Is the Open World Trend Doomed?

J.P. Paulonis
Games Final Fantasy
Games Final Fantasy GTA Batman

It’s no secret that open world has become a huge trend in gaming. While it’s been around forever, seemingly every developer and series has been trying to perfect the open-world game. In February and March this year, two of the most hyped games, Horizon Zero Dawn and Mass Effect: Andromeda, will also follow try to give this genre an upgrade. These are both examples of a wholly new open world series and an old series embracing the open world respectively, as many triple-A developers hop on the bandwagon. And while we’d obviously expect Red Dead Redemption 2 to be an open world, would we have expected The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to be? We know the next The Elder Scrolls game will keep the open world tradition, but will The Last of Us Part II follow the trend next? Or has the genre overstayed its welcome?

The next big open world?

Open world games can be fantastic. They can give players amazing environments to explore and enjoy and can be really fun sandboxes that players can wreak havoc in. But they also come with several problems of their own. And like with many gaming trends, it is very probable that gamers will become fatigued with them. I’m really looking forward to Breath of the WildAndromeda and Horizon Zero Dawn, and I loved Final Fantasy XV and other open world games, yet I think we should be concerned about how many publishers are rushing to jump on the bandwagon. If this trend gets worn out too soon, then these games will very quickly lose their audience and stop being fun, giving in to their worst tropes. Such as..

Massive Yet Empty Sandboxes

Grand Theft Auto 4
GTAV is an open world with plenty to do.

The best open world games feature plenty to do in their huge sandbox environments. Whether it’s just roaming around a beautiful world or laughing at the carnage you can cause in it, sandboxes can be very fun. That’s why there are countless videos of people still finding ways to challenge themselves in Grand Theft Auto V or destroying things in Just Cause 3. The problem is that not all open world games feature well-crafted worlds. Or at least, not all of them feature worlds with enough things in them. Worlds that aren’t filled with things to do become bloated at the expense of fun. When developers don’t fill a large map they created, all its size does is force the player to run several more meters before they can begin their objective.

An example of this is the Batman: Arkham series. Everyone loved Batman: Arkham City because its open world was super fun to roam around in and had a great atmosphere. But Batman: Arkham Knight let us explore Gotham City in the Batmobile, and it felt much emptier. There weren’t any civilians to interact with in the larger city. The massive area just meant more swinging and more Batmobile driving, which got tedious. Likewise, while the huge arsenal in Metal Gear Solid V  was fun against enemies, the large maps felt unnecessary. Few environments were destructible, so it meant more sprinting, driving or Walker Gear riding through large spaces you couldn’t interact with.

Basically, if Insomniac’s Spider-Man game makes New York huge for the sake of it, it may grate on players. If it fills a large New York with several neat web-slinging spots and sidequests, it’ll be worth it.

Samey Sidequests

Many open world games also happen to be role-playing games. Traditionally, this was Western games like Fallout and the WitcherHowever, it now includes Japanese games like Xenoblade Chronicles and Final Fantasy XV. Role-playing games are all about building your character up and earning them levels and equipment. So it follows that an open world RPG should feature opportunities for players to do so. A good open world RPG will feature a world that’s fun to learn about and explore. Said world will likely feature unique events throughout it to earn rewards and grow the characters to take on larger tasks. The problem arises when RPGs frequently feature events that aren’t so unique.

Really, it’s hard to make a specific example here. Almost all RPGs are guilty of this in some form. Typical fetch quests, “kill x enemies here” quests and rescue missions will be featured everywhere. And being an open world game, they’ll all require lots of traveling to get to them first. They will likely be extremely repetitive. Great RPGs feature several extremely fun dungeons, challenging bosses and enjoyable missions in addition to a great main story. But before the player can get to those parts of the game, they’ll have to level up, and that may involve hours of boring fetch quests first.

Since essentially every RPG does it, the challenge for developers will be balancing properly and mixing things up enough. Because as the market becomes saturated, it’ll keep getting harder to convince players to keep at the boring fetch quests to get to the “good part” of the next game that wants to be Witcher 3.

Development Issues

Final Fantasy XV
"Man, how much more awesome would its story be if they actually finished it?"

Open world games are huge and are trending towards becoming bigger and bigger. For many players, this justifies the high price point for games. This also leads to huge development costs and time spent. But with a large investment in time comes a lot of problems with development as publishers still want games to be released as soon as possible. There’s only so much that DLC can do to maximize earnings from a large investment. This means that the transition to an open world can lead to several development issues.

Two key examples are Metal Gear Solid V and Final Fantasy XV. Both are games from long-running series that featured elements of non-linearity, and so an open world transition made sense. It became clear towards the end of the story of both games, though, that their development was rushed. Missing scenes led to confusing storytelling, or gameplay segments that didn’t fit perfectly. Both games came from series beloved for their story but were unique in being remembered more for their gameplay than their story.

New series’ are also struggling to achieve their potential. Watch Dogs was notorious for its graphical downgrade since it was first marketed and how restrictive it felt compared to what was promised. Assassin’s Creed, at first, had plenty of potential, however, it too became repetitive with too little variety.

It’s not that it can’t be done. Assassin’s Creed II reached the potential the first should’ve reached and became a fantastic game. It’s just that development issues are inevitable with open world games. We don’t want Zelda: Breath of the WildMass Effect: Andromeda or Horizon Zero Dawn to be the next overly ambitious titles that don’t live up to the hype.

It’s Another Gaming Trend

Remember when every single game was like this?

Gaming trends are nothing new. Trying to emulate something an artist has been inspired by in any entertainment medium is nothing new. The problem, though, is when the market becomes oversaturated. We’ve seen trends come and go in gaming, from WW2 shooters to 2D platformers to zombie shooters. Right now, we’re also seeing a trend in the form of eSports MOBA games and other multiplayer shooters. But as usual, while the trend will die, the greats will not be forgotten: we may not remember every kart racer knockoff, but we still remember Mario Kart and Crash Team Racing.

Eventually, open world games could fade away as a trend. When that happens, the good games will be remembered, and those series will keep going and we will forget the bad ones. I just want the next games in my favorite series, and new games that excite me, to not repeat the mistakes of their peers, and to live up to their potential.

J.P. Paulonis
I've been gaming since playing Crash Bandicoot: Warped at 6 years old, and my favorite game of all time is now Metal Gear Solid 3, while my favorite series is Final Fantasy. I've also been wiki-ing since a long time, so you'll find me writing and coding throughout the site.
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