Over at Gamasutra, they have up a multi-page article on “20 Open-World Games”. It’s an interesting read, although I haven’t played any of them and hadn’t even heard of most of them.

That’s because the majority go back to old consoles and even arcade (money in the slot) machines. What particularly caught my eye, though, is what he wrote during a discussion of the game Cadash:

Most RPGs don’t fit into the exploration game mold because, although generally nothing stops the player from going back to old areas, there is usually so little reason to that it’s a waste of time to do so. The basic RPG structure is: fight monsters in an area until the player has strength to beat its boss, beat said boss, then proceed to the next.

Each area has stronger opponents than the last, and each provides greater rewards for beating them, so it’s always numerically advantageous for the player to bumble around the most advanced area available to him. The monsters may be tougher, but they’re worth so much more experience and money than those in previous areas, and the points required to attain the next level are great enough, and the equipment that can be found or purchased in the new towns strong enough, that there’s no reason at all to go back unless the story demands it. And if he does have to spend significant time back there, there’ll probably be some twist that’ll make the monsters worth fighting again.

Up to a point, he’s certainly right. However, most RPGs these days don’t have an exploration mode. They’re set along a linear path, and players are restricted in where they can go.

Neverwinter Nights is a case in point. After the tutorial, you begin in the City Center, which has four other areas attached. There is no way to leave the city until all the areas have been completed.

Once you leave Neverwinter, there is no going back until the end. Further sections are designed the same way: a limited number of locations available in each chapter, with no return to earlier ones.

The series that did have an open-world design was Might & Magic. Even with the linear plots, you could go traipsing around, either on foot or by stable or ship. With enough gold, you were able to go just about anywhere.

In the earliest games, that was dangerous, as the towns were overrun with monsters, and dying was easy. The later games made the towns safe for the most part, but stepping outside could wipe the party in many places.

And then – you knew this was coming – there was Ultima IV. U4 was most definitely open-world, but where it differed was in the leveled-monster design. You could go anywhere and be sure that the enemies would not overwhelm you. So looking for “tougher critters” was useless; there weren’t any. Besides which, level 8 was as high as you could go.

Bethesda tried leveled opponents with Oblivion and it didn’t work. The reason for this is obvious: U4 was not built around just increasing your character’s overall power. Combat ability (Valor) was only one aspect of the game, and actually a minor one.

In Oblivion, you had the standard “make progress with levels”, but that progress was illusionary, as the enemies were always catching up to you. Thus we had the nonsensical situation of being able to complete the game at very low levels, which some players did.

Of course, we dicussed linearity before, as in Linear Or Non-Linear?, where I concluded that a game must be linear if it has a story and a goal. Yet both Might & Magic and Ultima IV, though very different, show that open-world is possible.

I think developers today are so fixated on story, that they give no consideration to how an open world could be designed (Bethesda being the possible exception). I’m not even talking multiple paths here, just a world that goes beyond the narrow confines of “the plot”, which, let’s face it, is all-too-often “Kill Foozle”.

It would, I believe, pay off for designers to examine those old games, the ones we played on the 8-bit machines, and see how they were put together. Not as a “return to the past” or “good old days”, but to acquire a fresh perspective, and get out of the rut of pushing players along the dreary railroad line.miniscorp

20 Open Worlds on Gamasutra