Quantity Over Quality: The Problems with Open World Games

A Criticism of Modern Game Design.

By Matt Theis


Gamers have heard it too many times. “See that place far off in the distance? You can go there!”

The question that needs to be asked is why? Why should gamers be excited about a game just because it is big? This is something that a lot of developers do not understand. It seems with more and more game developers bragging about their massive open worlds, they miss the point of video games. Video games are supposed to be fun, immersive and engaging. As a gamer myself, I love open world games when they are done right, but that is sadly a rare site.

One of the main issues with open world design today is that there is little substance to the worlds offered to the player. Sharif Saed, from VG247 explains this well. “The biggest crime modern open-world games continue to commit is that they do very little with these vast worlds. The hundreds of square kilometres contained within amount to nothing more than the time you’ll be wasting in your treks across them, right up until you unlock fast travel and forget they were open worlds to begin with.” Saed makes a great point with this statement. Many open world games emphasize their giant worlds, but there is little to do in them besides walk across barren landscapes. A perfect example of this is Omega Force’s Dynasty Warriors 9. Dynasty Warriors 9 brings the Dynasty Warriors series into an open world that is boring and tedious to explore. One reviewer, Martin Robinson, from Eurogamer stated, “As an open-world game, Dynasty Warriors 9 falls miserably flat, mistaking breadth for any kind of meaningful depth…It’s a map with plenty of scope but not much by way of spectacle, or satisfying diversions.” What is the point to exploring a vast world if there is nothing interesting to explore? Writer Jeremy Parish from USGamer remarks, “With so many developers cutting their work from the same cloth, that means open-world games need a little something special to stand out…”

Often, developers try to make their game worlds seem more lively with quests and things for the player to do. The issue with many game’s quests are they do little to enhance the game’s experience. Many quests in games like Dragon Age: Inquisition, for instance, are “Go here and find three of item x and bring it back.” The problem is this is repetitive and boring. These are literally chores as gameplay, added to pad out the experience, so gamers feel like they got their money’s worth. This lazy quest design makes quests feel pointless, especially when there is no interesting reward offered. Many quests might try to make things more interesting by offering monster hunts. The problem with these quests is they often feel tedious as well. When there is no context behind these actions, side quests separate the player from the story.

This is even more insulting when the side quests yield pathetic rewards that make the player feel like they wasted their time, having no pay-off for their tedious efforts. This is apparent in the game Nier. While Nier offered a wonderful, emotional main story, the side quests were a complete joke. They did nothing to enhance the game at all. Exploring for the purpose of finding items was more annoying than fun. Too many times I tried to look for an item for a fetch quest, only to waste my time and become frustrated. After a few side quests, I gave up on them entirely. It was a pointless addition to the game that was not worth the tedium, especially for the joke rewards the player earned after accomplishing them. It did not help that exploring the world was tedious because the game required constant backtracking through the same generic world with no player interaction aside from fighting the same enemies over and over again. If it was not for the amazing story, I would have quit Nier. The open world design and lazy quest padding brought the game down, rather than help it.

It doesn’t have to be this way though. Open world games can work and be incredibly immersive and engaging, but it requires a lot of effort, passion, and vision from developers. Video games like The Witcher 3 showcase how open world games should be made. An article from Polygon by Rowan Kaiser emphasizes this. “The Witcher 3, meanwhile, succeeds largely because it takes each quest and turns it into its own little satisfying slice of story, even in a multi-part chain. You’re never told just to “go here to pick up this item” in any kind of story.” Kaiser’s claims of engaging side quests are merited because The Witcher 3 is one of the rare games that has a purpose behind everything in the game. Side quests actually have a purpose, as they build the world in the game, introduce new and interesting characters, and add showcase their own memorable stories.

Not only are the side quests engaging, but they also have an impact later on the story, as characters return and the world feels fleshed out. The exploration of the game world is also incredible because every facet is full of attention to detail, interesting things to see and do, and quests to take up. The world’s locations are full of variety, lore, and player engagement. There are great reasons to explore The Witcher 3’s massive world and get lost in its 200+ hour journey. The difference in The Witcher 3 and many other open world games is the amount of effort and care put in the games. Jeremy Parish of USGamer states, “Open worlds definitely make a good first impression — the sense that, wow, I can go anywhere and do anything! There’s so much to this game! — but sustaining that initial shock takes effort.” This is something that many developers do not seem to understand.

The developers of The Witcher 3, CD Projekt Red, put every aspect of detail and quality in the game. The next game by the developer, Cyberpunk 2077, even had a message at the end of a reveal trailer, stating, “Coming: When it’s Ready.” This message says volumes about how CD Projekt Red handles their games. Rather than rushing them out the door to appease fans temporarily, they craft their games for as long as they need, until everything is to their liking. Five years have passed since the initial reveal, but the wait will be worth it in the long run because CD Projekt Red cares about their work and their fans, unlike many triple A developers who only care about making a quick buck by bucking off of trendy and popular mechanics. Electronic Arts is a prominent offender here for making many of their game franchises take up the open world design when it was unnecessary and handled poorly, which hurt them in the long run. Franchises like Mirror’s Edge and Mass Effect lost their quality, as it became clear that Electronic Arts was pushing their studios to cover what is popular, even if they lacked the knowledge and vision of how to make a truly engaging open world game. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst and Mass Effect Andromeda suffered lower review scores because of their lackluster open world design and missing attention to detail on more important factors.

To go on a deeper level, Douglas Heaven’s statement on ButtonMasher shares his understanding of what open world games should strive to accomplish. He writes, “A vast computer-generated playground may instil awe, but size alone is not enough to sustain interest….What actually gets us to engage with something is how well-crafted it is and how well it resonates.” In order to properly engage their customers, developers need to be focusing on the passion of making games, rather than the money that comes from it.

At the end of the day, quality, effort, and meaningfulness are what differentiate good games from bad games. Developers should stick to their strengths and make good games, rather than pumping out dribble for quick cash. The developers who want to make open world games should first understand how much effort is required if they want to make a quality game. If developers realize these key factors and actually put passion into their work, open worlds could improve and the oversaturation of generic, boring open world games could decrease.