The keys to the pixelated kingdom.
As a medium, video games are synonymous with the power of immersion. There’s no feeling quite like booting up your console of choice and dipping into a self-contained universe to explore as you please. It is escapism 101; something that many would automatically attribute as gaming’s primary source of entertainment value. But perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring categories of games is the open-world genre. They have an innate ability to compel; to bestow the player with an unparalleled sense of freedom as they tumble further down the rabbit hole.
Of course, losing yourself in the non-linear search for greener grass and uncharted territories is part and parcel of the free-roaming experience. And as far as trends go, 2013 has been a notable year for the genre. With titles such as Saints Row IV and Grand Theft Auto V each expanding their in-game horizons and, in turn, implementing a whole new level of emergent gameplay, the genre has grown exponentially in the last few years alone. So much so, that even franchises such as Metal Gear Solid, a series renowned for its linearity, is set to break away from tradition for its fifth iteration and establish a dynamic world around the world-weary character of Snake. As such, it seems the genre is on the brink of standardization.
With that in mind, the question must then be asked: is the open-world genre careering along a similar trajectory that was recently mapped out by first-person shooters; the familiar boom that precedes the inevitable fatigue? Of course, every genre experiences its fair share of mediocre titles; from racing to sports simulators, many are stifled instantly by the industry’s heavy hitters such as Gran Turismo or Madden NFL. With that said, the fact that Titanfall —Respawn Entertainment’s much-anticipated first person shooter—is being hailed as a genre definer conveys the general feeling of apathy towards franchises such as Call of Duty; a series that has struck a chord with the mass market since Modern Warfare in 2007 thanks to its accessibility and arcade-esque design.
Nevertheless, if the explosion and, in many ways, homogenization of the FPS genre is anything to go by, is the open world category headed in a similar direction? After all, with great success comes a multitude of sub-par knock-offs, and in terms of non-scripted universes, Skyrim very much instigated or, at the very least, popularized this industry trend. Heck, BioWare even spoke candidly of assimilating some of Bethesda’s open-world formula into Dragon Age 3; a series more associated with linear storytelling.
As a result, is the open-world genre poised to attract mainstream gamers with its formative blend of dense universes and player freedom? It could well be the case, but first it’s important to chart the genre’s recent rise to fame.
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Taking a step back from an open-world franchise such as The Elder Scrolls or Fallout is akin to appreciating a landmark from an encompassing viewpoint. Not only does it represent the individual systems, the milestone itself also acts as the summation of its technical construction; from environmental design to the bifurcating narrative paths, each brick signifies the layering process required to manifest a true, free-roaming experience. It’s a complicated beast; one that is arguably determined by two simple yet crucial words: player agency.
As one would expect, independence and open-world games are analogous. So much so, in fact, that many developers cite player freedom as the compelling core of open-world games. The off-rails nature of these titles bestow the user with a greater sense of satisfaction. To hold a tangible influence over the causality and indeed outcome of an in-game situation is a remarkable quality for a game; one that acts as the lynchpin for the genre itself. And while the formula has evidently evolved throughout the gaming generations —implementing larger, more dynamic worlds and non-story events—maintaining the player’s investment through choice, consequence and, ultimately, unique progression has been the crux of the open-world game since its inception.
From its humble beginnings in the arcade cabinets of the 80s, though, the allure and indeed ambition of the open-world game was always handicapped by the technological restraints of yesteryear – settling with basic environmental design and vector graphics that was considered cutting edge for the time. Nevertheless, as developers pried and experimented with primitive 3D models and isometric graphics, the flexible, non-linear framework of the genre began to take shape. At this time, a niche category of the industry decided to forgo pre-defined levels and set goals and instead adopted a liberating approach to game design. This modus operandi, one of pushing the conventional boundaries of level design, helped cultivate titles such as Adventure (1979), Elite (1984) and, perhaps most notably, Novagen Software’s Mercenary in 1985.
With its ambitious open-world framework and inFamous-like degree of player choice, the British-born, 8-bit title was critically acclaimed for its time, and is widely considered to be one of the genre’s most prominent ancestors. In hindsight, it was titles such as these that helped map out the formative blueprint for the open-world game we know today. The ability to explore an expansive universe —such as Mercenary’s sprawling yet nuanced planetary system—is the quintessential foundation upon which developers have honed and perfected the free-roaming experience over the last thirty years. Formative principles including in-game maps and secret passageways, which are widely considered to be stalwart tropes in current titles, were then popularized through franchises such as Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda throughout the 80s and 90s.
