Round Table Topic
When I was coming up with a topic for this round table, I realized that I quickly went back to thinking about all of the games I have been playing over the last few weeks: Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, Red Faction: Guerrilla, Infamous, Prototype, and Skate 2. All of these games have a unique approach to how they tell a story, introducing gameplay elements, and the handling of progression through the game. It’s strange to see so many similarities between some general mechanics between these games, but to see each one handle certain components so completely differently.
Infamous starts players off in a well-sized chunk of city with, primarily, standard methods of movement and a few primary missions to undertake as it slowly introduces players to the world. Prototype and Spider-Man: Web of Shadows both start players off at a point in the game much later than the actual “starting point” and give their players a taste of what kind of super-powers they’ll have towards the end of the game before they properly start and wipe the slate clean. Both Prototype and Spider-Man both have one singular thread of missions that players can embark on to actually advance the story (along with narrative-independent optional side-missions). Red Faction: Guerrilla leaves the entire world open (and destructible, but that’s irrelevant here), but progression through anything other than the primary cities is generally difficult. Skate 2 leaves the entire world open, provides players with a few “key activities” for progression, but also allows players to discover new activities and challenges purely through exploration.
The one game I have played in memory that had a truly open-world approach to both narrative and gameplay was Realtime Worlds’ Crackdown. This is a game where the player is given the task of eliminating three major crime organizations, with each organization calling a major section of the game’s city their territory. The player, then, has completely freedom to decide how this problem is tackled.
Crackdown’s structure is completely different from the likes of Grand Theft Auto 4 where, essentially, the structure is that of a linear game taking place in a large sandbox. It seems that this is the standard approach taken to open-world games: very directed narrative with traditional mission beginnings and endings where the gameplay is executed in specific locations of a large world. This allows designers to craft a traditional story while attempting to keep the gameplay open, varied, and unique by virtue of everything unfolding in a large sandbox.
Befitting of its topic, this discussion will be a bit more wide-open with room for people to discuss the narrative and gameplay benefits of the open world game structure. This means that contributions could be purely design observations on different approaches to sandbox gameplay, gameplay stories that illustrate a particular point, comparisons of different formats, or whatever else. This may be a hard topic for me to make a summary article out of, but I’m sure I’ll figure something out. I realize the subject this time around is huge, non-specific, and has a ton of room for a variety of topics, but I’m sure you guys and gals will make something out of it. That said, here are some particular questions to start things off:
Relevant questions that may be good to tackle in this discussion:
- What are the benefits of a fully free-form open world progression in open world games?
- Conversely, what are the benefits of methodical, directed progression in an open world game structure? Is the structure of a line of primary missions (missions which advance the game’s core storyline) along with a host of side-missions/objectives an ideal case for open world games?
- How does the wide-open nature of gameplay in an open world game impact gameplay and a designer’s approach to creating missions?
- “Should” open world games strive to present the same types of stories as traditional games do or should the focus be on providing a toolset for player-born narratives? (This is the heart of emergent game design)
Observing Open Worlds
The most prominent issue in this round table was related to the design and consumption of open-world games and how fine a line is drawn between too open and overwhelming players and being too linear and not allowing for much free progression. This is really the heart of the problems inherent with designs which hinge on open worlds. How do we, as designers, create a gameplay experience which allows players to essentially design their own experiences through gameplay without allowing them to unintentionally create poor experiences for themselves? Aaron Miller’s superb post covers this problem:
[...] With sufficient complexity sandbox games also have the advantage that the experiences they present are, by their modular nature, are often unique (or at least highly individual) when taken as a whole. This can make a player feel that the adventure he or she has had is truly their own, rather than something carefully scripted by the designer.
Of course this strength is also a great weakness and is one of the hardest challenges I’m dealing with at the moment in my own design. If the world is open and you’re free to assemble experiences as you will, what’s to stop you (by your actions) from assembling mediocre or bad experiences and thus having a mediocre or bad game? I’m talking about closure and what makes the sum of your activities meaningful.
