People can approach the same design problem and choose to solve it in radically different ways depending on their perspective of the problem, which in turn results in radically different games. If you think about jumping over a pit being about precision, you get Super Meat But. But, if you think of it as being about speed, you get an endless runner. If you think of action RPG combat as a way to make the player more connected to the character rather than seeing it as a waystation between moments of character development, you get Demon Souls instead of Fable 3.
That same video continues on to discuss what they feel is the two main styles of open world game design. The first is designing a collection of towns, worlds and encounters, where they are placed throughout the world, whereas the second is a collection of zones that are self contained adventure modules with their own stories. They show examples of each, using Elder Scrolls for the first version where you can walk through and find various things scattered along the map like darts at a dart board. while Baldur’s Gate shows an example of the second where as you enter a new zone you have all the story elements here within that zone. It is a great example of discussion for how to design a game, and this is something Gamemasters should strive to figure out how they want to solve it as, much like the opening quote, everyone will solve the problem differently and that is something up to each Gamemaster to figure out what works for them at their table. To help with figuring that out, this post is going to focus on some of the major critiques of open world games in the past and some ideas for possible solutions.
The primary complaint about open world games is one you hear for games in general, that the story is not realistic. The story evolves on the players actions, so if they don’t complete a quest, the story does not adapt in any way to that. In Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Skyrim, there is talk of the various wars but there is little that changes during it without the player directly acting on it in any way. You don’t see the cities being under siege by the opposing armies as you wander by in process to complete your quests. This sort of mentality doesn’t fit with the idea of a realistic world, where while you are doing an action there should be other things going on in the background. This is where good quest design and pacing comes into play, where you can adapt what options the players have to interact with to the changing scenario that is ongoing. Some key ways to do this are give things specific timelines that they happen on, and if the players get involved they may change the outcome of these events. If they are busy working on hunting down the goblins that have been raiding town, it is possible the town could have been hit with an earthquake that the players could have helped save people from.
Another issue with the open world games is that they have issues with the missions that you are given. Usually with computer open world games, you will have a number of missions you could take at any time, though a majority of them are what could be considered filler content. Mad Max had you going around collecting scrap from little points on the map, Elder Scrolls has various dungeons and ruins that are go in and get some treasures and leave, GTA and Saint’s Row have time killing activities or diversions, Watch Dogs had the system hacks to invade privacy and the fixer missions, Shadows of Mordor was freeing civilians and hunting creatures and plants, and the list goes on. All of these just reward you with a little trinket and some experience but do not do anything to further your character’s connection to the story and may at best add a little more immersion into the world. To think about quest design differently, Extra Credits did a pair of videos about Quest Design in MMOs (this link being the first of the pair), and the idea is that most games focus on a few preset activities for quests with the main elements focusing on either traversal or combat. The quests are done to demonstrate the area to players, showing where to go and where to find the creatures appropriate to the level. While there are only so many actions we can do in a computer game, this does not mean that we cannot take the idea of these elements and redesign quests to be more than just these simple actions of walk here and fight this. Add elements beyond just simple go here or fight this to your quests, as you will see in examples of the Extra Credits videos, and you can come up with quests that will challenge players without resorting to surviving a fight or walking to a specific spot.
On the topic of filler style quests, if your game allows the player to go anywhere, you can find ways to fill the dead travel time with something other than busywork missions like collect so many Nirnroot in Elder Scrolls games. Instead, you could have the player be in positions to discover things that will actually have some impact to the world, like have the player seek out lost historical elements like discovering where a sunken ship went down hundreds of years ago or a lost burial tomb of a historical figure. Have the player bring these back to a city where they are then put on display in a museum. The sailing game Uncharted Waters: New Horizons had villages you could explore for the local discovery they could give you and then bring that back to a patron for money as well as selling the maps you completed as you sailed. If you want to have the player going around collecting things, make it unique like have it be someone who is collecting samples of rare plants and animals from around the world and bringing them back so they can be studied, or perhaps eaten by a gourmand who wants to try every experience. This was one of the big pushes in Pokemon games, to encounter each one at least once to fill up your pokedex with each unique entry, leading to players going exploring in areas to see how they were different, thus a little better than collecting the same number of just one Pokemon.