Open Worlds: The mechanic that defined a decade

Last Updated February 14th, 2022

It’s the beginning of a new decade, and that prompts us all to look back on the 10 years that got us here. What defined gaming in the 2010s? What lessons did we spend this decade learning?

It all starts with Skyrim

Well a good place to start is with our own game of the decade: Skyrim. Skyrim was a clear choice for game of the decade for many reasons. It was a game with a huge mod scene. It has been ported on to nearly every platform available. It spurred on early advances in VR.

However, Skyrim is also notable for its design. It is, quite simply, the prototypical “open world” game of the 2010s. It certainly wasn’t the first open world game. There were open world text adventures in the 1970s. It wasn’t even the first Bethesda open-world game. It was, however, one of the most popular games that was recognizably open world in the present day incarnation of the mechanic.

What does that mean? Well it means that Skyrim was the game that many other games modeled themselves after. The Witcher 3 was a huge success, and it was largely modeled after Skyrim’s formula, and then further games were inspired by its model.

All of this is not to say that 2010s were the decade of Skyrim (that’s an argument we can have another time). This is to say, however, that the most influential aspect of Skyrim was likely its open world design and that the 2010s were certainly the decade of the open world game.

Before the open world, there was the sandbox

We’d been progressing toward open world design for some time in the 2000s. In fact, the modern conception of an “open world” could be attributed to Rockstar, and their release of Grand Theft Auto III in 2001. Of course, you could go back further and look at Rockstar’s top down GTA games, or even further and talk about the aforementioned open world text adventures, but GTA III had a big open map, a mini-map to guide you, side quests galore, and an environment that responded to your actions, even if those actions were just spawning a tank and blowing up pedestrians for no good reason.

But we called it something different back then. We called it a “sandbox game.” Of course, we also called games like SimCity sandbox games, so you can understand why we came up with a new term. The idea was that you were like a kid in a sandbox, making your own fun by doing whatever you want. You had all these toys to pay with and it was up to you how you played with them. It’s just that kids played with plastic buckets and we played with guns and stolen cars.

Rockstar’s sandbox formula evolved beyond the big city with 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, which can arguably be as influential as Skyrim was in popularizing open world mechanics the last decade. However, while Skyrim’s RPG centric design more influenced the shape of single-player experiences, it was Red Dead and its 16-player multiplayer that would go on to influence more multiplayer centric open world games. It’s also arguable that Red Dead Redemption did a lot to make both gamers and critics notice the positives of the open world of “sandbox” formula.

In another article we could probably go in depth about who started the open-world trend, Rockstar or Bethesda, as both were doing open world “sandbox” gaming before the 2010s started. But I think a more effective angle is to ask: just what is “open world” gaming anyway?

What is an open world game?

It feels like every year I have to remind people that our concept of genre in the gaming sucks. You don’t have to go much further than Steam’s dynamic categories to see that. The “open world” category puts Disco Elysium, Jump Force, Stardew Valley, Goat Simulator, and No Man’s Sky in the same genre.

At this point you might be thinking “what’s the point?” Those games are all super different from each other, how could they possibly all be open world games?

Normally, I’d agree with you. However, for the purposes of this article this cludgy categorization actually hits on the exact reason why the open world mechanic was so influential in the last decade. All of these games were designed with open world sensibilities in mind, even if they don’t strike you as open world games.

So when you think of an open world game, you probably think of something like the aforementioned Skyrim. You get dropped into a gigantic living world and are asked to explore it while completing a bunch of sidequests that take you all over the map.

But if we think of that definition of the mechanic outside of a Skyrim-like context, all those titles above really do count as open world games, don’t they? Disco Elysium lets you wander around Revachol, getting drunk and solving quests. Jump Force lets you take on quests to fight in different real world locations merged with anime locales. Stardew Valley lets you wander around town, dating people and fulfilling quests between bouts of farming, mining, and dungeon crawling. Goat Simulator lets you goat at people in a huge goat world filled with goat achievements. Heck, No Man’s Sky lets you wander around a whole universe.

What isn’t an open world game?

Personally, I think it’s more useful to look at an open world as a mechanic rather than a genre. It is a way you can design many different games in many different genres. To understand what it is as a mechanic, we have to look at what it’s not.

So what do games that aren’t open world look like? Well, they tend to be level based. Instead of giving you a huge open area to explore, you are taken from one instance to another, usually on a fairly linear path.

Some games occupy a sort of middle ground between classic stage based design and open world games. Classic RPGs are a good example. While you do eventually get to explore a giant world (usually at the end after you gain access to an airship or something), your progress through the game feels more akin to a traditional level format. You go to one town, then one section of the world map, then one dungeon, then the next town, and so on.

Level based design was, as most design decisions were, influenced by the limitations of technology. There were only so many environments that we could jam into a cartridge or onto a disk, and only so much of those environments that we could load into the RAM of our early consoles. While certain early games, from the amazing Legend of Zelda to the awful Hydlide, could be considered open world games they had to make a lot of sacrifices in order to make the formula work. The more control a designer had over where the player would be and what they would be doing, the more mechanical and narrative complexity they could add to their game.

The core of open world: agency

Time progressed and with it progressed our gaming technology. The design restrictions of previous generations melted away and developers realized that they could have mechanical and narrative complexity in large open worlds. But why would they want to? What makes an open world game fun?

