Ever since the open world concept evolved from early RPG’s the 1980’s, the idea of a vast, truly free-roaming world has captured the imagination of gamers. And since the early Grand Theft Auto titles brought the idea of an open world into the mainstream action genre, there has been a near-enough insatiable appetite for games featuring a free-roaming component. And it’s easy to see why -- there are few more enticing prospects in gaming than the sheer blank-page potential of a completely fresh world stretched out before you.
Now, more open world titles are being developed and released than ever before, but still, the genre’s popularity refuses to wane. The success of recent AAA titles The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn illustrates perfectly how the gaming public simply can’t get enough of this enduring genre.
And then there’s Ghost Recon Wildlands. The odds seemed stacked against Ubisoft’s latest: Many that got hold of the preview build commented on its technical flaws, it received very mixed reviews on release, and also seemed to have been lumbered with the least favorable launch date since last year’s Titanfall 2, positioned right between the aforementioned open world adventures, and another huge exploration-and-combat-heavy franchise colossus in the form of Mass Effect Andromeda.
Nevertheless, Wildlands sold well. Really well. It was even the biggest selling game of the year so far in the UK, and second biggest selling Tom Clancy title of all time in that territory, just behind The Division. Yes, this was arguably the first AAA multi-format title of the year with a mass-market appeal (both Zelda and Horizon are console exclusives), but it’s still a little surprising that the mediocre reception the game received didn’t seem to put many off. Even the Tom Clancy’s license has birthed some fairly uneven games of late, so Wildlands couldn’t have relied solely on this to garner interest. It’s as if its status as an open world game was enough to bring in sales.
But is this as surprising as it first may appear? There has been plenty of recent comment in the games media talking of a growing exasperation with open world games. A look across the major online outlets reveals at least one opinion piece from each decrying the endless stream of games in the genre, either simply for the sheer lack of originality or their tendency to encourage unfocused gameplay. And it’s certainly true that the very nature of developing an open world presents an altogether different challenge to creating a compelling narrative, because, from a developer’s point of view, how much time and resources do you devote to each part of a title? When you’re creating a game that has tens of miles of in-game landscape, a day-night cycle, randomly occurring weather, reliably functioning procedural systems, and a cast of hundreds of NPCs, not to mention enemies and wildlife, how much time can really be devoted to creating an immersive story?
The oft-spoken criticism, that narrative suffers as a result of this balancing act, is pretty well founded. The story of open world games is increasingly the weakest component of the overall package, with developers preferring to let their procedural systems provide entertainment for the player. When you regard the big open world franchises of the last decade -- Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Saint’s Row -- there are a few that could honestly name the story as their best feature. Instead, moments within those games that are most fondly remembered by gamers trend to be those player-driven, unexpectedly brilliant moments that arise purely out of the game’s emergent gameplay.
If you want to find support for the view that the open world genre has deteriorated, you need to look no further than its biggest recent franchise. After the promising false start that was the original game, Assassin’s Creed 2, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (the ‘Ezio trilogy’) are held in high regard by fans and critics alike. What is often remarked upon is how much they excel in telling central protagonist Ezio’s tale. Not long after, Ubisoft, buoyed by huge sales, decided that the demand was there for the series to go to yearly installments. This had, after all, certainly worked incredibly well for the most successful franchise of them all, Activision’s Call Of Duty series, which continues to sell in huge numbers year upon year. However, even though the next few Creed games (Assassin’s Creed III, Blag Flag, Unity, and Syndicate, to name only the mainline entries) sold well by most measures, they failed to recapture the essence of story that the Chronicles of Ezio managed to convey so well. Eventually, after the series took a slight dip in popularity, Ubisoft went back on their policy of yearly iteration and gave the series a break in 2016.
To many, this signaled the start of the decline of the open world genre. But in reality, that decline never actually came. Continuing strong sales of other series seems to point to a bout of franchise fatigue for Assassin’s Creed rather than gamers losing patience with the genre in its entirety. For all the clamoring of games media professionals for a return to a more concentrated narrative and an end to the constant procession of identical free-roaming games, the fact remains that they are still selling by the absolute bucket-load.
Because, in reality, the games buying public simply don’t care about the story as much as many think. Publishers operate on certainties, as much as they can, and the evidence doesn’t point to mainstream gamers wanting a return to a more focused narrative, not at all. The evidence says gamers want more open world.
And what this means is that the strategy publishers such as Ubisoft currently employ, where most of their stable of AAA games are not only open world but share many of the same traits-and-tropes, isn’t likely to change anytime soon. In fact, it may not just continue. The output of these games may even increase.
Horizon Zero Dawn is perhaps the most graphically impressive console game ever created. Breath Of The Wild is being talked of as the game of the year already by many, with the complexity yet logical nature of its systems staggering critics. These aren’t just me-too games: they’re pushing what can be achieved with an open world setting, refining the formula, and redefining what we expect from the genre. There will always be lackluster open world games, just as there are lackluster games in general. The most important thing is that gamers reward innovation in the genre, and vote with their cash. And with these two recent examples, they have.
One thing is for sure: until the demand slows down, open world games will surely keep coming. And let’s not forget the giant on the horizon. Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 will release in the Fall, and will most likely raise the bar once again for what can be achieved in a free-roaming game, not only from a technical standpoint but also narratively too. And as long as there is that kind of progression, there’s plenty of life left in the open world genre yet.