Charting the Open World: The Trajectory of Dominating Design Trends in Non-RPG Open Worlds

[Originally published May 3, 2016]

The Open Worlds of non-RPGs have been constantly growing and evolving for the last two decades. Factions, locomotion, world design, etc.  If you want to understand this design trajectory, then you have to look at three titles in particular – GTA: Vice City, Spider Man 2, and Far Cry 3. You can still see their impact ripple through the core design of modern open worlds, and for good reason – these games were all hella dope. Now – come with me! Into my time machine of words! Let’s look at how these games got us to where we are today.

Okay. It’s 2002. It’s the turn of the century, and GTA: Vice City has just released to critical and commercial acclaim. The open world is now profitable, and publishers send their developers out to emulate the magic and money of Vice City. The market floods with ‘GTA clones’ – e.g. True Crime, released in 2003 – solidifying the GTA open world approach as the dominant methodology. These games followed a recognizable design pattern. Throw the player into a large, open area. Provide a plethora of systems to experiment with – AI, vehicles, combat, wanted levels, etc. Incentivize continued engagement with a drip of story missions available to play or ignore. Also – don’t forget about factions. Did you forget about factions? Did you??? Open world games used to love those. You can still find most of these aspects in modern open worlds, but in far more intricate forms – often supporting other systems and mechanical themes. Back then, however, this was it. A fairly barebones structure, held together by cars and guns and relative freedom.

Then the open world starts to evolve. Spider-Man 2 sees a successful launch just 2 years after GTA: Vice City. Where Vice City laid the foundation for a successful formula, Spider-Man 2 built on our perceptions of the player’s navigation of the open world. When people talk about that game, they always talk about the web-swinging mechanics. No Spider-Man 2 retrospective is complete without mentioning the groundbreaking means of traversing Treyarch’s digital New York. Locomotion, guys – it’s important. Spider-Man 2 was well-loved and successful, but it wasn’t the seminal blockbuster that was Vice City; so, instead of prompting a glut of full-blown clones, games emulated Spider-Man 2’s design mentalities in a more subtle way. Games started to rethink the way players move within a space. Crackdown and Assassin’s Creed are two notable examples. Though their respective modes of traversal were wildly different – cartoonish jumping v. grounded freerunning – much of their overall intent mirrored Spider Man 2. Give the player a robust, well-realized city to play in. Accentuate the verticality to encourage the player’s use of the movement systems. Reward their locomotion with collectibles. Crackdown had its iconic orbs, whereas Assassin’s Creed had its infuriating flags. Other games, like Prototype,[1] also began to share this emphasis on player movement. Now, nearly every open world game features some sort of quick, exaggerated locomotion – be it Arkham Knight’s grappling hook, Just Cause’s[2] grappling hook, or Dying Light’s… grappling hook.

Video games really like grappling hooks, you guys.

This brings us, finally, to Far Cry 3. It had everything the open world had adopted up until this point. Wide open, systems-driven world with a plethora of main missions and side content? Check. Modes and methods of traversal that allowed the player to explore up, down, and all around? Check. What Far Cry 3ended up bringing to the table was a new direction of world structure. Actually, Far Cry 2 did this as well, but Far Cry 3 is the one that ultimately influenced the market – due to its runaway success. When I talk about ‘world structure,’ I’m talking about outposts. I’m talking about fortresses. I’m talking about designing your world around a series of locations for the player to conquer. Prior to Far Cry 3, open worlds had, largely, been about the simulacrum – presenting a convincing enough façade for the player to feel as though they were navigating a ‘real,’ ‘lived in’ space. Far Cry 3 didn’t totally abandon the world-building aspects of the simulacrum, but – in real life – sovereign states aren’t a series of disconnected locations and outposts. They just aren’t – not even military states. I should note – I don’t mean this as some slight against Far Cry 3. It embraced its status as Capital-V, Kapital-G Video Game, putting function before form. That’s part of the reason – I think – that so many folks enjoyed this game. That’s also part of the reason we see so many other open world titles embracing the outpost-based world design of Far Cry 3. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain adopted this approach, for heaven’s sakes. If Hideo Kojima incorporates your design sensibilities into his games, you know you’ve reached the annals of cultural significance.

Now we’re back. You may step out of the time machine now, if you wish. I’m not sure where the open world goes next, to be honest – I’m not a game designer. Anything can happen though, and that excites me. Keep an eye out – watch the throne. You never know when the next cultural touchstone might change the game.[3]


[1] It should be noted that The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction was released just one year after Spider-Man 2, and also featured robust movement systems. The same folks eventually went on to develop Prototype, and brought back many of the same locomotive mechanical themes. Spider-Man 2 just happened to beat them to the punch, as far as cultural influence.

[2] Just Cause is actually what… caused (ayooooo) me to write this. I realized that each entry in the series exemplifies the dominant non-RPG open world design trends of the time. It’s actually really interesting, as very few open world series have changed as much as Just Cause has without succumbing to non-profitability. This piece was initially a breakdown of the Just Cause series in the context of the open world’s design trajectory, and then I realized that Just Cause was acting as an obstacle to the more important analysis – the design of the open world. That being said, I like having my cake, and eating it too – so I’m throwing in a quick little rundown of how Just Cause exemplifies the trends I broke down in this piece. Just Cause – systems driven, lots of missions, factions. Just Cause 2 – locomotion out the wazoo. This was the entry that added the grappling hook, and had an insane amount of collectibles. My god, there was an absolute murder of collectibles. Just Cause 3 – outpost-based world design. Complete 180⁰ from the messy, haphazard world of Just Cause 2. Oh, also wingsuits. Cos wingsuits are the new bow and arrow.

[3]… literally

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s