Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Open World Games

... They're very popular, these open world games. But I think it's worth considering their strengths and weaknesses rather than simply screaming "open world!" and spending ten million dollars on it.

The core idea of an open world game is that you can interact with the world in any way you see fit, rather than being stuck in some kind of linear mission progression. The truth is usually that you're stuck in a linear mission progression, but you can ignore it and go diddle around.

I don't like open world games.

Okay, that's really wrong. I love open world games. I love them so much that I hate them for falling short so much.

For example, Crackdown is an "open world game". You have the whole city. You can go anywhere you want. You can even take your starter pistol and baby-fat starting character over into ninjas-kill-you land. If you're good enough, you might even win. And the game can handle that.

The issue here is that this is not a simulationist open world. You can tackle the quests in whatever order you like, you can collect orbs, you can even fight the cops, but none of this stuff is terribly emergent or adaptive. Even the cops get tired of chasing you after a bit.

This is true of every modern open world game I've played, except maybe some of the roguelikes. GTA3 and Mass Effect are the same way, as simple examples: you can do the missions, you can explore the city/universe, and maybe you can play with the cops for a bit until you get bored.

There are things to do in the city - steal cars, do races, etc - but these are simply side missions scattered around the city just for kicks. They are scripted in, preprogrammed pieces that change nothing except, perhaps, your XP meter.

I find that these are a disappointment. I feel that an open world game should maybe be about THE WORLD. Hence, you know, "open WORLD".

Fable II offers a very basic glimpse into this kind of idea, although I only bring it up because it's recent: half the space-adventure games since 1993 have done the same thing. It's relatively easy to model the economy of a system if you ignore realism, so these games all have an economic system for you to open-worldly abuse.

The problem with these kinds of games is that I find them a bit unsatisfying. Once you've bought the city (or learned that buying the city will take all year and isn't worth it), what's the point? All of those stupid prescripted missions do have a purpose: they give the world texture and flavor. They make THIS planet different from the last one you landed on more than superficially.

But the missions are boring! Not only are they only minimally adaptive, they're not "open": the mission goes no deeper or shallower than scripted. For example, if I save a group of slaves from Plorbax the Grundarian, I'm generally given a good option (let them go, even though we're in the middle of a jungle full of fifty foot high monsters) or an evil option (usually, kill them. Occasionally, sell them).

I can't actually interact with these newly rescued people. I can't offer to schlep them back to their homeworlds, can't offer to make them my crew, can't try to date one of them, can't try to settle down in the jungle like the Robinsons, can't do anything.

Obviously, simulation of PEOPLE is a bit more difficult than simulating an economy, not least because we can't easily simplify people without losing what makes them interesting. It's a bit more difficult, yeah, like 'nobody's ever done it' difficult.


But what, I thought, if we're coming at this from the wrong angle. What if instead of trying to simulate the people, we just try to simulate the illusion of emergent behavior?

In my mind, the point of an open world game is that I am permitted to explore the universe as quickly or slowly as I see fit, in as much or as little detail as I wish.

Let's say that we build a typical open world with all its kajillion little side quests. But, instead of placing those side quests in the world, we leave them floating free in the database.

As the player explores our world, we can assign these side quests. So, he's trying to chat up someone on the street? Now she's the main character in the "I'm being chased by the mafia!" side quest. Going down a dark alley? Now it's the "out of control car!" alley side quest. Looking more closely at a corpse? Now it's the "mysterious letter in my pocket!" side quest.

Furthermore, using this method it would be easy to release supplements or mods, free or for a price, to instantly integrate into the world. You would keep the density down, obviously: you don't want every random passerby to hit up the player with a side quest, you don't want every new building to be a weird new situation: just the ones the player seems to show an interest in. It's also quite possible to string them together: while rescuing the slaves, you can take special interest in one and they will have a suitable side quest assigned, just as if they were an actual character with an actual, meaningful existence.

In addition I think this would permit a whole new set of "flavor" subquests. For example, if you're on top of a building, admiring the view, it could spawn the "side quest" for someone else admiring the view with you. There's no competition, no challenge, it just adds some targeted flavor to the world.

What do you think?


Ryan said...

I think that's a great idea! I'm not sure that it would fit everything and anything though.

For instance, if the player currently has nothing specific to do, then he's just going to be looking at everything to try and find a new mission. Conversely, if the player's got a time limit, (like in Fallout, but maybe a little bit tighter for time) then he's not going to want to waste time on a bunch of side quests.

I'm just guessing, but I think it might work best if the player is given a series of quests like "go to X" or "find my a sandwich", with sufficient probability of getting side-tracked into one of these random quests. For bonus points, you could make the end of the "story" quest somehow coincide with the random quests, if appropriate.

Craig Perko said...

Yeah, I didn't mean to suggest it was The Solution. But I think it is possible to create a game around this idea.

Daniel Benmergui said...

There are two things you said that I found interesting:

Flavor quests: I would absolutely love this. The consequences of the quest would be to change some character's life in some way.

About the "quest assignment"... I can picture Fallout 3 on this system. And it still sucks in my head. I imagine talking to one of the generic slaves until some obviously "triggered" quest pops up in the dialog tree... I'm not sure how this system adds...

