It’s in our nature to explore. Discovering uncharted territory reminds us of what it means to be alive because it’s the birth of a new experience. And the emotional rewards keep us looking for new opportunities to expand our horizons.
“Boundless”, an open-world game for PS4. Image: Playstation Europe
Perhaps that’s why open-world games have consistently been dominating bestseller lists since the early 2000s. Also known as “sandbox games”, open-world games transport the player to fantastical landscapes where they have the ultimate freedom in exploration and deciding their fate through quest choice.
Contrast this with classic video games where the play experience is analogous to sitting on an amusement park ride or reading a novel: the player has no choice in large-scale direction. They’re guided along a path with sequential and mounting challenges to overcome. Historically, video games were active participation with relatively passive direction until open-world games came along.
However, some early games provided an innovative concept that gave the player choice of linear progression.
Early open-world games
Open-world gaming as it’s known today was heavily influenced by the early 8-bit titles. Many RPG and fantasy games from the 1980s had the concept of the “overworld”, the larger map area that connects the game’s levels and special locations. A playable character could roam through a map in a top-down view before coming across special areas such as towns (safe areas) and dungeons (enemy territory).
Overworld map for “The Legend of Zelda” (1986). Image: Rainbow Dragon 76
The most recognizable, early example of a game with an overworld is The Legend of Zelda (1986). The top-down view of Link wandering through forested areas and descending into dungeons is an early beacon of open exploration. The grandfather of overworld games—one that had influenced the original Zelda—was the RPG Ultima (1981). It offered an overworld map that had a major shortcoming: it wasn’t to scale.
These “overworld” games inspired an era of games such as Dragon Quest (1986), Hydlide (1984), and even Super Mario 64 (1996). They were characterized as being mostly fantasy games influenced by RPG roles created by Dungeons & Dragons. (Check out our timeline of dungeon crawlers to get the full list of overworld-inspired games.)
But by the 21st century, a new era of the open-world games concept was applying these fantasy mechanics to much more realistic and mature subject matter that would upend and transform the industry.
A whole new open world
The advent of modern open-world games provided new opportunities for gamers not just to explore environments but also to interact with them. The platform inspired play that was limitless in both landscape as well as the playable character’s actions. Depth of software capabilities has allowed for more immersive experiences. Game exploration mechanics—such as an in-game radio—have been inspired and enhanced in the most recent age of open-world gaming.
Screenshot of the wasteland in “Fallout 3″ (2008). Image: Kenneth DM
Many open-world games required progress along a main quest to make progress through the game. But the types of actions available, from robbery to assault, have created an exclusive audience of players—notably middle-aged adults blowing off steam. These games definitely aren’t for kids, and the subject matter does not care that it excludes women gamers.
Modern open-world gaming’s controversial origins
The infamous Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is considered to be the genre’s modern stage setter. In 2001 GTA III captured the imaginations of gamers when it featured a city that was freely explorable—and characters who were exploitable. Often tagged as a “violent crime” game, GTA III featured activities that would have serious consequences in real life. This attracted a specific demographic that excluded women, children, and those uninterested in the game’s violent activity.
Prelude to a bank heist in “Grand Theft Auto V” (2013). Image: BagoGames
Despite GTA’s controversial history it has spun off two more open-world franchise successors and spurred an entire genre. Witcher III, Minecraft, Assassin’s Creed, Fallout, Skyrim, Watch Dogs, and Dragon Age are just a few of the open-world franchises to receive acclaim in the last fifteen years. With few exceptions the genre has become known for mature themes such as exploitation and realistic combat in vivid detail.
Perhaps the variations on mature themes have become the open-world standard because it’s a safe bet on tremendously expensive games to build. It’s a tried-and-true audience who is sure to come back for realistic combat in expansive worlds, an audience that is defined as “hardcore” and open to a long-term game commitment.
A big opportunity for open-world game developers
Consequently, there have not been as many opportunities for audiences that prefer to focus on environmental exploration and family-friendly (but no less epic) quests.
A beast battle in open-world game “Witcher 3″ (2015). Image: BagoGames
Open-world games have been unable to attract a swath of casual gamers let alone those who don’t play video games. Producers of the most popular open-world game franchises have done just fine without expanding their fan base, but that leaves a big opportunity on the table for game producers who are interested in making expansive games for the rest of us.
Nintendo is the perfect game developer to take on the challenge.
Check back here on the Big Fish Games blog in the coming weeks to learn how Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the open-world game we’ve all been waiting for.