Remember when open world games were the young, sexy pop stars on the scene? Remember the first time you played “Grand Theft Auto III” or “The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind” and thought, “OH. MY. GOD. I’m playing the future of gaming!”

It was exciting, wasn’t it? The idea that games could be so big and expansive was enough to turn any gamer into a swooning, screaming teenage girl. Clawing at these idols, trying to rip pieces of their clothing off to hang on the wall with all of their pin-ups they tore out of the latest issue of Game Throb.

You and your friends would be on the bed, laying on your stomachs, hands under your chin, feet swaying in the air, and gossip with each other about the characters.

“Mmm, have you seen Claude when he’s in his red sports car? It gets my heart pumping every single time. I am SUCH a Claude Clod. I always get so flustered when I see him!”

“Claude is great, but have you seen Tommy from “Vice City”? He rides motorcycles. That’s hot. I know the game isn’t out yet, but I have to beat the rush and start a fan club for him now before my name gets stolen by some ugly skanks.”

“Oh my god, what are you going to call yourselves?

“The Tommy Guns. I know, you don’t have to say anything. It’s fucking awesome.”

But, what’s common for pop stars is their light starts to fade. They get old. They get tired. They get mean. They get lazy. They get apathetic. They get boring.

Open world games ARE those pop stars and they’re going through the exact same problems right now. They’re getting older. They’re getting more tired. They’re getting meaner. They’re getting lazier. They’re getting apathetic. They’re getting boring.

They’re stumbling out of bars at four in the morning; drunk, coming down from an 8-ball of coke, and punching paparazzi in the face… every night.

It’s not the healthiest lifestyle.

Not that open world games are in the same situation as aged pop stars. They still have lots of value to gamers, but developers have lost their way. They’re focusing on the wrong things when they make them. Loading them up with padding, endless collectibles, and garbage content, trusting that “the world being open” is enough incentive for gamers to invest their time and money.

It isn’t.

We’re inundated with lazy, formulaic, and tedious open world games nowadays. It almost makes the FPS genre look underrepresented and unique. Almost. I’m not ready to call that one quite yet.

Open world games used to represent every gamer’s hopes and dreams for their hobby. We used to pin all of our imagination and aspirations to them, wanting so badly for the chance to explore digital worlds in the same way we might explore our own. To have the freedom to do whatever we want but in a safe, consequence-free environment.

Just the IDEA that games could ever achieve something so ambitiously grand was intoxicating on its own. Now, he very fact that we’re sitting here, with many games that transcend our wildest fantasies and we walk away less than enthused? Well, that should tell you a little something about how these are being executed.

The design needs a massive overhaul.

If you take a look at the most prolific purveyor of open world games right now, Ubisoft, you’d see a striking similarity between all of their games. The maps and progression feel similar, but they’re different genres, right? Action, FPS, racing. Different.

In fact, the dirty little secret is that they’re all the exact. Same. Game. Yes, the way you WIN the games does differ, but they all share the same core game mechanics.

Let me explain:

Ubisoft comes out with “Assassin’s Creed”. Big hit. They create a juggernaut of a franchise out of it, releasing multiple entries in the series nearly every year. To date, there have been twelve games released in the “Assassin’s Creed” series in the last seven years, with two more in development!

And people complain about “Call of Duty”…

Ubisoft didn’t keep this success within a single franchise, however. They’ve applied the same exact recipe to their other franchises and new IPs. Do you want to know what that recipe is, so you can make your VERY OWN Ubisoft game? Because I’ve got the secret recipe right here. You wanna hear it?

Alright, here is a shopping list:

  • Open world, but has to be something not present in a game before, so it looks super unique and innovative.
  • Collectibles, but make them not seem TOO much like collectibles. Make them landmarks, viewpoints, bases, side quests (Because we CAN make people collect side quests), equipment, costumes, feathers, pages, endangered species, radio towers, dragons, data stations, etc.
  • Tell people EXACTLY how much of something there is and how much of it they’ve found. Give a small reward for getting all of a certain collectible, even if it’s just a trophy.
  • To facilitate collecting even more, make EVERYTHING visible on the map… once they’ve gotten a certain collectible, like viewpoints in “Assassin’s Creed”. After that flood the map with icons. The player isn’t allowed to read the map properly until they’ve found enough stuff. They won’t want to anyways, because it’ll eat away at the OCD in them.
  • Build a very basic game around all this. It doesn’t really matter, it just needs to be a different genre from the last game.
  • Genre doesn’t matter. Just market it like it does.
  • Shake well. Serve broken, with a healthy portion of bugs, and prepare DLC for dessert.

