There are plenty of articles about open world game design and writing plots. But have you guys come across articles or blog entries about designing an engaging plot in an open world game? What i mean by this? In TES:Morrowind you're introduced to mechanics and are given the "main quest" within the first 5 minutes and then you're free to go, learn, kill, do whatever you want. I've spent hundreds of hours playing the game, but i have never got to doing the "main quest" and i'm sure alot of people are in the same situation, be it Morrowind, Oblivion or Skyrim. Maybe it's the power of TES games and a true testiment to how great RPGs they are, however for me, thinking as a designer, it seems like a massive design failure. Maybe it's the fact that there's no actual threat that needs to be dealt with, maybe it's that, amongs all the well designed and interesting quest within the game, the "main quest" just doesn't seem so interesting.

I've got a game idea in the back of my head, i want to create an action platformer, but the "level selection" would be open world style "dunegons" like you find in MMOs. This is a vague and undeveloped idea, so don't focus on it, i didn't give this design much thought, however an issue arose, i can't figure out, in general, how to make the player care about the open world aspect (f.e. dealing with roaming, pillaging parties, doing a gauntlet run to get some special armor, clearing a water source from enemies, etc.) while "forcing him" to finish the game, carrot-on-a-stick kind of way. There are "crazy" people who will go search everywhere between cutscenes in FF games, but i'm aiming at the general audience. I want to create a subtle system for guiding people throughout the game to a goal, while giving them an option of gaining power any way they want. This may aswell be impossible, but it doesn't hurt to ask.

I'm looking for articles or musings on this matter. Not solutions (since there's no design document, no direct solutions matter at this point), just thoughts from other people, probably with other games as a reference.


While not directly relevant to your question, a recent article on the Zelda franchise that Kotaku ran touches on a few facets of open world design (in the context of the original two games):


In particular check out the sections:

'Everything That Is The Case', where he talks about the impact a truly open world can have on a player;

'Helicopter Parents', where he discusses the importance of difficulty in experiences that are left up to the player to create;

and probably of most interest to you,

'Death Mountain Speaks For Itself', where he talks about the story that can develop in a world without an explicit plot.

Yeesh, that was really dry. Sorry. I hope it helps. Now for some of my own thoughts.

I'm right there with you on The Elder Scrolls games. I've put 90+ hours into both Oblivion and Skyrim, and haven't even touched the main quests. One of the things that drives me in a video game that has even a remote sense of place is exploration and subsequently, discovery. Much like mdkess was saying, I LOVE running around a game world, just finding things. I've found every location on the map in Skyrim at this point, and I haven't actually gone INTO the caves and dungeons and such. I've just discovered them, gotten excited, and then run off to find more things. Is that a mountain? I'm going to climb that mountain. Is that a lake? I wonder what's at the bottom.

To translate that into relevant game design speech: one way to make a player interested in exploring your world, is to make the world feel like it's worth exploring. Be it through interesting/beautiful visuals, unique area design, or tangible consumable content; you need to demonstrate to the player that they should want to go exploring because they is definitely awesome stuff to find.

So long as they know that their time spent will be adequately rewarded, and won't feel like grinding while they do it (this is where the visuals and unique area design comes in), then they will want to explore.

And lastly, about subtly guiding a player through an open world, I'd recommend you check out Dark Souls, for a number of reasons.

1 . Directing Through Difficulty:

After an introductory level to teach you the base mechanics of the game, you are dropped into the main world with three potential paths to take. And unless you are somehow already a badass at the game, you will very quickly realize that two of those paths are a touch out of your league for now. So you pick the easy path, and start fighting. And then a while down that road, you'll be given another branching path. And so on, and so forth.

And while in most cases it will be clear which way you probably should go (and thus cause yourself the least amount of heart-wrenching death), the only thing preventing you from traveling any of the harder paths is your own skill.

You may not be good enough now, but eventually you will be.

2 . Every Action Has A Reward

No matter which path you take, or which boss you kill, you are improving yourself and furthering the story. New weapons, armour, souls (which are both experience AND currency in this game), MORE paths to take; each 'level' of Dark Souls is designed to be unique, and to be immediately rewarding upon completion.

Alright, I'm just going to stop here, and apologize for how poorly organized confusing this whole response probably is. I know there's a better way to say all this, but, well. I'm tired?

I hope at least the article helps a bit.

  • \$\begingroup\$ great article, it's definetly the kind of thing i was looking for \$\endgroup\$ – dreta Feb 23 '12 at 18:55

The games that I thought worked best had emergent AI behaviours. STALKER, for example, had really cool a-life simulation, so you'd want to explore just to see what new stuff there was waiting. Skyrim had mini quests galore, so as you explored, you would always find things to do. You could walk into any cave in the world and there would be something of note there, it was incredible.

I think that players have a natural tendency to want to explore - if you show them a mountain, they'll try to climb it.

Here is an old article on player motivations within the context of MUDs, which you might find interesting: http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm

For me, I'm motivated by two main things in a game, outside of story. First is the promise of material reward within the game. If I think that I can get a cool new sword, I'll go exploring to find it. The other is just finding interesting things within the game. In Skyrim, I tried to climb to the top of every mountain, and spent way too much time swimming around trying to find underwater secrets (as an aside, I was pretty disappointed that there weren't any). There was generally no significant reward within the game for this, but just getting to see the world and really test its limits is a lot of fun. Importantly, the mechanics of the game encouraged this - there was fast travel so that you could always get back on track (so you weren't penalized for walking for an hour in a random direction), and there was no penalty for death - you could save whenever, so another chance was just a function key away.

Now, to counter that last point about painless exploration, one thing that I got a lot of thrill out of in games is hardcore mode, where it's you versus the world and if you die the show's over. I don't think that I would have liked Skyrim like that, but it is something that does motivate a lot of players. I think here it acts as a multiplier on the previous rewards that I talked about. Finding that awesome sword is so much more satisfying when I know that I barely made it there alive. Not done well though, it can feel random. When the player dies, the player should feel like they made a mistake, which can be a very hard thing to execute on as a game developer. With a softer death system, you don't have to be so careful, as random feeling deaths can be hilarious at best or just mildly annoying at worst.

I think that with exploration in a game, you don't so much have to directly encourage it as you should be very careful to not (even accidentally) discourage it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ very interesting article \$\endgroup\$ – dreta Feb 23 '12 at 18:55

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