Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
It felt like last year open world games took over, and stopped being high-budget exceptions to the norm. It’s now pretty commonplace for a game’s linear story to be just the main attraction in a fairground of challenges, collectibles and distractions. ‘Go anywhere, do anything’ games have been around since the eighties, but it’s only in recent years developers have figured out the hooks, tricks and bribes to get a wider audience playing them.
Most of them kinda suck though, don’t they? Not the games themselves, necessarily, but their approaches to filling these sprawling open spaces with stuff to entertain you. They know how to make a traditional game, and they know how to make an open world, but their attempts to fit the two together amount to mashing a square peg into a round hole until it splinters.
I’m interested in whether there’s a way to take the most successful of these systems and make them work with the world, and each other. To fit with the fiction rather than jar with it, and to draw attention to the world rather than distract from it.
So ignoring how much we like them as games for a moment, what do some of the better open worlds fill their lands with, and how well does it work?
Assassin’s Creed 2:
The broad variety means there’s always something you feel like doing, and most of it is integrated into the fiction – albeit by clumsily grafting two different fictions together. The informal missions feel like fun because no-one tells you to do them, and failing is no big deal. The puzzle/platform levels are usually welcome because you know what you’re getting into when you take one on.
World of Warcraft:
It’s nice that there’s stuff to do wherever you go, but the lack of a main quest and presence of other players doing the same ones makes it hard to feel like what you’re doing matters.
The density of hand-scripted missions to find is enough that exploring is always appealing, and the unique stuff is rare enough to feel special, but common enough that everyone finds some of it. The main story has its moments, but your motivation for it is disastrously weak.
Far Cry 2:
The main missions feel annoyingly disconnected from your objective, and the choice between them is illusory. The template missions are excellent because the templates themselves are compelling, but they never feel like more than that. The thoughtful placement of collectibles makes them much more fun to hunt, even if you don’t need the money.
The story missions are mostly bad, and the challenges are ridiculously divorced from the fiction. The changing city would be cool if you could make any of it yours, but instead the only influence you have is deciding which of two factions that hate you control certain bits.
Red Faction Guerilla:
The mini-missions do a good job of providing a choice of fun stuff to do without breaking fiction. The fact that the story moves on from each area, though, makes it feel less like a world and more like levels.
Since the mini-missions keep you in a small area and are very similar to play, they don’t offer much of a break. Neither do they or the collectibles carry an appealing reward.
It seems like the things that work best, or are most needed, are:
Any additions? Anything you really like in open world games in general, or a specific one? The next post will be figuring out how to cram all the good stuff into one specific open world.
More Game Design Ideas
Dr. Nerfball: Honestly, I'm not sure if this would come under collectibles or unique things, but unlockable safe houses would be nice.
But only if they're done well, like in Just Cause,which gave you a whole bunch and some awesome unlockable vehicles for doing a few missions, it also gives you one at the top of a mountain if you help out the drug cartel, I think. It serves no real help in any way, as it's about as far away as possible from any story location, but it does come with a free helicopter and is a sweet basejump location. Also, on a less tangential note, it means when you just want to get somewhere fast you can respawn close by, which is better than having to trudge everywhere. Which I thiiiiink Far Cry 2 forced you to do, but I barely played it, so I can't really comment.
IncredibleBulk92: I think one of the post important things you've left out of this is some sort of home base or some place you can feel safe. Somewhere you can go and upgrade your character, change your weapons or talk to familiar NPCs.
Also getting around this world should be fun, easy or convenient, Far Cry 2 really screwed that up with the random insane jeep men who drive into you as fast as possible at every available opportunity. It's not all about content I suppose.
Luke: It's from a while back but Crackdown remains my favorite open world of all time.
It's all about the collectibles: the offer material advantages, and they're so much fun to get - they take you places you might not otherwise have gone and the trip is worth far more than the skill points. Scaling the keep is far more work than a single orb (and achievement) is worth, but so much fun. Add the template mini-missions throughout the city and the real feel that you can do whatever you like at any time and you've got a winner.
shep: Also the interesting things should be fairly densely packed into the world or there should be lots of clues about where to go looking for them. It's no fun wondering around for hours looking for something cool and puts people off finding well hidden cool stuff.
