Close the Open World: How Grand Theft Auto is Killing Game Design

Last week, I watched with excitement as Nintendo’s Eiji Aonuma gave us the first look at the new Legend of Zelda for Wii U. I listened intently as he described its “ambitious” new design: a vast, boundary-free world in which “any area can be entered from any direction.”

A game lacking focus is just as unsatisfying or problematic as a game in which the focus is too fine.

I released a sigh: The open world had claimed another victim.

I can’t state with any certainty that Aonuma and his team were influenced by mega-hits like Grand Theft Auto V and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but I would have a hard time believing this is not the case. And while the GTA and Elder Scrolls series are fantastically designed games in their own right, I think that other game designers, like Auonuma, are studying their successes and taking away the wrong lessons.

Let’s imagine a spectrum of game design. There isn’t one, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s imagine there is. On one end of the spectrum, we have a game that only meets the bare minimum requirements for what most would consider playable: a linear game that puts its players on rails and makes use of only one button. On the opposite end of that spectrum, we have an open world game in which anything and everything is possible. There’s so much game and there are so many possibilities that it’s difficult to say what the game is, exactly, or how to complete it.

Being at equal and opposite ends of the same spectrum, I would argue that both approaches to game design are equally valid. Put another way: A game lacking focus is just as unsatisfying or problematic as a game in which the focus is too fine.

For this reason, Aonuma’s explanation of the impetus to create a vaster, borderless Zelda title did not compute. He described looking back on the design of early, top-down Zelda games, in which a wide world was implied by exploring smaller areas, bit by bit and room by room. His argument seemed to be that in the transition from 2-D to 3-D, you could now see a vast world, but couldn’t freely explore it, and the series lost its sense of scope. Perhaps this is true.

If I’m too free to roam about, will it still feel like Zelda?

Aonuma said that for the new Zelda, instead of being limited to designing puzzles that can only be approached by one or two entrances, his team and players will be able to enter an area from any direction — the nature and solution of the puzzle changing based on how it’s approached.

But to me, the limitations being lifting are what make Zelda Zelda. Enter a room and solve its puzzle, knowing each one is plugged into the larger dungeon and the broader game. The wiggle room therein is what made each area, however limited, fun to play – how I moved about the room; what enemies I chose to face or to run past; the weapon I used to fell them. The right tool for the right job at the right time. In a word: specificity.

If I’m too free to roam about — free to travel to that mountain in the distance, as Aonuma describes — will it still feel like Zelda? Or will it feel like something else entirely? A watercolor Skyrim, perhaps?

Conventional wisdom seems to be that bigger is better and that creating a seamless, open world is the platonic ideal of game design. I urge you to consider that this might not be the case. Open world, can-do-anything-and-go-anywhere game design is not meant for every game. It’s in fact meant for very few.

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7 Comments on Close the Open World: How Grand Theft Auto is Killing Game Design

AxΣtwin

On June 25, 2014 at 10:43 am

I think the much bigger threat to “what makes a Zelda game Zelda” is the possible inclusion of online multiplayer. Since Ocarina, Zelda has been on the fringes of being open world. Wind Waker was our first real taste of what an open world Zelda would feel like, and it felt great. Just because the over world is going for more of an open world feel doesn’t mean that the temples will follow suit. Personally NIck, with all due respect, we don’t have all the facts yet and I think you’re putting the cart before the horse here.

Nick

On June 25, 2014 at 11:55 am

@AxΣtwin

Thanks for your comment.

I agree that we don’t yet have all the information. In fact, I acknowledge in the article that Zelda for Wii U will probably be well designed and awesome despite my reservations. But I’m merely using it — and specifically its launch trailer — as a way in to what I see as a larger problem and larger discussion on game design.

I’m assuming you’ve watch the trailer with Auonuma san, but in it, he specifically cites Wind Waker as a Zelda title that Zelda for Wii U will NOT resemble. Namely, the implication of an open world that is in fact a collection of smaller, fenced off areas. So while I agree with you that Wind Waker is great, I don’t agree that it can be considered “open world” as I’m defining it — nor, as the trailer indicates, as Aunoma himself defines it.

rickshaw

On June 25, 2014 at 9:22 pm

An Open world no matter what the game, brings a sense of reality to the game play and also creates more adventures to be had.
An open world is the best thing for gaming.

T. Jetfuel

On June 26, 2014 at 2:45 am

Well, first of all I have to say that a “watercolor Skyrim” sounds kinda fab actually, given that I’ve been put off from playing so many of these Open World games by their relentless dedication to out-”gritting” each other. Want a cool recreation of a city to roam in? Well, can’t have that without this torture simulator. I mean, that’s just being adult, right?

