Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint about rewiring things and punching people, I'm on a weekly gaming podcast called The Crate & Crowbar, I wrote these two short stories in the Machine of Death collections, and I used to write articles like these for PC Gamer. I'm now prototyping two new games, Heat Signature and one about grappling hooks.
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The last post was figuring out what we all like in open world games; this one’s about how to make that stuff work together. Can you include it all in one game, and still avoid theme-park silliness and repetitive grinding? No, probably not, but the ideas that crop up when you try are interesting.
I had to pick a specific open world to talk about to prevent this from becoming hopelessly vague, so these are all ideas for how a game like Just Cause 2 could work. I chose that not because of any qualms with it, but because the first one was a classic example of a wonderful open world, gorgeous and fun to move around in, without much going on in it. The sequel’s even more inviting and even more fun to traverse, so it’s a great chassis to plug some cool ideas into.
This got long, so first I’ll summarise:
Give the player the option to set up camp in his favourite place, upgrade it with the features he wants, and liberate other areas he likes through a simple but high-level strategy game played out on the world map.
Split the main story into separate series of missions with a common theme – Sabotage, Assassination and Heroics. They have the appeal of categorised side-missions because you get to choose what kind of challenge you feel like taking on, but they’re unique and story-driven so they don’t wear thin.
Litter the world with obvious opportunities: a network of drug dealers with hugely varying prices that invite you to embark on your own travel missions, convoys carrying precious cargo that invite you to attack them, and rare assassination targets whose deaths will help you on the strategy map.
Thoughtfully place sets of collectibles that tell the story of long-dead agents like you as you collect them, encouraging you to explore, making the world feel like it has a history, and improving your character with the upgrades and unique weapons they left behind.
The first thing you do, after base-jumping into the island, meeting your handler and a short introductory mission, is choose where to set up camp. You pinpoint the precise location in-game – a secluded bay, a mountain top, a waterfall, the roof of a skyscraper – and a package is airdropped that unfolds itself into a tent. You can fast-travel there, lose your alert level, make a permanent save, or rest until a set time.
For every twenty or so locations you find – towns, islands, bases, villas, mountains, etc – you’re given the option of calling in another base of operations somewhere else.
When you get your first Revolutionary (explained next), you have to pick somewhere within a certain radius of a camp to place a comm antenna and laptop. You have to use this to issue orders on the strategic map.
You can also add other bits of equipment to any of your bases by stealing them from military bases and government facilities. These are marked with a special logo, and you can just tether one to a vehicle and drive off to rip it out. If you make it out of the area with the item intact and in tow, the agency airlifts it out and you can choose where to put it near one of your camps.
Tent – pass time, save game (earned by exploring)
Laptop – strategise (unlocked by campaign)
Weapons locker – restock (stealable)
Camo net – store vehicle (stealable)
Anti-air - defense against pursuers (stealable)
Workbench – for upgrading kit (stealable)
The idea is to encourage the player to have a favourite place, and give him a way of making it significant. There aren’t many practical considerations: it doesn’t have to be near anything or easy to get to, since you can fast travel to it. So it gets you looking at the world aesthetically, something a world like Just Cause’s definitely warrants.
The extra features give an ongoing way to improve and customise your camps as you start to engage with more of the world, keeping them relevant, personal and distinct as you progress through the game.
After about five missions, you’ve stuck it to the man enough to inspire some of the locals to rebel – including a Revolutionary leader. On the map, you can send this guy to any region and he’ll Liberate it: he and his band of rebels battle any present military forces and will keep them out indefinitely, making the area a bustling and vibrant safe zone.
A few missions later, the country’s President sends an Officer to lock down the region next to his residence, putting it under Martial Law. Constant military presence, very low tolerance for misbehavior, shops, services and base camp fast-travel disabled. Each time you send out a Revolutionary, he’ll lock down more of the island in response.
If you’ve Liberated a region next to one under Martial Law, you can use your next Revolutionary to attack it. Your guy and his rebels invade, and the resident Officer emerges with his own troops. Chances of success are even, but you can join in the fight to make the odds much better. If you win and your Revolutionary survives, the region is Liberated. If both the Revolutionary and the Officer die, the region reverts to normal.
Each time you make a move on the strategic map – and the government makes one in response – you both get one new leader for every two neighbouring regions you control. So you want to keep your territories joined, and break up the enemy’s. You can pile more Revolutionaries into an already Liberated region and send them all to attack a neighbouring government territory at once, to ensure victory without having to show up in person.
The idea is to let you fight for areas you like with visible effect, to give regions strategic significance, to create a world that changes in response to your actions, and to give you something to think about while messing around. It gives a visual sense of what you’ve achieved, what you’re up against, and how each mission is getting you closer to your objective. And by linking in with Convoy and Target Opportunities, it gives those context and significance beyond fun things to do.
The actual rules of the game, particularly the reinforcement mechanic, work magnificently in the super-simple Flash game Dice Wars.
Your mission is to overthrow the President of this island state, which you go about in three different ways. These mission threads are separate, so you can alternate between them or just burn through one type that suits you.
Sabotage: A series of missions offered by your handler to cripple the local military by destroying their hardware and facilities, either strategically or with brute force. Missions typically have you taking on a large but not limitless force and culminate in the destruction of one vital asset. Eg. Fighting your way through fighter jets and boats to scuttle a battleship at sea.
Assassination: A series of missions given through dead drops by an Agency operative you never meet, to eliminate well-protected key personnel in the local military. Missions usually pit you against a vastly superior force but with a suggested way to avoid them. Eg. Hopping on top of a civilian passenger jet to fly over an island base with heavy anti-air, to drop in on a target there from above.
Heroics: A series of missions given by coded messages broadcast on the local radio, by an operative pretending to be a rebel to convince the locals there’s already an insurgency for them to join. Missions are about using carefully setting up then pulling off spectacular victories, and always have some optional bonus objective that’ll make your actions all the more inspiring to the populace. Eg. Stealing a government Death Squad’s ammo reserves the night before an attack, with the option to sneak in convincing blanks so they don’t realise until they open fire.
