Why are Open World games like Horizon Zero Dawn boring?

I’m Kinglink and let’s talk about open-world games for a bit and why they have been bothering me recently.  This is more of a rant than normal, but I think there’s a big problem that doesn’t get discussed.

When Horizon: Zero Dawn was released in August of last year I rushed to play it right after Death Stranding, and in that review, I talked about some thoughts about the open-world format of the game and how it didn’t really feel necessary.  

At that point, I was burnt out on open-world games and took a break that lasted maybe a month at most.  There’s a lot of open-world games out there, and it’s a category that doesn’t seem to be slowing down.  It seems that a lot of companies are thinking everything needs to be in an open-world.

This video isn’t intended to be “Stop making open-world games.” Horizon: Zero Dawn was enjoyable, and while that topic could be made, I think we need to talk about why these open-world games aren’t working as well, or just becoming tiresome.  

I started to think about this topic again when I was playing Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.  Again, a very good game, I love Respawn Entertainment, but it was another one where, the open-world aspects of the game, really didn’t reach me.  I finished the game and had no desire to explore more.  I put the idea aside and played more games.

The tipping point for this topic was Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst.  Like many people I enjoyed the original Mirror’s Edge, and why wouldn’t I want to play a sequel to something I enjoyed.  Yes the gun combat was bad, but that was supposed to be fixed in the sequel, so… for ten bucks I took the plunge. 

I don’t have a huge surprise.  the numerous people calling Catalyst inferior were correct.  This doesn’t live up to the original Mirror’s Edge.  It has a few good moments, though most of the best moments occurred inside the linear missions of the game. A big change with the Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is that instead of a simple level-based game, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is now an open-world.  And technically I’ve heard it’s not an open-world, it’s free-roaming.  This isn’t about semantics. 

I want to start this with Mirror’s Edge because I think it is a perfect example of the key problem of the open-world format and how it’s applied.  Mirror’s Edge Catalyst does the normal approach to the open-world format where the map is packed full of content, and you know that’s what a lot of people look for.  There’s tons of content that you can chase down including multiple collectibles, bonuses, side missions, and more.   This is what I would expect from an open-world game.

But once I started to chase down the side content, I noticed a problem.  Every time I would get an item I would quickly see some XP thrown at the player and that was it.  You can’t even look at the objects you’re collecting.  They just exist to be interacted with and then forgotten.  You grab a computer chip and… That’s it.  Like what’s the point of any of this content outside of a way to grind for experience points.  

I’ve said this multiple times, in general, outside of the RPG genre and even in the RPG genre, I don’t like to think about “levels” because they’re a design construct rather than a part of the game world.  Or put simply, what does a level 2 character actually look like?   No one knows because they don’t exist.

Having the entire open-world revolve around leaderboards and experience points as the main draw for doing side content starts to get boring.  The fact that Mirror’s Edge Catalyst has over 700 collectibles, only half will ever appear on the map and even those at the end of the game is just too much. 

There are a few good collectibles, known as the Secret bags, which require the player to pull off some great moves, but for the rest of the open-world, it’s run around an area and find something on a wall, or find something on the floor that’s interactable.  

This is a huge open-world, but it’s a world that doesn’t feel like it has a purpose to be an open-world, and then it’s filled with content because.. that’s what an open-world is. 

Sure, some people are going to say that’s just Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst which wasn’t a great game.  So let’s kick this up a notch.

Why does Horizon: Zero Dawn do much of the same thing?  Ok, hold up keyboard warriors.  Let me be clear.  I’m not saying Horizon: Zero Dawn is a bad game.  I enjoyed Horizon: Zero Dawn quite a bit, but the open-world aspects of Horizon: Zero Dawn is….for the most part extremely weak. 

The mission structure in Horizon: Zero Dawn is extremely good and progresses a good story forward.  I’ll even mention that the side missions are at least interesting and unique experiences.   The cauldron missions are good, though could be better at times, and there are even a couple of interesting collectibles that are at the end of challenging platforming paths.

With that praise given, so much of the open-world in Horizon: Zero Dawn isn’t mentioned there.  This game is littered with errands, collectibles and even having the old Ubisoft standard of tower missions in the form of moving creatures. 

None of this on its own is awful, but so much of it made me question why.   Even the towers themselves have minimal use, as the player can explore the map naturally.  And then we get into why my Aloy is collecting a bunch of stuff that doesn’t matter.  

The common response is “if you don’t like it, don’t do the optional content”.  I’d love to be able to do just the main path, but I also would love to see everything the game offers and not feel like a large amount of it is just mindless.  Of course, not doing the side content is also not leveling up, because much of the side content will give you levels and advancement that your player needs to be competitive since we’re in a level-based game.  In open-world games, it feels like at least half the content or at least playtime is everything outside the main story. 

