As open world games become the new normal, and specifically formerly linear story experiences move to that format, some games seem to be missing the pieces in between their story beats. Whether it’s a gorgeous and living environment to explore, extra activities between point A and B, or an exciting way to make up that distance, too many games fall just short of that ‘holy grail’ of open world design.
Put simply, all games should strive to have at least two of the above in their game. If the game looks good and you have an interesting way to get around, then players can be distracted by the landmarks and fly, swing or parkour to them as a dynamic ‘checkpoint’ of their own play time. If the game looks good and various side activities are available – that can be picking flowers, bounty hunter targets or even just a cave to explore – players won’t notice that all they are doing is walking or riding a horse everywhere they go. If the game doesn’t look great, then a combination of the other two, that is an engaging movement system and side activities, can mean there won’t be any real reason or chance to slow down and notice any unsatisfactory textures or reused assets.
Take into account a few recent(ish) games:
> I consider Marvel’s Spider-Man to be one of the better open world games of late. It gives you all the movement abilities and leaves it up to you to learn the best way to use them. You can wall run, swing, and point launch from the get go – as surely Spider-man in fact could – but it is up to you to practice the timing and discover the best occasions to use each ability. The world itself is detailed and alive, with pedestrians and vehicles lining the streets, and side activities pop up often, allowing you to patrol the streets looking for them, or just come across a car chase dynamically. When fast traveling, you also got that cute cutscene of Peter on the subway
>Red Dead Redemption II was a great example of graphics and activities, but disastrous movement options. The movement was clunky and unresponsive, and riding a horse got boring quickly when it was just holding down or repeatedly smashing that X button
> the recently reviewed Mirror’s Edge Catalyst locks a few potentially necessary abilities behind purchasable upgrades, with no real rhyme or reason why they had to be unlocked. Something as simple as a roll should really just be a base skill. Here, the movement clearly outshines the bland open world (whether there is a story reason for it being bland is not relevant) and the side activities are severely lacking, leaving little to go on aside from practising your parkour skills
> Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a clear example of everything being done in halves. The world is gorgeous at times, but barren and dead at others; the parkour movement is extravagant and easy to perform, but only in cities; and there are side activates, but most of them have to be accepted on a quest board, and not simply come across naturally in gameplay (compare the last point to Assassin’s Creed Origins, which was full of off-the-beaten-path notes, nooks and characters)
> one of my personal favourites Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen has a large open world that is lots of fun to travel the first time, but soon becomes repetitive. That game, however, gives you fast travel with a twist, in that you can fast travel to various locations only once you have placed a beacon of sorts there. With no horses to speak of in this fantasy world, proper placement of your own fast travel anchors is incredibly important
> the Just Cause series (including the third game and the fourth) is known for it’s sprawling game worlds, but the huge number of traversal options are the highlight of the game, where land, sea and sky vehicles, as well as the grappling hook, parachute, wingsuit and surfboard can all be used to get around. Unfortunately, the game worlds are the definition of quantity over quality (especially the abysmal fourth game), and side activities generally boil down to a hundred versions of ‘blow this up’
> Pillars of Eternity II has no fast travel, as such, but you can set your ship to auto-sail, meaning you only have to pay attention to threats on the journey. Frustratingly, eventually that becomes nothing more than a chore as you will be so much more powerful than any and all opponents
For the majority of open world, games, the common method seems to be fast travel to certain areas, with horseback/vehicle methods for the remaining distances (Horizon: Zero Dawn, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mad Max and hundred more). In these games, your horse/robot/car/whatever serves as basically an extension of the character with the idea of sacrificing speed for movement options — for example, in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, can you ride your horse but therefore can’t parkour. It’s not like you can get some benefit by not going on your horse; you’re just wasting your own time.
This post is certainly not meant to be a deep dive into fast travel and how it words in tandem with an open world (often for the worse), but maybe I’ll save that for another time. Basically, any game designers out there, have a look at that Venn diagram up top and start thinking about how you can fit into that centre section. You can even use it for free in your meeting rooms. You’re welcome.