I actually prefer not-really-open-but-you-can-still-go-explore-a-bit worlds like baldurs gate etc. The ones that clump all the content together and cut out the travelling.
Phill Cameron: I think often open world games mess up because they turn it into a themepark instead of a world. GTA IV did a brilliant job of creating a living, breathing world, where something like Prototype felt like it only existed to provide the developers with somewhere to put their preposterous story.
I think, above all else, open world games need to make you feel like a part of the world. I'm not sure that particularly means you need to have an established character's shoes to slip into, but it does mean you can't be the complete be-all and end-all of these people's lives. Sure, give me a quest, but give me a bloody reason to do it.
The informal missions of AC2 were really good, I thought, albeit severely limited. Chasing thieves was pretty much it, unless you went for killing the corrupt officials once your notoriety went up. But some of the chases I had over the rooftops of Venice were frenetic to an extreme, and hugely satisfying when I got the thieving bastard. More of that, would be welcome.
I've got high hopes for Red Dead Redemption.
bob: gta4 has a good sandbox
Jazmeister: So far, games like this have only ever been attempts to branch out from corridors-and-crates. It'd be nice to be humbled by the size, scale, and complexity of a world. I want my endeavours to matter in my circle of influence, but only the grandest of my achievements to take effect in the greater world.
Any templates should be hidden from me, like the levelgen in Spelunky - too complex to seem repetitive. Every single one of these games is guilty of this, and I'm sick of reading a mission briefing and thinking, "oh, it's one of these." I should be motivated for plot reasons, otherwise why is the plot there?
Rei Onryou: Collectibles can be a double-edged sword. I felt like AssCreed failed with it. 800 iirc and most were really dull, with the only stand out places being high structures (such as Acre's cathedral). Scaling the tallest building in the game, earning the view/collectible and enjoying the 3x longer freefall made it worthwhile.
Conversely (and as mentioned), Crackdown got collectibles (in the form of Agility Orbs) spot on. Although there were lots, they were almost all clearly visible and made a notable sound when you were nearby. Collecting them rewarded you with super jumping abilities, which in turn made getting more orbs easier and more fun.
I think the trick is that finding them shouldn't be the challenge, but getting to them. Far Cry 2's were hidden, but you had the detector and map. It became Marco Polo. In Fallout 3 (and Oblivion), locations would appear on your compass as points, but not on your map, when you were within a reasonable proximity. You didn't have to go to them, but you knew adventure awaited you there. If these markers didn't appear, would you have considered exploring unknown and far away areas? Would you have stumbled across Oasis?
Devlosirrus: It might seem as though I'm missing the point, but I think meaningful, well-scripted and rewarding campaign missions are an extremely important part of an open world. Unfortunately, in attempting to craft a compelling open world, many games overlook the necessity of an excellent main quest to hold it all together.
For instance: in Fallout 3--which is, keep in mind, one of my favorite games--I never felt compelled to complete the main campaign. I restarted the game with three separate characters, testing out alternate builds, before I ever even bothered to seek out Three Dog at GNR. Eventually, on my third character, I stumbled upon Vault 112 in Smith Casey's Garage and completed the Tranquility Lane segment, only because I found it to be the first truly interesting campaign quest. After it was over, however, I lost interest and started exploring the map again, simply because I found the main quest so uninteresting. Eventually, it seemed as though the only fun left in the game was to stumble around looking for hidden content and, due to the lack of significant character progression, even this eventually grew dull.
Alternatively, in Morrowind--another Bethesda title, and also one of my favorites--I found the main campaign to be one of its most entertaining and compelling elements, and it drove me through a good chunk of the story content while breaking every few missions to explore the open world. Because of this, I felt like I was doing it under my own steam. The campaign rewards you with powerful loot and significant advancements to both your character and the plot, while never making it seem as though you're being herded along a specific path. So, when I chose to take a break from the main quest and explore the world, I did so with a more powerful character, and more confidence in what I could do. Furthermore, dungeons and items that had been inaccessible to my less powerful character were in reach, so the campaign rewarded me with the power to probe deeper into the world. This felt incredibly satisfying.
