3 design changes that would improve open world games

From The Elder Scrolls to Far Cry, the open world genre of video game has become a staple of the industry. Their wealth of content and expansive settings are attractive traits, after all.

Despite this, though, there are three things that most of these games do that hurt the open world formula more than help it. In this article, I aim to highlight what the flaws are and then show some solutions and examples where the changes have worked.

Reduce the number of fetch quests

Something common in open world games is the abundance of "fetch quests", or missions in which you get an item for someone and return it.

These aren't necessarily bad on their own. In fact, they can actually be quite fun if the journey to retrieve the object is interesting and engaging. However, the vast majority of fetch quests across these games are dull and repetitive. When fetch quests are like this, they serve no purpose other than to pad out the gameplay.

In order to solve this issue, developers should focus on making a wider variety of missions instead of the repeated use of fetch quests. Some kinds of missions could include bounty hunting, saving innocents from thieves, or even trying to solve a murder case. The possibilities are endless, so developers should explore that canvas more in the future.

Play music less often

Video games are often complimented by beautiful music, and this is as true for the open world genre as any other type of game. However, one thing that often bothers me about music in these titles is that it never stops playing. There's very rarely a moment of silence.

This may seem like a good thing, but I think that you lose the benefit of hearing the other sounds the game has to offer. Being able to experience birds chirping, grass ruffling, and wind blowing adds a type of immersion that a musical score can't achieve.

A game that understood this and embraced it was Nintendo's Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Throughout this game, music was used sparingly, allowing for the natural sounds of the setting to shine.

Allow for the joys of discovery

Trying to discover all of the content in open world games is a big challenge, and a popular design decision to help players out with that is to climb tall vantage points in order for locations of things on the map to be revealed to the player.

This certainly makes it easier to discover what the setting has to offer, sure, but it also robs the player of the feeling of discovery. When everything is shown to you, the game feels less like an adventure and more like a checklist.

Breath of the Wild succeeds in this area as well. It does this by making the process of finding everything manual. There are towers to climb, but doing so doesn't show you everything; it simply gives you a useful vantage point in which you can scope out the landscape yourself.

This is important because it allows for us to embrace our curiosity. When everything isn't shown to us, we actively try and look for those things, and when we find them, it feels good because we did it. Our drive to explore was the reason that a secret was found, not an icon on a map.

Your thoughts

What do you think about these changes? Do you agree with me? If not, what changes would you make to the design of open world titles? Let me know in the comments.

Brendan Lowry

Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.