Still not convinced? This year alone, Ubisoft has released five games using this recipe. FIVE. “Watch Dogs”, “Assassin’s Creed: Unity”, “Assassin’s Creed: Rogue”, “FarCry 4”, and “The Crew”. Yes, three of those are action titles, one is a FPS, and the other is a racing game, but you do the same things in all of them, which is collect stuff.

That’s what genre open world games have become. They are now the “Collect-a-thon” genre.

The worlds aren’t being used to enhance existing genres. Collecting things is the primary focus of these games, as that’s what the bulk of the content is, created for the player to do. If it weren’t for the open world and the smorgasbord of “content”, no one would play these games. The rest of the gameplay, surrounding the collecting, is usually pretty bland and clunky. Then again, collecting sucks too.

“Watch Dogs” was little more than “Assassin’s Creed” with hacking and the most miserable handling cars in existence.

“The Crew” took the handling from “Watch Dogs” and said, “Yeah, we can make a whole game out of that,” and boy, did they.

“FarCry 4” has decent shooting mechanics, but nothing spectacular. Let’s not pretend the game hasn’t been made twice already, anyways. It’s the exact same game as “FarCry 3”, but in the mountains, and “Blood Dragon” is a thing that exists.

Then there’s “Assassin’s Creed”, the one that started it all… and it has pretty terrible gameplay. Refined not to be more fun, but to merely WORK over all these years, “Assassin’s Creed” is the textbook definition of “Meh”, where you’ll see a picture of it in the dictionary. Not Merriam Webster, the other one. The one no one reads.

The only hope it has given players all these years is the pirating you could do in “Black Flag”. It was cool, but did they make it better or more fun? Even turn it into its own game like Ubisoft hinted it might? No, you just collected more stuff and shot sharks in the face. Then they made “Rogue”, which is “Black Flag” in a different location.

Way to go, Ubisoft. With all the money you make, I’m sure you have a full stable of nothing but the finest dead horses that you can beat. Probably shipped from all over the globe. Exotic varieties too, like the Knabstrupper, Blue Roan Gypsy Vanner, or even the Chocolate Silver Dapple Pinto. You look like you might like a bit of Chocolate Silver Dapple Pinto blood on your horse whackin’ bats. I bet you do.

But, let’s not pretend Ubisoft is the only one to blame here. They are merely profiting the most off of this turd of an industry trend.

After all, we can’t forget “Infamous”. A game where you have super powers! But also one where you blow up military trucks that send glowing shards all over the place, that you will then go collect, so you can increase your power, while shooting down drones, rescuing people from cages, and kicking the crap out of sign twirlers.

Nor can we forget the recent Batman games, “Arkham City” and “Arkham Origins”. Two games that are almost exactly the same as each other, but completely different from their predecessor, “Arkham Asylum”. Which was, by itself, a game that was very tightly designed and felt incredibly fresh. Then they went open world, and things got worse.

The collectibles exploded, not that “Arkham Asylum” didn’t have them, but many were locked behind environmental puzzles, designed more like “Metroid” and placed thoughtfully. (The right way to do collectibles.) Instead, the open world titles put stuff everywhere, cheapening them.

Next we have “Elder Scrolls”.

There aren’t collectibles in “Elder Scrolls”!

Ah, you see, that’s where you’re wrong. Remember when I said that side quests are, in fact, collectibles if done a certain way? They are in “Elder Scrolls”. They’re mostly filler, designed to make the worlds in the games feel like they’re FULL of stuff to do, when it’s all largely the same content, with a different NPC asking you to go to a slightly different cave and retrieve a slightly different item. “Skyrim” even gives you dragons to take down and you can collect their bones.