The problem with Fallout 3 (and, indeed, most open-world titles) is that, to me, the open-world content felt like the most compelling and entertaining part of the game. Unfortunately, I was motivated to experience it not because I wanted explore the world with a significantly advanced character and overcome new challenges, but rather to escape the main quest. It seemed like I was being driven into the open world rather than enticed into it, and exploration began to feel like a chore as a result. Morrowind, on the other hand, made me want to interact with the open world through a character that was significantly changed each time I left the main quest, that could enter dungeons and fight monsters which, only a few story missions before, would have absolutely destroyed me. The open-world content in Morrowind was an extraordinary complement to an excellent campaign, whereas the world of Fallout 3 seemed like my only escape from an ever-expanding list of chores.
It's truly a shame that, in an effort to create a compelling open world, so many developers neglect a solid campaign. I would much rather be led into the open world by the promise of new experiences and challenges when I leave the campaign, rather than forced into it by necessity.
Plumberduck: I agree with the earlier point about Crackdown, with a few added points:
1) You didn't need to find ALL the Agility Orbs to max out your jump. There's nothing I hate more in a game than hunting some hidden thing as a chore.
2) Crackdown is also fascinating because of how amazingly loose the structure is. There are no "missions". In each of the game's three areas, there is a single person you need to kill. They're always heavily guarded in difficult to reach locations. By killing his lieutenants (who are also usually guarded to some degree) you weaken the boss' defenses. But there are no levels. Just locations that are part of the game world.
Tom, you skipped over one aspect of Prototype's world that I found really compelling: The Web. I didn't like the template missions where you have to hunt people down, but I really liked those times when you'd randomly be informed that someone with information you needed/wanted was nearby, and you'd have to make a choice about diverting from your current goal to go get them. I wish it hadn't been so random, though; I like the idea of the payoff for exploration being background information about the world.
Fallout 3 is the only open world I've ever gone out of my way to explore. The ability to see nearby locations (and the tangible benefits of then being able to teleport to those locations once you found them) gave me a real "Just. One. More." feeling when I was wandering the wastes.
I also really like the safehouses idea people have been talking about. Probably best executed in GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas. Buying property or winning territory in those games was interesting, and it gave your efforts a tangible effect on the gameworld.
Jason L: And of course, Crackdown also has great safehouses - your first time into a neighbourhood, you're probably going to be concentrating on establishing that foothold - giving you a specific location and fight to aim at while you develop your muscle memory of the landscape. Interestingly, the safehouse game fades away early in the game or an area's progression; I wonder whether that's Right, or just right for Crackdown.
EGTF: GTA IV nearly had it, except they chucked out a few too many parts of the San Andreas that made it so compelling. Instead they had a fucking car wash, which still annoys me thinking about it. No car upgrade shop, less clothes shops, no hairstyle place, less weapons, no gym for martial arts styles but a car wash. It did nothing to your vehicle, was used in only one mission but there it was on your mini map 24/7.
Does Mass Effect count as a sandbox in an example of how not to do it?
Joe!: I like it when you find something completely unrelated to any main or side-mission, and so it feels unique to you.
In Just Cause there are dozens of little spots I've discovered that are either interestingly placed, or with great views, that I've come across solely by chance.
Flechette: I loved the hell out of The Saboteur, a cross between GTA4 AND AC2, based in WWII with copious servings of Le Resistance, explosives and narzees mixed in. Somewhere in me says that if Ubisoft revisits AC2, they'll have to give Vichy France a miss.
Verde Flash: I very much agree with the idea of safe houses. You really miss a lot of the greatness of an open world when you're stumbling through on your last few HP waiting to either die or find health.
However, it does not necessarily need to be a new, safe, location. In Fallout 3, for instance, as soon as you could escape from enemy view or remove the enemies, you were able to fast-travel to a safe place, and optionally fast-travel back when you were re-stocked.
Rei Onryou: What really turned me off the Fallout 3 main quest was how trivial and short it felt compared to the rest of the game. Admittedly, I was level 20 and had done EVERYTHING else I could before doing it, but after 50-60 hours of awesome exploring, I mopped up the 10 or so main quests in a matter of hours with a feeling of little or no consequence.
Tom Francis: Safehouses are definitely ace in games where you can't save anywhere and you don't have regenerating health. How should they be unlocked? In some games you just have to find them, in San Andreas you had to pay money, and in GTA IV they just open up along the course of the main plot.