The idea is to give the player a clear choice of what kind of challenge he wants to take on, but without resorting to boilerplate template missions or fairground challenges. These are still story-driven campaigns of unique missions, you just get to pick what type you’re in the mood for – and even avoid some of your least favourites entirely.
Each mission series ties its jobs together into an overarching story about the atrocities the regime has committed, the corruption of its officials, and the few local heroes trying to undermine or expose it. You know your Agency wants to overthrow him partly to get their own preferred candidate in power, but since that entails overthrowing a true despot, you’re happy to oblige.
Near the end of each series, though, your work gets harder to rationalise. Destruction missions start to include facilities with hundreds of people inside, Assassinations shift from military to political targets, and the new leader your Heroics missions are promoting starts to show a darker side. The last mission in each firmly crosses the line, and you can both voice your concerns and refuse to do them without necessarily giving up the cause.
You’re after the President, and he’ll only leave the bunker beneath his mansion when he’s lost control of the island – when there are no regions left under Martial Law. That’s extremely hard to achieve: halfway through your missions the government starts locking down regions much faster than you can earn Revolutionaries. But completing any of the three mission threads gives you a major advantage.
Finishing the Sabotage missions deprives all Martial Law regions of hardware, meaning they can no longer invade your territories.
Completing all Assassinations means the government runs out of Officers, so the ones already on the map are all they’ll ever get.
And doing all the Heroics missions inspires the populace so much that you gain double the number of Revolutionaries each time you move.
With a good strategy and skillful fighting on the ground, it’s possible to win the game without completing any of the mission threads – though you’ll have to come close in at least two of them to earn enough Revolutionaries.
Finishing the game this way means you’ve avoided compromising yourself with any of the dubious final missions, so it unlocks a special Epilogue mission in which you can expose the new leader for the asshole he is, and instate one the local heroes you’ve encountered in the course of the missions – against your Agency’s orders.
Once you have freed the island of government control, the President uses every asset he has left to make a mad dash for the airport on the other side of the island. Three convoys of tanks and APCs, a squadron of attack helicopters and a fleet of gunboats all leave the palace area, and there’s no way of knowing which he’s in.
You have half an hour to do at least one of three options. You can destroy all convoys before they reach the airport, to make sure he’s dead. You can try to take back the runways: the government has their last aircraft carrier stationed off the coast there, shooting down rebel air support, scrambling fighter jets and sending in boats of troops. Or you can fight for the terminal building itself, taking control of the government’s anti-air and gun emplacements, and laying mines on the approaching roads to ensure the convoys will be destroyed on arrival.
The first is a very tough fight against vehicles, the second requires evasion and tactics, and the third mostly involves fighting a lot of infantry. None actually take half an hour, and failing doesn’t mean you have to restart, you just get a slightly different ending. But of course the player isn’t told that going in.
Dealers lurk in backalleys of major cities, huts in remote villages, villas in the middle of nowhere, boats in the middle of the ocean. Their prices for each of four or five narcotics vary by region: nearby dealers have similar values, distant ones massively different.
You can see how much dealers you’ve met are offering for what you have at a glance, on the map. But their prices fluctuate over time, so you have to move soon to get there while the price is high. They also change in response to your deals: sell a lot of cocaine and the price crashes in that area.
The legal status of your cargo and questionable ethics of trading it make a good excuse for why you can’t fast-travel while carrying any drugs: if you try, you’re offered the option of instantly dumping your stash with the nearest dealer for whatever their current price is. If you’re feeling ethical, you can buy up drugs just to destroy them at your camp. And if you’re feeling zealous, you can just kill the dealers: they’ll stay dead.
The idea is that this inspires the player to come up with his own travel missions, generated as a result of a changing system that will make different routes profitable at different times. Since the market evens out when he makes a big run, it’s not going to be lucrative to ‘grind’ trading for more than a few good deals every half hour or so, giving a natural motive to vary his activities. Embarking on a mission that was your own idea, for a reward that you’ve calculated, is much more satisfying than doing what you’re told.
You’ll sometimes see processions of vehicles of various types crossing the country – they’re always guarding something important, and you can always steal it.
Military motorcade: truck carrying weapons. Take out its escorts without destroying it and you can grab a rare weapon from it: a high-tech assault rifle, sniper rifle, missile or grenade launcher, or a powerful demolitions charge.
Police motorcade: well-guarded prisoner van. Free the prisoner safely for a free Revolutionary.
Boatorcade: (I don’t know the proper term, okay?) Well-guarded boats are carrying drugs. Nab them, and you’re free to sell them to any dealer.
Private Jet: if you spy one of these with the government flag on it, it’ll be a corrupt official fleeing the country with his cash. If you can board the plane in flight, you can choose to rob him instead of hijacking it. While you do so, though, the pilot panics and flies erratically, so you have to be ready to abort and take the controls if you’re in danger.
When a region’s under Martial Law, the Officer who locked it down is usually safe inside a building until it’s invaded by a Revolutionary. But rarely, they’ll leave and patrol the area with a team of elite soldiers. They’re tough and well protected, but if you can take one out before he gets back inside, Martial Law is ended.
The idea is to provide a rare chance to make a real difference with a relatively quick and fun type of challenge. Once a large number of regions have fallen under Martial Law, you could even patrol them with a sniper rifle, hunting Officers but staying within the law until you spy one.
I hate that term, because it encapsulates how tacky and incongruous these little scavenger hunts often feel in open worlds. But there’s definitely a large contingent of gamers who love them, and I think I’d be one of them if anyone ever did them well.