As time progressed, however, perhaps one of the most notable advancements for the open-world genre was its gradual shift from the adventure category to third-person action games; a shift typified by the launch of Grand Theft Auto in 1997. Although Rockstar’s series didn’t transition into the third dimension until its third numerical title in 2001, GTA incorporated many of the elements from its free-roaming progenitors. From emergent gameplay to interactive NPCs, these features have acted as lodestones for the franchise and will continue to inform future iterations. If open-world was teetering on the periphery at the turn of the millennium, implemented as a characteristic rather than a fully realized gamespace, then Grand Theft Auto was the satirical vehicle that propelled it towards the mainstream audience.
That said, it wasn’t the only release to have left its mark on the genre of late. In fact, Assassin’s Creed served as a poignant example of the evolution of open-world games. While Grand Theft Auto may have pushed the envelope in terms of game design, Ubisoft’s clandestine franchise layered numerous, complex systems on top —such as the game’s compelling musical score and rich, historic landscape— that effectively underlined the genre’s potential. It was a huge moment for the industry; one which truly showcased the horsepower of the current-gen systems back in 2007.
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Over the past seven years, however, many studios have assimilated characteristics from true, free-roaming titles into a variety of properties. From Tomb Raider to Dark Souls, there are a bevy of titles that incorporate a handful of the genre’s tropes —non-linear exploration and crafting systems, for instance— even though they aren’t, strictly speaking, open-world games. As a matter of fact, this amalgamating process is similar to that of Call of Duty; with Infinity Ward’s behemoth introducing progression systems that were traditionally associated with RPGs post-Modern Warfare. Mechanically speaking, this typifies how a genre evolves across the generation span. How they adapt and conform to meet the supposed expectations of their audience. In fact, many analysts concur that for a game to gain significant traction in 2014, it must have some open-world components.
For example, Marshal Cohen, from analyst group NPD, touched upon the subject shortly after E3, 2013:
“Open world is just the final step in that evolution. It will come to a point where most gameplay will just consist of walking from point A to point B and players will love it. We can see that players have grown accustomed to exploring grand landscapes and collecting a hundred little trinkets along the way. That’s the evolution of gaming right there.”
In the post, Cohen outlines the various, aforementioned perks of the open-world genre — player agency and branching narratives, for example— and how they ultimately infuse a game with an innate sense of longevity. When applied correctly, this durability often evokes hundreds of hours of enjoyable content and allows the game to capture imaginations with its unobtrusive freedom and immersive environments. Much like the underlying appeal of first-person shooters, the open-world genre taps into a primitive desire within gamers; only in this case, that desire relates to traversing uncharted territory as opposed to shooting your friends in the head. Nevertheless, it’s clear how each of these genres have respectively served as pillars within gaming culture since their infancy.
First-person shooters have subsisted as a bankable lodestone in the industry precisely because they act as the culmination of accessibility and hardcore score-chasing. There’s a certain purity to the point and shoot mechanic that has allowed it to survive for generations and, as it evolved and gained more clout, various progression systems were layered over its rudimentary skeleton. Games such as Wolfenstein and Duke Nukem, for example, would later go on to influence some of the genre’s seminal titles like Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, which were cornerstones of the Nintendo 64’s limited library.
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In terms of its current status, though, the first-person shooter is heavily maligned and culturally embraced in equal measures. This divisive quality is wholly typified by Activision’s Call of Duty. What was once considered to be a mere Doom clone when it debuted on the PC in 2003 has, in turn, gone on to spawn its own like-minded games over the last decade. Not only does this highlight how trends drift in and out of fashion through time, it also underlines how the industry capitalizes on said trends by, in this case, implementing the FPS mechanic into an array of titles. An example of this process is BioShock Infinite; Irrational Games’ much-admired, cerebral shooter. What is undeniably a great game is hampered by the fact that it was designed as a first-person shooter. The third entry in the prestigious franchise excels in almost every other department —from environmental storytelling to art direction— yet fumbles the basic combat mechanics that can result in a jarring, game-breaking experience.
It’s a process that has been seen across both genres. As the budgets for triple-A titles balloon, developers tend to splice various elements from different gaming categories together in order to attract the largest audience possible. It’s simply the nature of the industry as it continues to ape Hollywood through expensive advertising and high-profile talent. In September, Grand Theft Auto V surpassed Star Wars: The Old Republic as the most expensive game in history; clocking in with a reported budget of $266 million, whereas The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim cost a total of $85 million to develop and market. Both of these titles were developed by Rockstar and Bethesda, respectively; two studios that have long been considered as the gatekeepers of stellar open-world experiences. In fact, their free-roaming heritage echoes that of id Software and Rare, who guided the first-person shooter into the mainstream in the 80s and 90s.