Crackdown is definitely a collectibles success story. I think part of what makes it work is they've made something generic enough that they can put hundreds of them around without it being too much work, but they're not meaningless like feathers or secret packages. And in a final stroke of cleverness, what they improve is the very ability you use to get them, so the whole process is a closed-loop RPG within the game itself. My only reservation about carrying that across into other games is that they almost have to be totally artificial and incongruous: you have to be able to spot them, and each one improves your own mobility. It's hard to think of a realistic analogue for that.
The loose structure of Crackdown mentioned above was appreciated at first, but I think it's why I stopped playing. I didn't dislike it, but I felt a bit lost and aimless.
Sounds like we're agreed on collectibles: they musn't be hard to find once you're in the area, but they can be hard to get to. They should improve your character, but you shouldn't need to find all of them to get some benefit.
And the main story missions should be: good.
Plumberduck: I liked the web idea, but all the flashes I saw from it were virtually the same, and kind of annoyingly done. I gave up on it after a while, but still consumed those random targets for the XP.
Joe: Yeah, I'm always finding awesome little places like that. Wouldn't it be great if you could make any of them your safe house?
Verde Flash: I wasn't particularly endeared with the Fallout 3 storyline until the Enclave Soldiers started showing up everywhere and it seemed more exciting. I bought Broken Steel and continued playing.
When you get out to the Wasteland, you're all like "OMG ITS BIG" and then you go exploring. Then you end up doing the main quest when you feel ready and able. It's something that doesn't force itself, but it does feel at least a little rewarding when you do. Maybe you don't want to keep going after a bit, so you don't have to. It's a storyline that you can do when you want and doesn't trap you inside of it.
But yeah, the plot kinda sucks.
I really wasn't caring about the main quest for the longest of time, until I stumbled on Tranquility Lane. I was like "Hey this may be kinda neat after all".
Andrew: I am surprised as others were that GTA wasn't included. It has a good mix of minigames, property/area control (with resulting changes - your gangs, etc. helping you), adversary and law (unlike most open worlds which basically have no consequences, or you are breaking the "law" all the time anyway) and some other bits.
The main thing for me though is it is a great, fun place to explore - by car mainly (cars being not in most of these other mentioned games!). Travelling isn't monotonous most of the time - merely a few minutes in the nearest vehicle! And with a great radio to boot!
I also like worlds which have a ton of custom-made things to complete but don't need to be completed. Fallout 3 has this in droves. I like the original Baldur's Gate for the same reason - although it is more typical RPG affairs, there was a huge game map (replaying it now, it's taken me ages to explore it even knowing what's coming!). Baldur's Gate had the advantage of a more interesting plot, characters to interact with, and to be honest some much more fun encounters :)
In any case, travel in that game was as easy as Fallout 3, but GTA wins over both with usable vehicles (at least Farcry 2 attempts this). Of course Crackdown and Assassins Creed make it easier to get around on foot, but it's not quite the same experience at all. Oblivion was actually quite fun on horseback, but it was a problem for fighting (no drive by horse shootings in that game) and there was little point to it once you could fast travel everywhere, and no real point in getting to/away anywhere faster - there were never any time limits that enforced the use of a horse.
Totally agree on the plot being important to guide you around - the world must have some purpose, if there is going to be actual effort made into making it unique in the first place. I mean, certain open-world type games which do it randomly or work on more levels then "Shoot and shoot" can get away with no missions - Elite right? or similar ones that include economic and large-exploration as part of it. Most are not interesting enough to explore to do this though, tbh!
I need to play more open world games, especially some of the newer ones :)
Dante: Safehouses are an excellent idea, even for games where one can quicksave being able to stop back somewhere and grab some of the useful stuff you've acquired is always a bonus. In Saints Row I always like to stop back at the safehouse to grab some cash and take a helicopter to my next destination.
As for how they've been unlocked, I don't think they should be linked with the main plot like GTA4, because I might feel like doing side missions in Manhattan, and I don't want a choice between following the plot and going back to the first island. Cash is a decent idea because it allows you to activate it as and when, but it does tend to limit you on how many places you have for no real reason. Personally I think they should be activated by optional sidequests or similar, that way you can choose to prioritise them or not, think of an expanded version of Far Cry 2's 'shoot two guys to take over' system.
