Making an Open World Video Game? Do it Right or Not At All
Harness just the right balance of randomness and determinism to make something special and truly engaging.
If you haven’t heard, open world video games are all the rage. Again.
We’re not talking about Minecraft, Elder Scrolls Skyrim, and GTA 5 of the early 2010s. The new games on the block like Valheim, Spider Man: Miles Morales, and Cyberpunk 2077 would like to have a word with you. Heck, we even have an open world Pokemon game coming in the form of Pokemon Legends: Arceus. We can’t ignore it anymore — open world games are back.
But what exactly is an “open world” game? There are many schools of thought, but at the end of the argument there’s a clear dichotomy between what makes a game “open world” and “linear”. Open world games do not railcar you from one objective to the next, and do not limit your freedom to explore the greater game. Open world games allow you to roam free in the world, creating a play session that is different from any other players’. Linear games force players to complete the next story beat, the next quest, or the next level requirement in order to explore more of the world.
As you can guess, open world games vary from the completely lawless to the “open, but with some limitations”. Some open world games are completely procedural, with every playthrough or instanced world being different from the rest. Other open world game are completely prefabricated, with every NPC, resource or monster being carefully placed and positioned by a game designer.
It doesn’t matter which approach you take, as long as your game is fun for the player. Making an open world game play just right requires forethought and skillful game design, not just slapping together a bunch of cool things. This article discusses some tips for managing the creation of you next open world game project.
Your Game’s Core Promises Are Important
Let’s get one thing straight right out of the gate. “Being open world” is not a game’s core promise. It’s more of a genre or a design choice.
There is an excellent GDC talk by Alex Jaffe from Riot Games. He talks about the “core promises” that your game should be delivering on, almost like user stories about game feel and game outcomes. However these core promises require decisions on how the game is designed, that can sometimes compete with one another. This conflict, “cursed problems” as Jaffe calls them, are pervasive in game design and need to be considered during pre-production.
So, as I said, “being open world” is not a core promise. “I want to collect, expand my inventory, and explore a rich crafting system” however is a core promise, and one that open world games tend to deliver on. Other such core promises include:
- I want to survive my way to glory, fending off hunger, weather, and wild animals and persevere
- I want to “grind” it out — leveling up everything from walking to running to throwing a punch to using a hammer.
- I want to interact with everything in the game, and master the world through dextrous skill
Your game should deliver on at least one core promise to be a successful game. It can have more than one promise, but the goal is not to contradict them. Think about the second and third promises above: there are a few considerations that these two may clash at times. Games that require dextrous skill need to carefully monitor how level progression can make certain tasks easier.
You may be tempted to deliver on everyone’s fantasy open world game, but too much of a good thing has its consequences, especially when it comes to designing a game.
With Great Randomness Comes Great Responsibility
Don’t rely on straight randomness to supply a rich and exciting experience for your players. Believe it or not, randomness is not as unexpected when you know its coming.
In a previous article I discuss why randomness should be embraced by design. The main argument is that, when you embrace randomness, you are thinking critically about what components should be randomized versus not. For example, you can design the constructs in your open world (think, for example, a gas station in a post-apocalyptic world) and scatter them around in ways that make sense. Maybe a certain distance apart per each, only along roads, and non-existent in more decrepit areas.
Players are more attracted to components that paint a scene and make sense in their environment. Annoying randomness should be avoided at all costs — no one enjoys a random distribution of easy and hard enemies across the entire game, or scarcity on what should be a common resource in the biome you’ve created.
And finally, randomness should not be used to add padding to your game. All too often we see games with procedural item or monster generation that re-uses the same handful of assets with a palette swap or +1 strength, pushing an incremental grind that makes the game longer. Games that do this get old faster than those with fresh content, so always consider where randomness is introduced.
Let Your Players Obsess Over Their Character
The vast majority of open world games are all delivering the same core promise — to give the player an escape into a new world. The vastness and allure of unexplored content in open world games is something that players yearn for. Even more so, the assimilation into this world reinvents the player into someone new.
In Valheim, the player becomes a Viking warrior inhabiting a purgatory where nature must be tamed before it becomes your end.
In GTA, you are a ne’er-do-well roaming the streets of San Andreas, able to complete heists that are inconceivable in the real world, all without consequence.
In Minecraft, your player’s quest is not explicit, but you are capable of harvesting and crafting a plethora of unique things, making you essentially a god of the world.
Open world games provide players with the dream of being someone new in a world waiting for them to explore and change. Your design should work with the interplay between your player character and the world created for them.
Allow your players to obsess over their character. Whether or not your game is multiplayer (but let’s face it, it’s multiplayer or bust) you should be able to have full customization of their appearance, abilities and interactions. Everything in the world that can be collected should feed back into the appearance and/or abilities of the player.
By giving your players the ability to customize their appearance and playstyle, you give them a new layer of expressiveness that provides endless hours of entertainment.
Open World Does Not Equal Aimless World
Don’t let your “open world” become a pocket dimension of nothingness. No, this doesn’t mean you need guardrails on your game in order for it to be fun. But a complete and utter lack of direction kills player motivation. Players want to discover your world, so make it easier to be discovered.
Example: if chopping down trees is an important activity in your game, you need to highlight this. There are subtle ways you can do this — provide plenty of trees so it is only a matter of time before they are interacted with. Crafting an axe should be simple and self-explanatory.
The acceptance criteria for quests or milestones in your world should also be clearly outlined. If you need 100 wood to make a rolling cart, it should be clear in your world. How you do this in a way that is best integrated into your world is a design decision that needs to be carefully considered — it could be as simple as a guide, or an NPC, a voice in the player’s head, etc.
Open world games are back in vogue — due in part to how they’ve evolved over the years. Players still crave exploration, discovery and control over a vast world. The implementation of said world is the most important component! With the tips outlined in this article, you are well on your way to designing your own perfect world.
If you are interested in game development, check out some of my other articles on game design and trending game development topics: