An open world is a type of video game level design where a player can roam freely through a virtual world and is given considerable freedom in choosing how or when to approach objectives. The term free roam is also used, as is sandbox and free-roaming. "Open world" and "free-roaming" suggest the absence of artificial barriers, in contrast to the invisible walls and loading screens that are common in linear level designs. An "open world" game does not necessarily imply a true sandbox. In a true "sandbox", the player has tools to modify the world themselves and create how they play. Generally open world games still enforce many restrictions in the game environment, either due to absolute technical limitations or in-game limitations (such as locked areas) imposed by a game's linearity.
Gameplay and design
An open world is a level or game designed as a nonlinear, vast open area with many ways to reach an objective. Some games are designed with both traditional and open world levels. An open world facilitates greater exploration than a series of smaller levels, or a level with more linear challenges. Reviewers have judged the quality of an open world based on whether there are interesting ways for the player to interact with the broader level when they ignore their main objective. Some games actually use real settings to model an open world, such as New York City.
A major design challenge is to balance the freedom of an open world with the structure of a dramatic storyline. Since players may perform actions that the game designer did not expect, the game's writers must find creative ways to impose a storyline on the player without interfering with their freedom. As such, games with open worlds will sometimes break the game's story into a series of missions, or have a much simpler storyline altogether. Other games instead offer side-missions to the player that do not disrupt the main storyline. Most open world games make the character a blank slate that players can project their own thoughts onto, although several games such as Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole offer more character development and dialogue. Writing in 2005, David Braben described the narrative structure of current videogames as "little different to the stories of those Harold Lloyd films of the 1920s", and considered genuinely open-ended stories to be the "Holy Grail we are looking for in fifth generation gaming".
Games with open worlds typically give players infinite lives or continues, although games like Blaster Master force the player to start from the beginning should they die too many times. There is also a risk that players may get lost as they explore an open world; thus designers sometimes try to break the open world into manageable sections.
Procedural generation and emergence
Procedural generation refers to content generated algorithmically rather than manually, and is often used to generate game levels and other content. While procedural generation does not guarantee that a game or sequence of levels are nonlinear, it is an important factor in reducing game development time, and opens up avenues making it possible to generate larger and more or less unique seamless game worlds on the fly and using fewer resources. This kind of procedural generation is also called "worldbuilding", in which general rules are used to construct a believable world.
Most 4X and roguelike games make use of procedural generation to some extent to generate game levels. SpeedTree is an example of a developer-oriented tool used in the development of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and aimed at speeding up the level design process. Procedural generation also made it possible for the developers of Elite, David Braben and Ian Bell, to fit the entire game—including thousands of planets, dozens of trade commodities, multiple ship types and a plausible economic system—into less than 22 kilobytes of memory.
Emergence refers to complex situations in a video game that emerge (either expectedly or unexpectedly) from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics. According to Peter Molyneux, emergent gameplay appears wherever a game has a good simulation system that allows players to play in the world and have it respond realistically to their actions. It is what made SimCity and The Sims compelling to players. Similarly, being able to freely interact with the city's inhabitants in Grand Theft Auto added an extra dimension to the series.
In recent years game designers have attempted to encourage emergent play by providing players with tools to expand games through their own actions. Examples include in-game web browsers in EVE Online and The Matrix Online; XML integration tools and programming languages in Second Life; shifting exchange rates in Entropia Universe; and the complex object-and-grammar system used to solve puzzles in Scribblenauts. Other examples of emergence include interactions between physics and artificial intelligence. One challenge that remains to be solved, however, is how to tell a compelling story using only emergent technology.
In an op-ed piece for BBC News, David Braben, co-creator of Elite, called truly open-ended game design "The Holy Grail" of modern video gaming, citing games like Elite and the Grand Theft Auto series as early steps in that direction. Peter Molyneux has also stated that he believes emergence (or emergent gameplay) is where video game development is headed in the future. He has attempted to implement open-world gameplay to a great extent in some of his games, particularly Black & White and Fable.
Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, developed by Richard Garriot at Origin Systems, and released in 1981, is perhaps the first true open-world computer game. The third game in the same series, Ultima III: Exodus, further expanded on the open-world concepts of the original, and introduced other modes of transportation, such as horses and boats, which could be considered early examples of sandbox game-play.
The space simulator Elite is often credited with pioneering the open world game concept in 1984. There were several early games that offered players the ability to explore an open world while driving a variety of ground vehicles. New York City (1984), Miami Vice and later APB (1987) expanded this format, while Turbo Esprit (1986) provided a rear-view 3D free-roaming city environment, and has been cited as a major influence on Grand Theft Auto. Hunter (1991) has been described as the first sandbox game to feature full 3D, third-person graphics.
Released in Japan in 1986, the first Legend of Zelda is considered an early example of open world. With nonlinear gameplay, it set the foundations for later action-adventure games like Metroid and role-playing video games like Final Fantasy, while influencing most modern games in general. Wasteland, released in 1988 by Interplay Productions, is another important pioneer in open-world game-play. The game features a large open world, where the player's actions have a permanent and persistent effect, keeping areas in the state that the player leaves them in. It had a non-linear game-play, where the player could explore much of the world from the beginning, and tackle quests and missions in any order, with the quests often having multiple possible solutions. The player also has the ability to interact with the world in other ways, using tools like ropes and shovels, to progress; an early example of true sand-box style game-play.
Sierra On-Line's 1992 adventure game King's Quest VI has an open world. Almost half of the quests are optional, many have multiple solutions, and players can solve most in any order. Maps in Quarantine (1994) featured many locations where missions could be picked up and also popularized the drive-by shooting tactic by using the Uzi to shoot out from the side windows. Nintendo's Super Mario 64 (1996) was considered revolutionary for its 3D open-ended free-roaming worlds, which had rarely been seen in 3D games before, along with its analog stick controls and camera control. Other early 3D examples include the Legend of Zelda games Ocarina of Time (1998) and Majora's Mask (2000), the DMA Design (Rockstar North) game Body Harvest (1998), the Angel Studios (Rockstar San Diego) games Midtown Madness (1999) and Midnight Club: Street Racing (2000), the Reflections Interactive (Ubisoft Reflections) game Driver (1999), and the Rareware games Banjo-Kazooie (1998), Donkey Kong 64 (1999), and Banjo-Tooie (2000).
Sega's ambitious adventure game Shenmue (1999) was a major step forward for 3D open-world gameplay, and considered the originator of the "open city" subgenre, touted as a "FREE" ("Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment") game offering an unparalleled level of player freedom, giving them full rein to explore an expansive sandbox city with its own day-night cycles, changing weather, and fully voiced non-player characters going about their daily routines. The game's large interactive environments, wealth of options, level of detail and the scope of its urban sandbox exploration has been compared to later sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto III and its sequels, Sega's own Yakuza series, Fallout 3, and Deadly Premonition. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl was developed by GSC Game World in 2007, followed by two other games, a prequel and a sequel. The free world style of the zone was divided into huge maps, like sectors, and the player can go from one sector to another, depending on required quests or just by choice.
The series that had the greatest cultural impact was Grand Theft Auto, with over 125 million sales. Grand Theft Auto III combined elements from previous games, and fused them together into a new immersive 3D experience that helped define open-world gaming for a new generation. For instance, radio stations had been implemented earlier in games such as Sega's Out Run (1986) and Maxis' SimCopter (1996), open-ended missions based on operating a taxi cab in a sandbox environment were the basis for Sega's Crazy Taxi (1999), the ability to beat or kill non-player characters date back to titles such as Portopia (1983), Hydlide II (1985) Final Fantasy Adventure (1991), and various light gun shooters, and the way in which players run over pedestrians and get chased by police has been compared to Pac-Man (1980). After the release of Grand Theft Auto III, many games which employed a 3D open world, such as Ubisoft's Watch_Dogs and Deep Silver's Saints Row series, were labeled, often disparagingly, as Grand Theft Auto clones, much as how many early first-person shooters were called "Doom clones". Another well-known open world game is Minecraft, which has sold over 17,123,559 copies for the PC, Mac, and Linux.
Furthermore, there were several early games that offered players the ability to explore an open world while driving a variety of ground vehicles. Turbo Esprit provided a 3D free-roaming city environment in 1986 and has been cited as a major influence on Grand Theft Auto. TX-1 (1983), The Battle-Road (1984) and Out Run (1986) were non-linear driving games that allowed the player to drive through multiple different paths that lead to different possible routes and final destinations. Many of main arcade-style racing (as opposed to simulation) series had done open-world games by the 2010s.
However, Grand Theft Auto was neither the first, nor the last open-world game. Another notable example is the Elder Scrolls series of games, which feature an increasingly large and exceptionally diverse world offering enough tasks and possibilities to play for hundreds of hours despite the availability of zero-time fast-travelling.
In 2011, Dan Ryckert of Game Informer wrote that open world crime games were "a major force" in the gaming industry for the preceding decade.
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