Perhaps it’s just me, but recently I’ve noticed a vocal minority complaining about the formula of open world role-playing games. This, of course, comes in response to the quote I used in a previous article.
“[M]y only major complaint about Horizon is how closely it clings to the established and increasingly tedious formula of open-world games. […][T]he activities that populate [Horizon Zero Dawn] feel all too familiar. You clear out bandit camps, hunt animals for inventory upgrades, and track down various collectibles that clutter your map. Every trip you undertake is disrupted by the urge to collect more crafting items […], and every exciting skirmish ends with the unexciting and ritualistic looting of enemy corpses.”
This was a review by Jeff Marchiafava about Horizon Zero Dawn, which is an open world RPG. Just as Jeff says, “you clear out bandit camps, hunt animals for inventory upgrades, and track down various collectibles that clutter your map”. While it is true that Horizon Zero Dawn did a poor job in implementing some RPG mechanics, the fact of the matter here is that these complaints are not problems for open world RPG’s. If you agree or partially agree with Jeff’s statements, well, I’ve only one thing say; it’s you, not the open world. Each of these complaints is a consequence of being a game that focuses its attention on exploration mechanics and they aren’t going anywhere. When you have a game that focuses on exploration but doesn’t have a proportionate payoff for exploring, you get a game that has a beautiful place to explore but no reason to do so, eg. No Man’s Sky. To provide proper and proportionate payoff for exploration, an open world game must have discoveries and those discoveries must then provide rewards.
The first complaint is about bandit camps. They are spread throughout the world and, typically, produce a mission that requires the player to kill each enemy therein. Why in the world would these be in a game that has a focus on exploration? The bandit camps provide a discovery that the player can test their mettle against. Most players find the uneven numbers and exciting challenge and a way to directly test their skill. This can be combat skill—like in the Witcher— charging in sword and spell in hand. Alternatively, it can test their intellect—like in Far Cry—scouting the situation and clearing the camp without being spotted. In addition, bandit camps frequently provide proper reward in the form of special treasure, unlocked fast-travel, unique shops, and the loot from the many fallen foes. When you combine an exciting test of skill with tangible rewards, you get a very worth while discovery while traversing an open world.
The next complaint is specifically about the hunting of animals for upgrade materials, but is essentially a complaint on the action of looting the fallen. One aspect of an exploration-based game is that there will be enemies. While their constant appearance may tend to frustrate if implemented poorly, enemies and combat are an integral aspect of RPG’s, if not games as a whole. Enemies can be used as a pace-setting tool. In other words, you can place enemies in the world to slow the player’s progress and control the flow of the game. This can be done by placing enemies along paths and stronger enemies in certain areas to control where the player goes and when they go there. Since combat is such an integral part of games, it’s almost a disservice to simply describe them as a pace setting tool, however only the role-playing genre has so skillfully implemented rewards for defeating enemies. Yes, this comes in the form of experience and loot. Experience (EXP) is important because it allows players to grow, which is an intrinsic feature of the role-playing genre. Loot, and by extension the action of looting corpses, are also important to role-playing games. Loot is an additional reward for defeating enemies. Even in the Pokémon RPG’s, your Pokémon are given exp for each defeated enemy, but you are also rewarded with a modest sum of Pokédollars after defeating another trainer in battle. Sometimes the loot provided is material that can be sold or used in upgrading your equipment. Crafting upgrades to your carrying capacity or forging new weapons and armor provide another way to grow in an RPG. It’s understandable that looting corpses can feel tedious, especially when there are many of them. This fact has introduced methods to speed up looting, such as “Take All” buttons. Perhaps it could be sped up even further, the player could just being granted the items like in an encounter-based RPG? True that this is doable and hasn’t been tested by open world RPG’s, nevertheless there is a flavor disconnect with this idea. For example, how could you shoot someone with a bow or sniper rifle from several yards away and be granted the items carried by them? Even if we ignore the flavor dissonance, there is another problem with this idea. In most open world RPG’s players will have limited inventory space and even if the player always wanted all the enemies had to drop, where would it go if the player didn’t have the space? Given enough time, I’m sure viable solutions to would be invented to allow looting to be quicker, but is it even a problem worth fixing? Anecdotal evidence proves nothing, however I’ve never felt the need to complain about the action of looting corpses in games. Yes, it slows the game, but only after all the enemies in the area have been defeated. It provides a simple and rewarding task that also functions as a proper cool down after stressful combat
The last complaint is about “various collectibles that clutter your map”. Hidden collectibles are the most common element among all open world games, regardless of genre. Games that aren’t RPG’s such as Sly Cooper, Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, and even Forza Horizon—a racing game—all have hidden collectibles. To encourage exploration, an open world should have hidden items. If a player finds a hidden passage that leads to a cave that leads to an underwater shrine, and then finds that there is nothing there, that player isn’t too happy afterwards. Sure, you could put money there, but if everything is money then that can become boring and runs the risk of over-inflating the player’s wealth. The other option is free items, it would cut out the currency middleman, but it is possible that the player won’t need the item, especially if it is consumable. The best viable alternative to collectibles is powerful equipment but runs the risk of being too powerful or not powerful enough. Collectibles can earn the player powerful equipment, money, and consumables while giving the designer extra control over when the items are granted to the player. Hidden collectibles are a great way to encourage exploration and can provide scaled rewards that, when done properly, provide extremely satisfying payouts.
Is it possible that we are over-saturated with open world RPG’s at the moment? That’s a matter of perspective, but I can understand those who say we are. However, that should force a complaint on the number of games rather than the singular mechanics. When we were over-saturated with first-person shooters, most didn’t complain about the individual mechanics within those games. If you are a player who has been strained by the open world genre, the best sentiment I can give you is pity. It is very unfortunate for anyone who lost the love of open world games as they can be a wealth of fun. Nevertheless, it isn’t the job of the open world game to cater to your complaints. Not every game is for everyone and now you must accept that open world games are no longer for you. Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. For the rest of us they will remain fun and, hopefully, we have many more to look forward to.