Agoraphobia: The Decline of Open World Games

Over the past decade or so, the Open World format has steadily increased its penetration of the video game scene; starting with role-playing games whose nature included such vastness and openness in the game world like The Elder Scrolls series, eventually the number of new games with Open World sensibilities increased noticeably, and existing series began to adopt those features as well.

More linear games like Metal GearFar Cry and the Arkham series of Batman games developed from being fairly straightforward, guided experiences into what we saw in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom PainFar Cry 3 and 4, and Batman: Arkham City and Arkham Knight. The reason should hardly surprise anyone – it’s the supply to the audience’s demand. My argument, however, is that the tide is well on its way to turning around, changing the landscape of Triple-A games in the next few years.

Bethesda released the much anticipated The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion in early 2006, nearly 10 years ago now. That game was something a lot of people had never even imagined before, let alone seen, and it wasn’t until that time that a lot of gamers were exposed to the idea of an actual, functioning open world game. That’s not to say Oblivion was anywhere near the first game of this kind, but it certainly pushed the format into the larger consciousness.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, launched about 4 years prior, can be considered the breakout title of the franchise, but the actual game was arguably more divisive. Oblivion‘s accessibility and overall pleasing visuals enticed a lot of players who would have found Morrowind awkward to play, unimpressive to look at, or otherwise off-putting. With these two titles, Bethesda had all but proven that Open World is a feasible format, and that they were currently the ones to go to for that kind of experience.

It would certainly stay that way for quite a while. In 2008, Bethesda shifted from high fantasy into something quite different, with their newly-acquired Fallout franchise. The game itself was essentially a post-apocalyptic, soft-scifi version of Oblivion, but it did showcase Open World sensibilities in a new context. By this time, the term “Open World” was already familiar to the video game audience, and the concept constantly gained more and more popularity.

The Current Shifts

Fast forward to 2015, when several of the biggest games all year – Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom PainFallout 4The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Batman: Arkham Knight – were Open World games. At a glance, it would seem as if games that weren’t in the Open World format were the rare ones. It’s no wonder, then, that the term “Open World fatigue” has become more and more common in the gaming community.

Not only does the volume of Open World games subject the market to heavy saturation, but the essence of the games themselves are prone to taxing the actual gamers; a key feature (or symptom, depending on the way you look at it) in Open World games is the fact that they take a long time to beat, or even make significant progress in. While any other sort of game may take somewhere between 10 and 30 hours to complete to a player’s satisfaction, an Open World title is likely to consume over a hundred hours, often several hundred for more dedicated players. And that’s just for a single perfectionist playthrough.

A recent poll I put up on Twitter revealed that about 50% of my fellow gamers considered Open World fatigue a condition they were currently afflicted by. While this specific group of 50-odd people within my social media reach is hardly a basis for a definitive scientific conclusion, it still does show that this fatigue in fact does exist and affects a considerable amount of players.

As with most things – entertainment in particular – it’s only natural that the pendulum would eventually swing back, after trending towards the increased emphasis on Open World games for nearly ten years. I was actually a little surprised that Hideo Kojima decided to make Metal Gear Solid V as an Open World game, in the sense that he’s often ahead of such trends rather than following them. I suppose it’s possible that he didn’t quite have the financial and technological resources to make that kind of game until now – I can only assume he had this idea for a long time before The Phantom Pain.

The High Point

I haven’t played The Witcher 3 personally, but I’ve read and heard enough to know what kind of a game it is in context with the genre and other games of its like. I would argue that this game is, in fact, the specific tipping point in the Open World phenomenon: it is the game that went above and beyond what it was expected, and more importantly what anyone else had done with the concept. It was also the game that made players who usually would crave for more and more vastness of content gasp for air, unable to handle all that The Witcher 3 had to offer. Its content is said to be so dense that the feeling of progress is minimal at best. That’s sort of an extreme extent of what this format can do.

I’m not saying The Witcher 3 would automatically turn the majority of players off Open World games. I’m not saying that next year, we won’t be seeing many Open World games either – last year was a lucrative one for that kind of releases, so publishers will still want more, as long as they’re profitable. But this year the profits will be smaller, and next year even smaller. There are players who aren’t fatigued, and those who are already taking a break and will return to Open World experiences a year or two from now, but the popularity is unlikely to reach the height it was at last year anytime soon.

I recently realized I’m not as big a fan of Open World games as I thought in the first place. I’ve been curious about them for the longest time, ever since falling in love with Morrowind, but I’ve just been craving that same kind of experience again and I haven’t got it. Part of it is because I’m grasping for something that’s basically impossible to engineer, seeing that game was something I wasn’t expecting at all, and something I had never seen before. Beyond that game, there aren’t really any Open World titles that I would love because of that openness. I like choice in role-playing games and the possibility of exploration in adventure games, but Open World is hardly a concept I need in games.

In the future, I’m not seeing a complete disappearance of the format or the features it has brought to game design philosophy. Instead, I’m anticipating new ways to utilize many mechanics that developers created for these games: Oblivion introduced a radial AI system, bringing life and schedules to NPCs; Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor brought us the “Nemesis” system, allowing for particular enemies to gain a unique relevance and personality of sorts; Metal Gear Solid V had gigantic maps that worked as a wholesome organism, allowing for enemies to interact believably across vast distances.

All of these features can be used in other kinds of games as well. Imagine a Metal Gear Solid kind of a game, where the equivalent of Shadow Moses Island would be one large cell, instead of being divided into several smaller ones; the enemies would communicate with each other through radio transmission wherever they are, and what you do at the Heliport would have an effect of what’s going on at the Blast Furnace. The Nemesis system could be utilized in a variety of ways in many kinds of games – specific enemies with unique, progressive personalities would bring an unprecedented  level of immersion into the game.

Games will be big and complex in the future just like they are now. But the peak of Open World games’ popularity has just been passed; while there may still be much demand for those by some, it will not likely be much more than a memory of 2015, as players and developers alike discover which elements really are important to making a good game, and implement those in new ways, bringing the industry into yet another age of innovation.


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