With that in mind, it’ll be interesting to see how studios usher this legacy into the next generation. Ubisoft, for example, have been bullish in their plans to weave open-world components into the majority of its upcoming releases, thereby capitalising on a “deep-seated market trend.” And though it’s not representative of every studio’s ideology, it’s a notable sign of the current ascension; a swell in popularity that can be automatically paralleled with the console generation cycle. As the next-gen machines creep ever closer, developers are either perfecting their software on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 —the iterative progression from Grand Theft Auto IV and V is a case in point —or, as they begin to gauge the potential of the new processors, hone and perfect the formula for persistent open-worlds.
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In truth, it’s unlikely that open-world games will ever capture the feverish infatuation associated with first-person shooters. In its tenth year reign at the top of the gaming hierarchy, Call of Duty has effectively blurred the line between war-themed franchise and out and out phenomena. Love it or loathe it, Activision’s behemoth is wholly responsible for luring more gamers into the community and, ultimately, supporting the industry financially. Many would go so far as to attribute the ongoing indie resurgence to the CoD supremacy, as gamers long for smaller, more personal titles as an antidote to the commercialized, first-person mayhem.
However, the first-person shooter is, by its very nature, limiting and restrictive. Out of all the categories in the industry, the genre is the one that continues to ape the Hollywood blockbuster the most through lavish set pieces and scripted, in-game events. It’s a tried, true and ultimately hackneyed formula that has become stale in its annualized repetition— hence, the much needed injection of vitality that has fallen on Titanfall’s broad, metallic shoulders. Having said that, it’s bordering on naivety to claim that the genre will fall by the wayside as we move towards the eight generation of consoles. The first-person shooter is still considered to be one of the industry’s flagship categories, and, as evidenced by the launch lineup of both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, one that can be fine-tuned to attract core and casual gamers alike. And this facet could serve as the crux of the open-world appeal going forward.
The free-roaming framework may never emulate the success of the first-person shooter, and , quite frankly, it doesn’t necessarily have to. With prestigious companies such as Ubisoft pouring resources into open-world games such as Watch Dogs and The Crew, there’s no doubt that the genre will be well supported in the years to come. The aforementioned qualities of immersion and freedom are fundamental strands of the open-world DNA; qualities that grant the gamer with an unparalleled degree of player agency — invisible walls be damned. Once developers become accustomed to the next-gen hardware, there are a myriad of avenues begging to be explored; because, after all, stopping to smell the pixelated roses is what free-roaming is all about, right?
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As the gaming community stands on the proverbial bridge between this generation and the next, it becomes easy to pinpoint the palpable inclination towards open, liberating worlds. Not only do they present a Pandora’s Box of untapped potential —as developers are granted a bigger canvas to present their ideas— they allow gamers to tackle obstacles at their own pace within an expansive realm where load times are minimalized and freedom is king. It’s an exciting time. Technology doesn’t exert the stifling hold over imagination it once did; instead, the new consoles present an advanced entry point for audiences to experience nuanced, socially-connected worlds.
Undoubtedly, open-world games have an established legacy; one that stretches all the way back to the late 70s. Having said that, one resounding criticism that is levelled towards the genre is its inability to tell a convincing story to collate and indeed support its broad scope. For years, the free-roaming game has been hamstrung by this caveat; a weakness that dilutes the substance of an in-game narrative in favour of sprawling environments and complex systems. Of course, there’s something to be said for presenting the gamer with these cognitive decisions —it’s one of the primary tropes of the genre, after all— but if this input doesn’t influence the outcome then the feature is immediately relegated to a simple gimmick. Choice is freedom, but not when it’s constantly for its own sake.
In saying that, there’s no reason for compelling stories and open-world game designs to be mutually exclusive. If the free-roaming genre is to maintain a foothold in the gaming community, it needs to continuously invigorate; to iterate on ideals and systems as developers become accustomed to the new hardware.
As we approach the next generation of consoles, developers will have the technical resources at their disposal to create truly immersive software. We’ve already got a taste of this through recent preview events, with titles such as Tom Clancy’s The Division, Mad Max and the Mirror’s Edge prequel all incorporating several open-world mechanics. In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien: “Not all who wander are lost.” And judging by 2014’s release schedule, when it comes to worlds vying to be lost in, gamers will be spoilt for choice.Previous