Dante: Incidentally, something I also consider important in the open world is interactivity in picking up missions, or at least the illusion of it. What I dislike is the GTA/Prototype method, where you simply walk into a cutscene which automatically starts the mission when it's over, that makes it feel like a linear game that's been spread out. Why is it that I can wander Niko all over Liberty City, but as soon as I approach a designated story location he locks in with laser guided focus?
I'd like to see more things like dialogue choices in this instance, because what good is it if the world is open when you can only do one thing?
LaZodiac: Something kinda important would be "is it fun to go through the city"
In regards to Prototype and AC2, yes. For Fallout 3? Not so much. Maybe a little if you enjoy finding random stuff, or get alot of random encounters, but otherwise its just "walk in a vaguely strait line"
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Chris: Borderlands should maybe be mentioned. I guess it's open-world, though you really wouldn't know it because there's no reason I can see to ever go anywhere or do anything unless it's quest-related. It might as well be entirely linear for the amount of exploration I've done -- maybe others have a different opinion?
Alex: I agree with Chris. I love Borderlands but the game didn't really say "explore me". The only reason I explored was to find a weapon that was better then the one I have. Even that was hardly done because during missions because your either rewarded at the end or find it off some guy's body. At least it had safe 'zones' where you can heal up. I really never had to buy ammo because I usually found enough off body's. The only time I actually bought ammo is when I finished killing the boss at Sledge's safehouse and killing the last guy when I was on the second playthrough.
Jazmeister: Borderlands wasn't open at all - it just let you walk back through all the used up levels and had you do some back tracking through similar areas. The quest areas are long corridors with danglies at the end - you grab the danglies and come back, then head out down another corridor.
I liked it a lot, but it was linear.
Rei Onryou: Another brilliant collectible game was Burnout Paradise. Smashing gates rewarded you with learning new and fun shortcuts. Like through a shopping mall or over big ramps. And the billboards were great fun, falling into the "I can clearly see where it is, now how do I get to it?" category. John Walker summed it up well on RPS.
I think open world games can encourage more exploration gameplay if there are simple, early main missions that get you to do those sorts of tasks. The only example I can think of right now is Freelancer. In an Elite style game, you can easily confused or lost due to the sheer number of options. There's so much choice that you don't really know what you can/can't do. But a lot of Freelancer's early missions are "fly with wingmates and kill people", "escort this cargo", "deliver these goods to that space station". When the game finally says "earn a lot of money", it's already shown you a multitude of ways to do it for yourself, either through exploring or picking up jobs on a bounty board.
RE: Crackdown's loose structure
The main "plot" definitely did leave a lot to be desired. It felt so trivial and unbound that I didn't feel a great deal of necessity to complete it. Furthermore, killing a gang boss meant that his island was now a safe area. There was almost no reason to go back. No more baddies to kill or take on. The further you progressed in the story, the less play area there seemed to be.
Rei Onryou: I forgot to ask earlier, but I'd like to hear Tom's thoughts on how these open world elements could be applied in APB. Lord knows we all want that game to work, and some side activities like collectibles or crazy stunts or whatnot could be a wonderful addition.
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Verde Flash: STUPID QUESTION OF THE DAY:
What's APB? I probably will smack my self once it's revealed.
Jason L: APB = 'All-Points Bulletin', a kind of police alert at least in the USA. Supercops vs. superrobbers weirdo-action-MMO/very large persistent multiplayer action game, from Realtime Worlds - the Crackdown people.
Some mentions were made of 'having an effect on the world'. I do want to say that one thing I like less and less the more I get exposed to it is the Peter Molyneux model. Even if it weren't always tweely good/evil, I think that kind of reactive world-shaping should probably be treated at this point as a failed experiment unless the actual point of the game is solipsism/psychosis/pathetic fallacy. Certainly actors within the world should react - see also the Invincibles discussion about neighbourhoods and the leagues ladder - but let's not, say, play with the weather or the lighting model or the world geometry.
harl: What about Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines?
You do side quests, collect stuff, and depending on the choices you make can end up with different endings.
Bret: That would make Deus Ex a sandbox, and for all its virtues, well, it ain't a sandbox game.
