In video games, an open world is a virtual world in which the player can approach objectives freely, as opposed to a world with more linear and structured gameplay. While games have used open-world designs since the 1980s, the implementation in Grand Theft Auto III (2001) set a standard for the concept which has been used since.
Games with open or free-roaming worlds typically lack level structures like walls and locked doors, or the invisible walls in more open areas that prevent the player from venturing beyond them; only at the bounds of an open-world game will players be limited by geographic features like vast oceans or impassable mountains. Players typically do not encounter loading screens common in linear level designs when moving about the game world, with the open-world game using strategic storage and memory techniques to load the game world in a dynamic and seamless manner. 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.
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 video games 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". Gameplay designer Manveer Heir, who worked on Mass Effect 3 and Mass Effect Andromeda for Electronic Arts, said that there are difficulties in the design of an open-world game since it is difficult to predict how players will approach solving gameplay challenges offered by a design, in contrast to a linear progression, and needs to be a factor in the game's development from its onset. Heir opined that some of the critical failings of Andromeda were due to the open world being added late in development.
Some open-world games, to guide the player towards major story events, do not provide the world's entire map at the start of the game, but require the player to complete a task to obtain part of that map, often identifying missions and points of interest when they view the map. This has been derogatorily referred to as "Ubisoft towers", as this mechanic was promoted in Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series (the player climbing a large tower as to observe the landscape around it and identify waypoints nearby) and reused in other Ubisoft games, including Far Cry, Might & Magic X: Legacy and Watch Dogs. Other games that use this approach include Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Rockstar games like GTA IV and the Red Dead Redemption series lock out sections of the map as "barricaded by law enforcement" until a specific point in the story has been reached.
Games with open worlds typically give players infinite lives or continues, although some 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. The scope of open-world games requires the developer to fully detail every possible section of the world the player may be able to access, unless methods like procedural generation are used. The design process, due to its scale, may leave numerous game world glitches, bugs, incomplete sections, or other irregularities that players may find and potentially take advantage of. The term "open world jank" has been used to apply to games where the incorporation of the open world gameplay elements may be poor, incomplete, or unnecessary to the game itself such that these glitches and bugs become more apparent, though are generally not game-breaking, such as the case for No Man's Sky near its launch.
The mechanics of open-world games are often overlapped with ideas of sandbox games, but these are considered different terms. Whereas open world refers to the lack of limits for the player's exploration of the game's world, sandbox games are based on the ability of giving the player tools for creative freedom within the game to approach objectives, if such objectives are present. For example, Microsoft Flight Simulator is an open-world game as one can fly anywhere within the mapped world, but is not considered a sandbox game as there are few creative aspects brought into the game.
The combination of open world and sandbox mechanics can lead towards emergent gameplay, complex reactions 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 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 emergent gameplay to a great extent in some of his games, particularly Black & White and Fable.
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 is 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 known as worldbuilding, in which general rules are used to construct a believable world.
There is no consensus on what the earliest open-world game is, due to differing definitions of how large or open a world needs to be. Inverse provides some early examples games that established elements of the open world: Jet Rocket, a 1970 Sega electro-mechanical arcade game that, while not a video game, predated the flight simulator genre to give the player free roaming capabilities, and dnd, a 1975 text-based adventure game for the PLATO system that offered non-linear gameplay. Ars Technica traces the concept back to the free-roaming exploration of 1976 text adventure game Colossal Cave Adventure, which inspired the free-roaming exploration of Adventure (1980), but notes that it was not until 1984 that what "we now know as open-world gaming" took on a "definite shape" with 1984 space simulator Elite, considered a pioneer of the open world; Gamasutra argues that its open-ended sandbox style is rooted in flight simulators, such as SubLOGIC's Flight Simulator (1979/1980), noting most flight sims "offer a 'free flight' mode that allows players to simply pilot the aircraft and explore the virtual world". Others trace the concept back to 1981 CRPG Ultima, which had a free-roaming overworld map inspired by tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons. The overworld maps of the first five Ultima games, released up to 1988, lacked a single, unified scale, with towns and other places represented as icons; this style was adopted by the first three Dragon Quest games, released from 1986 to 1988 in Japan.
According to Game Informer's Kyle Hilliard, Hydlide (1984) and The Legend of Zelda (1986) were among the first open-world games, along with Ultima. IGN traces the roots of open-world game design to The Legend of Zelda, which it argues is "the first really good game based on exploration", while noting that it was anticipated by Hydlide, which it argues is "the first RPG that rewarded exploration". According to GameSpot, never "had a game so open-ended, nonlinear, and liberating been released for the mainstream market" with The Legend of Zelda. According to The Escapist, The Legend of Zelda was an early example of open-world, nonlinear gameplay, with an expansive and cohesive world, inspiring many games to adopt a similar open-world design. 041b061a72