Personal Thoughts: What Makes a Great Open-World RPG?

That horse does not look happy to be on this box-art.

I love open-world games, specifically open-world RPGs. Role-playing games just feel good with a lot of open areas to fully explore. The problem with open-world RPGs is that they have a fair bit of problems, some of which have persisted with the genre since their inception in the 90s. To be fair though, I’ve seen a ton of good examples of it being done right.

The thing that makes an open-world RPG bad is often the world itself. If you fill the world with boring side-quests, uninteresting NPCs, and uninspired dungeons, then you aren’t doing a good job of making a believable. A world needs to be interesting and full of unique and exciting things. If your epic fantasy / sci-fi world is just a more boring version of real-life, than you’ve failed at making an interesting open-world environment.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout: New Vegas managed to avoid this pitfall altogether, by having likable and interesting characters, as well as unique worlds. These two games had a ton of unique and fun side-quests, and were just generally a ton of fun. Skyrim did some things right, like making a more believable and much more visually appealing world. However, they also had a ton of really boring side-quests and dungeons crammed into every orifice of the world.

On the subject of Skyrim, another thing I don’t like about open-world RPGs is that the whole world revolves around you. In most open-world games, things don’t get done unless you are there to get them done. All the quests and dungeons in any RPG is beatable by your protagonist. While they are there for the player’s enjoyment, it breaks immersion. Most of the time, it feels like you are the only person in the world getting things done.

A game that got this right was Mount & Blade: Warband. This game was fantastic, mostly because its open-world didn’t focus solely on you the player. You start out as some random guy, with an origin you select. From there, the world is your oyster. Side-quests in this game are a bit boring and static, but the game manages to balance this out by making them timed. Some side-quests can be failed very easily, such as another army wiping out a hoard of bandits before you get the chance.

While I respect that an open-world needs to have a lot of things for the player to do, I wish that other people would be doing these things as well. Sure, you can find corpses in dungeons of people who attempted such things, but that’s about it. You’ll never encounter rival adventurers, unless they are a part of a quest itself, which is very rare indeed. Mount & Blade managed to find this good balance of making the world feel alive, while at the same time not overpowering your hero.

Another thing that open world-games have a problem with is direction. More often than not, making a game open-world often destroys the necessity to do the story at all. Certain open-world games try to keep you busy with a lot of optional content that just feels superfluous. Fallout 4 is a big offender of this. So much of the side-content in Fallout 4 just felt kind of lame. The game forces you to do a fair bit of it, such at the settlement building. Even if you don’t want to do it, the game makes you do it anyways.

I feel open-world games need more structure. Freedom is fine, but not if there’s too much freedom. That’s where games like Divinity II come into play. Divinity II balances its open-world structure by splitting its open-world between multiple zones. You’ll start in one area in the game, and move to other areas over the course of your playthrough. About 10 hours in, the game really opens up! Until this point, areas have been large, but not too large that it distracts from the plot.

Once you reach the third major area, you can basically do what you want! Plus, there are certain areas from past sections that you can return to. Another thing an open-world needs is that sense of discovery. When you’re playing a game like Kingdom of Amalur, you often don’t get that sense of discovery. As much as I love Amalur, it’s really just a single-player MMO. While it presents a truly massive world, most of the things that occur within it are pretty samey. Their aren’t as many secrets to discover, and bizarre creatures to battle as other games have.

Risen 1 is an open-world game that really surprised me. It packed its fairly large island with a ton of secrets, as well as tough enemies. I won’t forget the first time I faced down a Grave Moth and heard that terrifying shriek! Risen 1 is a game that has more problems than a grade 12 Math test, but it’s definitely more fun than it has any right to be.

So in short, I think what the perfect open-world RPG needs is:

  1. An open-world that opens up to the player gradually, instead of shoving a massive landscape to explore in your face at the start.
  2. An open-world that doesn’t revolve around the player, but instead has them as an active part of said world.
  3. A world that feels real and is packed with meaningful side content and characters.
  4. A good attention to detail, and a ton of lore and nifty little secrets to back it up.

Of course, there is a ton of other factors involved, including having good graphics and great gameplay. I think the open-world in an open-world game is just as important as the gameplay, at least in my opinion. I know that no game will ever have that perfect “open-world experience” I crave. Still, several games come close.

One thing I’d like to touch on that really annoys me with open-world games is that too many series are going open world. You have Toukiden, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Fallout. Yeah, I get that people love open-world experiences, but not every series needs to transition into that. I think it worked well for Toukiden, while the other games definitely had some dry periods.  Still, these games do bring a lot of enjoyment to the table. However, I think open-world games need to start balancing their wealth of content with a more quality experience. In my eyes, an open-world should focus on being one thing and one thing alone: An actual world.


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