Which is interesting, really. I mean, there's more approaches to problems than in most games, but it's got a linear forward push that denies a sandbox structure entirely. No messing around with UNATCO after you meet Savage (Unatco).
MartinJ: You haven't mentioned GTA4 at all although I'd say it belongs. It deserves it's place if for nothing else then for the way it puts storyline and open world together. It's probably the only open-world game in which I didn't mind having to drive/run to the mission - unlike Red Faction, Far Cry or Fallout.
It's also probably one of the best open-world games when it comes to "pick up and play," because you don't have to do the - or any - missions, and just mess around. Kill a bunch of cops and get into a chase or do a few jumps. This was also possible (and fun) in Prototype though not in many of the other games you mentioned.
Tom Francis: Yeah, my only excuse for not mentioning GTA IV was I couldn't confidently remember all the ways it tried to fill its world. The way it mixed side and main missions was interesting, though: a lot of the time it just doesn't tell you which is which, so even if you're only interested in progressing the plot you'll probably end up doing side-missions inadvertantly.
For me, though, the choice of mission-giver wasn't an interesting one, because it didn't really determine the type of mission. And I hated everyone.
The GTA series has always been great at giving you fun, semi-informal mini missions like vigilante stuff you can do in a cop car. I used to like the Ambulance ones a lot, for some reason. There seem to be less of these in GTA IV, and the friends/lovers system they added instead did nothing for me.
Mostly GTA IV is good because it's a great world, with awesome physics and a good driving model: all the product of talented coders and artists with time and money. I don't think it was actually all that clever about how it filled that world and led you through it. The same world in smarter hands could have been truly incredible.
Dante: I guess I'm the only one who didn't like GTA 4 much then, I certainly didn't like driving between objectives, given how easy it was to inadvertently kill someone and get the cops on your tail.
Tom Francis: Dante - like your idea about earning safehouses through dedicated side missions.
LaZodiac - definitely, whether moving through the world is fun is a key thing. It's not really a way of filling the world, but it determines how you should fill the world. I think GTA over-estimates how fun moving around is: having to drive to the mission-giver for every attempt gets arduous. In Just Cause and Assassin's Creed, though, travelling is the joy of the game and I'll gladly go any distance for an objective.
Chris - Ha, Borderlands didn't even cross my mind. I think it's borderline: if it's an open world, it uses it so poorly it might as well not be.
Rei - Yeah, using the main story to teach side missions, and informal missions, is definitely smart.
All I really know about APB is Graham's preview in the mag - I wouldn't know what kind of stuff would be appropriate without really getting what the game is going for.
Dante: I think the best indicator of how enjoyable it is to move through the world is thus:
Did the game have fast travel?
If it didn't, did people complain?
If either of those are true, it probably isn't that fun. GTA 4 added teleporting cabs because driving across the city wasn't much fun, which to me smacks of treating the symptoms rather than the disease.
Assassin's Creed 2 on the other hand, allows you to transport between cities, but if there was an option to teleport me within a city, I wouldn't take it. Saints Row 2 also doesn't have fast travel, but I never missed it, why would I when inside an hour I could have a respawnable helicopter to parachute out of?
Jason L: I think there may be a useful distinction to be drawn between open-world games and sandbox environments. Among other things GTA4 becomes a good open-world game inside a great sandbox program, to the point that many people wound up simply ignoring the OWG and goofing around in the sandbox. Most OWGs don't, and arguably shouldn't, have enough sandbox around them to fall back on that.
LaZodiac: You know, speaking of GTA, Vice City was pretty good. It allowed you to basicly screw around however you wished, and it did help with the monotone of getting back to the mission giver if you fail by giving you taxis, but only if you fail during it.
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Blackout62: Ahhh, you forgot Infamous's and it's incredibly plot related side missions.
Plumberduck: One aspect we've been ignoring in this discussion: Character. Specifically, your main character.
GTAIV's gotten some (justified) crap from people for having an over-wrought story, but at the end of the day, I really liked Nico Bellic. And that made playing as him, even if I wasn't doing stuff that advanced the story, more interesting.
This is admittedly, a nebulous, weird area, since it varies from player to player how much they're going to empathize and identify with a given character. And it brings up questions about our relationship with the characters in FPS open-world games, like Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3, where we're supposed to be identifying as "ourselves".
