. Maybe "YOU" wouldn't ask a game to give you freedom, but it's perfectly reasonable and acceptable for others to.

The game is billed as an open world experience, aimed at creating player freedom. You can claim they didn't provide the freedom they aspired to, but saying "I didn't want freedom" is ridiculous. There are plenty of restrictive, narrative driven, choice-less games out there to play if "you don't want freedom". How can you possibly go buy an orange that looks like an orange and is advertised to be an orange, and then complain that what you got was an orange and not an apple?

More than one game exists and plays differently because everyone's tastes are different. There is clearly a market and desire for games that give players choice... just because you don't want it doesn't mean it wasn't a valid thing to deliver.

"But the notion that a game needs to "give you freedom" is just self-indulgent. If anything a game needs to shape an experience, because we have our own freedom and a game costs time to play."

A game doesn't "NEED" to give you freedom unless the designers "WANT" to give you freedom... which they did. Shape an experience? Is the open world do-anything design of RFG not a "shape"? What's pretentious is you saying that a game "needs" or "doesn't need" to do something. Obviously not every game is made to meet your approval, or even meet your tastes and preferences.

"If you can only exercise freedom through a game, you're a sad person."

Since when did anyone say they wanted freedom in a game to replace all their other freedoms?! This argument is tired and needs to be put to bed. I enjoy playing games, and they often provide experiences I can't replicate in real life. I would love to go to Mars and blow up buildings and incite a revolution. Unfortunately (or maybe... fortunately), I can only do so in a video game.

Kevin Kissell
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@Tim, very true with chess and how it is played, millions of ways to win, one small board, the player is limited to that board. Lets take the first Call of Duty game with the first FarCry game. Both are first person shooters, both have some type of freedom, however there is different ways to play each.

I like the Call of Duty game for its use of detailed objectives, I know what I must do at any given moments. I have to go to point A to get to point B, and so on. Objective are clearing marked, sometimes I really want to know what to do. On the flip side of that is FarCry, It starts that player at a ramdom spot, gives the player a couple of objectives, then lets the player find their own way to point Z, you can skip A, B, C... I also enjoy this type of game play, lets me feel a little in charge.

Tim, I see your point on this issue, open world verse more lineir play, both these have a right to be developed, however both needs good story, well thoughout mission and levels, and over course fun to play. Great post Tim.

Ryan Hulse
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The first Far Cry was a much more enjoyable open world experience than the second game, even though technically it was not as “open”. I think there are a couple reasons for this. The first reason was that the second game tried a more immersive interface/HUD and did not provide feedback to the player on stealth, which all but eliminated that gameplay style from Far Cry 2. In a first person shooter set in an open jungle, your visibility is a relatively important consideration. The second reason was that each island on the first game was its own sandbox and from the first step off your skiff to the final objective on the island, you felt you were progressing through a mission. The second game required long slogs through the same checkpoints of a very static open world in order to even really start “missions”. It left me feeling like I was wasting a lot of time.

Red Faction and other better open world games make the player feel like he is advancing the experience even as he is side-tracked when traveling long distances across an open world.

Tim’s comments have a shred of truth in them. “Shaping experiences” is what game design is. Open world games can still provide memorable, shaped experiences, even if they choose not to script every memorable stimuli the player encounters. A poorly designed open world that tries to short cut the hard work of designing the world (and missions) properly and then tries to sell fun simply with the open-world credo of “freedom” is a poor game. Of course there are lots of linearly designed games that are also not fun for their own reasons.

Unfortunately the expression of that idea is compromised in the ludicrous statements of freedom in games being self-indulgent and better pursued in reality. …And emotional experiences are better pursued in books or movies. …And tightly structured deduction and strategy experiences are better pursued in 1000 year old games like Go, Mancala, Chess, etc.

Freedom in digital gameplay experiences has just as much validity and enjoyment as any other attribute, and in fact I think it should be valued higher than most whenever possible, despite the complexity it adds.

Simon Fraser
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Extremely interesting and, hopefully, inspiring article for lots of game designers.

Maybe as games get more and more advanced, even things like dialogue - not just incidental dialogue but mission-critical dialogue - can become procedurally generated. The designer's job is then designing a world and setting goals within it, and from there on letting the rules and the simulation take care of themselves, No event scripting required.

Or even a game with no set goals, where the goals themselves can be generated by the computer. A full simulation of a resistance against an overpowering government, where the bases are built by simulated people, the attacks are orchestrated by simulated people, keys to doors exist and can be bought or found just like in real life, and everything is destructible.

Certainly it's a fork in the road compared to story-based game design, like the future of Mass Effect, which I imagine will always be largely scripted. I think there's a place for semi-simulation/procedural as well as story-based games, and everything in between.

Chris Kaminari
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I, personally, LOVED the open world/destructive style of Guerrilla....honestly, so much damn fun, its ridiculous.

Its not often that you play a game that literally everything is destructive. Just being able to walk up to a building, look at it, and start wailing out walls with a sledgehammer is just sheer awesomeness to me.

And to me, that play style was seriously different and innovative in its own matter.

Take example, basic game designs that are linear and straight forward, make you hafta go down, for example, a building that looks like a hangar. Now, for most games, you hafta basically go storming in through the front of the hangar, try and find cover, kill whoever between you and the cover, and spend some/most of the time hiding in that cover, picking off enemys. With Guerrilla, you could just scope out the action, and then run around the side of the building to where you think there is a bulk of the enemys, and blast a hole in the wall, and start tossing mines/grenades in there to start creaming the enemys, or just run in there and try and take out the enemys as much as you can before you either get gunned down, or there all dead. Guerrilla, to me, opened up a whole new style of gameplay for open world games.

I was playing Just Cause 2, and as sweet as that is open world, its nothing like Guerrilla, in terms of destruction to me. In Guerrilla, I destroyed the whole bridge in one of the lands with just a sledgehammer, whereas your suppose to strap a MOAB to a car and blow it, I went the blue collar way and screwed that bridge myself.

Guerrilla+ open world multiplayer= awesomeness.