“Elder Scrolls” is at least a lot more sandbox-y than the other games I’ve mentioned, but most people use that to collect things, like cups or bodies. You want to be the Cup Lord in the game? Go ahead. Make the grandest stack of cups you can make, but you’ll have to go collect them all first.

Most recently, I’ve been playing “Dragon Age: Inquisition”, the much heralded return to form for the series, after that much maligned “Dragon Age II”. It’s open world!

Yeah, about that…

See, it’s not actually very good. They used a similar recipe as Ubisoft, but got it even more wrong.

There are some good spots to the game. The characters are decent, even if they’re not up to Bioware’s typical standard. Combat is probably the best in the series, too. It’s just… that open world.

The open world ruins the entire game. And it’s not just because it’s a collect-a-thon. I mean, it is and that sucks, but it’s also because of a poor choice that was made in how you progress through the story.

See, there is a resource in the game called Power and you need this resource to advance the plot. The thing is, that you can only get this resource by finding the collectibles. You need to do tedious side quests for nameless NPCs, you need to close rifts – of which there are many – find landmarks, find shards, find Astariums, find camps, take over mercenary strongholds, and maybe kill a dragon or two.

Does that stuff sound familiar? It should, because it’s exactly like the other games I mentioned. Except, now it’s compulsory, instead of compulsive.

This completely ruins the game’s pacing. And even when you finally decide to progress the story, you’ll find there isn’t even that much of it to experience. Without the collecting, the game could be buttoned up and shelved in twenty hours.

On the other hand, “Dragon Age II”, a game many despise, is a much more deliberately designed experience. Yes, it has copy/paste dungeon design, but what you DO in the game was actually thought out. More of what you’re doing is actually advancing the plot or furthering characterization. The city of Kirkwall was small, but that means that you got to enjoy the game, instead of getting distracted by the “world” so many people desperately want to get lost in.

And yeah, I’m going to say it here right now: “Dragon Age II” is BETTER than “Inquisition”. There you go. It is, because it’s a far more focused experience with actual game design. It might not be the best game on the planet, but real effort went into it. I don’t get the same feeling with “Inquisition”, or a lot of these other games, for that matter.

But ‘Dragon Age II’ didn’t let me change my character’s armor.

Yeah, but it looked a helluva lot cooler than all of the five varieties of burlap sacks “Inquisition” gives you to equip on your characters.

But ‘Dragon Age II’ didn’t let me explore very much.

Why is a tightly designed, more linear experience such a bad thing? Not every game has to be a vast expanse of digital landscape to discover. Especially not if all that world is going to offer up is rubbish they found lying on the side of the road.

“Pull over man, it’s a side quest! I can’t believe someone just threw this on the street! It’s perfectly good. Nothing wrong with it. I’m putting it in our game.”

No, don’t! That got tossed for a reason!  

What we don’t need is giant, malignant lumps of padding and filler to make it so games “feel” like they’re offering up good value. If the content isn’t varied, meaningful, and of good quality, then it’s not worth having in the game. Bottom line. It doesn’t belong.

If you want to make a good open world game, the world simply needs to be a place the game happens to reside in. If you want to encourage exploration, then hide away genuine, tangible rewards and place them sparingly. Make it so finding something is exciting and rare!

If you want to put in side quests, make them matter and make them uncommon. You don’t want the player going off the path of the main story for too long. It kills the pacing of the game and creates burnout. Too much of anything creates burnout.

Tighten up the experience and make the world a manageable size. It’s useless to create the biggest digital world that’s ever been seen, when there’s nothing fun to do in that world.

Don’t fill the world with garbage and then task the player with picking up all of the litter. That’s what these games do and it’s fucking ridiculous that they’ve gotten away with it for so long.

And what about “Grand Theft Auto”? Well, I suppose it’s still doing alright, as far as open world games go. Some collectibles, but it’s mostly a giant toy box and you can tell it’s very comfortable being a place where people simply go to play. Most pop stars fade and are never heard from again, but “GTA” is kinda like the Michael Jackson of open world games: a true originator and innovator. It has never forgotten what we originally wanted from open world games, when we were wide eyed optimists, dreaming about the future.

And let’s hope, in our future, other games use the technology to give us more. Because, right now, we’re getting less. A lot less.

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