What Makes a Great Open World RPG?
What Makes a Great Open World RPG?
Open world games have become more and more popular in recent years and there are many examples of good open world series such as Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto and the Arkham series to name just a few. However, it’s fairly rare that these gigantic works of art, story and gameplay work well in every way. Two recent open world games I have been impressed by are Rocksteady’s Arkham Knight and CD Projeckt Red’s Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Although they aren’t perfect, they seem to have set a new bar for open world games containing not only good campaigns but also meaningful side content and a world that feels lived in rather than inhabited. In this article I will explore what constitutes a great open world RPG and what such a game needs to get right to work well.
A Story that Matters
Despite the enormous size of maps such as The Witcher 3, the reality of life is that the majority of people who play the game may only complete the main campaign and a handful of side missions, after all not everyone is a completionist or has the free time to dedicate to such a large-scale commitment. Therefore its important to nail the story. Keep it interesting and give us a reason to care about the characters we are spending so much time with. It should be organic, leading you through different and varied locations and in the case of RPG’s without leaving you overwhelmed with too much high-level content. It’s also important in deep, dense games such as The Witcher 3 to introduce players to key mechanics early on but also gradually. There’s nothing worse than sitting through hours and hours of tutorials before the ‘main’ game begins.
There are numerous examples of stories done right. Red Dead Redemption told the tale of John Marston, an ex-gang member who is forced to hunt down his old friends in the Old West in order to have his family safely returned to him. The story is tragic but also plays on many classic western themes and towards the latter stages of the game, the plot quickly makes you realize people like John are a dying breed as a new era of industrialization begins in America. The game makes you care about its protagonist with a touching tale about a man facing his past mistakes. In the campaign you move from North America to Mexico to snowy mountains with ease, which moves the story along at a nice pace.
Another example is Assassin’s Creed 2. The pinnacle of the franchise, Assassins Creed 2 introduced us to Ezio Auditore as we guided him from mischievous young man to principled adult and fully fledged assassin. A protagonist is only as good as his villains and hunting down the Templars across Renaissance Italy was terrific amounts of fun. Ezio is incredibly likeable and his cast of allies such as Leonardo da Vinci all have a touch of personality to them that make them feel much more entertaining and interesting to watch than other games of a similar nature. While some open world games choose to let us as players decide the protagonists’ actions and fate, Assassin’s Creed 2 remains one of the best examples of how to tell a story to the player in an entertaining way.
A more recent example is Batman: Arkham Knight. Having completed the main campaign (and I won’t spoil anything here) I came away very impressed by what I believe is Rocksteady’s best story yet. Although not perfect with some predictable developments, the story raises the stakes for the Dark Knight with some astonishing twists and turns including plenty of nods to fans of the series in general and fans of the comics. Batman is tested psychologically more than ever before and the way the game presents that to you feels unique and leaves an impact. His relationship and dynamic with his allies is also more apparent than ever showing the large amounts of responsibility Batman feels towards his companions. Take a look at my review here to learn more about the game. The story remains with you after the credits roll which tells you all you need to know.
Meaningful Side Content
For some gamers this becomes the most important element of an open world game, after all, this is what you will spend most of your time doing if you want to 100% the game. Side activities, random encounters, collectibles and optional activities all fall under this. When it comes to side content there is certainly a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Collectibles for the sake of collectibles are not fun and there needs to be a meaningful reward for collecting hundreds of items. For example, Arkham Knight rewards players for collecting all the Riddler trophies with an additional epilogue to the game while The Witcher 3 includes things such as Places of Power which not only give you buffs but also give you additional skill points. Games that get collectibles wrong often give us a reward that is merely cosmetic, insubstantial or worse, nothing at all. Of course, there is the problem that there can just be too many. It’s also always better to make you want them, in Arkham Knight you must solve a puzzle to earn a Riddler trophy which is an added challenge and incentive.
