2012: open-world games pick up steam

15 Nov

Could Lego Lord of the Rings be the best Lego game yet?

It’s getting toward the end of year, which means it’s almost time to look back (and fill digital space with such retrospective pieces). As far as video games are concerned, a big trend emerged in 2012. And believe it or not, it isn’t that seemingly every second game made use of a bow and arrow, although there was an awful lot of that too.

Nope, the more important trend was a shift toward open-world games. If you’re not familiar with the concept, such games generally plop the player into a three-dimensional recreation of the world – whether it’s a city or rural environment or combination thereof – that they can explore at their leisure. There’s generally a linear story that unfolds through core missions, but there are also usually a host of side missions, tasks and collectibles to find throughout the world, all of which can be done in the order of the player’s choosing.

The best thing about these games is they encourage players to explore their worlds. The strongest of the genre are the ones that present large environments with plenty of surprises that in fact reward exploration.

On the flip side, there are linear games, which essentially require players to go through a scripted story or chain of events, with little room for exploration or extraneous events. These games have their merits too, but we’ll get back to that in a second.

This year, a pair of established franchises went from that sort of linear approach and into the realm of open worlds. First up was Forza Horizon, which placed players into a fictional music festival set in rural Colorado. While previous entries in the franchise were among the sort of linear racing games that have been around for as long as video games themselves, Horizon introduced an entirely new way of playing to the franchise.

For the most part, it worked. Critics, including me, welcomed it as breath of fresh air from the simplistic car porn that racing games have generally become.

Also making the jump to open worlds was the Lego franchise from developer Traveller’s Tales, starting with Lego Batman 2 earlier this year and continuing with this week’s Lego Lord of the Rings. I’ve loved pretty much every one of TT’s Lego games for their sheer charm and clever puzzle-solving, but I’m digging them even more now that they’re in open worlds (my LOTR review will be up soon).

Rather than simply having players move from one end of a level to another, the open-world Lego games now sprinkle their puzzles throughout huge, richly designed environments. Not only do you feel clever for solving the puzzles, you can now choose which to do and when.

So why are some developers moving their established franchises to open worlds? It’s pretty simple, really – such games are more fun because they give players more agency. And the biggest differentiator between the medium of games and movies is in fact that agency, or giving players the feeling of empowerment.

Games are an interactive medium, unlike movies, and the best ones are those that have an emotional effect on their players. One of the easiest ways to create that impact is to let the player feel like they’ve just experienced something unique to them, rather than just asking them to sit back and watch something. Movies do that well enough.

This has generally held when it comes to critical reviews and, most importantly, sales. Open-world games have existed for decades, but the title that really started the trend in the modern era was Grand Theft Auto III, in 2001, which featured a giant open-world city that players could treat as their own sandbox. The massive success of that game – and its sequels – at first inspired a host of clones, but then eventually led to even better open worlds.

The Assassin’s Creed series is a great example. Patrice Désilets, the game’s creative director, told me a few months ago that Grand Theft Auto was indeed his inspiration for the original Assassin’s Creed. While his team at Ubisoft had been charged with creating another linear Prince of Persia game, he was more interested in transplanting the franchise into an open world. My recent feature story on the franchise covers how that happened in depth.

With the major success of the Assassin’s Creed series, Ubisoft is now banking heavily on open-world games. The company also has the upcoming open-world first-person shooter Far Cry 3 and techno-thriller Watch Dogs in the pipeline. I can’t talk about Far Cry 3 yet (my review will be online next week), but let’s just say I prefer it by far to Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, the latest in Activision’s franchise released this week, which will likely be the biggest game of the year.

Call of Duty games post huge sales on the strength of their online multiplayer modes, but as several critics (including me) have pointed out, their single-player story modes are the antithesis of open-world games – they’re so tightly scripted that there’s no player agency at all.

As game critic Tom Bissell told me for a story last year, there’s nothing to such games. Since there’s only way to play through them, there isn’t much to talk about with your fellow gamers after the fact. You can’t ask your friend if they saw that building blow up in that scene because, well, of course they did. That’s why a lot of people who buy Call of Duty games just skip the story mode altogether and go straight to the multiplayer. Unfortunately, Activision still spends a ton of money making that single-player mode. Many think everyone would be better off if they just axed the single-player mode altogether.

So are all games going to go open world? Of course not. One designer I spoke to for this piece pointed out one bright side of more linear games. When creating an open world developers have a lot to do, which means they ultimately have to cut corners, yet players forgive them for it. A room inside a house, for example, might be more sparsely furnished, or grass may not necessarily bend underfoot when you trample it. When there’s tons of world to explore, players aren’t as judgmental when there’s a pixel out of place here and there.

In a more linear game, developers are often much more precise. That same room inside a house can be cluttered with tons of details – there may be coffee mugs and magazines on a desk, a full laundry hamper, knick-knacks on the shelves. This doesn’t just add to the visual depth of the game, it can also serve as an important story-telling device. As Mary DeMarle, lead writer for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, explained in her speech at Gamercamp here in Toronto last weekend, that cluttered desk and room can tell the player a lot about the character who inhabits it.

Ultimately, a linear game can deliver a world that has less quantity of actual world, but much better or sharper quality.

There’s definitely a place for such linear games, although the best of these also have some element of player agency. Halo 4 is the best, most recent example. Despite leading players through a tightly scripted story, the game also frequently puts them into sandbox-like battles where they have many options on how to proceed.

In many situations, you can sneak around, fight from a distance, melee up close or hop onto a vehicle; the great thing about Halo is that no two players are unlikely to play it quite the same way. That opens up the possibility for that water cooler talk – “Did you see that building explode?” “No, I didn’t. How did you accomplish that?”

If there’s one definite trend in games, it’s that player agency is increasing and becoming more important. Truly linear games like Call of Duty are looking more and more anachronistic with each passing year. With a couple long-running franchises finally seeing the light, we may look back at 2012 as the turning point.


Posted by on November 15, 2012 in video games


3 responses to “2012: open-world games pick up steam

  1. Justin Amirkhani

    November 15, 2012 at 12:17 am

    No mention of Sleeping Dogs. Son, I am disappoint.

    • petenowak2000

      November 15, 2012 at 12:21 am

      Well yeah, duh. Does it even need to be mentioned?

  2. Adrian

    November 16, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    Do you mean “No two players are LIKELY to play it quite the same way?” instead of unlikely as you have it above. Good article regardless. Though shame you focus on AAA games. Games like FTL: Faster Than Light is pure linear in that your objective is literally to go from point A, to point B. But you have enough limited choices that players end up with almost infinite options overall. Especially since many elements are randomized. It definitely creates a sense of agency.

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