Horizon: Zero Dawn will let you look at some of the stuff you find and it’s interesting, but at the end of the day, you’ll probably collect it either because of some level of OCD, you’re a trophy hunter, or the game dangles a reward over your head. 

In this case, that reward is just another generic loot crate that Horizon: Zero Dawn relies on entirely too often.  In fact, that’s also a reason that the side missions in Horizon: Zero Dawn end on such a disappointing note. You complete one and get experience and randomized loot, just what you always wanted.

So what about Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.  Again, I am a huge fan of this game, and I think Fallen Order has excellent world-building and great locations that are fun to play through the first time.  The enemies are interesting and by the end of the game, I felt a good progression for my character. 

But once again I’m going to call out the open-world.  And sure, some people might say Fallen Order, not an open-world, we can call it a Dark Souls-esque game, or a Metroidvania, but Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order has players backtrack around areas that they’ve already explored and to find new chests, and secrets.

Secrets in Fallen Order are upgrades to the player’s health, force power, or stim canisters, which if you haven’t played Fallen Order, that is just their version of the Estus Flask.  Chests however are simply customizations and while it’s great that EA didn’t sell customizations through microtransactions, collecting them really feels pointless after beating the game. 

But again trying to find these items are mostly just returning to areas you’ve been through potentially two or three times and finding something with your new powers.  It’s a lot of busywork, and the experience of finding a new chest or a new location isn’t exciting, especially for the level of customization here.  It’s all color schemes and materials that appear on a boring list.

Even if you don’t want to call this an open-world.  Souls games and Metroidvania will hide valuable items whether they be weapons or items that you can use to improve your character.  In Jedi: Fallen Order, you change your poncho color.  It’s a shame. 

I wanted to point out three games that just bothered me in the same way.  But this is probably just a sign I don’t enjoy open-world games.  Except that’s not true.  

I really enjoyed Grand Theft Auto 5, The open-world parts of Red Dead Redemption 2, Skyrim, Witcher 3, Spider-man, and so many more.  So what is different here?. 

Well, let’s use Grand Theft Auto 5 and see what they do with their open-world.  I mean it’s a huge game with a ton of content and yet there’s always something to do.  You have three different characters and… you know what.  No.  Let’s do something else. 

So some of you may already know that I actually worked in the video game industry for 12 years.  I shipped about ten titles in that time, and they did well.   The first title I worked on was an open-world title and I haven’t talked about my personal work that much on the channel, but let’s break that rule. 

So, If you don’t recognize the game on the screen, well damn, but this is Saints Row 2.  One of the games I’m most proud of working on and honestly, it’s a great game in a great franchise  The PC port wasn’t amazing, but that’s … a long story about a company that has never had any problems with a release after that point. 

I’ll also say, having not played this game in probably 12 years, its a little rougher than I remembered.  It’s still fun at times, I’m very proud of my work on it, but there are definitely some nostalgia goggles on for my memories.

Anyways, I worked on Saints Row 2 on the activities and diversions team, as well as doing work on the UI and multiplayer gameplay over the course of the entire project. We’re going to focus on just how the open-world works this week. 

A lot of work went into making the open-world aspects of Saints Row 2 fun.  Fun was the keyword of every part of Saints Row 2, and it was important because if something was not enjoyable we weren’t going to ship it. 

We actually had more employees working on just the side content than worked on the main missions.  A big piece of the design process we used was not focusing on the length of the game or looking to get a specific amount of content but rather spending a lot of time on getting a ton of activities to be really solid and then shipping those.  The original plan was to have over 24 activities each with 3 levels.  Though, the amount of time to make each of those activities work would have been huge.  Instead, there are 14 activities each having two locations with 6 missions each. 

So much of Saints Row 2’s design process was trying to make the game more enjoyable and fun.  Usually, that was done by being as over the top as we could, such as in Septic Avenger.  Jesus, did we really do this?  I love spraying feces.   That’s my new channel tagline. 

Each activity was evaluated as if it was the main game.  The goal was to make people want to play the side activities because they were engaging, interesting, and fun, not because we had a respect system that required it.  The respect system only got players to try out the side content and as a completely biased opinion of someone who had to play these activities more times than I should… I think we succeeded.  I know when I play Saints Row 2, I end up beating all the activities before I even play the story.   

There’s a benefit to playing or beating any activity outside of the cash and respect systems.  If you beat three levels in an activity, you get a bonus, and beating all six gives an improved version of the bonus.  Then you can do the same on the other location for the activity. 

That’s not even mentioning the diversions, another section I spent a lot of my time working on.  These are smaller events that can be anything from nut shots to stunts while driving cars, streaking, or even a small Zombie mini-game that I remember working on.   

