Open world games continue to be all the rage in modern game design. Upcoming titles such as Anthem, Days Gone, and Spiderman all look to make their mark in the open world genre, featuring such staples as side-quests, collectibles, and events that make use of their open world. Sadly over these past few years, open world games have all started to gather a bit of sameness: fetch 10 bear asses, escort this person back, and get X and bring to Y. Of course, there are limitations on development time and resources, but there is one crucial detail that can take many of these boring tasks and turn them into valuable and interesting diversions for the player, challenging the player and making them feel invested.
Assassin’s Creed Origins may be one of the better entries in the series as of late, but its new addition of RPG elements such as leveling created a new need for players to complete side quests: they needed the experience to level up. Of course, the Assassin’s Creed map is gigantic, leaving a lot of room that needs to be filled in. This results in quests that are short-lived and uninteresting. Take the quest Wrath of the Poets, in it, you are tasked with saving some poets in a fort. Once you save them, you learn that some of their work was stolen, and you need to retrieve it. After doing so, you get into one last fight on your way back, and the quest is complete.
The story doesn’t relate back to the main quest in any true meaningful way and doesn’t provide content that is any different or unique than just playing the game normally. It doesn’t introduce any new elements, it doesn’t really do much of anything besides pointing you in a direction and saying “go do that thing” and giving you some extra experience you normally wouldn’t receive doing those same chain-of-events without the quest. It is simply there, to serve as fluff, to add more “content” to the title because of the game’s existing design that says you need to level up to advance further. Before you can get to the meaningful content, you need to go through these quests to check a box so that you may move forward onto the main quests.
Now, this type of side quest has been available for a long time in Assassin’s Creed, but those in Origins differ from their predecessors because of the RPG mechanics introduced in Origins, such as leveling and experience. Take Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, with no direct leveling aspect, side quests took on a different role in the gameplay. They provided resources, challenges to complete, or ways to upgrade your equipment and ship. They didn’t need to provide an interesting story, or a sufficient interest on their own because they weren’t forced; they could be vapid without consequences due to the game’s design. If you wanted to do them, you could do them, if you didn’t want to do them, that was also fine.
Other recent titles fall into the same trap. Take Horizon: Zero Dawn, as a perfect example. You are put in these large open areas with side-quests and tasks to complete, all the while littered with machines that you will need to kill or avoid in the process. The machines never really become easier from leveling so their challenge to you remains the same, but there is little to no value in doing side-quests except that they are a good source of resources and experience. For example, throughout the world, there are several bandit camps that exist that require you to clear them out. After painstakingly (and it does take a while) killing all the inhabitants of these camps you are treated to… some more experience and resources. The NPCs that eventually and inevitably come and reclaim the camp offer nothing new of interest; they don’t give you some story elements to help better inform you of the world. The whole camp experience is just another checkbox in a long list of things you could potentially do. Unfortunately, this is just one example of countless side-quests that really don’t add much besides additional content.
There are hunter lodges that allow for specific challenges, small story related side-quests, areas to simply kill everything, and the few and far between “dungeons.” With the exceptions of these “dungeons” that offer much-needed upgrades, everything else just provides more to do in the areas that you already are in. There are only so many reasons to kill a certain type of machine, and getting another quest to have you kill more of them isn’t all that interesting when the machines hold value on their own to kill. It simply forces the player into specific areas to complete certain tasks for no other purpose. At no point is there any true value in doing these quests outside of the mechanics of the game telling you should do them; you don’t feel engaged, you don’t see a purpose to them, they just exist as more “content” and that’s it. But because a leveling mechanic exists, you feel forced to complete them, you want to advance your character and become stronger, but it comes at the cost of doing vapid side-quests and it can get boring—fast.
Adding all this sub-par content in a forced manner means that at some point, you are going to burn out on them, and potentially the game. When playing Assassin’s Creed: Origins I was quite invested in doing the side-quests, I needed the gear, experience, and was generally enjoying the game. After 20+ hours, that quickly changed, I found myself doing the bare minimum amount of effort to advance the story so that I could get my hands on the content that was different and more valuable to me: the story. It’s not surprising that this is the case, the mechanics of the game only have so much depth to them, so other aspects of the game need to take over to keep it from feeling tiresome, aspects like a story with an ending unknown to the player at that point in the game.
Titles like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Batman: Arkham Knight handle this open-world design issue in vastly different but engaging ways. The Elder Scrolls series has largely been described as “wide as an ocean and deep as a puddle.” What you can do as a player is somewhat limited in comparison to other titles, but how those mechanics interact with the massive scope of the world is where the game puts value into its open world. Each area, each NPC, each town, each cave, they may all seem strung about, but once you realize their purpose in the grand design of the game, it all comes together. That area may have a murderer you need to find, an NPC might hold a secret clue, this town has a unique quest surrounding it, and that cave contains a rare item; yet, they all relate to some quest or other aspects of the game. Each of these small parts plays a role in something greater such as an overarching story. The tasks themselves may seem simple or straightforward, but because of the other elements surrounding them and how they interact with the world—with lasting effects—it changes the perception of their worth from being disconnected and repetitive with little to no overarching consequences, to having implications that extend far beyond their size and scope.
Batman: Arkham Knight handles its side-quests much like the Elder Scrolls series and streamlines them into several different, but better-crafted stories (except the Riddler line). Side-quests all have a purpose because they relate to the story at large, freeing Gotham from the Villains. Take the Penguin. In Batman: Arkham Knight you are tasked with finding weapon shipments and destroying them, eventually learning that it is the Penguin who is behind them. Each quest puts you a little closer in discovering who is behind them, where the Penguin is, and how to eventually take him down. Instead of placing side-quests strung about amongst the world with little connection like many other modern open world games, Arkham Knight opts to have a very focused approach. Side-quests interact with the story as a whole; even though they are not part of the main story, they still culminate in the end, should you complete all of them. You don’t need to be granted experience for the quests to be interesting, or for your progression to be inhibited by level requirements; you are invested just because of the other elements surrounding the quest themselves and the meaning and impact these quests have on those related elements.
If this open world trend in gaming is going to continue to be a valuable genre to the industry, developers need to consider how all of the elements interact with each other. Otherwise, they risk filling such games with boring, meaningless, and unchallenging content. These in-game worlds need to give the feeling that you are in this world, and that what you are doing matters and relates on some level to what is going on in the overarching story, rather than as tedium to be skipped over. Simply creating side-quests to fluff out “content” that is uninteresting but required for progressing, that doesn’t interact in any meaningful way with the rest of the game contributes to the latter. Titles like Batman: Arkham Knight and the Elder Scrolls series treat their open worlds with respect, adding value to the game at hand regardless of how small or simple a task may be by providing meaningful context and goals associated with them. This is how we need open world game developers to think when creating their universes: with an eye towards making side-quests matter in ways that meaningfully impact and matter in the surrounding world, rather than as a checklist that needs to be completed for you to move on to better content.
Quality above quantity is key, especially for open world games.