Whole new worlds
Open-world games made some of game designs most significant leaps forward last generation. We saw established open-world franchises take their biggest, boldest steps, and saw genres we thought of as set in stone (read: a bit boring), like driving games, try their hand at the formula. Theres something about setting off to journey through an open landscape, constrained only by a developers imagination, that instantly captures ours - not to mention quells any of those pesky urges to leave the house, learn to cook or create beautiful music. Ugh.
Which is why its all the more surprising to see some of the new generations biggest games abandoning the formula. Dragon Age, Metal Gear Solid, No Mans Sky and more are all becoming more compartmentalised hub games, chopping out the cross-country travel to leave behind smaller, fully-explorable areas connected only by loading screens. But why? Its enough to have you wishing for an eight-slide gallery feature that explores that very phenomenon. Oh look, heres one now!
Hubs make for more variety
Remember that tropical beach in Skyrim? And what about the fully explorable English countryside village in GTA V, complete with a quaint, family-run post office to burgle? You havent had a catastrophic brain event, I made them up. Jokes on you, it was all a ruse. But, like all the best ruses, it contains a lesson in game design at the end. While a traditional open world offers a huge swath of land to look around, its more or less hamstrung by having to, like, make sense. Hub worlds can ignore this sticky geographical issue.
Dragon Age: Inquisition pulls this off to magnificent effect. Drawing on what Bioware learned from Dragon Age 2s Kirkwall ie. that playing out an epochal storyline inside gamings equivalent of Birmingham or Cleveland is a tad dull - the sequels Inquisitor travels the length and breadth of beleaguered fantasy-continent, Thedas. From a breathtaking desert oasis, through under-construction castles, to long-lost, overgrown temples, arriving in a new area is as much about the rush of tourist-y excitement as it is the opportunity to nobble some new demon variants.
Being smaller means you can actually be bigger
Some games simply dont allow for an open world in the way weve come to expect it. The recent return of the space sim has led to several games that use the hub format out of necessity rather than any kind of overt design philosophy, built to offer millions of locations to look around, fight in and be damaged by on an existential and spiritual level.
Elite: Dangerous could technically let you point yourself at an unexplored solar system and trundle towards it at a mere 300 kilometres per hour, but it would take multiple lifetimes worth of gameplay to get even halfway there, and Ive got better things to be doing - like Hearthstone or something - so its hyperdrive-aided hub system cuts out the wait (and your mid-flight death). Hub design is as much used to make open-galaxy games as it is open worlds at this point, facilitating game spaces that make the likes of Red Dead Redemptions wide-open frontier look like a particularly violent atom.
Hub design gives procedural generation space to work
The likes of Elite also raise another particularly modern issue for non-linear exploration. As we crave more and more from our game worlds, developers cant physically keep up. Unless we want a group of haggard, sleep-deprived nerds whove worked their fingers down to bloodied nubs through sheer force of keyboard presses, they need a way to make big content without spending their entire lives on it.
Enter procedural generation, in which a few pieces of design can be re-used to make practically endless variations. No Mans Sky will be creating its neon-pastel landscapes, frilly dinosaurs, and flimsy, destructible asteroid fields on the fly, and it cant very well do it if youre watching intently the whole time. Think of it as the games take on urinal stage fright - your jumps between the games many, many, many systems are the equivalent of you turning around to use the sink, allowing the game to freely excrete a whole new set of worlds, before, ruining this metaphor, you turn around to use the game-toilet once more. All of this is basically science, so youre not even allowed to be disgusted.
Smaller environments mean you can put more in them
Why cant I go into this laundromat? you scream. I mean, it has a door, I can see it there. Yes, it has a less detailed texture than doors Ive been allowed to use previously, but it is certainly a door. I recognise all the door-like features, barring one. The only thing missing is my ability to go in and snoop around peoples baskets of soiled clothes. Ive been there, friend. I too have wanted to see every mundane detail of a citys thousands of buildings but, again, it can prove too much work for designers otherwise trying to accurately simulate a dangerous crime spree.
Dead Island 2s multiple locations help alleviate that issue. Paring the world down to interesting, constituent parts means that developers can lavish more attention on their smaller details. Couple that with some small procedural generation of building layout, and you have yourself the perfect opportunity to look around fake peoples bathrooms for the rest of your horrible life.
