It really depends, I don't think size has much to do with it.
Just Cause 2 is so incredibly huge but over half of it, if not 80% is bland terrain for the sake of terrain. In that game it makes sense, and it's about traversal.
Skyrim has a very large world and is densely populated with events and locations.
GTA usually strikes a good balance between the two; terrain for the sake of traversal and locations such as shops and NPC homes.
I like all 3.
@abendlaender I also felt that the world GTA Vice City was the perfect size, for the same reasons you gave in the OP. Although for some reason I don't mind a big world in a RPG, but I do mind a big world for an action game like GTA, Just Cause etc. I wasn't exactly excited when I heard that the world of GTA5 would be a whole lot bigger than the one from San Andreas because that world felt too big. However, I must say that I really like the world in GTA 5. As other have said, the world is packed with things to do and it really feels like a living world.
Was The Witcher 1 open world? I never got very far - didn't like the combat - but it didn't seem like an open world game to me.
As to your question. It's really how the game uses the space more so than how big it is. Skyrim epicness suits a huge world that you can wander around in and get lost. Just Cause 2 had amazing traversal, so even though the world was a bit empty, it was OK since getting from place to place in itself was a lot of fun. The setting of Saints Row the Third was really superfluous next to the mission structure - honestly Steelport could have been even smaller and it wouldn't have made much difference.
Out of the games on your list that I'm familiar with, only San Andreas stands out to me as not having used it's space very well. Out of all the GTAs, that one seemed the easiest to just get lost doing nothing in and essentially getting nowhere. I'm not one to comment though, I've only ever actually finished the story in GTA 3, despite probably having spent more time overall in San Andreas.
I prefer larger maps, and I'm probably one of the only people here who enjoys it when there are scenic spots that aren't crammed with content. I just don't have that whole "every part of every area has to have tons of stuff to do or else it's useless" mindset, I guess. I like to explore just for the sake of exploration sometimes. To me it's similar to that whole Dragon Age 2 "every button on the controller has to do something AWESOME" thing. Trying way too hard to fill every single spot with a crapload of content can make it bad due to oversaturation of content and content repetitiveness.
Skyrim wasn't that big, it was just really dense. I think Oblivion's world map was bigger. Just Cause 2 is several times the size of both of those either way.
I like a reasonably big world that doesn't have a lot of nothingness as filler. Something too huge feels daunting unless there's not a lot to do. I think the Saints Row games struck the sweet spot of being big enough to where it feels different throughout, but not so big as to become overwhelming.
The Elder Scrolls and last couple of Fallout games also have perfect sizes for what they're trying to accomplish. Since you're not using any vehicles, they're quite a bit smaller than something like GTA, but you tend to not notice that because of how you traverse the world. I remember being disappointed upon discovering that New Vegas' map was a bit smaller than Fallout 3's, but it ended up being packed with way more stuff. In the end, Fallout 3 was a lot more fun to randomly explore, but New Vegas was littered with quests and did quite a good job at making every section of the map feel different.
I usually find really large maps boring because they just feel empty, but GTA V proving to be the exception. 20 hours in and I still find myself just driving around aimlessly doing whatever random stuff I can and having a blast doing so.
Doesn't matter. Density and variety are more important.
Agreed, I find myself playing some games where although the map size is nice and big, the communities within the game are so spread out it doesn't matter, pack the map in some, combine some towns so it feels like there is more life in them.
I find it super weird that you even lable Dragon Age 1 as a open world game. Even more so as a big one. Anyway, GTA V is pretty fucking perfect I think. Damn that world is well crafted. There's nothing I enjoy more at the time than just cruising along the countryside in that game. So damn good. The road, the car, the traction, it all just feels perfect. And it's beautiful. So beautiful.
honestly, one of my biggest dreams for the industry is to have a GTA game that spans a country. like no joke: driving across a country in a game would be pretty cool with me, especially if the game is multiplayer. it's a weird dream, but driving across a huge map without paying for gas is worth fighting for.
I like it big but not too big. For example, Just Cause 2 is awe-inspiring for about five hours and then you suddenly realize there's really nothing to see in that game so you fast travel everywhere you can and frantically track down new towns to fast travel to. It has a TON of incentive to explore with the collectibles and grappling hook but the world is so repetitive the awe of it's size wears off long before the rest of the game's charm does.
That said, I would vote "give me all the world" if I could get a guarantee that Rockstar would have exclusive rights to the open world format from here on out.
I'm fine with massive open worlds.
I prefer it when they have a decent amount of stuff to do with them, but happily settle for pretty scenery to drive through on my way to missions or whatever.
I know a lot of people just wanna fast travel through that kinda thing but I find the long drives kind of relaxing.
Saints Row The Third felt just about right, given the transportation options and variety of stuff to do in the city. In Saints Row 4, the same world felt way too small because you could now traverse the entirety of the city in about a minute.
GTA5 feels way too big. When there is a mission I have to go to that is on the other side of the city, or anywhere out in the desert... I have no interest in traversing the world to get there and will usually swap to another character instead. Maybe it's because the penalties for having fun are so harsh (1-star rating takes way too long to clear) or that they made the world so realistic that there isn't anything interesting along the way.
That Deus Ex sequel back in the day (trying to remember it's name) was the smallest open world to my experience, and yet was still under populated.
Vice City was large enough. I do enjoy the sense of exploration, and what door if any will open.
I've been a fan of DCS developers since Flanker and they managed to map most of the black sea and a huge chunk of the caucasus(Flight Sim 2000 did better, but that world looked like ass =)), yet even that isn't enough for me, I want more, and I will never stop wanting more, but I think the industry at the moment(last 10 years...) seems far more interested in turning out better and better graphics then spending that GPU and CPU power to create vaster open worlds.
To be honest I don't really care how big the world is, I care much more about density. What I want from my open-world games is that Bethesda style "look over there, something interesting" experience.
Pretty much, I want it to be big but there has too be tons to look at. I love the Fallout and New Vegas style of just wandering and exploring and finding new stuff and cool people to talk to.
Dense and detailed with enough stuff to do that it's not an empty sandbox and large enough that you can't stand in the middle, do a 360 and see the boundaries of the world.
GTA V is large enough that despite being an island it doesn't feel like one even when you're flying over it.
Also if the world is so big that the developer had to resort to copy pasting that same areas/houses/dungeons/whatever all over the place then they failed.
I feel the size of the world needs to make sense. GTA V is big and packed with a lot of detail and hidden things for you to find or just to see and do whereas a game like Dragon's Dogma felt really big but it actually wasn't as you could only run to places and running back and forth between the same places got rather dull, very quickly as you're only looking at grass.
I'll take my world as big as i can get. The only catch is you have to have travel options to make up for that amount of size. It always sucked in San Andreas when you crashed a car in the mountain areas and had to hike it for awhile until you found something to drive.
@bybeach: The words you're looking for are "Invisible" and "War"
Skyrim is the ultimate open-world game at this point in time, because the point of an open world is to have places where you see a mountain and say, "I wonder what I can see from there." I don't think open world games that focus around highly populated areas work, because there's not much to see. Or at least, they don't work as open world games. From a gameplay and story perspective, they're just fine.
I want the ability to go inside every building. Which is why deadrising3 excites me.
Bitch!, Dead Rising 3 looks fucking awesome! And it looks like an elephant. O_o
Oh, and open-world is sort of my favorite genre now, rather than a linear game. So they're all pretty good. And everything came from Myst, so that's cool too.