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Open world, free roam, or (more loosely) sandbox are terms for video games where a player can move freely through a virtual world and is given considerable freedom in regard to how and when to approach particular objectives, as opposed to other video games that have a more linear structure to their gameplay.
Video games with open or free-roaming worlds typically lack the invisible walls and loading screens that are common in linear level designs. Generally, open world games still enforce many restrictions in the game environment, either because of absolute technical limitations or in-game limitations imposed by a game's linearity. Examples of high level of autonomy in computer games can be found in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) or in single-player games adhering to the open world concept such as the Fallout series. The main appeal of open world gameplay is that they provide a simulated reality and allow players to develop their character and its behavior in the direction of their choosing. In these cases, there is often no concrete goal or end to the game.
Some popular and most recent games implementing this include: Xenoblade Chronicles X, Final Fantasy XV, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Watch Dogs 2, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, Grand Theft Auto V and Minecraft.
Gameplay and design
An open world is a level or game designed as nonlinear, open areas 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.
The overworld concept has been cited as a precursor to the open world game concept. The role-playing game Ultima, released in 1981, had an overworld. However, the overworlds of the first five Ultima games, released from 1981 to 1988, were not to scale. The same was true for Mugen no Shinzou (Heart of Fantasy), released in 1984, and the first three Dragon Quest games, released from 1986 to 1988 in Japan. The 1983 first-person adventure game, The Portopia Serial Murder Case, featured a non-linear open world. The space simulator Elite is often credited as an early pioneer of the open world game concept in 1984.
The action role-playing game Hydlide (1984) was an early open world game, rewarding exploration in an open world environment. Hylide's open world design went on to influence The Legend of Zelda (1986), which has been cited as another early example of open world design. In turn, Zelda influenced the Origin Systems titles Times of Lore (1988) and Ultima VI (1990), which replaced the unscaled overworld of its predecessors with a constant-scale open world. Times of Lore also inspired Ultima VII (1992), which in turn went on to influence The Elder Scrolls series.
Mercenary (1985) was the first open world 3D action-adventure game. Wasteland, released in 1988 by Interplay Productions, is also considered an open-world game. The game features an 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. Hunter (1991) has been described as the first sandbox game to feature full 3D, third-person graphics.
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 Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon (1997), 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.
The series that had the greatest cultural impact was Grand Theft Auto, with over 200 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. The game's executive producer, Sam Houser, described it as "Zelda meets Goodfellas". Radio stations had been implemented earlier in games such as Sega's Out Run (1986) and Maxis' SimCopter (1996), the ability to beat or kill non-player characters date back to titles such 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".
The popular Assassin's Creed series, which began in 2007, allows players to explore historic open world settings. These include the Holy Land during the Crusades, Renaissance Rome, New England during the American Revolution, the Caribbean during The Golden Age of Piracy, Paris during the French Revolution, and London at the height of the Industrial Revolution. The series intertwines factual history with a fictional storyline. In the fictional storyline, the Templars and the Assassins have been mortal enemies for all of known history. Their conflict stems from the Templars' desire to have peace through control, which directly contrasts the Assassins' wish for peace with free will. Their fighting influences much of history, as the sides often back real historical forces. For example, during the American Revolution depicted in Assassin's Creed 3, the Templars support the British, while the Assassins side with the American colonists.
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.
Many arcade-style racing game series had done open-world games by the 2010s.
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.
Watch Dogs (unrelated to Sleeping Dogs) is a third-person, dystopian-style game set in a lifelike version of Chicago. The government of Chicago has implemented a citywide Central Operating System, or "ctOS", which controls much of the city and is connected to every electronic device. The game grants the player, a grey hat hacker, the ability to use a smartphone to hack the ctOS. This includes city structures, such as drawbridges, traffic lights, barriers, subways, and steam pipes, as well as personal devices, through which money and information can be gained.
The Outerra Engine is a world rendering engine in development since 2008 that is capable of seamlessly rendering whole planets from space down to ground level. Anteworld is a world-building game and free tech-demo of the Outerra Engine that builds up on real world data to render planet Earth realistically on a true-to-life scale.
No Man's Sky, released in 2016, is a video game that features an open world universe. According to the developers, through procedural generation the game will be able to produce more than 18 quintillion (18*10^15 or 18,000,000,000,000,000) planets for players to explore. However, several critics found that the nature of the game can become repetitive and monotonous, with the survival gameplay elements being lackluster and tedious. As summarized by Jake Swearingen in New York, "You can procedurally generate 18.6 quintillion unique planets, but you can’t procedurally generate 18.6 quintillion unique things to do."
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