They need to fit with the fiction to feel appropriate (like Assassin’s Creed 2′s feathers), they need to improve your character to be truly worth hunting for (like Crackdown’s Agility Orbs), they need to include scraps of story to make the world feel rich (like Fallout 3′s characters), they need to include unique items to feel special (like Fallout 3′s items), and they need to be common enough that you feel there could be one just over the next ridge, nook, clearing or summit (like Fallout 3′s quests).
Here’s my idea:
Some foreign, some from your own agency, all rotting away in the most secluded and obscure parts of the islands. They’d be tough to find, except that you’ll occasionally see a coloured light flash. You’ll find it’s a Beacon, the device agents like you use to call in air support or mark targets, and this agent’s other kit will be scattered in the area. The various bits you might find are:
Beacon: its occasionally blinking light tips you off that there’s other stuff nearby
Tracker: usually close to the beacon, this small screen reveals all his other kit on your map.
Pistol: if he’s Agency, he’ll have a gun with some upgrades you can take – whether or not you’ve unlocked them.
Main weapon: These are often unique and powerful, and some even have one or two slots that can take the same upgrades your pistol can.
PDA: states his objective and any notes he took.
Phone: some agents record their conversations; you can play back his last.
Memory card: most agents keep some sensitive images with them: photos of a target, compromising pictures, facility blueprints, scans of incriminating documents.
Cash: some agents need to carry large quantities of it for their work. Others are just corrupt.
Corpse: dangling from a tree, crushed under a rock, half-buried in the desert, frozen in the foetal position in the snow, impaled on a branch, twisted at the bottom of a cliff – it usually gives you some idea how he died. If he’s Agency, his suit might have some upgrades you can use.
Types of agent:
Native: beacon light is green, they’ll have a main weapon but no Agency pistol or equipment. They’ll always have a PDA with some info on what they were up to, but usually no phone or memory card with full details.
Agency: red beacon, they’ll have an Agency pistol and there’ll always be at least some decent info on what their assignment was.
Foreign: beacon light is yellow, these are rare, unknown agents with little comprehensible info on them but exotic and powerful custom weapons.
Special: blue beacon, these could be any of the above three agent types, but they always have some major info on their PDA, Phone or Memory Card relating to the assassination of the last president.
The idea is that finding this stuff is a little adventure that tells a story, in the order you discover it. Most will be fairly simple stories: guy was chasing some drug dealers, drove his speedboat off a waterfall and buried it into the side of a mountain.
But some, the ones with phones, tell the stories of people who shaped the history of the place. Finding all of these pieces together a subplot about your Agency putting the current president in power in the first place, by ruthless means.
Finding this enables a special Epilogue mission after the main game is complete, to undermine the new regime before it gets started and put a local hero in power.
I mentioned both upgrades and finding special weapons above. The two don’t often work well together: if you can keep upgrading your favourite weapon, loot becomes irrelevant, and if you ever find loot better than your most upgraded thing, upgrades feel like a waste of time.
My idea is to unlock and then buy upgrades for your Agency-issued equipment, including your infinite-ammo pistol, but larger weapons are things you find or buy. You unlock one equipment upgrade after every mission, then pay to have it installed if you actually want it. Or you can find upgrades, sometimes ones you wouldn’t have earned for hours, on dead agents.
To save fussy ferrying, every larger weapon you find is automatically added to the weapons locker at your base, and you can take a freshly loaded one from there any time. You can carry two and your pistol.
You’ll unlock more upgrades for your kit than it can take at one time, but you can switch them around freely.
Each bit of equipment has a number of slots, and higher-level upgrades take up more of them: you can have level 2 Calibre and Accuracy upgrades in your pistol, for example, but if you want the level 3 of one, you’ll only have room for the level 1 of the other.
(+) Full List
Some very special main weapons also have one or two upgrade slots you can put any of these into.
Suit (2 slots)
Armour: 1, 2 (damage halved)
Stealth: 1, 2 (detection range and enemy accuracy halved)
Ammo: 1, 2 (quadrupled)
Stealth is very effective, but you have to unlock and pick the appropriate type for the circumstance: jungle, desert, arctic, urban, night or air.
Grapple (2 slots)
Force: 1 (yanking enemies is always fatal, and more forward momentum from slingshotting)
Strength: 1 (for tethering)
Chute (2 slots)
Speed: 1, 2
The idea is that you customise your core kit to suit your style, but you can be free and easy with what main weapons you pick up and try. Eventually you’ll settle on one or even two you always want, and you can then reconfigure your pistol and equipment to complement it. With the above loadout, you’d probably want something with a decent rate of fire and mag size for mid-range fighting.
Earning a steady stream of upgrades – without enough slots to fit them all – is a system that works brilliantly in Dawn of War 2′s Last Stand mode. You’re always excited about what you’re going to get next, and you try it out eagrely, but the unlocks don’t have to keep getting better to sustain this. It’s just nice to get more options, play with them, then settle on the combination you like.
Out Reach: Boatorcade..? The word is Armarda.
Great read :)
DanPryce: I would play that game. Shame the real Just Cause 2 is probably going to be nowhere near as good as this.
Out Reach: Armada*
I'd be a much better word boffin if i could actually spell :D
CraigL: Sounds great. Can you have it done by May?
MartinJ: The only single thing that threw me off the otherwise great post is that you set out with the concept of military open world with fighting for territories all with tanks and the army and stuff like that.
I just prefer smaller-scale stuff (such as GTA) where you aren't necessarily the super-top agent fighting against hordes of enemies. That's my subjective problem, of course - otherwise, from what I learned by skimming through the topics, it could be a fun game. But I'd like you to try improving GTAesque games as well.
Jazmeister: I wish I could properly marshal my thoughts into a huge post on how a particular imaginary game might work. It's all I'd post about. Excellent read, Tom, thanks for writing it.
Smurfy: GET A JOB MAKING GAMES TOM, PLEASE
Mike: Good. Very good. I won't bore you with yet more additions, but that's a really nice set of ideas.
Lack_26: Oh you do spoil us, rather.
