The joint release of Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild -- two of the biggest and most ambitious open-world games ever made -- within days of each other has spawned a lot of discussion about which game handles the open world formula better, and which represents the future of open world gaming. I've not played either one so I won't be commenting on that issue directly. Instead I'll be giving my thoughts on open world games in general, based on observations and trends I've noticed in the open world games I've played over the past 15 years.
As the title already states, I have some major issues with open world games. It's not that I don't like them, or that they're all bad across the board -- in fact, many of my all-time favorite games are open world, or at least semi-open world. There are a lot of good things to like about open world games, hence why they've become so popular lately, but I feel like very few developers do the open world concept justice. It seems like most of the mainstream AAA open world games that I play end up subtly or outright disappointing me, and consequently I've grown apprehensive of games that consider their big open worlds to be their main selling point.
Let's start this negative critique on a positive note by first covering the good parts of open world design. The main appeal of these games, as I see it, is simply the freedom you have to explore and discover things all for yourself. They give you a strong feeling of control over the game, that you're the one in charge of deciding how they play out, able to tailor your gameplay experience to your own interests. There's usually a lot of different things to do in these games, so if you like some things and not others, then you can focus on the things you like and ignore the things you don't. For some people, the fun is simply in the curiosity of seeing something intriguing in the distance and going to investigate, along with the wonder of all the situations you find yourself in, often by pure happenstance. It's often possible to derive an emergent narrative for your character, unique to your own playthrough, based on where you go and what you do in these open environments.
A dragon flying around the hot springs in Skyrim.
A lot of these games also feature RPG elements (or are RPGs themselves), with you earning experience or talent points to invest in different skills and abilities that improve your character over the course of the game. While it's always fun to watch your character grow and evolve, that's typically where an open world game's dynamism begins and ends, since the worlds themselves usually remain pretty static from beginning to end. And that's one of my big problems with open world games; while their worlds are usually pretty large with a lot to do within them, they don't really change or react to what you do.
When a game tries to be truly open by allowing the player to go anywhere and do anything from the get-go, most of the content (quests, activities, locations, etc) typically ends up being completely isolated from everything else, with no consequence for anything outside of itself, because everything has to be designed to be completed by any type of character at any point in the game, no matter what you've done previously. It's really hard to write a complex series of inter-connected quests when the world is so spread out and players are likely to go in opposite directions and can pick up quests in any sequence, and you can't have quests radically altering the state of the game world because that could interfere with other quests, which is probably why big open world games don't do this. A lot of games' side-missions don't even play out in the actual world map, instead sending you to a separate, instanced version of it that only exists for the duration of the mission.
The worlds are made as big as they are for the simple purpose of spreading the content out, which typically does nothing but force you to walk long distances to reach the next Thing Worth Doing while wading through shallow, repetitive filler content like fighting random, pointless enemies or collecting random, pointless collectibles, or exploring simple, repetitive dungeons, or completing simple, repetitive fetch quests. The interest, usually, is in churning out as much stuff as possible instead of focusing on making that content unique and interesting -- quantity over quality. In a lot of cases you spend more time staring at the mini-map than actually exploring the world, because the world itself is so bland and featureless that you look for ways to bypass it.
Surverying the city from above in Assassin's Creed 2.
It's also hard to tell a good, compelling main story when it, by pure necessity -- like everything else in the game -- is made to be ignored. People often consider it high praise when they say they played a game for a hundred or more hours before even touching the main quest, but to me that's bad quest design if a major, important quest-line isn't interesting enough for people to want to follow through with it. The impact of the main quest is also broken when there's supposed to be some important sense of urgency, but then there's really no threat or consequence if you go do something else instead. You can fix that by removing some of the urgency and giving players a non-linear set of goals to accomplish, but that can be even less compelling since you've chopped the story into a bunch of self-contained, interchangeable bits, with kind of stagnant pacing that leaves you on the same set of objectives for the vast majority of the game.
The result of all of this is an open world sandbox game that feels too much like an offline, single-player MMO, since many open world games actually share a lot of common design elements with MMOs -- huge, sprawling landscapes that force you to spend 5-10 minutes holding down the forward key to get anywhere; clusters of randomly respawning basic enemies spread across the landscape; simplistic quest design that involves a bunch of item-fetching and monster-slaying; a static world that doesn't change based on your actions within it; crafting systems that require farming a bunch of resources; pointless collectibles for the sake of padding out content; and a central leveling system all about grinding repetitive tasks to get stronger. Playing a poorly-made single-player open world game is never as bad as running around a dead, empty server in an MMO, but it can evoke similar feelings.
A properly-designed open world game gives you all of the positive elements of open world design (freedom, non-linear exploration, discovery, emergent narratives, immersive worlds, rewarding choices, a personalized gameplay experience) without all the negative elements (shallow, repetitive, inconsequential content designed to waste your time to build up the illusion of a bigger, deeper world). The easiest way to accomplish this is simply to scale back the size of the world; we don't need a playing area the size of a small country to have a grand, epic adventure with lots of things to do. By putting the focus on quality instead of quantity, you'll offer a more engaging and more rewarding experience for the player, even if the world isn't quite as big and there isn't quite as much stuff to do within in.
