With the recent success of sprawling open world titles The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn, the existing open-world template of videogames is being challenged on a variety of fronts.
More and more triple A releases are being built around sprawling open worlds, with endless tasks to complete, characters to meet and environments to explore. Gone are the days where the triple A market was dominated by first person shooters with 6-hour-long cinematic campaigns, instead the trend has shifted towards throwing as much content as possible at the player, with pickup items strewn across massive virtual plains and mountains. But there exists a glaring issue with this format of game: it can be very, very boring.
Ubisoft are the kings of the ‘collect-athon’ format, with recent titles like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands lamented by fans for its unnecessary fetch-quests and who can forget the infamous feather collecting achievements from the Assassin’s Creed franchise? Others have jumped on this trend too – fans of the Mirror’s Edge franchise were upset with its latest outing, where the shift to an open world arguably ruined the tense, fast-paced gameplay the franchise is known for.
Many of us use videogames as an escape from the tedium of our daily lives, an injection of wonder and excitement to distract us from a bad day at work or a family squabble. Why then, would we want to use this time soullessly collecting useless digital items? There is little joy to be had in this format and collect-athon gameplay represents a fundamental flaw with modern open world design, which, if not executed properly, misses a crucial ingredient of a successful videogame: the need for fun.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild breaks up this format by taking existing tropes such as item collection and adding a much-needed degree of fun, challenge and genuine reward. Typically boring tasks like upgrading health and stamina stats are made engaging by requiring the player to solve puzzle-temples littered around the game’s vast world as a prerequisite to unlocking. The game’s world itself is chock full of environmental puzzles and unique dangers such temperature damage and unpredictable hostile AI, not to mention that the general design of the landscapes is built around complex platform gaming.
There are other notable titles that seek to shake up this format too, the Witcher 3 was universally praised for its interesting approach to typically mundane side-quests, adding cinematic variety and intrigue to even the least important fetch-quests. The Witcher 3 was released in 2015, it is a wonder then, why other studios have not learnt from its success, such as Bioware, whose more recent releases have been lamented by fans and critics for pandering more to the collect-athon format than ever before in the studio’s history.
It goes without saying that titles like Breath of the Wild are successful because of the love and attention to detail given to all areas of their design. It is to be expected that commercially-driven titles from big studios will miss the mark on occasion, but the recent influx of collect-athon games is mind-numbing. There seems to be no middle ground between the waves of linear games in Xbox 360 era and the contrasting titles today, but if all games are set to be open world, it would be nice if they could at least be fun.