Anyway, it was a great read and I'm sure it would work well for a game like Just Cause. It's a good mix between being game like and having something that adds to the atmosphere. I have to say though, Fallout 3 came pretty close to my idea of an ideal open world game, mods helped it along, but it was definitely going along the right tracks. Even though it stumbled at every hurdle it still did a really good job at it overall.
Dante: There's some fantastic ideas there, the Dead Agents in particular I really love, sort of like a cross between Riddler Puzzles and System/Bioshock audio diaries. You don't mention at the time, but I take it the PDA with the details of their last mission might give you the opportunity to finish it for them?
Honestly, I can't think of much else that I'd want in an open world game, this is so well done. I also really like your idea for the plot, with the ability to turn against the dark past you're being forced down at the end, I really hate it when games like GTA don't let me be anything but a bastard. Being good should be harder, but with a rewarding sense of achievement, exactly like the epilogue mission you describe here.
Devenger: Sounds very much what I wish Far Cry 2 had been, strategy elements aside. Not that I don't like the strategy elements, but they're the truly unusual thing about this whole psuedo-proposition. It would take a lot of work to make a larger strategy layer meaningful without devaluing pure protagonist power (actual or perceived). And having these territory scuffles enterable by the player's character would be a vast technical undertaking - making the decisions of lots of soldiers on two sides believable in a potentially enormous number of locales is something I'm not sure I've ever seen done.
Still trying to digest the mission threads and their consequences. I think there's some room for improvement, but I can't put my finger on it yet.
Whole article is great food for thought. Pentadact is credit to team.
Chris R: This is amazing Tom... it sounds like what every single "open world" should have been. I've just sent a link to Gabe and Robin at Valve, hoping that they will incorporate some of the ideas you've listed here. It would make such an amazing game. Think of how much more successful Far Cry 2 would have been if it had even half of these ideas? Or Borderlands!
Mechlord: The "map squares", contestable location things. They would need to be distinct and interesting. Such as the Farcry 2 locations that have their own map.
Mr. Brit: Love everything but I'm pretty sure that my safehouse should be upgradeable cosmetically. There was something immensely satisfying about buying the most expensive stuff for your cribs in Saints Row 2, it would be nice to a similar, more involved system in place here. Something perhaps linked with th amount of liberated land.
I also think it's important to make these areas really unique and try and put something fun to play around with in each one. A dam, a canyon spanning bridge, a sheer drop, a cave system, a snow covered slope etc. Something that encourages a bit of play without a goal other than shooting at civilians and cars. My most memorable bit from Just Cause was the brothel in the mountain and playing in that area, never the random shootings I comitted in the villages.
Verde Flash: I must say, this may be my favorite post of yours. (At least close behind Games of 2008 That Were Better Than Other Games).
While I completely agree with about everything that you say, there are a few caveats:
For the idea of Liberation, if there are resistant areas fighting back, it shouldn't be calling you back to your areas repeatedly to save it. A good example of a bad example is Spore, how it would CONSTANTLY call you back to save one of your territories from Eco-Disaster, or invaders, or pirates. It was a HUGE deterrent from exploring the open universe.
And on the subject of Spore, which despite my rants I thoroughly enjoyed, it constantly forced you to refuel. I suppose that it did force you to meet new civilizations, but it really got in the way.
FraktuRe: This would be game of the decade. MAKE IT TOM
Bret: Nifty keen looking.
Oddly, the one thing that sounds trickiest? The endings. I mean, if the default feels too much "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss." then it'd feel more like a sequel ad, and the worst kind, than an actual conclusion. On the other hand, ignore the whole the new guy is an asshole thread, and it'll feel like something interesting is being ignored entirely. I suppose it says a lot of good things that there's a whole game described with all sorts of wild ambitions, and the closest thing to a flaw I picked up is a minor worry about a half mentioned extra ending.
Man, if the real game is half as nifty as this design, I'll need to get it eventually.
Tom Francis: Cheers everyone!
Brit, an early draft of this post spent a lot of words on how to make different regions of the world distinct both visually and functionally. Then I actually played Just Cause 2 and thought 'Oh, they've pretty much got that covered.'
Verde, couldn't agree more about the horrible defense alerts in Spore, and the same thing damn nearly ruined Dark Crusade's otherwise awesome campaign map. In both games it was irritating because your territories couldn't defend themselves, but you could, so it felt like babysitting. I think the solution is to divorce the player's in-person power from his strategic power, so that even if he shows up, he can't do it all himself. Otherwise the whole strategic game is reduced to how much you can be bothered to rush around tending to your territories.
I think I'd have it so when the government invade one of your territories with enough Officers to win, it's gone right away - you're not even told until you next check the strategic map or go there. And you can't move a new Revolutionary there to take it back until you next get one. So getting a Revolutionary is what gives you a new 'turn' on the strategic map: you make all the moves you want to, then you're powerless to react to the government's response until you get another. Perhaps when you go to the strategic map to move some Revolutionaries, you're warned that when you're done, the ones you haven't moved will be told to entrench themselves, and won't be in a position to invade for a while.
I'm getting increasingly tempted to try making a mock-up of this strategic map in Game Maker or something, to see if it actually works.
I think if I explained this design to a real game designer, like our close personal friend Clint Hocking, the first objection they'd have is that Liberation empties the world of content: those areas no longer have combat in them, so they'll feel vacant. I think the challenge there is not to find an excuse to have lots of combat in Liberated areas, because then they'd feel the same as Martial Law and regular ones, but instead to give them a different kind of play. Fighting is never my favourite bit of an open world game anyway. Searching for collectibles and convoys would work, but it probably needs more.
Bret, yeah, I wouldn't want the default ending to feel like a smack in the face - it should be handled as a mega victory, and the hints at the new leader's faults could almost be read as nothing more than black humour. If the player has doubts about the virtue of what he's done, I'd want them to be his own and not the game saying "YOU DONE WRONG!". Did you ever do the Dark Side ending in Jedi Knight? The game basically punched you in the face for it.