It's not just the matter of the way the character looks. And it's definitely now about what reactive soundbites they'll inevitably repeat a hundred times over the course of play (if they're not just mute). But thinking back, the open-world games where I LIKED my in-game avatar were the ones I gave the most time to.
Devenger: Your checklist at the end of the post makes a surprisingly suitable list for planning a tabletop roleplaying (e.g. D&D) campaign - especially the incorporation of scraps of story outside of linear elements - though of course the tabletop format does have unique problems (e.g. you need longer to generate quality content) and unique advantages (e.g. no technical restrictions on what you can change about the world; no limit to what can exist, except what can be described).
I also think video game designers could learn a lot from tabletop design, especially not being frightened of making options in the world exist as is most convenient for the player - we don't need a genuinely consistent open world in a game, only a theoretically consistent one. Why not have quests stumble upon players easily when they are looking for them, and rarely when they aren't?
DoctorDisaster: One thing I latch onto in a lot of open games is the ability to choose and create a "hometown" area. Honestly, did anyone playing Morrowind not murder some faceless citizen to take over their house and fill it with knickknacks? It's better when there isn't a designer-designated location for this: what's fun about the process is staking out turf and really untangling that area's mechanics.
This is also a good solution for having the world react to you without going to Molyneux levels of solipsism. It makes sense that a character might end up with a lot of influence over the town where she spends all her time.
I should also add: moving around should be enjoyable. I played a free weekend of Champions Online, which certainly wasn't enough time to get any sort of feel for the game, but I have flirted ever since with the idea of subscribing more or less entirely because zipping around on jet boots was such a blast. Characters should have a really bitchin' way to move around the open world, partly because this makes far-flung objectives less of an issue, but mostly because it's the simplest conceivable incentive to explore.
Jazmeister: Everyone should listen to Doc, because he's startlingly right. I killed the shop keeper in Balmora, the one whose house is all by itself.
Anonymous: Man. Disaster is dead on in this case. Making a saferoom's fun even in less open world games. Getting my little corner of the ship in System Shock where Shodan couldn't touch me was awesome.
Bret: Last comment was by me, in case anyone cares. As is unlikely to be the case.
Dan: No one cares, Bret.
EGTF: Was it just me who enjoyed levelling up all the buildings in my little home town/keep in Assassin's Creed II? It wasn't perfect, but had potential.
Jazmeister: I like that stuff too, Ed. I like building up a base camp and doing the whole ground level RTS thing. Raven Rock in Solstheim was a joy for me.
Dante: Regarding safehouses, I think there also needs to be something distinctive about them. The Megaton shack in Fallout 3 for example never really felt like mine, it was just a place to dump stuff, even buying themes only changed it marginally.
DoctorDisaster: Dante is right. Fallout's use of quest lines to make different houses available was an interesting approach, but making a particular shopkeeper the only way to upgrade took some of the fun out of collecting stuff for your house. Gradually coming across better alchemy equipment in Elder Scrolls games is a more fun, incremental progression. And most of the distinctive stuff you came across in the wasteland was nailed down: other than a ball and glove and the BB gun from the Vault, my character never ended up with any 'personal' items to display.
However, Fallout did a lot better at making the town feel like yours: all your neighbors seemed to have weird little secrets and stories you could slowly learn about, or projects you could participate in. Elder Scrolls NPCs (probably because there are so many more of them) tend to recede into a blur. I'd only ask for the ability to participate in quest lines that upgraded the town defenses or shops' stock.
For the record, I offed the guy in the green robe who would hang out by the bridge on the north end of Balmora. I think his name was Radarys? His house had a trapdoor on the roof.
Dante: I agree, the characters in Fallout are a million miles better than Oblivion. Perhaps the problem is that they didn't follow through enough with the housing, while you get two different places dependant on how you do the Megaton quest, that's all, why not run with it and give the player a variety of different locations?
For the record I decorated my Megaton house by buying the big heart shaped bed and throwing all the pre war money I could find on it.
Jason L: Good point on the movement, though I would put it under 'not necessary but sufficient'. It's the reason Fuel didn't work, and basically the reason Jet Grind Radio exists.
Tom Francis: I killed an Orc in Gnisis - his house was built into a cave, and I remember spending ages figuring out how to drop my unique Daedric helms so they'd lie right on the mantlepiece.
