The Greatness of the Open World Formula

Why does it creates such compelling experiences when every single gamer despises it? I chose to explain it with pizzas.

The gaming landscape changed a lot during the 2010’s.

Technological innovation continued to bring new platforms & ways to play.

Developers perfected their recipes to create and maintain all sorts of games for years; engaged players keep coming back for more.

There is even a new game genre, Battle Royale, which emerged out-of-nowhere and suddenly became huge.

Fortnite became a cultural phenomenon and continues to entertain millions of players.

Everything changed in the 2010's? Well, AAA blockbusters not much.

The same big actors released the same franchises, with few changes. Old series converged and drew more & more inspiration from one another (The Witcher 3, Batman Arkham). Some promising new IPs followed the same formula and suddenly weren’t so refreshing anymore (Horizon Zero Dawn, Shadow of Mordor).

The AAA segment of the market still has some diversity but it feels like the same recipe was re-used a lot, particularly for solo-oriented open worlds.

It became so apparent core gamers & journalists started to call it a “formula”.

Since Far Cry 3 in 2012, the series had 4 more opus following a similar formula

Blockbusters who distance themselves from the formula still exist, actually there’s two types of studio which make them:

  • Those who were already quite different and kept their pre-existing specialty (Naughty Dog, From Software)
  • Those who chose to reinvent themselves with each game, because they have more resources maybe (Nintendo, Kojima Production)
Death Stranding deliberately steers away from the mass.

And more importantly, there are games which use a lot of these mechanics too, yet still become cult classics (The Witcher 3, Skyrim).

The formula therefore isn’t inherently bad, but it’s a double-edged sword: when the execution is sub-par, the whole experience suddenly feels forced & industrialized, the potential for uniqueness wasted.

In spite of all of the controversy, I’ve always liked this formula.

Christmas 2009, we got a PS3 with my brother and my first game was Assassin’s Creed 2. This game sparked something in my gaming experience. I’d spent most of my console time in these open-world, filled with activities & RPG-lite mechanics.

Assassin’s Creed 2 sparked my love for open world

I like this type of games and I wondered why.

Why do they keep working so well on me, again and again?

Am I not a well-informed video game consumer, shouldn’t I value diversity much more like my fellow gamers?

Lucky me, in the meantime I became game designer, grew an interest in deconstructing mechanics & systems and also landed a job at Ubisoft, the most prolific publisher when it comes to “formulaic” open world games.

I think now I’ve a pretty solid idea of how his particular set of ideas & techniques manage to entertain millions of players, hence why developers keep going for it.

Also why so many are tired of it and its recurrent flaws.

I chose to explain it with pizzas.

Photo by Vita Marija Murenaite on Unsplash

Pizzas are great. They’re easy-to-make, cheap, convenient to eat. There is an infinity of variants we can come up with and the the final product can be delicious if the chef worked well. Pizza all kinda have the same ingredients, it’s not like each pizza feels like a unique experience and yet, we keep coming back for more and want to try new ones.

To me, open world blockbusters are the same: the base formula works so well I can still have a pleasant experience coming back again and again.

In this article, I take you through the key ‘steps’ of this recipe and explain why they work well in their current form, what they bring to the overall experience.

Step 1: Open world (the dough)

Photo by juan manuel Núñez Méndez on Unsplash

The open world has become so indissociable with 2010’s AAA blockbusters nowadays, many call it the open world formula (including me when I figured out the title of this article).

What exactly qualifies as an open world vary from one person to the other but it’s not the point here. Some games such as the last God of War are mostly linear yet feature a play area which embody most of the characteristics of modern open worlds.

In my opinion, these are defining characteristics of the 2010's open world:

  1. A charismatic, large, varied play area: the kind of place you’d want to lose yourself into with minimal encounters with its artificial limits.
  2. A simulated ecosystem for credibility: weather, day/night cycle, a police system, animals, passerby. Whatever adds movement in your otherwise static scenery.
  3. Some efficient traversal gameplay mean, either vehicles or specific mechanics (Spider-Man webs); you don’t want to get bored when travelling across this vast playground.
  4. A lot of activities & gameplay opportunities methodically scattered with few dead zones: anywhere you go, there is a little something to do.
GTA V still has one of the most beautifully crafted world to date

These 4 elements are combined to create for the player a strong feeling of:

  • Escapism: we feel good in this location, love the beautiful landscapes and appreciate exploring it
  • Immersion: the place is lively & credible
  • Autonomy: we can move anywhere and still find something fun

These open worlds pillars work wonderfully. This blueprint for open world lays strong foundations which shapes the rest of the recipe.

