An Open World is Not a Feature

Published April 2, 2014 on Medium.

I’m an interaction designer by trade, and a garage game designer by night. I play games in my free time, and I’ve since become disappointed in game designers using the word “open world” as a bonus add to games.

I hear it used to describe games like Skyrim, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Harvest Moon.

The idea of a game being open world, where the player can literally do anything in the world is a really popular idea right now.

There is a difference in the definition of games that bill themselves as open world, and what actually constitutes an open world game. The terms “open world game” and “sandbox game” are used interchangeably and game designers are confusing the idea of a truly open game with the idea of giving a player a lot of choice.

The definition of a game, as referenced by Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, is an “experience created by rules.” I would add on to make the distinction between open-world games and sandbox games and say that in my definition,

Open-world games are an experience scaffolded by rules.

Sandbox games are an experience created by rules.

The distinction is in what users make out of the game. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is an experience created by rules; I have a main storyline I can follow, things I can buy, and a world that I can explore. All of my imagination and creativity must fit within the context of these rules. I can pretend that Link is going on a quest to open his own hot dog stand, but in the end, the plot will drive me to save Hyrule.

Minecraft, however is a scaffold with which to hold its user’s creativity.

You don’t have to look far to see the creative things that people have built with Minecraft; there are videos on YouTube of people re-creating the history of the universe or a cat fountain with the rules and artifacts in the game. The game is a platform for users to be creative and warp the idea of what it means to “play a game.”

Open world games allow users to create something from nothing; sandbox games allow users a set of choices to play in a delineated area (however vast it may seem to be).

It’s not that I’m arguing for more or less open-world games like Minecraft; I think both open-world games and sandbox games are two perfectly acceptable ways to design games.

The reason why I care about the distinction between the two is because choice is not something that should be tacked on to a game to make it more appealing or more “open-world.”

For example, take Rockstar’s hit game Grand Theft Auto. GTA worked because people didn’t play the game to progress towards the ending; they played the game to steal cars from people and generally cause mayhem in a world that would react to their actions. It was a container for the imagination of the player.

Later, Rockstar made a game named L.A. Noire, set in the 1950's where the protagonist is a detective finding clues and reading suspect’s expressions to solve gruesome murders. It is story-driven and has a linear plot, so I assumed that the game would have a different experience than say, GTA.

When you are discovering clues and interviewing witnesses, the game is very linear with few choices, but once you get in the car, it becomes a game where you can go anywhere. The stark difference in gameplay is baffling and annoying. In GTA, the fun lies in running off the road and going places you’re not supposed to, where L.A. Noire eschews rule-breaking and in fact, you get fined every time you hit another car, object, or pedestrian.

I am sure someone said in the making of L.A. Noire, “hey, people liked playing with cars in Grand Theft Auto, let’s give the players that choice!”

Just because a game has more choices does not make it an inherently better game. A player’s choices must exist to support the intent of the game.

My plea to game designers is to think critically about the intent of your game. The choices that players make should be supporting the intent of what you want them to get out of the game.

And if you want them to make their own meaning out of your game? Provide them scaffolding with which to make their own experience, not an illusion of “openness.”