Of course, a big problem with these Open World games is the inability of developers to waste all dat spaciousness without filling it all up with pointless and aggravating busywork. If memory serves, my first open world game in glorious 3 dimensions was Ultima IX (a game hated by many for solid reasons, but one which I kinda have some nostalgia for), which I don’t think had a bazillion side quests to distract from the main plot. Shadow of the Colossus had the lizard-killing and the fruit collecting, but the world was mostly there just for being awesome. And so on. Even the original Assassin’s Creed didn’t nag you with the dozens of mission markers that became a series hallmark.

I’m not arguing for “needs moar empty!” exactly, though interstitial space is a concept that shouldn’t be lightly dismissed. The thing is, a landscape filled with objectives that send you pinballing around endlessly from one filler quest to another actively undermines any sense of a journey. And journeys are an integral part of adventures. And this game should be all about adventure.

Nick

On June 26, 2014 at 12:00 pm

@rickshaw

Oh, well when you put it that way.

@T. Jetfuel

I agree. I’ll stop short of saying it “comes with the territory,” but it sure does feel like it. As I say in the article, the more things you add, the more difficult it becomes to make all those things point back to the original intention of the game. Adding quests and busy work just because you need SOMETHING to fill all that empty space (or to approach “realism”) does not a better game make.

feygan

On June 27, 2014 at 2:47 am

I’m on the side of the writers view on this issue. While I love Elder Scrolls games and GTA for the ability to do what I want when I want. It is only because those games tailor themselves to the situation so well. Through the life of both series there has been an expansion in both the size and the life of the game world. We got bigger and bigger and yet at the same time things were still happening within the world. I can still recall the first time seeing two npc actors in Skyrim going at it without a care of my presence, they began their fight before I was on the scene and were still fighting when I walked away. It made me realise I was not the center of the universe and thus justified this huge world.

In a similar vein many direct liner games work so well as they thrust you into the spotlight and make you see just what matters and what does not. While we love the cantina scene in SW no one really cares where the bartender left his wallet that has embarrassing photos inside. Instead Luke buys a ship, has a quick fight and moves on with the important work of saving the rebellion.

I feel the real source of this issue though doesn’t lie with GTA or Elder Scrolls but heads back towards the rpg’s of the 90′s. When we got Baldur’s Gate we got a masterpiece, it was well written and huge. There were lots of side quests, but not many of the “I lost my goat, please find it 17,354 screens away please” type. This gave us a 20+ hour epic that spanned weeks of in game time, but for most of the way you always felt an urge to do the important things, that the next lost child just wasn’t essential in the grand scheme. The same felt true for the first of the FF series, then things went wrong. Almost everything after felt a need to meet or exceed that 20 hour mark and 40 quickly became the standard.

I think it is more of a societal problem than a game focused one, as the same thing can be seen in the film industry. The standard for films used to be around the 90 minute mark and it worked well, now if your not sat for at least 2 hours a film is deemed to be missing something. Both the gaming and film industry seem to have lost the ability to create actual “characters”. Thus a lead protagonist who has little to no substance, the audience needs more from the surroundings. Many novels do quite well with keeping the focus to a small number of characters, only bringing in walk on parts for essential scenes. Games seem to feel they have to have 101 things to do so that we do not realise what a cardboard cutout most player roles tend to be.

Skyrim and GTA for example fixed this issue by giving us a literal cardboard cutout, for the most part the character we play has little to no back story or motivations for doing anything other than those going on inside the players head. In this case when I decide to spend a day shopping for the perfect suit the vast open city works harmoniously with me. On the opposite end of the spectrum we have “Sheperd the reapers are about to wipe out all life in the galaxy what do we do?” “Woa, hold on there Tonto. First up we gotta swing by Proxima Centauri for a day to help out yet another freighter being boarded.”

Open world is amazing and one of the greatest things to happen to the gaming industry, but it’s a razor sharp double edged blade. If you have 3000 npc’s I want to see names, houses, actual routines I can follow to get an idea who this person is and why they do what they do. Anything less is pointless fluff to justify a high game price in place of good writing and a tight product. But we can’t just lay the blame for this at the feet of lazy untalented developers, as consumers we have to shoulder some of the problem for always demanding moar. If we were to start respecting the design of a liner game that is well constructed, then we might start to once again see real game development in the industry instead of a collection of colossal franchises that dominate the market and just keep pressing “copy” on the production machine.

Jeff Kaos

On July 6, 2014 at 2:41 pm

I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing when considering the down side of open world game design. I love open world games and most of my favorite games are open world but the biggest draw in a more confined game is that there can be a tighter focus on story telling and mission design. It’s a lot harder to have scripted set piece moments in a game like Skyrim. And the missions/quests in open world games tend to be “same-y” across the board whereas games with a smaller scale have a wider variety of missions and puzzles.