Open World Map Exploration: Organic or Incentivized?

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Pezen

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Edited By Pezen

If you for a moment consider these questions; what makes a good open world map? Does the game have to justify the map in some way? If yes, does the game have to offer up incentives or can the exploration come organically?

I ask those questions because having finished Mafia III and pondered how I tend to fall on the odd side of the discussion on the Mafia franchise. A lot of people argued that Mafia's maps are pointless because there's no reason to explore them. Maybe that's the case, maybe not. But it made me think about a long standing idea I've had regarding open world games and their maps. Namely the negative spaces. Those places you rarely ever go to because you either have no mission there or optional incentive to explore the area. I am sure you can think about any open world game you have played and nod because you remember that one alley, park, field or factory that became window dressing more than a place you actually visited.

When we discuss open world games and their maps it's often with the distinct agreement that there need to be things to do in order for you to explore the map, otherwise what is the point? In your every day life, do you explore every area around the place you live for no reason? Of course not, that would probably not yield all that much of interest to you with possible exceptions. But we expect games to be crammed with those things to motivate us to explore, even though a lot of those games are designed to mimic real life to a certain degree. They are exaggerated, of course, but still aim to be a simulated city in a bottle.

I would argue that the motivation to explore an open world map beyond what the developers ask you to explore needs to come from the map itself. I rarely enjoy side activities in these games, because they're often pretty pointless. Collectibles are usually too many for my taste and often more feels like a map clearing checklist than a form of exploration. Consider the Elder Scrolls series and how exploring the map often reveals interesting places, stories and quests. Sure, compared to Mafia, there isn't anything like that to find in Mafia but I'll get to that later. The Elder Scrolls franchise wants you to explore its map, because it's packed with things to find. But that may also be one of the notable exceptions. I would argue Witcher 3 does a good job of this also, but that game also reveals a lot of it's points of interest on the map which makes the act of exploration less organic because you're drawn to markers on the map. Even so there are plenty of things to find.

But if we focus on the open world crime genre that often takes place in cities and the surrounding areas the reasons to explore those maps become smaller much faster because there's very little to actually discover. So the game needs to show you the map because it can't rely on your sense of curiosity. And here's the point where I think Mafia shines and a lot of other open world games don't and I'll explain with an anecdote from my time with Mafia III.

I was tasked with bringing in a shipment of electronics from out in the Bayou. I'm not going to lie, being far up in the map and being tasked to drive down to the Bayou can feel like a hassle. But I got to driving, did some fancy drifting around corners and eventually came to a fork in the road and I looked at the sign that pointed me in the right direction and I stopped the car. I stopped the car not because I missed the turn but because when I saw the sign I realized I had driven all the way there without looking at the signs. Having looked at the map where to go my internal sense of place within the game's map had already drawn a route to drive. And so I started thinking about why that was and I came to the conclusion as I played the game that they make sure you see that map by design.

Missions begin and end in such a way that you have to drive back to your points of progression using different roads. When I finished that game, I had probably driven on most if not all the streets of that map. What I came to realize is that the map had very few negative spaces (but it does have some) and I began to feel at home in most areas and how they were interconnected with each other. I didn't need a reason to explore the map, the game was built in such a way that I would be doing that organically through playing the game beat by beat.

This may all sound like a defensive speech in favor of Mafia, I realize, but I found it an interesting jumping off point (and I am sure plenty of you will disagree with my experience and that's totally cool). That being said, I am interested in your thoughts regarding the subject matter and if you have ever thought on the concept of negative spaces in open world games or what motives you to explore open world maps in general.

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LawGamer

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#1  Edited By LawGamer

A good open world map needs to have interesting things happening in it, beyond the things you are immediately tasked with doing. To use your example of Skyrim, not only are there interesting places to explore but random things like dragon attacks can just happen while you are on your way to do something else. Red Dead Redemption is another good example. There are plenty of odd little side tasks to find while on your way to and from other missions; you might play poker, get in a gunfight, have your horse stolen etc. In other words, it feels like the world exists independent of your character and that NPCs have lives they go back to when your character leaves.

Another thing that sets good open worlds apart from bad ones is interesting and compelling scenery. This might be done either with some cool object in the distance, or a really good sense that you are transitioning from one part of the map to another. In the Witcher 3, for example, you have the tree where the Witches' Sabbath takes place later in the story. You can see it from pretty much all over the map and gnarled and interesting, which makes you immediately want to know more about it, since its clearly an important feature of the landscape. The areas themselves are also very different. No Man's Land is very different from Skellige which is very different from the cities. And the cities themselves have very different feels and architectural styles that set them apart. This helps keep exploration fresh because it breaks up the larger map into manageable chunks and keeps you from getting tired of any one area.

