I was following some Twitter thoughts by Jake Monahan, and it got me thinking. He was talking about how open world games are inherently built to be strip-mined, discarded once you've finished pillaging them. He points out that most of the things you do that change the world (such as resolving a gang war) actually make the world less fun to play in.
This is very interesting to me, so I thought I'd analyze it in way too much detail!
First, the constraint: we're specifically talking about designed open worlds, not randomized ones. Fallout and GTA, not Minecraft.
The most obvious reason why open world games are built like this is because that's the play we have gotten used to. Killing and collecting are our focus, and both of those remove your targets from the game.
A less obvious reason is that most games are about progressing through the game. If the world is steady-state and nothing you do changes anything, there's no reason to move to the next zone. And if you do decide to move on, there's no reason to actually grapple with the next zone, you might as well just skate through as fast as possible.
So the "strip mining" is not simply a side effect of the preferred play. It's a tactic that pushes the player to move through the game at a steady pace. Different players will engage at different depths - some might spend a lot of time hunting for every scrap in a given area, others might just hit the high notes. Either way, they are steadily lured into finishing this zone and moving into the next one.
It's possible to design a constructive open world, where your gameplay makes more gameplay. However, you would need a different mechanic to lure the player forwards, or they'll never get very far into your world. They'll just mine out all the play options in the first few areas and then get bored of your mechanics.
In short, if the player isn't lured into moving through your open world, it's not an open world.
Whether it's a linear game or an open world game, as we move through the game we discard levels behind us. In a linear game, those levels are simply gone. In an open world game we can physically return to those places, shrines dedicated to our past adventures, but they are no longer part of our path forward.
It's worth considering replay value. In the first play-through, players usually behave fairly predictably. This is definitely worthy of its own conversation, because 'predictably' doesn't mean 'exactly the same path through the game', but it does mean that you can typically use standard tricks and layouts to pull them into a few paths you consider to be ideal for new players.
For example, in Fallout 4 you aren't physically forced to get Preston and Sanctuary, but nearly all first-time players will. After that it appears to open up and tell you to go do anything you want, but the way the map and sidequests are laid out pushes you to find a few small farms to recruit and a few bandit hives to clear. In theory you can spend a lot of time farting around this open world, but in practice they limit your available play options so that you'll get a little bored of doing that and decide to start for the city. They city features a combination of physical funnels, golden paths, and meat walls to pressure you into finding Diamond City.
The design of this is "first run" open world design, and it's not too different from a linear game. But when we replay the game, we are more familiar with the world and take more advantage of the variations.
This isn't a proper "new game+" situation, because many people restart the game long before they've beaten it. For example, I've played the first five hours of Skyrim approximately 300 times, and I still haven't actually beaten the game. Trying new paths, or perfecting your abuse of paths your familiar with, or challenging yourself with a new constraint... these are powerful play elements!
What I'm leading up to is this:
The open world we strip mined? It doesn't stay stripped.
We return to the fresh, untrammeled world again and again, whenever we want.
To me, that is the truest power of an open world, and that is what I would like to focus on when building open world maps.
... maybe I'll talk about that for fifty hours some day soon.