How to create an interesting open worlds: the key principles – InformTFB

How to create an interesting open worlds: the key principles

How to create an interesting open worlds: the key principles

With the development of technology and the improvement of hardware in PCs and consoles, game developers have the opportunity to create giant open worlds filled with a huge amount of content. But this does not mean that the impressive size of the locations automatically make the games interesting. 

The developers of the open-world race Fuel, released in 2009, boasted that the area of the game map is 14 thousand km2. In fact, this made little sense — there was very little activity on this territory, which is why most of the passage was spent on meaningless trips through lifeless forests, fields and deserts.

Fuel has a huge open world, but it doesn't make sense, because there aren't many activities in the game
Fuel has a huge open world, but it doesn’t make sense, because there aren’t many activities in the game

To avoid boredom in the open world, developers have different ways of motivating users to explore their surroundings. As a result of a competent approach to the design of the game, you can get a unique and interesting adventure that will not get tired even after dozens of hours.

Open worlds in terms of game activities and gameplay

The more game activities, the more diverse the gameplay — the player can constantly change classes so that the passage does not feel like the same type. Also, the user can only do what they really like.

For example, in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the player had access to many side activities that did not affect the main plot in any way. There you could go on dates, meet friends, participate in a gang war, paint walls, learn how to drive different vehicles, take photos, complete missions of police officers, firefighters, ambulances and much more.

In addition to completing the main missions in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the player has many side activities available: you can drive around the city and listen to music, meet friends, take photos, go on dates
In addition to completing the main missions in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the player has many side activities available: you can drive around the city and listen to music, meet friends, take photos, go on dates

At the same time, most of the activities had their own progression — the player completed tasks, and the percentage of completion increased. This means that such activities had specific endpoints that could be easily reached. For example, the player could capture all the districts or complete all the driving school lessons. The logic of this approach is obvious — the player wants to see all the content and complete all the tasks at 100%, so they are still motivated to play further until they achieve the desired result.

And this is not to mention, perhaps, the most popular activity in GTA-a chase and a shootout with the police. Despite the fact that this was an aspect of the game has nothing to do with progress, it is interesting to players for another reason.

If the player starts shooting on the street, the townspeople will run away in a panic, and drivers will start driving around, ignoring the traffic rules. An ambulance will arrive to the body, and firefighters will rush to extinguish the blown-up car. Of course, to calm the player down, the police will also arrive — if you break the law, the player will be chased. The more resistance provided by the user, the stronger the response of the game.

Chasing in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is one of the most interesting activities, as any actions of the player provoke the world to respond to him
Chasing in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is one of the most interesting activities, as any actions of the player provoke the world to respond to him

GTA takes into account the user’s actions and responds to them — the game mechanics are systematic, which forms a real dialogue between the game itself and the user: he performs an action — it responds.

This is what motivates the player to repeatedly open fire on the street. On the one hand, this is how the player tries to find out their skill level and test the game for strength: “How long can I ride just one motorcycle until I get killed?”. On the other hand, during such chases, he experiments with artificial intelligence and game mechanics to learn the capabilities of the system: “What happens if I climb into a military base and steal a fighter jet?”.

As a result, the more mechanics involved, the more options for the development of events. This ignites the player’s curiosity and encourages them to explore and experiment.

The desire for discovery is a strong motivator for players, which encourages them to strive for new things. The open world of the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is fraught with a huge amount of unknown. And it’s not even about quests, plot or new places — the world of the game exists by its own rules, which can only be learned during the passage.

The world of the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild helps the player to solve problems, but you need to learn how to interact with it
The world of the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild helps the player to solve problems, but you need to learn how to interact with it

Hyrule — the world in which the game takes place-is filled with a large number of interconnected systems that work anywhere in the world. At the same time, the environment itself dictates the player’s conditions for survival and interacts with him: you need to change clothes when entering a certain region, metal objects attract lightning in a thunderstorm, water can be frozen, set on fire grass creates ascending air currents on which you can take off, you can cut down a tree and use it as a bridge. As a result, the game world itself becomes a tool that helps the player solve problems.

Finding patterns and getting familiar with game mechanics makes the game interesting for users. In the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, there are different rules and mechanics in different regions of the world, so the player always has the motivation to continue exploring the environment.

If in the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the environment is a useful assistant that you need to learn how to interact with, then the world of Death Stranding is the main enemy, in which it is dangerous to perform the most basic actions. Even just walking is something that can cost you your life: if you get caught on a rock, Sam will fall and roll head over heels off the cliff.

In the game world of Death Stranding, it is dangerous to perform even the simplest actions: one wrong step and the hero can get seriously injured
In the game world of Death Stranding, it is dangerous to perform even the simplest actions: one wrong step and the hero can get seriously injured

Given the constant elevation changes, this can easily lead to serious injuries. If you do not walk, but just stand in one place, then sooner or later a temporal rain will begin, destroying physical objects — another sign that the game world wants to kill you.