They work so well only a handful of games favor the narrative over the size & postcard effect of their worlds (Deus Ex: Mankind Divided for instance evokes anxiety more than evasion).

Unlike most recent game worlds, the last Deus Ex doesn’t attempt to be welcoming

Step 2: Activities & content structure (filling sauce)

Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash

We’ve now got a vast & varied playground. It’s fun but unless we are going for a survival game, where players can free roam and interact with the systems as they want, we’re going to need authored content.

These handcrafted missions & activities will both help to achieve our ambitious narrative goals and to embark the player through our world.

2.1 Main story campaign

First, we’ll add a main story campaign, a succession of missions which usually fulfills three main goals at once:

  1. Tell the story of the main character(s), expose the premise of the universe and its main stakes. If done well, this narrative should be compelling enough to create curiosity and drive engagement.
  2. Stage the gameplay mechanics one after the other. The game is complex, we need to teach the player if we want to maximize his enjoyment.
  3. Take the player through the world, ensuring he gets the most of it and sees his diversity. The main story acts as breadcrumb trail, a tourist mini-train ride through our amusement park.
Horizon: Zero Dawn main missions are strategically placed to take you on a journey through the whole world

2.2 Side activities

While the “main story” usually serves as the backbone of the content, there is a lot of content in-between as well; I’d sort them in three categories:

  1. Secondary quests usually carry narrative content related to the world lore or secondary-characters. They add variety & breaks, without disturbing the pacing of the main story nor encumbering the narrative.
  2. Quickly-consumed generic activities, repeated throughout the game, (the races, time challenges mini-games, collectibles, etc). They’re clearly not interesting but since they’re easily completed, players use them as a pretext to visit the world and fulfill their completion need.
  3. The world systems often create gameplay opportunities (on top of breathing life into the universe). Some games use them as distractions, others build a lot of their experience on them (like the Nemesis system in Shadow of Mordor).
Nemesis System in Shadow of War adds a lot of tasks to perform in the open world.

On paper, this activity structure (backbone main story + side fillers) perfectly supports the autonomy promise of the open world, while addressing a variety of players profiles & tastes.

The repetitiveness is difficult to hide though, with bigger worlds, a lot of the content can feel like worthless filler, which undermines a little bit the feeling of densely populated area. Sure there is something to do everywhere, but how much of it is worth?

Well, the formula also has solutions to its recurrent issues: to keep the side content relevant, it usually ties it to several RPG progression mechanics.

Step 3: RPG-like mechanics (toppings)

Photo by Hemant Latawa on Unsplash

At this point, our game has many different activities scattered around a vast world. Good start, we now need mid/long-term gameplay loops to support the experience & renew the fun.

Unlocking more & more activities & regions of the world is a good source of motivation already; we can do even better by expanding the character’s abilities and tools too.

Traditionally, the upgrades allowing the player to ease tougher challenges, unlock new content or visually customize his avatar were awarded on fixed source (beat this boss, finish that level, find this secret area, etc.). We can’t do this in our modern open-world blockbuster, it would seriously threaten the sense of autonomy we’re going for.

Link’s Awakening Hookshot is a mandatory upgrade to progress in the game and located in one precise location: it works for a game with linear dungeons structure, wouldn’t in our modern open world.

Ideally, the player can enjoy complete freedom of choice and still get a feeling of progression. Even better: he also has self-determination on the type of upgrades he’s getting as a reward for his efforts.

We don’t need to go too far to figure out systems which do exactly that, they have existed in role-playing games for quite some time now. In 2010’s blockbusters games, we often encounter are at least three progression systems, more or less inspired and adapted from RPGs: economy, skill tree & statistics.

3.1. Economy

In-game economies are not recent additions to video games but 2010’s blockbusters ressorted to economic loops more often and gave them a bigger importance.

By economic loop, I don’t mean the money systems we’re used from our real-world, I consider any gameplay loop which looks like this:

  1. Do something (often chose among several options)
  2. Gain a currency (some numbers grow somewhere)
  3. Spend it (earn some benefits)
The Basic Economic Loop

Buying/selling items from vendors obviously fit into this framework but there are more.

Zelda Breath of The Wild features an economy based on rupees but the game progression has two other key economic loops: Korok Seeds to trade for inventory space and Spirit Orbs from shrines can be spent to gain stamina or heart containers. Having several currencies adds variety and more importantly facilitates the understanding of economic relationships for the player.

Trading Korok seeds to expand the size of the inventory is one of the key economic loops of Zelda BoTW

Stretch this idea further by adding even more currencies and you can create a crafting-based economy where multiple specific inputs combined can be turned into a desired output.

