Open-world video games are some of the best games ever. If you had to ask someone to list off their favourite video games of all time, there’s bound to be at least one open-world game in there. Some recent options that spring to mind include Skyrim, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, GTA 5 and Elden Ring.
At the same time, we’ve had plenty of open-world games that have sort of flopped. I think one of the biggest that springs to mind is Pokemon Sword/Shield. It sold well, but the general consensus was that it was the worst Pokemon game that’s ever been released.
This begs the question, what separates the great open-world games from the bad ones out there? Where do some developers thrive while others falter? Well, let’s take a look at the anatomy of a fantastic open-world video game:
A good main storyline
All of the best games in this genre have thrived because of the storyline. After all, this is the main purpose of these games. You play them to work your way through the story and follow the characters on a journey. I would say that this is the easiest way to separate some of the best games from the worst.
The story needs to be captivating; it needs to encourage you to keep playing and playing. The recent Spider-Man games on Playstation are a phenomenal example of this. Sure, it’s really enjoyable swinging from your webs all across New York City. It’s very fun beating up all the bad guys and collecting all the collectables. But, the thing that made these games so awesome was the storyline. Each one felt like a movie; you were constantly gripped and left in suspense throughout. You felt like you were part of a proper Marvel film, which encouraged you to keep on playing.
So many other open-world games are like this, while others are not. Everything else on this list is irrelevant if the story isn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter what else the game can offer; if the story doesn’t encourage you to play, it will be a flop.
Plenty of side quests
With all open-world games, your missions are directly linked to the main storyline. Each mission you complete will move you closer to the ending. For me, a good open-world game should take you a very long time to complete. I think the main story should be around 40 hours – but that’s just me. There’s nothing worse than finishing a game in a couple of weekends, leaving you with nothing else to do.
This is kind of where side quests come into play. Side quests should give you things to do outside of the main storyline. They can often link back to the story, but they can also be separate entities. The idea is that you can do these little quests to take a break from the story. They also help you level up your character (more on this in a bit) and prepare for the big fights or events.
Personally, I think the best games have loads of side quests that you can get lost in. Honestly, you want to go down a rabbit hole of quests that take you so far away from the main story. It prolongs the game and gives you more opportunities to explore the world.
A good levelling system
This is perhaps something that gets underrated in many open-world games. However, you need to have a good levelling system in place. There has to be something to play towards as you progress through the game. It’s pretty stupid if the game starts and ends with your character in the exact same place. You need to upgrade your stats or abilities; something has to exist!
A good levelling system keeps you engrossed in the game as you have to make decisions when you progress. Do you choose to upgrade this stat or another one? Some games, like Elden Ring, make you choose certain classes where certain attributes matter more than others. It also makes side quests more important in the game. Sure, they might not help you advance through the main story, but they give you experience points to level up your character.
It doesn’t even have to be your character that gets levelled up. Some excellent open-world games might make you level up multiple characters or people in your party – like Pokemon. There are open-world car games where levelling up your car gives you better upgrades to go faster or have a better grip. The point is that you need a system in place that helps you progress and improve. It’s what keeps you hooked and encourages the grind.
A vast open world with plenty to explore
To be honest, I take back what I said about a good storyline being the most important thing. You can say that for every single-player video game out there. For an open-world game, the most important aspect has to be the world you’re playing in.
There are two things every single world needs: a massive setting to explore and some world diversity. Some of the biggest open-world video games have been absolutely massive. It would take you days to explore every single area of the map and you still might not find everything. World diversity refers to the map looking different in different places. I remember Horizon being really good at this; some areas were in snow, others were a desert, and some were grassy.
I think GTA 5 is arguably the best representation of an excellent open world. There’s the whole of Los Santos to explore, including busy city areas, docks, airports, fields, mountains; the list goes on. You get different experiences in different parts of the map, and that’s so amazing.
A good open-world video game will encourage you to explore all areas of this map. You don’t even need to do any quests; you feel compelled to hop on a mode of transport and roam around as much as possible.
A wealth of customisation options
Customisation in open-world games is absolutely crucial. Again, this adds a new fun element to the game, while also giving you something else to work towards. As well as collecting experience to rank up, you can collect in-game tokens or things that you use to unlock different features or outfits.
In games like Assassin’s Creed, you can customise so much about your appearance and gameplay. You’re able to choose loads of different outfits, as well as loads of weapons. This means you start off with weapons or armour that aren’t great, but you gradually unlock better ones to aid you in your fights.
If a big video game doesn’t have many customisation options, it makes it harder for you to keep playing it. Yes, there’s the level progression and the storyline, but you need something extra as well. This is a key element of replayability; if new outfits or things are constantly released and brought into the game, it gives you more reasons to continue playing even after you completed the main storyline.
The second to last thing to touch upon is the characters in the game. These characters need to be likeable. Well, the ones you have to play as should be likeable in some way. You should actively become engrossed in their storylines and enjoy the way they’ve been written.
When games have bad characters, it just makes the whole thing feel off. In an open-world game that literally revolves around you and your character, the writers need to get it right. Yes, this is tied into the storyline, but I think you can have a good story that’s often ruined by terrible characters. The plot is awesome, but the characters just make you want to finish the game as quickly as possible.
Finally, every good open-world game will have downloadable content. This can come in the form of downloadable outfits and other ways to customise your character. However, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt showcases how DLC should be released.
As well as having one of the longest stories in a video game, The Witcher 3 has two DLC packs that basically amount to an entire game. It gives the whole thing way more replayability. After you finish the main story, you have DLC missions and quests to do. It even unveiled new areas on the map for you to explore!
The ability to keep adding things to a game will make it enjoyable for the players. It keeps you playing for years and years and years. If a game has a short story, it can almost make up for it with lots of great DLC that prolongs the experience. There’s nothing worse than finishing an open-world game and feeling like there’s nothing to do.
In my opinion, these are the hallmarks of an excellent open-world video game. If a game has nailed all of these things, it is going to be a big success. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done as a lot of game developers miss the mark here and there!