Part of the harbor city of Khorinis from Gothic 2.
A game like Gothic 2 is a mere fraction the size of Skyrim, and yet its world is more densely packed with interesting content to explore everywhere you look, without a hint of repetitive content padding, while still offering a ton of completely open space to explore and a substantial 80-100 hours of gameplay. It also has a main story that runs in tandem with the side-quests and world exploration; you have a ton of freedom to go off and do whatever you want, but at certain points you're required to advance the main story, which keeps the game's momentum moving forward with an engaging pace, opens new areas of the world, and actually causes it to change dynamically over the course of the game. In other games, you help some farmers drive some bandits off of their property, and that would be it for the rest of the game; in Gothic, you come back later and things have changed, requiring new input to address the new situation. It creates this feeling of a more living, breathing world where it's worth going everywhere -- and even back to previously "completed" areas -- and trying to do everything you can.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines isn't technically an open world game, since it takes place in a series of hub areas (I guess you'd say it's semi-open world), but this type of design still gives you a lot of areas to explore and lets you complete quests in a non-linear order. You unlock each area as part of the main quest, which allows everything in each area to be designed around the knowledge that the player will be doing things in close proximity to each other. Quests actually overlap and things in the environment relate to one another; you hear about a grisly murder on the news, and it gets referenced in an unrelated side-quest. If you go to the scene of the crime you can pick up more information, and then another quest will task you with finding the killer. Afterwards, the news reports change to reflect this new development in the story, and the quest continues on into other hub areas before eventually requiring you to return to the starting area. Instead of just being one linear quest from Point A to Point B, it's a complex web that permeates much of the starting area and has lasting consequences on the story.
Compare these games to something like Skyrim, or Red Dead Redemption, or Assassin's Creed 2 -- three games by some of the industry's biggest hitters when it comes to open world games. They're all somewhat older, but I've not played any of these designers' more recent games, and both Gothic 2 and Vampire Bloodlines are years older than these games, anyway. Skyrim's open world is filled with repetitive dungeons that are all virtually the same and "radiant quests" generated by a computer algorithm, completely devoid of any soul. Red Dead Redemption's open world is filled with repetitive random encounters and side-missions that take you completely out of the open world, where none of your actions will have any consequence once you're finished. Assassin's Creed 2's open world is filled with repetitive item collecting, mundane side-missions, and an economic system where earning money is a practically worthless reward.
Overlooking Touissant in The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine.
The actual maps in each game consist of huge, sprawling landscapes that can take a lifetime-and-a-half to traverse, the bulk of which is occupied by ... basically nothing. Of course there are random animals to hunt, random enemies to fight, random sights to see, random people you probably can't talk to, random quests to complete, random collectibles to collect, random loot to find, random mini-games to play, random events to resolve, and so on, but this stuff is meaningless busy work designed to pad the game with extra Things To Do, often completely inconsequential whether you do them or not. These kinds of activities are usually fun for a little while and in small doses, but in the context of a 15-square mile map, where you'll be spending anywhere from 60 to 120 hours exploring, they can quickly become shallow and repetitive. Even a game as good as The Witcher 3, which is filled to the brim with interesting content and set a new bar for the genre in 2015, is ultimately diluted by the size of its world and the amount of content in it.
So when I see mainstream, AAA, big-budget games being hyped for how big their open worlds are (Breath of the Wild is said to be 10 times bigger than Skyrim), I have no other reaction but to wonder how the hell they're going to fill all that space. The trailer for Breath of the Wild shows a lot of really cool-looking stuff, but then it also shows a lot of wide open, empty spaces with absolutely nothing going on -- not even interesting terrain. I've watched gameplay footage where people spend ten whole minutes walking/gliding across the landscape just to get somewhere nearby, and they barely encounter anything interactive -- just a few measly enemies and a treasure chest with 10 arrows, maybe a flower or some apples here and there. I see that kind of thing happening and I think "that looks like such a huge waste of time."
And that's really my main concern with these open world games: that I'm going to end up wasting a lot of time traversing their stretched-out landscapes, doing a bunch of shallow repetitive filler content, and having to deal with a slow grind to improve and progress, when I could be playing a much more focused game that offers all (or many) of the same benefits of open world design while cutting out all of the fat. We don't need constantly bigger and bigger worlds; we need better quests, more rewarding exploration, more satisfying progression, worlds that change and react (not just superficially) to your presence within them -- we need quality instead of quantity. And again, it's not that I don't like open world games -- I really do enjoy them -- it's just that I don't think enough of them handle the open world formula as good as it should be executed, and these big-budget AAA games are the ones largely to blame for that. Maybe Horizon Zero Dawn and/or Breath of the Wild buck that trend, but my cynical, pessimistic side tells me not to get my hopes up.