Next in line, and you might not think of them as economic loops but they are: the XP systems, a staple in the modern AAA. Such leveling system typically won’t let you control the rewards thresholds (it’s given at set amount of points, not when you decide to spend) but they are often paired with a skill point system to let you have the final say in the type of upgrade you want to invest on.

Sometimes the rewards are unlocked in a predefined order and the freedom of choice resides more in how you gain the needed amount of points: congratulations, you just invented the Battle Pass system.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey XP level up grants you an ability poiint.

All of these economic loops are designed to increase player choices, either on where you spend or how you gain or both. Should the reward be somewhat desirable, this can be a strong motivation for the player to perform specific activities.

In an economic loop, the player isn’t left second-guessing: the reward is advertised to create desire and each step to reach the desirable outcome is clearly exposed to the player (the item is described in the menu, price is displayed, players can read or understand which action get them currency and how much of it they have, etc.)

This is the biggest strength of economic loops, how you can them figure out and turn them into a motivation loop: “If I want to spend to get this, I need to gain X amount of that. To gain that thing, I have to do this action.”

An economic loop is easily inverted to figure out motivation

3.2 Skill tree

Another RPG-inspired system to have seen a widespread use in modern open-worlds is the skill tree. I’ve mentioned already the benefits of the economic loop they’re usually associated with (easy to set objectives for oneself, feeling of autonomous choices), let’s see the others three.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim skill tree

First, and maybe the more obvious one: it’s a smart way to renew the gameplay loop with punctual new or improved abilities. Controlling the pacing in an open game is harder than in a linear one, but it’s still important to prevent boring down times (either between two new skills or if you have nothing left to unlock too quickly).

Second, a skill tree menu lays down the whole progression before the eyes of the player. When opening it for the first time, most players will go and check how cool & motivating the ‘end-game’ skills are, to be teased (sometimes spoiled) on what the game has to offer in the long term. When done right, this help provide a sense of purpose & motivation to come continue playing.

Third, skill tree menus are almost always structured to help the player focus on the next choices. They’re called ‘trees’ because they have clear ‘branches’ to sort out the content by playstyle, activity-type or game loop. Since there is still a lot to chose from and you don’t want the player to experience a Netflix-like decision paralysis when faced with too many options: unlock in linear chains solves this issue.

Far Cry 5 clearly emphasizes the Perks and present them in a compelling way

3.3 Statistics

Last RPG-inspired system I immediately think about when it comes to modern AAA, especially the more recent ones: stats.

There is something deeply-rooted in our human brains, we can’t help it: seeing a number grow, however small the gain or abstract the concept, feels rewarding. These statistics come in various shapes & sizes: some are universally accepted (health points, inventory capacities, etc.) while others are much more polarizing (‘colored’ loot systems for instance).

The great thing with numbers is how easily we can manipulate them with maths. We can translate the effects of diverse equipment pieces into character stats with simple sums & average. They also serve as reference points to compare with others & with the past me, giving a sense of growth.

Using stats is an efficient way to allow the player to mix & match equipment pieces, skills, temporary boosts and more, which again means more choices for the player. It comes with a trade-off though: putting stats on everything can break the immersion and be overwhelming for players who do not like to run the numbers.

The Witcher 3 Inventory menu has plenty of useful stats

You got the point by now: these RPG-inspired systems are both effective and efficient, that’s why we see them this often.

They bring simple-to-understand yet powerful extrinsic motivation drivers (‘do this, you’ll get that’) by turning abstract game elements into numbers easier to manipulate for our rational human brains.

No matter the type of core gameplay (shooting, stealth, melee combat, etc), you can find a way to fit RPG mechanics in there (but don’t shoehorn them either, you’d risk to break immersion).

The biggest threat lies in the very benefits the RPG mechanics bring: while they work, the game feels full, nothing is useless. But when the extrinsic carrot lose its appeal at some point, the experience feels hollow.

How many times have you felt motivated to reach the max level but when you finally hit that milestone, the enjoyment quickly collapsed and the mechanics you enjoyed started to appear dull & useless?

This can sensation can be countered by providing new goals to the player, what’s known as an ‘end-game’, but that’s a domain where few 2010’s AAA games have ventured.

Step 4: Menus & interfaces (cook)

Photo by Hemant Latawa on Unsplash

Our pizza is shaping up nicely, it doesn’t feel like our game is missing any key element: we have a world with activities inside and RPG systems to tie them.

What we’re missing though are communication channels with our player, some tools to tell him everything we’ve prepared for his enjoyment. Among the different means to teach a game experience (dialogues, level design, …) there is one in particular which is used a lot in open world blockbusters: user interfaces.