The reason there are two ways to get the secret epilogue ending, by the way, is that I want 'free will' type players to be able to avoid doing a bad thing in the first place, but I also want regular gamers - who've learned to just do what the game tells them even if it seems to suck - to have a path to redemption.
LaZodiac: An idea for liberated areas. You could hunt down people who want to revolt from the Revolutionary, or hunt down thieves and the like. Or maybe spar with the Revolutionary on his free time, in a mock boxing match type of thing.
Plumberduck: I feel like we're all talking around the obvious way to make the Liberated sections interesting for the player. My way is classy, it's thoughtful, and it gives the player immersion in the world of the game: Interactive Sex Minigame.
None of this Hot Coffee, Simon Says idiocy. We're talking full mouse or analog stick stimulation. (Uh... stimulation via analog stick, not analog stimulation of any sticks. We don't want to ruin anybody's values. This isn't Bioware).
Admittedly, developing the kind of system that would really be a justified reward for players is going to mean having to cut back on some other areas in the game. You probably won't need vehicles; who would want to drive away from all these sweet honeys anyway, right?
And guns? Come on, if you're playing Just Cause 2: Sex Wars, you're more of a lover than a fighter. On that same note, maybe start all areas as permanently Liberated? Or, you know what, way simpler to just have one area. This might get in the way of the whole "open world" thing, but really, isn't a woman a world? And these ladies are certainly open. To love!
I like the idea of collectibles, though. One thought: instead of dead people, how about sexy underwear? I guess you could put the sexy underwear on the dead people. It's your game, Tom, I'm just throwing out ideas to make it even better.
Verde Flash: About the possible lack of content after you liberate areas:
One simple thing is the option to un-liberate an area. An example of what this would be like is when you reach that point in Sim City where it's almost self-sustaining and good. BORING. So you nuke it, send a tornado its way, or just demolish large portions. Undoing your progress gives you more content, provided that it has a unique enough experience to make it not repetitive.
Pod!: The post makes me think of Jagged Alliance 2.
CheeseLord: I think dividing the story missions into three types is a terrible idea. Surely doing so would trivialize the importance of the story and limit the variety of the missions.
Imagine a game such as GTA4 with it's missions divided as you described, the choice between missions would no longer be governed by interest in the story of specific characters but instead be governed by a preference for certain chunks of the gameplay.
In a game with truely varied and interesting missions the division would be pointless, there are many missions in GTA4 that could qualify in more than one category, and some which fit into none.
I think a suitable compromise is a the mission structure of Red Faction: Guerrilla; it describes your objectives and gives you the option of accepting or rejecting your mission, rather than just dumping you at the start of the mission.
Overall I think the game you describe is too linear in it's approach; when I have the option to save a random character, for example, I don't want to see a little icon appear on my mini-map giving me the choice, as it is in Assasin's Creed. It should be a more fluid occurence, such as in STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl where if you find two AI's in a fight and kill one of them, the survivor, if of a neutral faction, will show gratitude and become an ally.
True "Opportunity Missions" should be a randomly generated occurence, not some bullshit side-mission.
Tom Francis: LaZodiac: ooh, might be cool if there were Government agents in your territory, looking to assassinate Revolutionaries the way you do Officers. Not sure if they should actually be able to succeed, though, that might get annoying. Perhaps you could just find them picking off your troops from the jungle nearby, or sneaking through the streets planting explosives. Either way, I like the idea that there are dark things quietly going on in Liberated-town.
CheeseLord: "Imagine a game such as GTA4 with it's missions divided as you described, the choice between missions would no longer be governed by interest in the story of specific characters but instead be governed by a preference for certain chunks of the gameplay."
Brilliant! The choice would no longer be between four characters I hate equally, but between four mission types - some of which I like. Hmm, do I want to do another job for the Painful Escort Mission guy, the Tedious Third Person Shooter guy, Bullshit Scripted Chase Man, or the Exciting Getaway Driving guy?
The themes for these mission threads are broader, obviously, and they're not supposed to be side-mission type jobs: each objective would have something to do with the last, and a complication that makes it more than a simple hit. The Assassination missions could potentially be as varied as Hitman: Blood Money's, more so with vehicles. The Heroics ones could chain together, so that three jobs are all preparation for a spectacular fourth, like the final few missions of Oblivion's Thieves Guild. And the Sabotage mission thread could basically be the entire game of Mercenaries 2. I'm not saying it's easy or cheap to do all that, just that the structure itself doesn't have to limit variety or story.
Can't really respond to your other point because I don't see what it's referring to - there's no mini-map icon to save a 'random character' in this. I do want gangs fighting: drug cartels, government and rebels. But I don't want the survivors to become your bestest friends forever if you help out.
Urthman: This is all fantastic, Tom. But shame on you. I thought Just Cause 2 looked to be on track for being pure awesome, but now it's going to be a disappointment.
I think one thing that game developers have trouble with is a conflict between:
1. Letting the player whittle down the opposition (whether it be stages of a boss battle or the game in general)
2. Wanting to constantly ramp up the challenge.
I really love the idea of sabotage progressively weakening the army, reducing the amount of weapons, etc. that they can use against you, but how to do this without making the game get easier as you go?
Great stuff, Tom. This is the best game I've played in my head since I read your alternate ending to Bioshock.
Xander77: "Agents" could be handled like this:
telling little stories of other players and their failures.
McFiggy: Tom, you are amazing; every single time I read one of your essays on how a game could have been designed differently, I always want to drop whatever I'm doing and go play it. This was especially so with your Hitman article. I already had the disc in my XBox and everything when I finally realized, "Wait, the game isn't actually like that. There is no Recognizability or Heat meters to play around with" and got a little depressed for a while.
