Think of open world games as digital rabbit holes down which gamers disappear. They emerge on the other side greeted with ready-to-explore sprawling digital landscapes. Like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it’s easy to get lost (both literally and figuratively).
For the creatives among us who manage the daily toils of large-scale design and web development projects, open world games offer up a great escape. After all, the clients can’t find you in there; can they?
Akin to a visitor surfing through a perfectly developed website, gamers also require a seamless experience. Why? Simple: in order to create a sense of immersion and credibility. You don’t want them clicking back or powering off. So the world must react naturally to their actions. Forget about typical level structures like walls and locked doors.
Humans are inquisitive by nature, so it’s hard not to break the fourth wall (Minecraft -style) and ask: “how the hell did they achieve this?” Building a successful open world game is indeed a mammoth challenge. It is one which requires feats of software engineering and programming.
The fact that this genre of game has become so commonplace is a testament to how streamlined development pipelines and processes have become overtime.
So let’s take a look at the 5 best open world games and what creatives, designers and developers can learn from them.
#5 – Just Cause 3
Number 5 on our list is the explosive action-adventure game, Just Cause 3. Set in an open world environment of a fictional Mediterranean island Medici, the world size is 400 square miles (1,000 km2).
#4 – L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire is a neo-noir detective action-adventure video game in which players explore Los Angeles in 1947 in the role of Police Department officer, and later detective, Cole Phelps. Alongside innovative linear scenarios with set objectives, you can freely roam the open world and engage in optional activities.
#3 – Red Dead Redemption 2
2018’s Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel to the 2010 game Red Dead Redemption. Set in 1899 in a fictionalised representation of the Western, Midwestern and Southern United States, the story follows outlaw Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van der Linde gang. The map is said to be a whopping 29 square miles. RDR2 could so easily have been our number one choice.
#2 – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Breath of the Wild takes our breath away. Nintendo’s action-adventure game unfolds in an open world environment which encourages nonlinear gameplay. This is highlighted by the game’s lack of defined entrances or exits to areas. Players are tasked with exploring the kingdom of Hyrule while controlling Link. The structure is designed to encourage free roaming.
#1 Grand Theft Auto 5
Whilst games with open or free-roaming worlds are nothing new, Grand Theft Auto III set the gold standard in 2001. Then came Grand Theft Auto 5 in 2013 which raised the bar for all open world games thereafter. That’s why GTA 5 stands tall as our number one.
So what takeaways are there for designers and developers? Let’s take a look…
Open world game developers: Believability and immersion are key to evolving an open world universe. There’s no big bang here but rather planning and strategy. Unlike a sandbox game built specifically to accommodate the player, the trick is to make the player feel the world exists independent of them. If the world isn’t immersive, the illusion is lost and players are taken out of it.
Website designers and developers: Before a line of code has even been written, open world developers embrace a strategy-first approach. The same applies to web development. A business website is a tool. It is more than a pretty picture. True beauty comes from within a digital and content strategy. Consider the business goals the website should achieve. Then the users’ goals. Who are they? What words will they type into Google to find you. And when they arrive at your website, how can you answer their questions and encourage them towards profitable actions? So, think like an open world developer, and plan ahead.
A branded look and feel
Open world game developers: What’s your favourite open world game and why do you love to explore it? Take Read Dead Redemption 2, for instance. Whilst the locations and activities are diverse, they all feel unified and consistently part of the same universe. From colouration, aesthetic to tone, there’s a consistency to the brand.
Website designers and developers: From content, menus, functions, features, custom graphics and videos to stock photography: everything a website visitor comes into contact with is your brand. All these elements must therefore work seamlessly together to build a truly branded user experience. One which stands out. And one which builds trust, resolutely telling them that this website is where they need to be. Again, research. Understand your users. Consider the type of language they adopt. Talk to them directly. Implement colours and themes likely to appeal to them. Then build a digital world they’ll want to play in.
Development and coordination:
Open world game developers: With so many variables and moving parts when it comes to coding an open world game, developers must keep track of them whilst ensuring what they are doing doesn’t break something somebody else is doing. One solution is to have sub teams working on creating smaller parts of the larger sandbox. The team works to the strategy and all parts are brought together into one homogeneous whole at the end of development.
Website designers and developers: For large-scale web projects, you and your team could also take a modular approach. This, of course, requires coordination and defines how your coding and processes take place. Slice up strategy, content, design and development. And, in doing so, ensure everyone is working to the same vision.
Expanding your digital world
Open world game developers: From expansion packs to perpetually evolving online multiplayer experiences, open world developers know how to keep gamers hooked. There’s perhaps no better example of this than Grand Theft Auto Online. The game is the online component of Grand Theft Auto V. Set within the fictional state of San Andreas, GTA Online allows players to explore the open world and engage in cooperative or competitive game matches.
Website designers and developers: A website isn’t static. It’s never really complete. It’s an evolving thing. So take Rockstar Games’ approach to web development and keep things on your digital store fresh. This could be as simple as posting regular blog content to raise your SEO profile, down to introducing new functions and features. The aim should always be to achieve and exceed the expectations of your end users. Given them the experience they long for and, when it comes to time to buy, guess who they’ll choose?
GTA 5 is our favourite open world game. We stand by our top five but would be remiss not to give honourable mentions to:
- Saints Row 4
- No Man’s Sky
- Assassin’s Creed Origins
Do you agree? What are your favourite open world games? Why? And what can we learn from them?