There was a point in development that we had so much side content, someone in a milestone meeting jokingly shouted out that we should call the game Saints Row 2: Shit to Do.  Everyone laughed and for much of the rest of the development cycle, we kept mentioning it, because it was true.  But the fact is everything was designed with a purpose or to keep rewarding the player for doing almost anything.  Simple positive reinforcement.

I think Shit To Do has become a mantra of the open world genre, but it’s not a joke, but rather a goal of just giving the player large amounts of tasks, and not really worrying about the quality as much. 

Truthfully not everything in Saints Row 2 or any of the Saints Row games are perfect, but at least a large amount of this content is both enjoyable and rewarding, and I think that’s where I get bogged down with these other games. 

So what should each of these games avoid?

For Fallen Order, backtracking and running through levels to find collectibles that don’t even reward the player with anything other than something to look at or a color change gets very repetitive.  Even getting more life force or force power isn’t a major upgrade after you get a decent amount. 

Similarly, while the Side Missions in Horizon: Zero Dawn are really good, the rewards are extremely weak, and the thing is Horizon: Zero Dawn could have taken the skills themselves and made them rewards.  Or even tied in Caldron rewards to the Side Quests somehow.   The Errands on the other hand just feel like fetch quests that would have been in old MMORPG.  Go kill twelve rats and bring me their tails.  Honestly, games should avoid fetch quests, the same way they should avoid QTEs and microtransactions. 

And Mirror’s edge.  Yeah, I mean collectibles suck especially when there’s no purpose, and it’s something I’m noticing a lot of games leaning into.  The original Grand Theft Auto 3 had 100 collectibles, now it seems like games are throwing at least 500 collectibles at players because they think more is better, but in general, collectibles are busywork, and really should be toned down. 

Worse, collectibles are being treated like major content rather than a secret side activity, and it’s just not that fun to go collect dots on a map, and that’s assuming you can even see them on the map.

Just give players more unique and well thought out contents, or at least rewards players might enjoy.  It’s not easy to come up with new solutions here, but games succeed, Even tying the collectibles into powers, like Saints Row 4 did, or Infamous helps a lot.  While it’s not an open-world game, the challenge skulls in Halo are unique and well done.  These are so much more impactful than only getting a trophy after collecting some large number of similar objects. 

Of course, I’m also a huge fan of Burnout Paradise, which is a really strange open-world racing game, but their big set of collectibles were signs you have to smash, big jumps, and markers for hidden paths.  Not a bad choice,  Criterion Software.  Entirely too many of them in the world, as anyone will tell you, but they are absolutely fun to collect and their online challenge system was great too.

You also can stuff your game full of bite-sized content.  I’ve talked about how much I love Yakuza, and one of the reasons is there’s so much unique content in the game.  I may never complete a Yakuza game 100 percent because you tend to have to play Mahjong and I’m not a fan… yet.   It’s on my to-do list.  But that’s not a problem for a Yakuza game, because there are many other side activities and none of them really overstay their welcome that much.  

Basically, I just think anyone making an open-world game should focus more on making the game great, and not worrying about hitting some metric of the number of hidden doodads, or time spent. Fans seem to accept open-world games because the main game is fun and people tell them how long it takes them to do everything, but then don’t really give much thought about if the open-world format has worked for each game, or what rewards they are earning for completing the side content. Making a fun game is hard enough, but I think there’s much more to consider when talking about the open-world genre. 

Or maybe I’m just thinking too much about this stuff.   So what about all of you.  Do you spend any time thinking about if the side content of a game is worthy of your time?  Or what open-world games do the genre justice, or fail to have compelling open-worlds?  Yeah, it’s probably just me.

That’s what I had for this week, I know it’s a bit of a rant, but it’s also a problem I continue seeing.  I’ve seen people defend this practice online citing this is what open-world games are now, and talking about how many open-world games have these rather weak open-world formats, usually citing Ubisoft and the hundred different variations on the same formula.  

But the thing is Ubisoft is able to crank out all those games because they aren’t spending time to develop their open worlds and just are using a very similar blueprint for them all. 

That doesn’t mean we can’t expect or demand more from the open-world format and it’s kind of obvious that a better-crafted game will take longer rather than being on a production line.  There are great open-world games, all I’m saying is we should hold them to a slightly higher standard than what the company that is mass producing them can turn out three times a year. 

If you like this video, consider subscribing, that’s always helpful and who knows maybe one day soon I’ll dive back into my old work and do more of a critique of games I’ve worked on.  If you want to be the first to hear about that or any other videos I do, ring the bell, it’s the best way to get notified. 

I’ll pop up two videos here’s like always, my Horizon: Zero Dawn Review, and you know what?  I’ll pop up an old Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Review.  Because if we’re going to talk about weak open-worlds, maybe we should talk about Ubisoft. 

Until then. I’m Kinglink and thanks for watching. 

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