Side content also helps flesh out the world you play in. Great open world games make their side content enticing by ensuring it has as little repetition as possible, is fun to play and preferably adds a little bit of story or context to the game’s world. This is by no means an easy task, it takes developers time and resources to fill out the massive worlds they create. On the plus side it allows developers to be at their most creative and inventive, giving them license to craft something special. Take CD Projeckt Red’s The Witcher 3 which does contain collectibles and bandit camps to clear but also gives us extensive side content that not only contains one quest but encompasses a whole branch of quests often giving us a storyline to follow. This kind of work shows the developers really care about their game and is very impressive because the quality and standard of the side content wouldn’t be out-of-place in the main campaign. Other content includes mini games like Gwent, a card based game that has hooked a lot of players. Side content is often a tool for developers to flesh out the worlds they create. A good example of this is in Grand Theft Auto V in which there are numerous random encounters, where someone might need help and you can choose to help them, make it worse or just keep driving. Other series such as The Elder Scrolls, are more ‘choose your own adventure’ allowing you to pick from a plethora of quests and to do whatever you want. Overall, there are many different ways to make side content interesting, and no single right way, but it takes time and effort.
An Immersive World
An open world RPG should feel lived in rather than inhabited. In general, games have made strides in this area with games such as Grand Theft Auto V and The Witcher 3 having an incredible amount of detail. NPC’s have their own routines and go about their own business, which is important particularly for cities which should be vibrant and busy. In terms of graphics, gameplay will always be more important to most but if a game can amaze people when you first see its world then you’re on the right track. If a designer is building a world it should, where possible be fully explorable without any limitations or invisible walls that take you out of the experience. It was frustrating in Arkham City to not be able to glide over all of Gotham especially when you can see landmarks in the distance so it was pleasing that Arkham Knight fully unlocked this area for players. The world should not be limited or locked off in any way for too long, if you create an amazing sandbox for players to play in, let them use it. Although Gotham in Arkham Knight is a city deserted by most people it still feels alive because of the details in the environment.
When it comes to making a game based on a real life location, Ubisoft handles such a task especially well. The detail and research that must go into making a historically accurate city in a video game must be painstaking and brutal, but the final product is worth it when you see the landmarks and streets of 16th century Rome or revolutionary Paris. Rockstar also do a fantastic job of satirizing not just themes in Grand Theft Auto but locations as well. The exciting thing about open world RPG’s is that the technology has advanced far enough now to the point that we are seeing some beautifully imagined worlds that would have been much more limited in the past. There is something thrilling about games such as Skyrim or The Witcher 3 and being told that anywhere you can see, you can also go and it remains perhaps the biggest draw for many fans.
Life is a Journey
Traversal is a key part of any open world game. How you move your character about the world is essential and linked to how much you will consequently want to explore. Any open world RPG of a certain size should have a fast travel system. It makes it simpler and faster to move from A to B quickly if you don’t feel like getting there at a normal pace. Preferably this should be available from the map and not from specific points such as the signposts in The Witcher 3 which can often be a bit of a chore. While many will surely want to explore the world and complete content in a methodical manner by taking in the world as you explore, there are an equal amount of people who want to reach things fast, particularly as open world RPG’s are time-consuming. The exception to this is open world RPG’s with smaller maps not on the scale of The Witcher 3 which are less vast and more dense, making it easier to travel quickly across the entire map.
Traversal should be made fun where possible. Arkham Knight is a perfect example of it done well. The Batmobile is tons of fun to drive (while not in tank mode for some) and gliding and grappling across the city is just as much fun as beating a criminal down or apprehending a villain. Many games such as The Witcher 3 or Skyrim enable you to travel mostly by horseback. This can often be a double-edged sword as they enable faster travel but in many games can be fairly difficult to control. In general, this has improved but Red Dead Redemption was where traversal by horse was at its best and felt natural on the sparse environment of the Old West. If your vehicle is customizable or useful then all the better. The best traversal systems feel like companions, not tools.
There are very few people who finish every piece of side content first and then finish the main campaign. It doesn’t happen much and is sometimes impossible to do. Whatever the resolution to the story is, developers should not assume the story is now over. If the protagonist dies at the end of the main campaign it feels strange to take control of him again after such a blunt ending. Your surroundings, NPC’s and the game itself should acknowledge what’s come before. This may seem like a rather minor point but it adds a lot to a game. Take Red Dead Redemption, where after the conclusion of the campaign you take control of Jack, a different character, that makes logical sense for the progression of the story. Another fantastic example is Arkham Knight, as NPC’s acknowledge developments late in the game giving your previous actions meaning and impact. The world should feel no less alive just because the campaign is over.
Those are my thoughts on what makes a great open world RPG.
Let me know in the comments below what you think.
Thanks for reading.