That is why a significant part of the gameplay of Death Stranding is dedicated to harnessing this chaotic and uncontrolled world. The player gradually builds infrastructure and turns the disordered environment into a clear system that is convenient to move around and complete orders.

The chaotic and dangerous environment of Death Stranding turns into a convenient system that helps the player complete orders.
The chaotic and dangerous environment of Death Stranding turns into a convenient system that helps the player complete orders.

The unknown encourages the user to go ahead and discover new places. However, there is nothing more frustrating and frustrating when you go to the far corner of the map for a long time, but you don’t find anything there. On the other hand, if you tell the user in advance what they will find there, then the surprise and feeling of a discoverer will disappear.

Developers from CD Projekt RED found a compromise and successfully implemented it in the Witcher 3.To do this, they placed small activities around the game world and marked them with questions on the map. Each question can hide a small story, a quest, a special battle with enemies, and so on. The player does not know what to expect in advance, but the question guarantees that there will be something interesting at this place.

The creators of the Witcher 3 placed small activities around the game world and marked them with questions on the map — so players could understand that something interesting was waiting for them
The creators of the Witcher 3 placed small activities around the game world and marked them with questions on the map — so players could understand that something interesting was waiting for them

Of course, CD Projekt RED didn’t invent this system. For example, in Grand Theft Auto V, random passers-by were designated in the same way, with each of whom an interesting scene occurred. But it was after the Witcher 3 that the system with questions began to appear in other action-RPGs, for example, in Assassin’s Creed Origins and subsequent parts of the series.

Open worlds from the point of view of building an environment

Open-world games give the player the freedom to explore and embark on their own adventure. If in linear games users are forced to follow the path that the developers came up with for them, then in open worlds you can go in almost any direction. However, without proper navigation, the players run the risk of getting lost. To prevent this from happening, developers use a system of landmarks and a visual language-this helps the user easily move around the world and find the right places.

The world of the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is filled with many points of interest — if you just go in the direction of the nearest landmark tower, you can stumble upon something interesting
The world of the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is filled with many points of interest — if you just go in the direction of the nearest landmark tower, you can stumble upon something interesting

Creating an open world is a very difficult task, since the player can go in any direction, so developers must anticipate each scenario. Level designer of MachineGames, who previously worked at Ubisoft, Julius-Kosmin Oniscu believes that without landmarks, the player will not understand where to go at all — he will not have a goal and desire to explore the environment.

To change this, add a point of interest to the landscape that attracts the player’s attention. When there is such a place in the world, the user’s behavior becomes more predictable — it is immediately clear where they will go first. Usually, there are many landmarks located on locations at once that attract the player’s attention.

Such visual magnets are commonly called weenie, although this word is most often associated exclusively with spires and towers. This term was coined by Walt Disney for landmarks in Disney World — they attract the attention of visitors and allow you to more accurately determine your location.

Every trip to the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim turns into a long journey filled with many interesting stories
Every trip to the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim turns into a long journey filled with many interesting stories

According to game designer Courtney rain, it’s not always necessary to invent something unusual for landmarks. On the contrary, people are drawn to the familiar, so a lighthouse, castle or tower will be enough. Just keep in mind that points of interest should stand out against the background of the environment: for example, due to the contrasting color, additional illumination, shape or silhouette.

Points of interest compete with each other for the player’s attention — there are different variables that affect how interesting a particular point looks to the user: for example, size, distance, or aesthetics. Game creators can adjust these settings to set priorities. And this allows you to make the player’s behavior more predictable.

For example, the entire world of the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is filled with a huge number of points of interest — if you just go towards the nearest landmark tower, you can easily stumble upon some interesting point: a dungeon, a cave, an abandoned house, a camp. As a result, each trip to the right place turns into a long journey filled with many small stories.

It is important for developers to know where the player will go to understand what the progression and difficulty curve should be. In Skyrim, for this purpose, there is an auto-leveling of opponents — their level increases along with the hero’s strength. But this is not the only way to solve this problem. You can also divide the game world into zones, each of which will have its own points of interest and a certain level of difficulty. In this case, the player will develop and gradually move into more difficult areas, studying the environment.

Split into zones with different points of interest
Split into zones with different points of interest

In Skyrim, there are also restrictions on zones — in some places it is better for a beginner not to meddle. Also, make sure that large landmarks are far from each other — it is better to place small landmarks next to large ones to add variety to the environment.

On the map of The Skyrim game world, you can see areas where it is better for a beginner not to go
On the map of The Skyrim game world, you can see areas where it is better for a beginner not to go

Another reason why it is important for developers to understand the player’s path is to create a pleasant and aesthetic composition. The problem with open worlds is that the user can come to a point from almost any direction, so from one angle it can be compositionally perfect, and from another — chaotic.

