6 Problems with Open World Games

1
Posted November 12, 2015 by Roshan Krishnan in Video Games

Open world games have become extremely popular in the past decade due to the successes of franchises like The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and so many more. I do have to say that I love open world games and I look forward to them, even if they belong to franchises that don’t excite me. Even though I forgive the problems I find in such games, I am still acutely aware of them. This list is definitely neither exhaustive nor definitive; it is simply a collection of some of the biggest problems that I find in open world games. One caveat that I have to mention is that I chose to look at AAA games due to their large impact on the gaming industry. Also, considering most of these games are part of franchises, I primarily looked at the latest games in those franchises to paint a better picture of the state of open world gaming now.

1. Lack of Focus in Gameplay

Open world games generally lack focus when it comes to gameplay. Last year’s GTA V is the perfect example of this. Of course the mainstay of the GTA series has been a combination of driving and shooting. GTA V added tennis, golf, yoga, and other features that simply made the gameplay feel bloated. I spent hours playing these side activities and eventually, I lost interest in stealing cars are running over people, something I have always enjoyed doing in GTA.

I hate it even more when I land in the rough in the game

I hate it even more when I land in the rough in the game

Unfortunately, neither the driving nor the shooting in GTA V were perfect; the seams of the game were apparent in many instances that involved those controls. For example, the handling for pretty much all the vehicles were similar, regardless of their engine size or the terrain. This really removed some of the impact of being able to drive so many different vehicles. The shooting also felt rather derivative of previous GTA games without any significant improvements. Considering how Rockstar has extremely long development cycles, the somewhat outdated shooting felt forgivable. However, I still got the feeling that Rockstar might have stretched themselves too thin, when they could have focused on really honing the central pillars of GTA’s gameplay. Nevertheless, a lot of such criticism was swept under the rug due to the technical achievement that was GTA V.

In the same vein, Arkham Knight was definitely a great conclusion to a great trilogy. However, the Batmobile gameplay was divisive for a number of reasons. Personally, I liked the addition even though I felt that it detracted from the core gameplay of the Arkham series: the amazing combat system. This freeflow combat was almost perfected in Arkham Knight as the gamer found more nuances in the ways they could approach a fight. Even the stealth gameplay had so many new additions that made it better. Arkham Knight definitely lost focus in its gameplay as certain boss battles were centered around the Batmobile. The problem with driving the car and using the tank was that a lot of times it felt forced. The game invented situations and environments specifically to make the player use the Batmobile. While World of Tanks fans may have enjoyed the Batmobile gameplay, fans of the Arkham series were vocal about how they were forced to use the Batmobile for a significant chunk of the game.

The Batmobile - possible offspring include Grave digger

The Batmobile – possible offspring include Grave digger

Game developers seem to be aware of this aspect of open world games. Yves Guillemot of Ubisoft admitted that Watch Dogs was not up to par and added “It’s just so complex – seamless multiplayer, connectivity with mobile and tablets, so many things – it was maybe a bit too much…” I find this statement fascinating as Ubisoft doesn’t seem to have learned from its mistakes. While game development cycles span many years, only time will tell if Ubisoft recognizes that bloat in gameplay makes their games less appealing to gamers.

Bloat, in my opinion, stands against everything video games stand for. Games are primarily created for entertainment, and when the bloat takes the form of a chore, this notion is thrown out the window. Collecting a hundred doodads or trinkets rarely enhances the gaming experience for the player. In fact, such busy work actively undermines players by treating them as automatons.

In some cases, the lack of focus can be turned into a strength. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was the feather in Kojima’s cap as he managed to make his final foray into the series one of the best games of all time. While the gameplay of The Phantom Pain is centered around stealth, there are so many other elements that player can experience over the course of the game. Kojima’s embracement of the eclectic nature of the gameplay, from the collection of cassette tapes to the inclusion of D-Walker(a cross between an AT-ST and a chicken), led to one of the best games of the current generation. These additions never felt like bloat because they always added something new to the mission. The player actually collected people and animals throughout the game, which could be used to create a mother base – one of the central elements of The Phantom Pain’s gameplay.