Then when they let you buy houses to store your unique loot in Oblivion, I never even tried it. There's no more impersonal way to acquire something than with money.
Dante: There's a house in the coastal town (Anvil I think) that you can buy on the cheap by vanquishing the ghost that haunts it. That was always my favourite of the Oblivion houses.
DoctorDisaster: In Oblivion I generally stuck to the house way down south away from everything -- the one you get for being knighted by the baron of somewhere-or-other. I did this initially because, like Pentadact said, earning a house somehow is way better than just buying it. I stayed after I got richer, because one time I came in and caught my orc roommate stealing my food from the pantry. This was so damn hilarious that I could never leave afterward.
Dan: I don't know why it was so appealing to "find" a house in Oblivion as compared to Fallout. What I mean is the people who cleared out a cave or an abandoned building to stay in. I think the beauty and lively nature of the surroundings makes you want to just get really into it in that regard, whereas in Fallout everything is so dreary and dangerous that you just really want somewhere to be safe. That's one reason I still like Oblivion lots more.
I had a character, (no-loads (i.e. if you die, that's it), no-fast travel, rp, need food and water to live, worse rad effects, brutal combat, etc. Basically everything possible to make it hard to live) that lived in the Northern Wastes of the FO3 map. I was rp-ing (using a mod) as an escaped android from the Commonwealth, so tried to limit human contact as much as possible. So I used a drainage chamber north of Canterbury Commons and made it into a home for the all the nick-nacks I picked up during my scavenging trips.
I never trusted Oblivion enough to make a house in the wilds, I was worried that containers/areas might reset (which many of them did).
Dan: Well that's a bit cool, maybe I'll go and do that. I didn't really do mods in Fallout as much as Oblivion.
Tom Francis: Ha, awesome. You like mugs, huh?
Jazmeister: Lack: Duncan Harris' Fallout mods article in PCG, right? I installed a lot of those too. I was chatting with Chris Livingston about doing a marathon run through ultra-difficult XFO-enhanced fallout, and blogging each leg of the journey. That was months ago though, I doubt he remembers and I don't really have time anymore.
RP in single player games is great. I really wish that kind of fight for survival was a tenable gaming experience in vanilla Fallout.
Lack_26: Jazmeister: yeah I used a lot of them, but not all of them (although it was certainly what inspired me to mod up FO3. I used some different mods to the list as well (XFO being one of them). I was planning to do a blog of it, but I was having too much fun playing it.
Ah found the mod list (not all of these are vital I would say, in fact I had to mod MTC travellers myself to make it in keeping with the lore. Actually, I've tinkered with a fair few on that list. But yeah, it makes for a pretty lore sensitive game. Things like the paradise lost (re-skin for the book) and 'enclave are friendly' are things I made myself, I just forgot to take them out.)
Of course, mugs are awesome.
The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun: [...] Tom Francis on Open World Games, in a relatively restrained mood What works and why. One day someone’s going to give Tom a job making a fucker, and it’ll be a better world for that. [...]
Lucas: Every open world game designer MUST play Sid Meier's Pirates! Even simple world dynamics can go a very very very long way. Lack of suitable world dynamics make most open world games boring.
I love exploration, but when its done, that's it.
Collecting is mostly a waste of time rather than gameplay.
Dante: I'm not against collecting, but it has to be more than just collecting for it's own sake. Batman's Riddler puzzles are a superb example of this, often they're interesting, and they all provoke a response from the Riddler, with it's own little ending if you get all of them.
GTA IV's 'flying rats' on the other hand, I couldn't care less about.
Tom Francis: Lucas, how did Pirates fill its open world and why was it good? I did play it at the time, but I remember next to nothing about it. Except that I could win any boarding action because the swordfighting minigame was exploitable to the point that I could take the entire enemy crew myself.
Open World Games: Cramming All The Good Stuff Into One, by Tom Francis: [...] last post was figuring out what we all like in open world games; this one’s about how to make that [...]
DevLog Watch: Augen Der Welt, Heat Signature, Relativity | Rock, Paper, Shotgun: […] generated spaceships, and it’s Tom’s first open world game. He has some experience writing and thinking about those, so it’s interesting to see him work through the issues of making […]