Jethro: We may not share your intellect - we mean no disrespect, but when I say this is the game I've always wanted to play/make, THIS IS.
Tom Francis: Aw, thanks. Yep, this is a type of post which, if successful, causes mainly sadness.
The Random One: I think this hit exactly why I can't play most open world games-I just can't get into it if there's no one home base of operations. And I need it to stay a constant safe haven. One of the worst moments in both SM64 and Star Fox Adventures was when baddies began showing up in the regions I thought were the safe lands.
Meanwhile KOTOR had the entire first planet blow up, when I expected that apartment to be my main base, Mass Effect has a mobile base in a ship which makes it less meaningful in some way, and Oblivion just makes you move too much if you want to do the main quest to keep any one base.
ERGlabs: Gotta chime in with my 2 cents worth.
One thing I think that would seriously benefit open-world games, yet is rare, is designing missions that have multiple start points. ie. ways to stumble into a mission on your own without being given a missive from some slack-jaw in the nearest town. Open worlds have an inherent call to explore, and few things render exploration tedious like "Oh, wow, I found this totally cool... oh wait. this must be a mission I don't have yet." (I'm looking at you, Bethesda) Then you have to traipse back to town to find the person that will lead you by the nose to spot you felt so awesome for finding earlier.
Obviously, it couldn't work for every mission, but Fallout 1 & 2 did a fantastic job of creating dynamic missions that could be triggered a dozen ways other than finding that key NPC who wants you to go do x.
The distraught mother who wants you to go find her kidnapped daughter, obvious starting point.BUT, if you had stumbled upon the bandits shack first it shouldn't be empty, it should have the daughter regardless, who would then ask you to help her find her mother. Or a discarded piece of clothing on a hidden trail would add the mission, etc...
Blah: Someone should hire you soon. This would be awesome/beast/etc. Only one thing left to add...a multiplayer mode of awesomeness.
The idea would be that you have up to four agencies, each with 1 or 2 players(too many, and it becomes deathmatch with extreme lag) vying for control of the island, all against both each other and the AI president, kinda like story mode. The first team to hold power for at least five minutes without the capitol and surrounding territories getting captured by the opposing teams wins.
It plays almost the same as story mode, just simplified and accelerated. Collectibles are out, missions are all opportunistic(which allows for multiple ways to start it(like ERglabs mentioned), but with greater rewards, and even the regular opportunities hold great prizes. Everything happens in real time, but fast travel is removed to prevent people from using it when they rightfully deserve to be killed.
If you want, you can just stay in the safety of your tent, upgrade your troops to take all the territories/find weapon caches/etc., and pray to god they dont find your camp and kill you. Or, you could be the hands on guy. Go in guns blazing, upgrade everything you've got, and team up with local revolutionaries to hunt down the other players.
However, when something like the president fleeing, or an enemy officer patrolling occurs, everyone is informed and gets a chance to do the deed themselves. For example, in mid chase, one team could ttake out two of the convoys, but another would snipe the president from far off, only for another to install theirs. This can create near-creamblast feelings when you underhandedly win at such a situation, when the other teams are too far away from you to stop the timer before it runs down.
And yes, this is near impossible to balance properly, but would sell millions if it were.
Jason L: Link dump 2/2: It's Fidgit so you have to take it with a teaspoon of salt, but I found it interesting to compare this with Crackdown 2's announced choices.
johnmarstondude: you definitely should check out RED DEAD REDEMPTION ---->Rockstar
it has miles of land you can travle and trade, kill bad desperados kill or capture em free towns and so on.
Thalamos: i want a dimension based game, where you can traverse dimensions as is necessary to achieve a target. enemies and game environments would traverse with you, but of course changing to meet that dimension. for instance if in 2d you encounter a table you wont be able to crawl under it because the leg is blocking you. go to 3d, the 2d scene pans out and you can crawl under.
4d if i remember correctly is time, and if a game mechanic could be worked out for this, it could show a number of possible future action paths which are relevant to the "present" or whenever you traversed to 4d. or you could subtly influence things from 4d, mild telekinesis, telepathy, at higher levels pyrokinesis and the ability to spontaneously create organised patterns of matter.. using these you could encourage certain action paths, create new action paths, or just torture the crap out of all the ncp's :D.
each dimension would give you various powers and attacks would be few, but would work differently in different dimensions
1d, there would be a line on your screen and thats it.
this would be an awesome game if you were a hyper-dimensional entity, who could unlock powers allowing access reality more concretely (this being the objective, ultimately to manifest yourself within that reality (negatively of positively or powerfully etc). imagine being able to incite a riot in a crowd by projecting image( eg their president) with connotations (negative or positive to varying degrees) directly into their brains. then you use pyrokinesis to set a few cars on fire, the riot police start to overreact with you projecting emotion (anger, fear, duteous). next you use your newly unlocked ability to manipulate matter to start a fight between two coworkers in the office, its escalates and ends up with the 68 floor office building demolishing like 10 blocks of city.
more ideas plz!
mahjong: I am often to blogging and i actually appreciate your content. The article has really peaks my interest. I am going to bookmark your site and maintain checking for brand spanking new information.
Tom Francis: And you let THAT through? Akismet, you're fired.
DemonDoll: Someone mentioned it in the comments once but Farcry 2 does all of the things you mention. Really, you're starting from Farcry 2 and fleshing everything out a bit more. The character progression is well-paced and relies on progression through missions and finding collectibles (like your idea). The collectibles concept is nearly identical but simplified since Farcry 2 decided that it didn't need money and it doesn't really make sense to take a gun that was lying in a ditch for however many weeks before you found the dead guy. You also mention that "upgrades and finding special weapons... don’t often work well together" and that is a huge flaw with modern games that Farcry 2 solves better than any other game I've ever played with the combination of quickly degraded weapons and small, frequently replenished ammo capacities. Many other games (from System Shock to STALKER) include the former but it is discouraging to lose your main weapon for which you've hoarded a mountain of bullets so your only choice is to take the nearest fallen enemy's weapon with half a clip. The vast majority of shooters (from Deus Ex to Resident Evil 4) do something like the latter where you find a shiny gun that's better than the rest and stick with as ammo permits. Farcry 2 strikes a unique balance that keeps you on your toes with respect to your arsenal forcing you to enter novel situations with sub-optimal weapons that you were forced to scrounge and not rely on the "Unique's Super Tweaked Rifle of Improbable Durability" from the second you find it 'till the End Boss.