Yup, this is a thing you can do in a game

Yup, this is a thing you can do in a game

2. Lack of an Immersive Narrative

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is undoubtedly an example of creative expertise, but that is not to say that the game is without problems. While this may seem like nitpicking, one of the problems of the game was its story. The Witcher 3 has a dense and sprawling story that connects a ridiculously large cast of characters, and that’s actually what’s expected from high fantasy. The problem with the story was that the depth and the impact of the story was lost due to the liberty it gave the player to do whatever they wished. After finding a major lead in his search for a character, for example, my Geralt played a Gwent (card game) tournament before continuing on his search. The preposterousness of that situation definitely undid the efforts of the game to keep me immersed in its story.

Maybe just one game....or twenty

Maybe just one game….or twenty

Although many people may disagree with me, I consider Arkham City to be the best game in Rocksteady’s Batman Trilogy (yes, I said trilogy). Its story had some of the best character portraits seen in video games ever. At the same time, it was also less focused than its predecessor, Arkham Asylum. Arkham Asylum felt like a contained story; Batman’s experiences in the madhouse felt more believable and the story naturally progressed from one point to another. It was much harder to buy that the events of Arkham City took place over the course of a few hours. In fact, the stakes always felt diminished as there was no penalty for not completing the main quest quickly. Additionally, the large cast meant that the story always felt like it was rushing from one secondary character to another.

Essentially, open world games are like choose your own adventure books. Players generally have freedom to choose their path on their journey in this new world. This idea usually conflicts with the narrative that the game developers try to tack on to their games. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor was both an example of this problem and an exception to the rule. The game developers at Monolith wanted to allow their players to find their way around Mordor and kill orcs, forging their own story as they travelled and massacred. So, the game intentionally left the story relatively light; one of the early main missions in the game is essentially ‘Work your way up the hierarchy of the orc army until you kill the captains.’ Shadow of Mordor embraced this idea of choosing your own adventure and they were able to better allocate their resources to create exceptional gameplay mechanics.

The Nemesis system was truly an innovation in gameplay

The Nemesis system was truly an innovation in gameplay

3. Lack of Creativity in Gameplay

This problem annoys me the most, partly because of how prevalent it has become. Some open world games are created simply by looking at other open world games and copying the gameplay mechanics of those games. In recent years, open world games generally have a formula: the player is introduced to the world and then the player is told to unlock areas of the map, gradually encountering more difficult enemies. This formula is almost religiously followed by Ubisoft’s games but now, we see other games using this framework as well. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor had an extremely similar system of unlocking a part of the map from towers. While there’s nothing wrong with this ‘outpost liberation’ system, it does seem to stifle creativity. Someone on the Ubisoft team must have a unique idea for designing the game world. I find the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality frustrating because I value creativity in games higher than most other aspects.

Liberating outposts to reveal areas of the map

Liberating outposts to reveal areas of the map

 

Clearing out gang strongholds to reveal boroughs of the map

Clearing out gang strongholds to reveal boroughs

 

Climbing forge tower to unlock areas of the map

Climbing forge tower to unlock areas of the map

 

Some open world games are, without a doubt, completely immersive. They keep the player engaged and the lengthy playtimes are a testament to this. On the other hand, there are a few open world games that tend to lack variety in their game world. It is actually quite easy to make a large map and populate it with repetitive activities. Would Far Cry be as fun if the map had an outpost every other mile on a flat plain? I actually made a map in the map creator mode of Far Cry 4 that was something along these lines. Sure, this imaginary Far Cry’s map could be big but it would get boring very quickly. Far Cry 4 had outposts, but it also had assassination contracts, karma events, timed races, and even random appearance of animals. The combination of these pieces created a good open world game with a variety in the activities that the player could participate in. Often, game developers take the engagement of the player for granted and as a result, their games sink into the inescapable pit of monotony.

4. Too Many of Them

Another problem is that there are simply too many of these open world games in the market right now. This may seem like nitpicking for no reason, but hear me out. Did anyone finish playing The Witcher 3 before Arkham Knight came out? I’m sure the speed runners did, but the average gamer probably did not. Even though The Phantom Pain has been out for a while, a lot of people are probably still busy with that game, considering how large it is. Around the same time as the release of The Phantom Pain, Mad Max also came out, meaning that a lot of gamers had to make the tradeoff between those two giant open world games. Mad Max fans who also fans of the Metal Gear Solid series might have found this decision especially difficult. Late October saw the release of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, another large game, possibly with some replay value. As I’m writing this, Fallout 4 is right around the corner – arguably the largest game on this list with hundreds of hours of gameplay.