Intricate level design is better than size for sizes sake
Just as building multiple areas lets developers focus on the detail of each, it also lets them focus on the design of it, too. Game design as opposed to art design, that is. I wasnt suggesting Just Cause 2 takes place in a featureless world of undulating white topology.
As far as I can tell, some people are still angry that Destiny isnt a truly open world space shooter thing. Let me just stick my head out of the window and check. Yes, I can still hear bleating. What this ignores is that each of its hub environments is built to offer the experiences you need, both in and out of missions. Enemy levelling, choke points, even the placement of seemingly non-linear Patrol mission pick-ups have been placed to funnel you through the world in the most entertaining possible fashion, while keeping the challenge consistent. Try this in a truly open-world and youll either have impassable mountain ranges stuck in the middle of your map (hello, Far Cry 4) or a studio of people driven mad by fractal geometry, drawing mazes on the walls in their own or others blood.
Hubs are a simple solution to the old fast-travel conundrum
This ones less about design, and more about how you, the player, are a fickle, spoilt, toddler. Dont worry, I am too. We expect the world on a plate or, at the very least, an easily accessible inventory map. The problem with a traditional open world is that its unwieldy - a single, gigantic bit of architecture were expected to look around ourselves. Which is why fast travel was invented. But then we also complain that it becomes too easy to get around without seeing what the game actually offers between its major landmarks. So a game like the oft-overlooked Dragons Dogma comes along, makes fast travel a tough and arbitrary experience, and we all get up in arms about it.
The solution, basically, is to give us no choice. Assassins Creed Rogue, for instance, splits its world into three distinct hub areas, forcing you to fast travel between them. With nothing to see between the New York coastline and the North Atlantic, theres also nothing to miss. Problem solved. Its a crude solution, but looking after a toddlers tough, you know?
Right now, its the most practical thing to do
Of course, behind all of this pontificating, theres a fairly major point I havent addressed yet - making a decent open world is really hard. Los Santos is an incredible place, but it also took five years, hundreds of people and millions upon millions of dollars to create.Throw in the fact that a new console generation means almost every third-party developer will be spending the next year or so performing the programming equivalent of trying to make a sculpture out of thick yoghurt in the dark, and theres a reason relatively simplistic hub design is so popular right now, in the early days of the new consoles collective regime.
Put it this way - as fantastic as Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain looks, and as squeal-inducingly fun as attaching a balloon to a ram and flying it, fatally, into a helicopter - so that the vehicle crashes into the side of a verdant cliffside - sounds, you can bet Hideo Kojima wishes he could do more. He wishes you could then drive your Jeep to the beach, catch some rays, meet a buff volleyball player whod make a good recruit ,and abduct him before grabbing a catamaran and sailing home to Mother Base. As it is, well be *yawn* taking an evac helicopter that can play custom tunes between areas. You do what you can with what youve got.
Todays smaller worlds will help shape tomorrows bigger ones
But perhaps that practicality is a necessary stop-gap and nothing more - a way of capitalising on our machines newfound power while everyone relearns how to make huge, complex games. Were fairly certain Just Cause 3 will return to the single open-world format (which works, primarily, because getting across the map using a grappling hook and parachute is about as much fun as anything else in the series), and who knows what else is on its way?
The Witcher 3 is going big, and Michel Ancels Wild is said to take place across a map the size of Europe, and there are any number of developers quietly getting on with projects that could potentially come to redefine what we know as the traditional open-world game. Hub design is proving to be a useful, and often hugely exciting, form for new-gen games to take. It could be that its self-contained freedom has provided a safe environment in which to teach potential open-world devs a few lessons about where to go next.
The recent, perhaps necessary, boom in hub-based games raises the question of whether anyones really perfected the open-world yet. Theres more to come, and when it arrives, Im willing to bet youll have seen its early form in the hub games Ive mentioned. Any further thoughts? Liking the way open-world games are going, or do you crave a traditional Grand Theft Auto 6, stat? Let me know in the comments.
But before you head off into the yonder, to explore wherever you will explore, equip yourself with some of our other wide-ranging, boundary-free content. Our list of the best open-world games so far is a good starting point, and if you need some fiendish ideas to occupy yourself on your travels, check out our run-down of 8 unspeakably evil things you can do in open-world games.