Another central theme of Farcry 2 is "your work [getting] harder to rationalise." Most of the side missions that you mention - assassination, motorcade assault, sabotage - are all present in the game but aren't the fluid, free, open-world affairs you describe but are just samey optional missions. Sure, in Farcry 2 you do not move your leader token with x rebel counters onto the adjacent zone but you're actually fighting a war over territory and ideals with two opposing factions and a million more nuances that the board game meta-game you describe. You even have a huge number of photogenic safe-houses which, during the course of the game, get stocked with an invaluable array of tools (and even a bed, like you mentioned you wanted) to help you recharge between missions.
Believe it or not, I think that Farcry 2 has a few fatal flaws which keep it from being a truly fun sand-box game like having to traverse half of fucking Africa to meet face-to-face with your fucking psychopathic 'buddy' who FUCKING CALLED you on a FUCKING PHONE who then asks you to set an orphanage on fire. Also, all the enemies that respawn when you get 10 feet away. However, I did want to play devil's advocate and give credit where credit is due since your article could have been "10 Tweaks to Make Farcry 2 The Best Open-World Game Of All Time" instead of "What If Just Cause Was Completely Different... And Not Boring."
Jason L: Fair enough really, but I had a couple of twinges while reading you. That 'war over territory and ideals' determines only which uniform is spawning to hose you down with bullets, and that strawman of Rifle of Improbable Durability - is it really so much to ask that a gun, especially an AK, fire a few hundred bullets without exploding?
Lampica: I can see that you put a lot of thought into it but I've got to say that I would not be that into the game you describe. I think it would all seem too contrived and gamey. Colored light beacons color coding different dead agents. dead agents. how many dead agents would I expect to stumble across on an island. Unlockable upgrades. I have always hated in games where items are locked and become unlocked based on some sort of abstract game mechanic which is abstractly related (if even) to your characters ability to purchase/use some item. I mean if it was some advanced device like an electron spectrometer then I could see it's use being tied to learning some skill.
Some mini/meta territory games which to me seem like they would only further distance me from deep immersion.
I think the key to the most awesome open world game ever is to make it truly open world. Make randomly generated world, with randomly generated NPCs whose random attributes go beyond simple measures of physical and mental capabilities. So NPCs get a randomly generated, fairly deep attribute tree outlining their likes and dislikes, their temperaments in different moods, their minor issues and hang ups, as well as the occasional full blown neurosis. Give them jobs and families. Make their interactions with the world be determined in large part based upon their unique attribute trees. And make those attributes trees also be effected by the world and their continuing experiences. So different NPCs who are hungry will take very different approaches to handle the situation. One may start stealing, another may look for a job, another might start scrounging for goods which he can trade - and each of these courses will have repercussions. The mugger may kill a victim who fights back, and now he is a murderer and a family's father won't come home from work because he is dead and the family will get worried and call police, they will miss him and be sad which will effect how they react to situations (or maybe they won't miss him - one might be angry that he's dead, another might be happy depending on what he was like and what they are like), and eventually they'll get hungry without his paychecks. The scrounger/trader may end up a dumpster diving hobo, or he may only start out that way and end up a successful merchant with his own shop depending in part on his own attribute tree but also in part on luck as the situations he encounters could have major impacts on the direction of his life.
The biggest problems with this are the processing power required to calculate all those NPCs lives and communications both between NPCs and between the player and NPCs. It would be great if it was hard to tell who was another real player and who was just an NPC. With a fantastic communication interface this blurring the line between NPC and Player could be possible.
Jackohbite: Yeah, that sounds great, but Bethesda tried it in Oblivion and it didn't work out. It's just too ambitious an idea to actually work in the near future. Right now, what I want to see is developers getting good at work-arounds, at faking a wide open world, making it seem massive and alive whilst not being the case. When Devlosirrus said:
“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.”
I completely agreed. I don't want a big loose mess, I want something focused, something that's been designed from the ground up to hook me and never let me go, and I think that that'd be best achieved not by making Assbackwards McGee #1164 have feelings, emotions and a life playing out when I'm on the other end of the island shooting people in a MiG but by making the MiG a really, really fun thing to use, and giving me a reason to want to use it. Games need to focus around the player, not simulate a whole world. That sounds more like an amazing advancement in technology rather than a good game.
Lampica: Oblivion didn't really try to do this. The NPCs didn't have the sort of deep attributes tree I mentioned (they had very shallow attribute lists). I forget exactly how it worked but they didn't need to provide food for themselves or their families. They needed to eat but I think they auto-generated food. They would not normally deviate much from their very simple routines, and if they did they either get stuck, fall through the floor, or be teleported back to their routine. They couldn't really interact with each other beyond standing around and repeating the same chat scripts, they didn't trade with each other or get into fights over petty disagreements, or hatch plots to kidnap someone's daughter for ransom and then attempt to carry those plots out.
Even if Oblivion had tried and it didn't work out doesn't necessarily mean it can't work - just need to do a better job. In some ways what I describe may be even easier to make work and process then what Oblivion was attempting. Oblivion was trying to run hundreds of scripts, mostly unique, whereas what I described would just be random reactions but the percentage chance of given reactions would be influenced heavily by their attribute trees on the fly.
