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Why Open World Games Will Never Go Away

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Open world video games have quickly gone from a feature few games have, to a genre and now to just a default state. Many, single-player games go the open world route and it feels like less of a feature these days and more of an expectation. Not everyone is happy however, as open world games tend to have a lot of cliches, and then cut back on important things like story and characters. Join MojoPlays as we discuss why open world games, love them or hate them, are never going away.

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Why Open World Games Will Never Go Away

For a good time now, one of the most popular features in gaming has been the sometimes-polarizing open world genre. The player is given an enormous map to explore and maybe a handful of objectives with which to occupy themselves, be they engaging story quests or just small goals and challenges to work towards accomplishing. As every year goes by and the technology at developers’ disposal advances, open world games get bigger and better. Today we have vast regions, miles wide, many of them fully-rendered from the get-go with no loading between areas. But after seeing the triumph of some long-running open-world franchises, like the runaway success of the “Grand Theft Auto” titles, it seems there are more and more open world games being released.

This has drawn the ire of some gamers who prefer their games to be shorter and more linear, with a clear idea of exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. In terms of critical reception, linear games fare no differently from their larger counterparts – if a game’s good, a game’s good, it’s as simple as that – but many gamers have cited “open world fatigue” as a looming issue. It’s not hard to understand, after all, open-world games are typically much longer than most linear ones, meaning players have to invest significantly more time in them. This wouldn’t be an issue if there weren’t so many of them coming out now, making it even harder for gamers to beat a game and move on to the next exciting one. Some people even complain about there being too much in open world games, leaving them paralyzed and unable to decide what they should do next. And yet somewhat ironically, the length and sheer volume of content are the same reasons people who love open world games give for their opinion.

In this day and age, the number of hours players can get out of their games is more important than ever. With new, retail releases all at the same, standard price, consumers want to know that they’re going to get a good deal when they invest in a game. Open-world games are popular in this regard because people know they’re going to get a huge amount of content for a price tag that seems cheap compared to much shorter games that sell for the same price initially. You’re going to get hundreds of hours of play-time out of “Fallout 4” or “Horizon Zero Dawn” – and not just hundreds of hours of multiplayer, but of engaging story, characters and dialogue. This is a resoundingly appealing feature.

But of course, there’s nothing stopping any linear game from also having engaging story and characters of the exact same or even higher calibre – but open-world games also have a higher degree of replayability. Even in games that aren’t RPGs, player choice leading to different missions and outcomes is an integral part of many titles– like “Grand Theft Auto V”, for instance, where players don’t only choose from three different endings, but also between different methods for the various heists. In RPGs themselves it goes much deeper, as your actions in “The Witcher 3” severely impact the game’s ending, while the class and race system of “Dragon Age: Inquisition” or “The Elder Scrolls” series means that with every playthrough you can switch up your entire play-style.

However, it often is these stories in a few of the biggest open-world titles that keep players invested. Players want to find out if the Lone Wanderer finds their father, they want to find out if the Third Street Saints will defeat the aliens, and they want to find out if Geralt can save Ciri from the Wild Hunt. It’s that hook which keeps players coming back over such a long period of time, keeping people emotionally engaged with what will happen. By the end, your direct role in the story will make you feel like you really know those characters and you really care about them, as you’ll have had much more time to get to know them, earn their trust, do their missions, than in many other types of games.

By far though, the biggest edge any open world game has in the market is, well, its world. Creating a vast area for players to explore at will is a tremendous challenge, as variety is key in preventing player boredom. “Watch Dogs 2” painstakingly creates its own vibrant version of San Francisco, full of real-world landmarks to discover; “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate” gives a huge reconstruction of Victorian London to explore, while San Andreas is one of the most famous locations in all of gaming. “Far Cry 2’s” African landscape is also often cited as one of the most immersive environments in a video game, while the more recent “Horizon Zero Dawn’s” hugely varied world – with everything from snow-capped mountains to open savannahs to tropical jungles –makes up for the game’s identical, purple-lit dungeons. It’s the world’s design that really gets in your head when you play an open-world game and is a challenge developers relish to take on board. The world becomes a character of its own in this regard, and it’s hard to ever truly leave the Capital Wasteland or the streets of Los Santos behind.

Even the games that don’t necessarily live up to expectations aren’t necessarily bad. “Mafia III” may have had too much padding for many players’ tastes, especially compared with the outstanding story of its predecessor, but it’s a long way from being a disaster, as are the similarly underwhelming sequels “Fallout 4” and “Far Cry 5.” But for every “Mafia III”, there’s a “Witcher 3”; for every “Watch Dogs” there’s a “Breath of the Wild,” meaning that it’s easy to wash away the bad taste of one subpar open world game and replace it with an outstanding one.

Ultimately though, there’s one thing which the open-world mode captures most masterfully: freedom. In linear games where you’re being told what to do, where to go, and who to shoot, this sense of enormous free will is sometimes lost. In an open-world game, you’re able to be your own person in whatever way you like, with a vast map and array of activities at your disposal. Video games as a whole are a method of escapism, a way out from the trials and tribulations of life’s slow grind, and none more so than open world ones. Open world is more than just a genre or a playstyle, it’s a state of being which continues to get better with every subsequent generation, and people will never stop desiring the freedom, escape or beauty of a digitally-rendered universe at their fingertips.

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