Todd Howard has been thinking about open world game design for quite a long time. He’s the director and executive producer Bethesda Game Studios, one of the preeminent purveyors of open world role-playing games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout 4 (and he also received the lifetime achievement award at the Game Developers Choice Awards last night).
While there are a lot of games thrown under the umbrella of “open world,” Bethesda’s formula is distinct. Under Howard’s direction, Bethesda games are arguably the most open of the open, a design choice which lends itself to emergent, surprising gameplay.
Asked about the guiding design principles for Bethesda RPGs, he said in a recent interview with Gamasutra he and his teams aim to “build a world that piques the player's curiosity. [A world] that rewards curiosity and exploration in any way it can.”
Howard said the intersection of the world with who the player wants to be creates a lot of surprises in gameplay – surprises for not only players, but also for the developers who make the game. “We try to have a lot of features and systems that by themselves are a little simple, but put together they create a lot of complexity,” he said.
A couple examples of how Howard said his games pique curiosity is through the design of the landscape – players might see something just over the horizon that beckons them over. In Skyrim and Fallout 4, there are also instances where a player might come across a small entrance on the surface of the world, and one’s curiosity draws them into a sprawling dungeon that they didn’t expect. No matter what the circumstance, try to pique curiosity, and reward it.
"We're okay letting [all the systems] run. Sometimes that mayhem or the weird things intersecting are what makes your moments special."
The openness of Bethesda’s games means games like Fallout 4 have many quests going on at once. It’s a way to cede control over the game, and hand it to players. But when you have all these systems layered on top of one another, you get a little bit of chaos as well when various systems intertwine and tangle up in unanticipated ways. Howard’s okay with that.
“You could be talking to somebody [in the game], and that moment was quest-designed for an emotional thing, and here comes the Deathclaw party that you had randomly spawn somewhere else,” Howard said.
He said the game could be tightened up in that regard by shutting down some systems and gating quests more aggressively, but he sees more benefit in openness.
“We're okay letting it all run,” Howard said. “Sometimes that mayhem or the weird things intersecting are what makes your moments special. Not knowing how one thing is going to affect another, since we don't wall them off, is the biggest challenge thus far.
“I think that's the difference in our games. If you play some other open world games you're on one thing at a time and the rest of the world actually kind of shuts down. Whereas in ours, you could be on every quest at once almost. And they all have to work. I think that gives you the suspension of disbelief that this is a real world more than some of the other stuff out there.”
Deathclaw ruins the intended mood
In terms of open world game design and its future, Howard expects his studio to experiment with new ideas and pay increasing attention to what players not only say they do in a Bethesda game, but also pay attention to what they’re actually doing.
Howard specifically mentioned the importance of the downtime in Bethesda games. While players will talk about having fun with action-heavy sequences that have a lot of gameplay mechanics, the moments where they can decompress and relax in an open world is of heavy importance.
“I'm a firm believer that the downtime, the time you spend just staring at the horizon or looking at stuff, that's really valuable time,” he said. “Players won't come back and say they did that a lot or that they enjoyed it, but those beats are really important. They make the parts that they do talk about, the more exciting parts, stand out. You need those breaks between it.”
“People will say they don't enjoy a walk from one place to another, but I don't think they know how important those few minutes of walking actually are,” he added.
As for experimentation on open world games, Bethesda continues to hold internal game jams (twice a year, one after the game is through pre-production, and one at the end of development), which allow developers there to stretch their legs and try out new ideas. The one Bethesda game jam rule is that the idea needs to be put in the game. Sometimes game jam ideas become commercial DLC.
“[Game jam day] is the greatest day of game development here because you see everybody on the team doing all these crazy and amazing things,” he said.
It’s that kind of creative process that can create something that surprises players or piques their curiosity. And when players feel surprised, they tend to talk to one another about a game. Said Howard: “I think our games have a good water-cooler moment of people sharing; ‘Did you know you could do this?’ I think that vibe colors the whole game, that you know you missed some things.”