Well, for one, open worlds give the player a sense of agency. The thing that separates games from other types of media is player interaction. Therefore, it can be argued that the more a game allows a player to interact with it, the more of a “game” it is. Open world games and their promise of allowing the player to “go anywhere” and “do anything” obviously allow for a greater deal of interaction than the traditional level based model.

This is the design sentiment that most greatly influenced the 2010s in gaming. Developers did their best to leave more things up to player agency, and the open world was just the start. Open worlds were integrated into nearly every genre you could think of. The RPG obviously came first, but we soon saw open world action games, shooters, racing games, and more. In fact, the Battle Royale shooter, the surprise new genre that hit late in the decade, could just be described as an application of the open world formula to the multiplayer competitive shooter genre. You get placed in a huge world and can go anywhere and do anything, from building structures to finding gear to making alliances, depending on the game you are playing.

Evolving open worlds

If the beginning of the decade was spent realizing the potential of the open world formula, then the rest of the decade was spent remixing it.

For example, a good portion of the decade was spent deciding what really counts as “open.” Many open world games took place in a large world, but the world didn’t really do anything other than provide large empty tracks of land between sidequests. Was this really open world, or was it just a linear game masquerading as an open world game?

Many open world games had huge laundry lists of sidequests tied to map markers. But was this open? Weren’t you just following where the map told you to go?

The Witcher 3 allowed many of its quests to be picked up more organically. While you had a main quest line that you were following, your travels would take you to different locations and simply via the nature of exploring and talking to people, you’d be given more quests to do. How you completed those quests was largely up to you, and this gave the player more agency than the normal side quest model did.

Breath of the Wild took it a step further. It gave you very few sidequests. In fact, you are given the main quest, to defeat Ganon, right at the beginning of the game. If you wanted, you could run right there after completing the tutorial. Or, you could explore literally anything you wanted. If you saw a shrine, you could go there. If you found a strange cave, you could explore it. Many of the games puzzles included no text whatsoever. You were left to your own devices to realize that the rock with a lightning bolt on it could be shattered with electricity, and to call electricity you’d need to use metal equipment in a lightning storm. It was just a sandbox of possibilities, all interacting with each other.

Some games decided to focus on the traversal aspects of open world. Instead of making the open world a large empty space between objectives, traversing the open world became the objective. Death Stranding, Kojima’s strange experimental “connection” game worked like this. Your only objectives were to get from point A to point B. However, standing between you were rivers, mountains, crazy people with guns, and weird baby ghosts that called down tentacle dolphins made of tar from the underworld. You could “go anywhere” but the “going” was the game. It was the central problem you had to solve. 

Adding some open world to your favorite game

There’s another way to look at this. The open world defined last decade because we are starting to not even realize it exists in our favorite games. In a way, it can be compared to RPG Mechanics” of the previous decade. It used to be that levels, gear, stats, and loadouts were the sole purview of the RPG. Now we see them in just about every game, from action games like Devil May Cry, to shooters like Borderlands, to, to racing games, farming games, crafting games, and more. RPG mechanics are such a natural fit in so many other genres we barely call them RPG mechanics anymore.

The same holds true for open worlds. God of War was, technically, an open world game. By the end you could go anywhere, hunt down Valkyries, and travel the many different planes of Norse mythology. We still called it an “action game.”

We still notice open world mechanics in some games. There is a striking difference between Forza Horizon which allows you to drive around an open world, and more traditional track based racing games. However, open world racing games are becoming more and more common.

Open world has been integrated into some of the biggest franchises of our time. Ubisoft has made almost all of its major franchises open world games, from Assassin’s Creed to Watch_Dogs to the Tom Clancy series. Rockstar has always made open world games, notably the GTA series and the Red Dead series. Arguably, a game even more influential than Skyrim, Minecraft, is by default open world as well.

In fact, across all genres I’d say open world design is more common than level based design.

Redefining open world for a new decade

Of course, this has caused us to shift our definition as to what “open world” means. Nowadays when we talk about open world games we talk about games in which the open world is specifically the attraction. Games like Horizon: Zero Dawn fall into this category, a game in which the world itself, whether by style, concept, or by the way we interact with it, stands as a central design point.

And I think that stands as the hardest proof that open world games defined this last decade. Simply put, we are talking about them. We are talking about what does and doesn’t count as open world. We are talking about ways we can use open world mechanics to further design. We are talking about how new games benefit from open exploratory mechanics, how it deepens immersion.

Games are now advertised based on the size of their worlds. We now have procedurally generated open world survival games, meant to give players an infinite open world experience. Open world has simultaneously become a buzz word that marketing departments will use to describe just about any game, and a term that means almost nothing but “the way games are now.”

There are many mechanics and genres that have influenced this decade, from the introduction of the “souls-like,” the resurgence of the competitive fighting game after Street Fighter IV, the shift toward live service multiplayer models from single-player experiences, and more. However, I would argue that all of these are influential only to a niche. Open world design influences have touched nearly everything from Batman to Far Cry, from Saint’s Row to Metal Gear Solid 5, from Fallout to The Lord of the Ring. Hell, the intense influence of open world gaming may just be what got The Witcher noticed enough to get a Netflix series.

Open world might not mean the same thing it does in 2030 as it does now. Arguably it doesn’t even mean the same thing it did in 2010. But its definition changes as gaming changes, as it becomes more and more integrated with gaming itself. Maybe we won’t be calling open world RPGs that in 2030. Maybe they will just be RPGs?

We will have to wait and see what we call the next Elder Scrolls game.

But what do you think? What was the most influential mechanic on game design in the 2010s? Let us know in the comments.