Linear games excel in this area, and although it’s annoying to me as a sandbox fan it’s also no surprise to me that many recent sandbox games have been trying to incorporate linear gameplay. Linear gameplay allows a designer to craft a series of singular, significant experiences that culminate in an emotionally resonant whole precisely because they happen one and only one way. Unlike in a game like Morrowind, where you can stumble on the end of a good storyline (and ruin it) just by wandering into the wrong place, a linear series of missions can surprise the player and mold their perceptions in a way that makes the end result satisfying.
That said, I hate linear content in a sandbox world unless it’s completely optional. But I’m also not a big fan of player created stories (for reasons mentioned previously). I guess I prefer the linear storytelling straight-jacket all the way on (as in FPS games where I tend to check my brain at the door) or all the way off, and half-linear measures leave me feeling that the designer is somehow taunting me or assuming I’m too stupid to take care of myself in their world. My gold standard for sandbox games is the venerable Binary Systems classic Starflight from the 80s. Their approach to storytelling was to scatter the narrative about an immense universe and challenge the player with putting it together. There were no missions per se, but the player was driven to overcome the sandbox world’s limits in order to learn more; if they failed, the universe was eventually destroyed (and although they could keep playing, without closure the experience was ultimately meaningless). Starflight, to me, embodies the core element of what makes a sandbox game with a story good: You have immense freedom, but it comes with responsibility. The designer doesn’t coddle you through the world, constantly remind you of what needs doing or provide waypoints that lead you by the nose. Nor does he gate content, assuming you can’t take a few knocks. Instead, he relies on you to use your brain and put the narrative elements together.
Maybe it’s an ethic that’s out of fashion in our current quick-fix culture, but I think the meaning you get from such an experience is far more rewarding than meaning that’s handed to you through linear missions.
Aaron raises a number of great points in this; my favorite of which is the notion of players essentially “earning” their experience and it being more worthwhile for the effort that they put into it. There is never a single situation where we, as designers, ever want our players to have a bad gameplay experience. This is not something that I personally consider to even be a possible debate; there is simply no reason for a given game design to even allow for players to come away with a negative gameplay experience because a certain format enforced certain inputs. I’m actually kind of disappointed that more of the contributions that followed in this Round Table didn’t seem to pick up on or build upon aspects of Aaron’s post. The open-world format seems to be an ideal situation for a design focused on emergent gameplay, but given the combination of these two factors the possibility of allowing for negative gameplay experience is almost inevitable.
The first of John Judnich two posts raises two great points:
A completely open world would have no pre-written plot at all; the plot would emerge from the simulation. Obviously, linear plots are implemented typically because the kind of dynamics (social, political, etc.) for the story style desired would be far too complex to implement in a fully dynamic simulation in most cases.
Note that while human-written “plots” (linear events that must happen) are counter to a sandbox game design, a fully open world can still have human-written “stories” in that the game simulation and AI strategies / characters themselves can be carefully crafted in such a way that the situation encourages a certain type of plot to emerge. Obviously, even if a game has a 100% realistic simulation, it would be no different from real life and therefore there would not be much motivation to play it. This is where the emergent game design comes in; rather than writing exciting linear plots, you write exciting environments, situations, and AI dynamics.
A subsequent post Clinton Myers makes pretty much the exact opposite claim [Note: I am re-ordering his post a bit]:
[...] I believe that the best form of an open-ended game is one that offers the player a wealth of optional non-critical missions – missions not pertaining to the main story arch – where each of these missions are involved and linear in nature. Furthermore, I believe that the core story arch should be as equally optional as these supplementary missions.
Consider Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Nearly everything in the aforementioned game is optional, including the main quest. The player can spend well over a hundred hours simply reaping enjoyment from entirely optional sub quests, some of which are large enough to be fit into a separate game in and of themselves. Though the quests are linear, the player is still empowered with the ability to choose which quests to complete (or not to complete) which creates a strikingly powerful illusion of choice. This feeling of choice instills in the player a deeper attachment to the world and character at hand, and thus keeps them immersed and actively involved in the game. Reinforcement of progression of the main story arch (nagging the player to follow the main quest) is not necessary due to the large wealth of supplementary material that can keep the player interested. Notice how the availability of many sub-missions is the sole factor that makes Oblivion open-ended. Remove this extra material and we still have the game (the main storyline) but now we have a totally linear story that the player is thus forced to play (as there would be nothing else to pique the player’s interest.)
