Recently, I’ve been playing Mad Max. I’m enjoying the combat, the driving, and the story so far (I’m about 2/3 of the way through the main story). However, the game falls down because of its ‘ubisoft’ open world format. This got me thinking, because I like the main mechanics a lot, but the arbitrary nature of the content gating and the slow progression for my car almost undermine them, and keep reminding me that I’m just playing a game, not exploring a wasteland. I’m calling these ‘checklist games’.
It is easy to write off these games as just not being deep or fun enough to maintain their long play time, but I don’t think it is that simple. Far Cry 4 is an example, which I did manage to get to the end of, and it didn’t take me all that long to beat, but suffered from the same problem. The main mechanics are fun, there is a lot to do, but again, the stuff I’m being told to do feels kind of arbitrary. Nothing about the game is broken, but I can’t help but feel like it is hard work staying motivated.
I feel like this is because of the checklist nature of the game. Take an example in the other direction, Fallout 3. In my opinion fallout 3 isn’t that much more complicated than far cry. The features aren’t the same of course, but both are open world, both have lots of optional stuff, and both are systems driven. However, in Fallout, I would stumble across new raider camps or whatever that would then become missions for me to do or ignore, it was up to me. In Far Cry, I climb up a tower and am then given a huge number of map icons which act as my todo list. In both games, a lot of the quests will be cookie cutter, filler type quests. But in Fallout, I never felt like I was being given a list of things that I was supposed to be doing. It is an open world, so let us choose how we interact with it.
Although this is probably best talking about separately, it also reminds me of achievements, and really player rewards in general. If a game becomes a todo list of achievements, that can undermine the fact that the game is meant to be fun in and of itself. Games should be intrinsically rewarding, so take care that your progression system, even if it is secondary, doesn’t cause the ‘checklist’ problem.
The takeaway here is this. Assuming that your game is fun and has solid mechanics (it does I’m sure) and you want the game to be open, don’t put another layer on top that controls the player progression. Open games, not just open world necessarily, but open progression games, should keep this in mind all the way through its design. You can do this through other means, like difficulty, having quests change the world, or narrative created gating (like the initial plateau in BOTW).
Also, it is okay to let people miss things. Open games should be about discovery. Mad Max has a massive world full of camps, towers, snipers and scrap to beef up your car. But one quick trip in a balloon (the games version of a tower) fills up the map with every detail, essentially rendering the open world pointless. Exploration is gone, replaced with just some driving between points, following a mini map. I should be scanning the horizon, checking out plumes of smoke or interesting signs around the world, but I just zone out and look at the map for a few minutes, and long drives are a chore.
Or, if you want to make sure that everyone plays all of the content because it suits your game better, just make it linear. Linear games are still relevant, and can still include side quests!