With open-world games yet to exploit the power of new-gen consoles, we have reason to be excited
Cast your mind back to a particularly momentous event in summer 2013. No, not Facebook introducing hashtags, that was rubbish. I’m talking about that haven of gaming nerdiness, E3, and the thing that particularly stood out about the event- the unveiling of a wave of open-world games for next-gen consoles.
Everything from Assassin’s Creed IV, to Dying Light and Metal Gear Solid V is, was, and will be open world. There were even open-world driving games, like The Crew and Need for Speed Rivals. There were more open world titles than you could shake a beautifully rendered, non-linear, free-roaming stick at. This raises the question of what the next-gen platforms mean for the genre.
One person who can shed some light is Tadeusz Zieliński, of Polish developer CD Projekt RED. Since 2002, the Warsaw-based studio has been working on The Witcher games, but it is only with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that the series will incorporate a free-roaming element. According to Zieliński, the advent of a new generation of gaming consoles played an important role in this decision. “In the case of The Witcher, setting the game in an open world seemed natural from the very start but, to be frank, it’s also a very resource heavy and experience-reliant endeavour,” says Zieliński. “Hence we had to wait until now to do it and maintain the quality we’re known for.”
Image: CD Projekt
Doing open world the right way
With more power at their disposal, and more avenues to explore uncharted territory, many developers are giving the open world treatment to games previously considered unsuitable.
Perhaps the most noteworthy is Kingdom Come: Deliverance, a vast, free-roaming Medieval RPG, with its feet firmly on the ground- it will be a world of ‘dungeons and no dragons’, as the promotions contend. Instead, it’ll feature lifelike sword fighting and horseback combat, and you will be able to forge your own weapons (swords, not laser cannons). Its realistic open world take on Medieval gameplay has got hearts racing, and its Kickstarter campaign raised the required £300,000 in a day and a half.
But Andy Hartup, Head of Content at GamesRadar, has one reservation about open world games like Kingdom Come, stating that he feels they can make crafting a convincing storyline all the more difficult. “You can’t, for example, create a story moment in an open world game where the lead character feels regret for killing someone, if you’ve allowed them to free roam the world murdering everyone in sight,” he argues. “It totally breaks the verisimilitude of the game.”
Yet this has already been considered by Daniel Vávra, co-founder of Kingdom Come developer, Warhorse Studios. In an interview with Eurogamer, he explains that simply running around killing people will have consequences. “In every open world this is a big problem,” he acknowledges, adding that Kingdom Come will allow players to “mess with people’s lives” – as long as they’re prepared to deal with the punishment that comes next.
GTA V is another example of a free-roaming game that got it right, according to Hartup, who describes it as “a rare example of an open world game with a tight, believable story. Rockstar never tries to make the protagonists ‘good guys’ because the developers know that they created a world in which every player will try to create as much mayhem (and be as big a bastard) as possible. As such, the player’s actions within the open world align with their personalities within the story.”
So if next-gen consoles are going to allow open world games to come into their own, this doesn’t mean that an absorbing storyline is going to be sacrificed. With skilled developers at the helm, the 8th generation of games consoles could see the genre flourish.
Image: Warhorse Studios
Of course, studios like Rockstar have the resources available to make an open world game really sing, and ensure that every detail is perfect. But if you invite gamers to explore every inch of your massive world, then you can be sure they will do exactly that. “Yes, Mr Developer,” they intone, “I would like to examine the bark on that tree just over that hill. And yes, I would also like to see how far I can run in… (spins pencil) that direction.”
If developers are going to allow players to do this, then they must ensure that every last rock, every last roof tile, every last caterpillar is rendered to the highest possible standard, or the shortcomings are going to be noticeable. And I’ll be damned if I’m not impressed with those caterpillars.
For Tom Bramwell, editor-in-chief at Eurogamer, this problem is compounded when publishers insist on releasing new installments of big brand games every year: “Look at the difference between Grand Theft Auto 5 and Assassin’s Creed 4. Both wonderful games in their own ways, but every area of GTA V has been dressed, shaved, and perfumed to the nines, whereas AC4’s world map becomes a little repetitive once you drift away from the main focal points.”
Although this is a concern for linear and open world games alike, the problems are “just easier to spot in a massive open world.”
Linear lives on
It should be no surprise, then, that many developers have shunned the open world model. Naughty Dog, for example, have made a name for themselves, developing superb linear games that rely on fantastic, compelling storylines, rather than open world exploration.
Indeed, before the release of Naughty Dog title Uncharted 3, game director Justin Richmond explained that the studio just wasn’t interested in making an open world game: “We’re never going to let you just ride a thousand miles off into the middle of nowhere”, he told Eurogamer. “Ultimately, the feel we want to get is, yeah, you’re lost in the desert. So it needs to feel like that. But it’s not going to feel open-world.”
The result was Uncharted 3, a masterpiece that received near-universal praise, leading Greg Miller of IGN to proclaim it “the reason I play video games”. If anything, it proved that linear games were not going to be overwhelmed by the coming wave of open world rivals. There are still developers keen to make stunning linear games, and there are still customers eager to play them. Their lasting appeal is evident.
It’s a nuanced affair. “Is the ‘open-world’ trend something good?” asks Zieliński. “It all depends on the type of the game… It’s a cool thing to have an open world in an adventure game, but the question is how much would it benefit from that feature, and how many resources would be used on features that, in the end, will have minimal impact on gameplay?”
And figures like Bramwell are convinced there’ll be as much room as ever for linear games going into the 8th console generation: “Over the last couple of years, alternative funding models, like Kickstarter, and new distribution methods, have made it possible for games that would have been considered commercial suicide in years gone by, to find and reach the audience that wants them.”
“Open-world games have more mass-market appeal, but nowadays it’s not always necessary to go after that, which is an encouraging trend,” says Bramwell.
With strong open world and linear games coming out all the time, the future’s looking bright. Free-roaming will continue to evolve in the next console generation, but the core elements of linear gameplay – strong, immersive storylines, and challenging objectives – are not going anywhere, and that’s good news. I mean, we’re not likely to see the release of Empty Forest Walking Simulator any time soon…
Image: Sony Computer Entertainment