Both interface elements and menus have taken a increasingly important place in the modern gaming experience for one good reason: it’s the most straightforward way to deliver a message to the player when you want to keep a certain level of credibility in your game universe (remember we want a “postcard effect”).

Let’s get in the developers’ shoes for a minute. We need to keep size, shapes, colors, animations somewhat believable but still have detailed environments and complex intertwined mechanics. How can we direct the attention of the player towards the right things? It’s the role of UI, to give the player the necessary dose of comfort to smooth out frustration.

Floating pick-up items have disappeared in 2010’s in favor of a more “realistic” approach

4.1 Menus

In the previous parts about world, activities & RPG systems, I’ve mentioned some of the common menus (inventory, skill trees, etc.), I wont deep dive into each of them, but focus on the central one for open world games: the map.

As worlds grew bigger, maps became increasingly helpful. Like in real life, they of course provide direction and alleviate the feeling of being lost. But maps have also evolved to be much more than this: a restaurant menu of all the activities you can encounter in the world.

This effectively turned them into completion tools (‘clearing the map’ becomes a goal in itself), and ensures the player knows exactly what’s on the plate and where to find it. If you did well at steps 1 & 2, it will instantly highlight the diversity of tasks proposed in the playground, although unfortunately undermining the joy of self-discovery.

Assassin’s Creed Unity infamous map is dreaded with icons.

4.2 HUD

On the topic of HUD now, again a lot of recurrent elements:

  • Radar/compasses, with the same role as the map menu on a smaller scale
  • Quests tracker & current objective to ensure the player always knows what he’s supposed to do
  • Most of the time this is complemented with markers in the middle of the screen directly showing where to go, for extra convenience
  • Indications on the player’s state: life bar, ammo count, capacity cooldowns and some reminders of the associated buttons.
  • Feedbacks on the world state: detection arcs, enemies icons and more help the player make sense of his environment
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands has all the HUD elements to help you play

Each of these elements plays a role in the big picture and more often than not, they are much needed to play the games. Try for yourself and disable all interface in an open world: you’ll probably have a hard time isolating the interactive elements in the vast environments and understanding.

There is no easy way out of interfaces unfortunately, all complex games have a lot of them (look at MMOs for instance). Blockbusters don’t aim to simplify their experience, therefore using a lot of menus, texts & icons is a valid choice to keep the accessibility in check for a wide audience, even when it sacrifices the sense of self-direction and eliminates the challenge of observation.

Many games such as Batman Arkham City here have some kind of toggleable highlight mode to help the player spot interactive elements without over loading the screen with HUD elements.

Conclusion

At this point, I hope to have successfully conveyed how each of these design choices create, or at least support, something pleasant, in the game experience. These solutions are not not entirely ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they’re trade-offs which brings their own set of strengths & flaws.

The reason why these codes seem to appear everywhere isn’t a matter of lazy uninspired studios trying to make money out of the same ideas again and again. For sure, some of these decisions simplify production pipelines and facilitate collaboration within huge teams, but some don’t.

Take the famous Assassin’s Creed towers for instance: it’s a great design tool to help the player make sense of his environment and spot key locations in the open world. From a production perspective though, I’m no programmer but it seems like a big 3D rendering & optimization challenge. Difficult to implement, yet efficient at what it does, that’s how it became such a staple in open worlds.

Assassin’s Creed towers became a symbol of the series… and the open world formula.

To wrap things up, I’ll come back to the pizza comparison I introduced at the beginning of the article.

Like pizza is made of dough, filling sauce and toppings, modern blockbuster is made of open world, activities, RPG-lite systems & interfaces.

Photo by Masimo Grabar on Unsplash

Pizzas have existed for centuries now and although there is an infinite number of possible variations, the vast majority share similarities. Does that make the pizza makers unoriginal, uninspired, lazy?

Same goes for open world blockbusters. They have so many in common with one another and everyone knows it. It only proves how strong the formula is. It may have its drawbacks but ultimately, when used well, it creates truly compelling experiences. Many alternative ideas have been tried, it was far from a guaranteed success Why try to reinvent the wheel.

Will it grow old? Has it already for some people?

Of course.

Absolutely not an issue.

We already have a huge diversity of gaming experiences, so many of them left to invent.

Thanks for reading! If you have a feedback or want to reach out to start a discussion, feel free to comment or come on Twitter @JB_OGER.

Check out my Medium profile for more articles & follow me to be informed of the ones to come.

Lead Game Designer at Ubisoft Paris. Expert in system design, economy, progression. Views are my own and do not represent my company.

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