Of course, as you mentioned, the play mechanics are of great importance, but one of the things that almost always bothers me most in almost every open-world game is the shallowness of the world, and the sense that I am the only one doing anything. NPCs that sleep, eat, and walk around is not the answer. They are still not doing anything of any consequence in the world, unless it is something specially pre-scripted for my benefit and triggered by me.
When the people you are shooting are not just cardboard cutouts then it would give shooting people in a MiG so much more weight. More I think even then shooting other players in multiplayer, who may not be cardboard cutout NPCs, but who will just respawn and be back for more.
Jason L: So, a minimum of several hundred near-Turing-Test AIs interacting at all times in real time, on and offscreen, with a polynomially or exponentially scaling number of objects, most with important physics (if you want food to 'work', as you imply, throw in organic chemistry, all of biology and most of ecology), on a consumer CPU and a few gigs of RAM. That's what you want from a videogame, then? We'll get right on that.
Tangentially, do you really want to shoot something that can generate interesting human behaviour on its own? Would 'it' still be 'something'?
Jackohbite: That's a rabbit hole that goes several miles deep right there. I like your idea, Lampica, I just don't think it's possible. It's far too complex and expensive to implement in a game where the player is guaranteed to be only seeing a small percentage of it. A good workaround, I think, would be to script the game well enough that the NPCs do dynamic, interesting things when you're in a position to actually see them do it. That'd give the world a more lively feeling.
So really, what I'm saying is I think you're right, that would be an amazing, open game world. But it's not possible, at all, and I'm much more interested in what is possible, because I get to play it.
Lampica: @Jason L - your exaggerating to the point where it is hard to even take you seriously. An attribute tree effecting percentage chances is not the sort of advanced AI you are talking about. It is just smoke and mirrors to create the illusion of a more convincing AI - it is hard to even call what I am talking about AI at all. It is more akin to the random encounter tables in pen-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons. And when no one is looking, their interactions do not need to be physics based at all, they can be abstracted to the extreme. As for food requiring all of biology and chemistry to work in game - well that is just absurd. We can see food used to sate hunger and even death from starvation used as a mechanic already in countless existing video games. The mechanic would be the same, the only difference is in how NPCs would deal with this already tried and fully doable game mechanic.
True that what I am suggesting would be a major undertaking and it may not be a very realistic expectation of any game in the near future, but it is not anywhere near as outrageous as you make it out.
@Jackohbite - Well, I agree that it is probably not likely to happen anytime soon, and it is pretty tough to debate the 'impossible' argument without actually doing it. In general the most effective argument against 'impossible' is to just do it and then say "see, I told you so".. hehe. But I admit it is beyond me personally as an individual at this time.
I do have to wonder though. I think that people (including most developers) accepted that it was not possible back in the 90s when we where playing doom on 386s. It was still not possible a few years later on our 300mhz pentiums with 256mb memory. But today I am running a quad core 3000 mhz cpu, 8gigs of high performance memory, and a crazy powerful video card with 2 gigs of dedicated high performance video memory.
Over the years it has just become accepted that we don't try to go there, and once something like that is commonly accepted throughout an industry it can be a long time after the capability is present that anyone actually breaks from traditional logic and leverages those capabilities (and in this case it is most likely to succeed as a major group effort, which of course is even less likely than a few individual progressives making any such efforts)..
Look back at a game like magic carpet (huge open world 3d game, with dynamic lighting, real time deformable terrain, massively destructible environments, real time physics including gravity and fire which could spread and reduce forests to ashes. This game came out in the mid 90s and ran on 100mhz CPUs with 32mb memory. Of course it didn't use hardware rendering, and characters where actually 2d sprites, but then again this kind of fire was in a game well over a decade ago, yet today is lauded as a revolutionary leap forward when seen in far cry 2.
Fire that spreads and after a short time causes a leafy tree to be replaced with a charred leafless one - it is a simple thing to make work, and the truth is that this sort of thing should have been the norm a decade ago, but is a standout feature today instead. And even now, other games don't raise the bar to that level. NOLF had respectably well done reflections of your character in mirrors, AvP (original) also had this feature only it looked better. AvP 2 which used the NOLF engine had mirrors - but no reflections in them, this was a successor to 2 great games, but rather than adding to the pallete - it subtracted from it.
We probably won't see many other games come out with spreadable fire for a long time yet to come, not because it's impossible to calculate the physics of it, or even very difficult. But rather because they can sell us games just fine without going to the negligible trouble of making spreadable fire.
Then if you check out the Men of War games, and consider that most of what is happening on screen in some of the major battles is not scripted at all (there is some scripting but even then most of the scripting is just to send units into the fray - 99% of what is happening on the battlefields in those games are not scripted and purely dynamic.
Also look at what nVidia has been doing with Tesla - we are talking about exponential leaps forward in processing power. To bad they are pushing this tech further and further away from consumer level - they started out marketing to a level which was tantalizingly close to consumer affordable. But at the same time, even as enterprise level tech it opens up new possibilities. A game like this could be packaged with a piece of dedicated hardware which would handle a great deal of the processing overhead. That would raise the cost of the game but with the right licensing deals and decreasing cost of processing power, it might not need to raise the cost all that much.
The other possibility could be the massive online multiplayer approach. You could calculate the AIs in a distributed manner on a powerful server farm and clients would just see the results of those calculations...
So it may not be probable in the near future but I don't think it is all that far fetched, and while it would be a major undertaking, I think the main reason it won't be done anytime soon is not because it can't be, but rather because it would be risky to try...
They couldn't really interact with each other beyond standing around and repeating the same chat scripts, they didn't trade with each other or get into fights over petty disagreements, or hatch plots to kidnap someone's daughter for ransom and then attempt to carry those plots out.
Lampica: Yeah that's right Jason L, having things going on in the world around your character means that you character must be powerless to effect the world.. Your deliberately ridiculously exaggerated misinterpretations and condescending sarcasm are unbecoming to such a high degree that I will simply no longer reply to you...
Joseph H: And now, I wish I had the resources to do this.
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