According to Mateusz Piaskiewicz, former level designer of CD Projekt RED, you can follow the General principles of composition — highlight one obvious dominant, add asymmetry and make sure that the largest elements of the composition are balanced with each other.

In addition to clear navigation in the game world, it is important that the player is interested and comfortable to move around the environment. In the early parts of Assassin’s Creed, developers managed to create cities where moving on roofs was faster and more efficient than running through the streets.

The developers of Assassin's Creed have created a world in which it is more convenient for the player to move on roofs than on streets
The developers of Assassin’s Creed have created a world in which it is more convenient for the player to move on roofs than on streets

In the opinion of Oniskou, to achieve this, the team followed several principles: climbing up should be easy and fun, paths should be looped, and running on roofs should be the main strategy of the players.

As a result, the team managed to implement this with a lot of subtle but effective solutions. For example, everywhere along the streets you can find a chain of ascending objects that gradually lead to the roof — this allows you to climb up almost without slowing down. In addition, the streets are constantly crowded with people who interfere with free movement, so players automatically strive to climb up to move safely around the map.

Interestingly, some rules for creating urban space are still found in Ubisoft games. For example, in Watch Dogs Legion, all the main roads are also looped — this is done so that the player always has the opportunity to move forward. That’s why there are so few dead ends in virtual London. Also, roads always lead to landmarks and important points that are visible from afar.

All roads in Watch Dogs Legion are looped so that the player can move forward
All roads in Watch Dogs Legion are looped so that the player can move forward

Open worlds in terms of narrative and plot

Open worlds can act as a great storyteller — they can accommodate a huge number of small plots or tell one global story. Horizon Zero Dawn is a great example of a game where the environment silently recounts events that occurred hundreds of years before the main story. The remains of giant robots that participated in fierce battles with humans are scattered around the world, and robobeasts graze in the meadows, restoring the ecosystem after a global cataclysm.

In Horizon Zero Dawn, the environment tells about events that occurred hundreds of years before the main plot
In Horizon Zero Dawn, the environment tells about events that occurred hundreds of years before the main plot

Presumably, the term “narratives through the environment” was coined by Disneyland employee don Carson, who sought to make the Park space itself tell stories. But within the framework of game design, the definition appeared thanks to Harvey Smith and Matthias Vorch. They formulated it as follows: narrative through the environment is the endowment of the game space with properties that can be interpreted as a meaningful whole that expands the narrative of the game.

And it works great in Horizon Zero Dawn. The developers correctly dispensed information about the game’s entrails, so that most of the time the user remains in the dark — he does not know what the role of robots in the game world is. Of course, guesses appear from the very first minutes of passing, but this is not enough to connect all the pieces together.

The environment of Horizon Zero Dawn enhances the player's immersion and helps them better understand the events of the story
The environment of Horizon Zero Dawn enhances the player’s immersion and helps them better understand the events of the story

The more the player immerses himself in the story, the more sense appears in what surrounds him. Narrative through the environment enhances the player’s immersion, as well as gives them the necessary context to better understand the events of the story. Exploring the game world allows you to learn a little more about the game’s lore.

On the other hand, the open world is great for telling small stories. For example, in almost any journey in Red Dead Redemption 2, some small event occurs: the hero is attacked by bandits, ambushed, civilians are asked to take him to the city, and so on. As a result, each trip turns into an adventure with its own story. Unfortunately, at some point these situations start to repeat themselves, so they are no longer unique.

In Red Dead Redemption 2, each trip turns into an interesting adventure with its own story.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, each trip turns into an interesting adventure with its own story.

Yet even without that, the world of RDR 2 is filled with a lot of narrative content that doesn’t belong in the main storyline. This applies to lines with a photographer, zoo Director, debt repayment, and more. Each mission is a small story that often has a comical or dramatic ending. And the open world allows you to plausibly fit each of them into the context of the environment and era.

In the previous examples, the narrative was created in advance by the developers. But there are games in which the story is generated solely by the user’s actions. For example, in Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the Nemesis system allows you to create a unique story of interaction with orcs. Any encounter in the game can end in different ways, and the result affects what will be the next move of your Nemesis.

In Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the story is created by the player himself
In Middle-earth: Shadow of War, the story is created by the player himself

In Shadow of War, the player can get a story about a long feud, which at one point develops into cooperation. And the open world allows you to form these relationships: thanks to the element of surprise, the player never knows how his story will develop further — at any turn, a resurrected enemy can wait for him, who wants to take revenge on the main character.


A big advantage of open worlds is the freedom they provide to the player. Thanks to this, the user can go almost in any direction and do only what they are interested in. However, a poorly designed open world can make the passage dull and uninteresting.

Anderson
Anderson
Web site editor and tester.

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