In the gaming industry today, it seems like many developers won’t release a new title without including an open world as a feature for the player to explore. Open worlds used to be something that set games apart, a mark of innovation that players had never experienced before. This made games more immersive, creating the environments around which writers could create incredible storylines and strong characters.
Now, big name titles that don’t mention a feature like this are few and far between. Once games like those in the Grand Theft Auto franchise made a huge splash, there was no turning back. Looking past the virtues or lack thereof in their content, Grand Theft Auto games have mastered the idea of open world game play. They successfully allow the player to have huge amounts of freedom within the bounds of the game’s landscape.
Of course, games with open-worlds have existed since before the very first Legend of Zelda. The idea that an open-world game could exist hasn’t been in question for decades. However, the more recent massive success of Grand Theft Auto really blew open the expectations of what games could really achieve in terms of an experience.
Grand Theft Auto operates in the bounds of a chapter system, which allows the player to enter into the role of one of eight different characters across three vibrant cities – Liberty City, San Andreas, and Vice City. Rather than following the more stereotypical formula of having a huge overarching narrative that would guide the player along a certain path, the game focuses more on having the player complete missions that stand on their own within each chapter. Choosing to take this risk was incredibly gutsy of developer Rockstar North, and it paid off. As soon as players were given a taste of this, they were ready for more. This allowed other studios to really explore what they could do with this new type of game.
Before one more person could mutter the word “Rockstar”, new IPs with sandbox-style worlds began popping up, inspired by the success of this new idea. Today, there are games in this style for everyone, ranging from entries in the Far Cry series to Batman: Arkham City to Minecraft. These games are all incredible in their own right, and I’m personally thankful that open world games have been embraced by the gaming community.
But, while I love massive universes and freedom to explore in my games, I fear that we’re traveling a dangerous path here. Sure, there used to be a time where the things being done in futuristic first-person shooters were incredible, until every single game being produced seemed to be a futuristic first-person shooter.
This oversaturation of the market isn’t just tiring for fans, but it could be incredibly dangerous for companies like Bethesda or Square Enix, who have made huge investments in open world franchises like Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, and Final Fantasy. The grandeur and hype that used to surround those games still exists, to a point, but not in the same way that it used to.
While the availability of this content is great for the die-hard fans of the genre, it has taken away some of the mystique that used to surround these beloved games. Sure, there is still a massive wave of excitement when a new entry into one of these franchises is announced, but it’s not because there has been a long drought in new titles entering that genre. The buzz typically comes from those who love the gameplay or environment of that specific game.
Because of this, it is going to be that much harder for these established franchises (and new IPs as well) to attract gamers who haven’t yet declared their allegiance to one in particular. Square Enix has taken this very seriously with the upcoming release of Final Fantasy XV, recognizing that they need to be aggressive in marketing the game as an experience for old fans while having features to draw in those who have never tried or fallen for a Final Fantasy game before.
By incorporating all of the core elements of a Final Fantasy game into the newest entry to the beloved franchise and modernizing the technology behind the game, Final Fantasy XV’s director Hajime Tabata is hoping to regain some of the luster that the series has lost over the years to other open world titles. Many have seemed to connect with this approach, finding that a story that centers on a group of bros on a modern-day road trip to be much more approachable than some of the more complicated pitches that have come from past games.
For those of us who are those more intense fans of open world games, I don’t think that the core experiences that we love are going to disappear. There will always be developers out there who are willing and ready to take on the challenges that come with these huge sandbox games, and it will be interesting to see how these experiences change with new technology like VR. However, I do believe that we could see a bit of a content drought in this genre in terms of AAA titles. The larger studios do tend to make games that are in a genre that is popular at the time, so I wouldn’t expect a lot of these once the gaming community gets tired of the onslaught of open world games.
This isn’t a time to panic. It is simply the gaming world’s circle of life. Just as it is occurring with first person shooters, open world games will always have their place in the industry. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them enter into a bit of a dull phase in the near future.