What we have here are the two completely different opinions that get to the heart of the primary issue with open-world game design: keeping the game open while making the story as befitting the format as possible while still motivating players to actually experience and progress through the game. John Judnich’s reply, while idealistic and largely hypothetical, makes a very compelling point:
A true open world is a world where, like I said in my other post, the rules of the simulation determine the story and the plot. Once you realize how a simulation and AI can be designed to make an infinite number of interesting dynamic plots happen under your (the designer) rules, you’ll see I think that a game’s story “backbone” doesn’t have to be derived from good predefined linear plots – it can be derived from good characters, good environments, and good interactions. And the immersion factor increases exponentially because the virtual world actually does become much more “real” this way.
The ideal open world is one which takes a player’s unique approach to a given game and responds to it in ways that both make sense and are equally unique for that player. Despite the number of games which seem to do this, the idea behind an open-world design should not be the molding of a traditional game into a design that’s more current with a “hot trend” in gaming. If we, as designers, consider a gameplay progression format a neat way to present old ideas, then we’re not taking advantage of the format. In the initial post for this round table, I mentioned Spider-Man: Web of Shadows as a game I had been playing recently and while the open-world the game employed fit its source material well, its actual implementation failed to present any compelling reason for an open-world aside from swinging around. The story was a linear trek through a series of missions with “optional side-missions” being MMO fare (kill x number of y dudes for z experience). The exploration was handled through a scattering of collectable power-ups which tasks a player with the obsessive compulsive urge to collect things rather than truly motivating a player to explore.
I think that Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a beautiful example of an open world environment. In fact, I think I have never had the pleasure of playing an open-world environment that was as much fun as that one. While I was doing the main story-line missions, every single time I was driving by I would see something which I had the option to explore, and not only that, but I wanted to! There was this secondary design to the world which enticed me and rewarded me to explore the city. Maybe it was because without selling drugs I would be flat out broke and without money, but the side missions / exploration I was doing was so good that I was afraid of finishing the game.
This approach to the open world design is not new or original, but it seems to be one of the most effective ways of approaching the format while still adhering to traditional progression and story-telling methods. I call this approach the Saints Row 2 method — which is by no means an intelligent moniker (nor is the source game the first to take this approach), but it’s a game which approaches this type of open world game design with such intelligence that it deserves to have a term coined from it.
Saints Row 2 is a game which blatantly riffs off of the earlier Grand Theft Auto games. It is un-apologetically about gangs, cars, violence, drugs, and mass mayhem. Saints Row 2 is, however, very well aware of the absurdity of all of these factors thrown into a single game and, as such, chooses to make the most of the cocktail and throw in so many mini-games, side-quests, and parallel main storyline missions that it essentially assaults the player with such a variety of things to do that the open-world sandbox becomes a sandbox filled with every toy a child could ever want. Saints Row 2 takes the approach that an open-world is an area to be explored and that every action a player wants to engage in should yield an enjoyable result. This does not create a coherent, immersive gaming experience necessarily, but it provides players with an incredibly fun series of gameplay events within an open-world setting.
Open-world focused games are currently being explored in a huge number of retail games. There is no real “proper” approach to the handling of such a gameplay structure, but it is a worthwhile endeavor to attempt to decipher what certain games bring to the format that others like and vice versa. The Grand Theft Auto series is still the most popular — both critically and commercially — open-world game to be released and there’s certainly a reason for that success. But what does Grand Theft Auto’s handling of the format mean for the future of games in this vein? Due to the wide exposure of GTA, do players expect open-world games that follow to retain a similarly rigid structure?
I’ll leave that question open (!).