I think in contrast to you, I thought that Mafia III did a really poor job of all of those things. Once you get a mission, there's pretty much nothing to do beyond driving to the next waypoint on the map. There aren't any side activities in the style of GTA, and there really aren't any random events like in Skyrim or Red Dead. And because the game is set in a fictional city, there aren't really any real life landmarks you can go and visit just for the hell of it. There wasn't even really any interesting fictional stuff to go and visit. Most of the semi-original stuff like the amusement part was only accessible in specific missions. And beyond the city/bayou distinction I thought the city felt really same-y. Technically there are supposed to be rich areas and poor areas and industrial areas, but personally I thought those all sort of blended together after awhile (partly due to art design - the color palette was really limited and flat). Smaller issues like the limited civilian dialogue, or objectives that deliberately felt placed too far apart didn't help either. The overall effect was for the city to feel like a lame interactive loading screen - I have to drive for five minutes just to get to the next mission. I kept finding myself wanting a fast travel option.

If you want a "pointless" open world done right, look at LA Noire. Most of the city has absolutely nothing to do with the plot and you have no reason to visit it at all, but the game did such a good job of recreating the feel of 50s LA that it was fun to just tear around. Plus, if you were familiar with the city in real life, it was possible to find places and shops that are absolutely still there today.

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#2  Edited By Teddie

Obviously there's a place for both, but in the case of something like Mafia III it's there entirely for atmospheric purposes. If that fails on the player, there's nothing else there to make it a viable feature.

Something like Skyrim bases its core gameplay experiences around its open world, meaning even if the atmosphere doesn't get you, there's still reason to engage with it, and it's hard not to engage with it just by the act of playing.

Both of those examples still come down to personal taste in the end, which is why I think there's room for both types of open world. The Mafia III type is just a hell of a lot harder to justify, and to justify it to a mass audience.

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#3  Edited By _Zombie_

If it gets to the point where I find myself barely paying attention to the game, it's lost me. A lot of open world games for me turn into "beat main storyline > endless grind" because the rest of the game is mostly filler content to justify having a big map. Witcher 3 did it best for me, because a majority of the little side activities and contracts and stuff were fairly engaging and mixed it up a bit. I didn't go start something and kind of check out immediately because I'd already done the same thing 5 times that day. Tiny details make up a big thing for me, too. For all the repetition of GTA V/Online, it's neat to drive by and see NPCs actually doing stuff and having conversations. It seems kind of unimportant in the grander scheme, but tiny little details done right helps me immerse myself in an open world a little easier. The more detail with everything the better, really. Assuming it suits the game.

Also seconding LawGamer on L.A. Noire. One of Rockstar's best game worlds for the sheer level of detail they put into recreating L.A.

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Pezen

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@lawgamer:You make some really salient points, I do agree with a lot of them for the most part. But I think where we split (aside from aspects of Mafia III) is that I don't necessarily think the open world needs those activities to feel like a viable use of space. For example, as I touched on, people have discussed whether or not a game like Mafia (or even LA Noire at the time) would benefit from being linear and level based. But if they would be, both would probably be lesser experiences. Mafia wouldn't have the time to give you its ambient narrative on the radio, from pedestrians and police. LA Noire would become a Sherlock Holmes-esque adventure game. And when it comes to fast travel, I have noticed that even games like Skyrim becomes infinitely smaller the moment that becomes available. In some way, I guess I enjoy being forced to take the in-game mode of travel because otherwise at some point you're just picking places from a list rather than exploring a place.

I also think I would have been more impressed with LA Noire's depiction of Los Angeles if I had a real frame of reference for Los Angeles. In my eyes they could have just called it something fictional and I would have had the same exact experience. That being said, I do recall really enjoying that pointless city for a similar reason I enjoy Mafia's though. But I have to say, and maybe this is why my tolerance for these emptier open world games is higher, I still haven't found an open world game that echoes your point of feeling like the world exist independent of my character being there or not. The true test of that would be going back in after you finish a game and feel good just being in that world for no reason. But most of the time when you do that, it feels like you're driving through a studio that is done shooting the movie you were in.

@teddie: I can certainly get behind that. I do wish though that some games that opted to be in the first category would actually fill the map with viable activities rather than a lot of busywork. I mean, as much as I love Assassin's Creed, those games sometimes could try a bit of less is more approach.

@_zombie_: I completely agree with you on Witcher 3. And I think I have a similar approach, which is why I often don't feel the urge to do a lot of the side content in open world games which incidentally probably relates to why I enjoy these more streamlined open world titles. I get the open world but without a million things that ultimately just detracts from the core experience the game's story moving forward.