I am SO excited....right?

I am SO excited….right?

The average gamer will be forced to pick and choose among these open world games, many of which are also sure to be Game of the Year contenders. Even gamers determined to play all these titles will see their playtimes on these games significantly reduced. Just as money was a resource that dictated players’ game purchases, open world games bring time into that equation. After players are forced to make such decisions, they may be discouraged from returning to a game they skipped if the gaming community has already moved on. Worse, we are also rapidly approaching the saturation point of open world games in the industry. In these conditions, people could view any new open world game with more trepidation than necessary. They could also miss out on the opportunity of playing a great game solely due to the fact that they’re burned out from playing so many massive open world games for hundreds of hours. When the bubble does burst for open world games, we might see the industry correct undergo reform by itself.

5. Bugs

Remember this little game from last year called Assassin’s Creed Unity? Granted, the game got more flak than it deserved, but one of the biggest problems with its launch was the prevalence of bugs that hindered the overall experience. In fact, we don’t even have to go to last year; Arkham Knight’s release for the PC this year was disastrous to say the least. Many players reported unplayable frame rates and the deluge of complaints led Rocksteady to pull the game off the shelves. As I’m writing this, Arkham Knight has returned to Steam, but the persistence of the bugs has led Rocksteady to offer a full refund for the game until the end of the year. Let’s face it, bugs can be present in any game. The difference is that these open world games have a lot of smaller cogs than the average linear game. If some of these parts are incorrectly implemented, whether they are assets or cinematics, glitches can be prevalent in the game.

This bug is hard to ignore because it's in your face....get it?

This bug is hard to ignore because it’s in your face….get it?

Assassin’s Creed Unity did not necessarily have major game-breaking glitches, but the glitch that caused a lack of skin on characters’ faces was widely lampooned. As the bugs in Unity and those in the PC port of Arkham Knight were visible, they were more heavily criticized. Also, due to the large scope of open world games, these bugs manifest more often; Unity’s face bug was seen often because it had hundreds of NPCs in the world walking around in massive crowds. This large scope can also sometimes struggle to be realized due to the limitations of the hardware. Console players have experienced such issues with open world games like the seemingly untouchable Skyrim in the past. Thus, the difficulty of optimization for open world games sometimes leads to framerate issues and bugs.

6. Apparent Superiority

Most open world games these days advertise themselves as such proudly and even make their openness the primary selling point. There’s nothing inherently wrong with advertising a game as open world, but I don’t see linear games like Uncharted advertising their linearity. There’s a stigma in the video gaming industry that an open world game is better than other games – an idea that is unfounded. Open world simply describes the structure of the game’s environment and by no means describes its quality. Ironically, more often than not, the games that pride themselves on the size of their worlds ultimately have one or more of the problems mentioned above. The allure of an open world game should be primarily its gameplay. Assassin’s Creed Unity prided itself on its recreation of Paris, an open world that was touted to be one of the best ever. The promotional material emphasized this openness to a large extent. When the game came out, it did have some of the problems listed above. As a result, the game did not receive the level of critical acclaim that some of its predecessors did. Meanwhile, many AAA linear games like The Last of Us, Tomb Raider, Dishonored (technically not an open world game), and so many more were extremely well received by gamers and critics.

"Explore a gorgeous open world"

“Explore a gorgeous open world”

So, those were a few problems that I commonly found in recent open world games. I realize that some of these problems cannot really be fixed by developers; rather, they are a by-product of the state of the gaming industry today. What do you think about this list? Sound off in the comments whether you agree or disagree with my list, or just my observations in general. In fact, I prefer it when people disagree because it can lead to interesting discussions.

 

NOTE – As much as I wanted to include multiple GOTY winner Dragon Age: Inquisition in the discussion, it doesn’t really count as an open world game. Bioware’s Mike Laidlaw said that although it had multiple regions with opportunities of discovery, it wasn’t an open world game.

 

 

 


About the Author

Roshan Krishnan

Roshan is an avid writer and was recommended by four out of five doctors. He loves watching TV shows, reading as many novels as he can, and generally surfing the internet. He would be a much better writer if he knew how to finish stuf