Maybe the problem is the conversation system. Maybe it's the fact that there is conversation.

Craig Perko said...

I think that's a really important point. This system isn't one that can be plugged into a normal framework very easily, although I'm not sure it would be any more egregious than the way it's normally done.

It could probably be made vastly more subtle with some care, but it could also be left incredibly un-subtle if you design the game right. For example, if you play a muse or something, you can actively tag people, places, and things to receive side quests. Their sudden acquisition of a life is part of the gameplay.

I'm always open to the idea that dialog, itself, is a serious issue on a fundamental level. I think there's something wrong with trying to design an open-world/adaptive game that has dialog. Like trying to swallow an elephant whole.

Daniel Benmergui said...

Having played Fallout 3 recently, I still have fresh the best moments of the game:

* Being a baby and learning WASD with dad
* Walking with dad across the whole wasteland, which was unnecessary. We didn't talk. I just pretended I was watching his back (he's invulnerable).
* Letting my dog die under a Deathclaw. Sorry Dogmeat, we part right now. Good boy.
* Slaugthering the whole slaver's camp, ignoring any conversation and sidequest I might have had.
* Shooting the russian in the head after being warned about doing so.
* Walking nervously amongst ghouls, while wearing a mask that made me their buddy... most of the time.

All these have in common that either I couldn't talk, or the other one didn't talk. Of course, emergent (often bug-triggered) situations are always the most thrilling of any "open world" game. By FAR.

Maybe it's because the dialog generates a conversation with the designers and the story writer. I hate it when the story writers talk to me.

Craig Perko said...

On the other hand, Fable II's LACK of player dialog is a serious issue. It wouldn't be so bad if nobody else had dialog, but it plays out like a particularly clumsy reference to ChronoTrigger. I guess you're supposed to be able to fill your avatar with whatever characterization you prefer, but it just ends up making your character feel... fourth-wall-y.

It's important to manage your dialog (or lack of dialog) with an even hand.

Daniel Benmergui said...

mmmm... I haven't played Fable 2.

I played the first, and it's true that the characters were flat.

But maybe it was because they were flat. I mean, they slept and worked, and clapped when you showed up, but that's not very interesting.

Perhaps there were too many generated peasants, instead of people you feel are special enough to warrant making out your own story on your head...

Craig Perko said...

Yeah, "flooding" is very much an issue with most open world games.

Patrick said...

I'm currently trying to get at ways to do "people-fun" without involving heavy AI or scripted dialogue. It really depends on how you design the game. One design I'm working on involves two players in a relationship with only information about their net actions present, the other involves trying to manage to not be managed by a smothering school system loaded with mindless social automation. I may take an approach to content similar to what you describe here, though with a very different loading mechanic, of course. For School, it may be more similar to what you've described.

Bully was rather terrible wasn't it?

Craig Perko said...

It wasn't terrible, it was just painfully average.

To me, one of the many problems with dialog is that it's used only to convey information, and that information is usually pretty boring. Interesting, exciting information can be just as easily portrayed by SEEING it.

I'm not a huge fan of school-based games any more because there's usually no interesting information either way.

Greg Tannahill said...

I'm beginning to think that the problem with dialogue in Fable 2 wasn't so much that there wasn't any, but that the poses you could do were so cheesy. There was no "let's be serious for a moment option". Your sister gets shot in the opening hour of the game and your possibilities for expressing that horrifying loss are a saucy jig or an extended fart.

The game mechanics suggested in your post are an excellent idea, and would work well in Fable 2 or other games that claim to "notice" what you're doing. There's a lot of context-sensitive dialogue in Fallout 2 but it misses an opportunity by largely being shallow and not enlarging the story or world in any meaningful way.

The system also doesn't have to be limited to RPGs. Left 4 Dead does a lot of "noticing"; it uses it to provide context-sensitive help tooltips and dynamic conversation between the survivors but if it had had a larger scope a la Half Life it could have used that to do some really fascinating storytelling.

Craig Perko said...

Well, I would like to see a game that incorporates your avatar's emotional state, sort of like in Indigo Prophecy, except actually made, you know, vaguely interesting.

I remember someone once posted about Gears of War, back before it came out. He said they were going to make the storyline "interactive and touching" or something like that, but this particular reader's pie-in-the-sky idea was actually pretty interesting:

The idea was that it's a game that plays just like Gears of War, except that the main character (and maybe his buddies) have moods. The moods change their battle strategies and capabilities, and are in turn modified not simply by combat performance and scripted plot, but also by the elements of the battlefield you choose to pay attention to.

For example, if you were to pick up a broken doll, it would affect you emotionally. Your mood would change. And, depending on how long you held it, your mood would change in different ways - if you just glance at it, it might up your anxiety. If you pick it up for a moment, it might increase your anger. If you hold on to it for five or six seconds, it'll make you feel maudlin...

There's a lot of play capability within the avatar that isn't taken advantage of. It's become very popular to program emotions into the support characters and leave the main avatar as an empty shell for the player to fill. I think that's an outdated idea that was never very good in the first place. I think we'd get a lot more connection to the avatar and the game world if the avatar was the one feeling the emotions... and, for added bonus, it could actually involve gameplay more innately than selecting a node from a conversation tree.