  • Basically, make games more like BotW... And I totally agree!
  • Was gonna say the same thing lol. And it works, even with four star ancient armour, a Hylian shield and the Master Sword, when that Guardian music starts, you pay attention!
  • Totally agreed
  • I'd love to see some more constraints on deviating from the main storyline to keep the story as the focus, but at the same time, make it rewarding - NOT GRINDING (looking at you Assassin's Creed) - to keep exploring the world after the story line is complete. So many times I'm like, "wait what's the story again?"
  • I'd add "use every square foot of real estate." There is enough unused space in GTA V to make four more games worth of content. The same goes with Skyrim and Fallout 4. At least in the latter the empty space is part of the atmosphere but in many games there is just so much unused space. What's the point of making a city-sized map when all of the missions could take place on a single street. The big size then just becomes a way to pad the game instead of something that matters. 
  • Think about it for a second why Fallout would be like that... It's called a Wasteland. I can understand wanting a full map, but these games are supposed to be desolate.
  • I said that. 
  • Ah, sorry... I could have sworn I actually read your entire comment.
  • #4. Make more games with verticality. The reason why I Dying Light was so fun was because of the fact that you could climb on top of cars to escape enemies . climb buildings, tightrope and repel from one location to another etc etc. I hate games with invisible walls prevent you from jumping over obstacles that are waist high or getting on top of obstacles. It's time out for that practice. Make the world believable and give you the option to do things you can do in a real-world situation. It's time out for shooting rocket launchers and grenades at Invincible doors.
  • I dig this idea too.
  • As a previous game designer (and programmer) at 989 Stuidios, Angel Studios, and Rockstar games, and more... I think the only thing that's realistic here is playing music only when necessary, or to enhance the mood, instead of all the time.
    While some variety in quests is great, and should be added, most companies just don't have the time or manpower or budget to create specific story-driven quests, which is why you see generic quest types (such as collection) repeated. As a designer, you also have to design a game for your audience... and your audience may not be just those people who want to explore and find everything themselves. Thats about 1 in 1000 people. The vast majority need to have their hands held a little, or be shown things. Games get terrible reviews and don't sell well if even 20% of the people get lost and dont know what to do next.
    What I'd suggest, maybe, would be to give extra rewards based on how you find something. If you are told to go there, normal reward. If you find it without being told, bonus money/reward! Remedy - Going verticle means adding a new level of physics. What happens when someone falls off that car or ladder? How slippery is the car hood? Not to mention the collision detection gets taken to an entirely new level as well... and may cost framerate. That's a lot of extra work, which means adding to the overall game budget.
    Of course the invisible walls are terrible.. that's just lazy design for the most part, but sometimes its about focusing on making the core gameplay the best is can be and letting go of the less important stuff.
  • That's a great point of view. I tend not to think of those things (though I completely understand them) while I am playing.
  • Reduce the number of collectables.
  • Devan, I disagree on the Quests remark. Look at Watch Dogs. A few basic mechanics (cameras, see through walls "datalink?", non lethal and then lethal traps) Just enough few basic engine mechanics to make a puzzle worth solving and be somewhat interesting :/ Compare that to World Of Warcraft, go here, kill 10 Murlocs - return. How WoW keeps so many subscribers amazes me, the dullest of dull. Re-using kills 10 x of these, or collect 8 of those and come back is boring. If Bungie spent 10% of its budget on the actual game, rather than layers of management sat round jerkin off over spreadsheets and monetisaztion schemes and micro payments they might have made a decent game. Not the snoozefest that is Destiny 2. I suspect managers and publishers strangle all the creativity out of developers and designers though. Feels like sometimes the actual "game" part gets lost in re-gurgitating "safe" well trodden paths - instead of new ideas and FUN!
  • botw was trash, and only nostalgia obsessed nerds think it was an incredible game. 7/10 at best. 
  • Holy slippery slope, lol.
  • Edgy. Now give us your ill conceived notions on why Horizon zero dawn sucked and was only popular because of Killzone fans... You don't know what you're talking about. Anyone playing BotW for nostalgia would be highly disappointed as it has little in common with previous Zelda games beyond names and Easter eggs.
  • Horizon Zero Dawn is the main reason I bought a PS4. I've got an Xbox and PC but watching my friend play Horizon on his PS4 was so excited enjoyable, I bought the console (bonus, it was bundled with The Last of Us!).
    On another note, never played Killzone so this is completely unbiased.
  • I bought my PS4 partially based on the original E3 announce footage for horizon zero dawn, as soon as I saw it I knew I had to buy it. It's an amazing game! Only thing that can challenge BotW for 2017 GOTY in my opinion. I hated Killzone lol.
  • BoTW isn't the second coming as soon make it out to be. However, 7/10 isn't a trash score.
  • I wouldn't call it trash. I think it was an enjoyable game. Like someone already said it had very little nostalgia. I wouldn't say it was the best game of the year and the best zelda but I would say it was very good game. Having said that I felt it was a bit repetitive. There is a limit to the number of shrines to finish and the number of towers to climb. I got all towers, a whole bunch of shrines but I struggled getting these photos. I must have got 7 or something then I got bored so I just decided to end it and finish the game...
  • make more like Witcher 3
  • I think this year we've had a couple of great example of what open world should be like. Zelda botw ofc and Horizon Zero Dawn. The great thing about Horizon I think was that even the side quests were great. Nice story and dialogue. It was not some generic missions. I'm not too sure about the music part. That doesn't really bother me. I guess you have the option to lower the music if it becomes annoying...  
  • The only open world game I play is Zelda. If that is even considered that I guess. I sorta liked Red Dead Redemption, but got bored of the story. Gameplay was good though. I suppose that's what matters. Last Zelda I played was The Twilight Princess. Haven't really been into Zelda after Ocarina of Time though. Don't think I'd enjoy BOTW. The only Nintendo game I thouroughly enjoy is Smash Bros. Other than that, maybe Mario Kart if I have people to play with.