When do open-world games become overwhelming rather than compelling?

by Nathan Misa Featured 30 Comments 30 Votes 5691 Views 11/02/2013 Back to Articles

Earlier last year, I was all about Skyrim. I had waited six long, tortuous years for the sequel to Oblivion, and I was adamant it would be the only game I’d need that summer. It was, for a time.

I played Skyrim steadily for the first few months, building up my character, taking my time to explore and gather hundreds of weapons, armour and items in my player character’s house that I insisted I'd “use later”. I spent hours searching generic dungeons just to see if I'd find anything unique. I let myself become utterly engulfed into what seemed to be a boundless world, and told myself there was no rush to finish the Main Quest.

Yet one day something happened. I had just completed the Dark Brotherhood sidequest line when I put down the controller and lost the urge to play, just like that. Despite playing a game with a ridiculous amount of content on offer, I lacked direction on what to do next.

Since then, I’ve never had Skyrim in the disc tray for longer than 10 minutes, no matter how hard I try to get back into it. Reflecting on why I just suddenly lost interest and why I can't get back into it made me think: when do open-world games become overwhelming and repetitive rather than engaging and limitless?

An expansive world, but is the freedom to explore meaningful, or just generic distractions to lengthen game-time?

First of all: why do people love open-world games? Most likely, it is the concept of player choice and freedom in another world that entices the majority of gamers. I often play RPGs based on the level of customisation it offers, or if it allows me to focus on the side-quests without forcing me to finish the main storyline. Having agency and freedom in a video game is naturally an intriguing thing, and shaping the game around what you want to experience is a nice alternative to following a scripted, rigid campaign.

It took me awhile to figure out where my dissatisfaction of Skyrim came from, and eventually I settled on two things: there comes a point when open-world games, more often than not, mistake quality for quantity, and in offering everything and anything to do, it can cause gamers to suffer from a lack of direction and purpose.

...there comes a point when open-world games, more often than not, mistake quality for quantity, and in offering everything and anything to do, it can cause gamers to suffer from a lack of direction and purpose."

Discovering and exploring dungeons in Skyrim was certainly enjoyable in the beginning, and much more varied than in Oblivion. But it didn't take me long to figure out there were certainly a lot more generic dungeons then there was unique ones. When I kept discovering the same low-level bandits or Draugr and the same general level design under the guise of clever but minor differences, it soon became tedious to go off the beaten path on the odd chance that my exploration and choices would lead to something meaningful. 100 "different" dungeons and however many Dragon Words certainly raises play-time, but I'd rather have the incentive to explore half that number if they led to or were all different and unique in their own way.

Dragon encounters are perhaps the best example: instead of being sweeping, epic battles every time they occurred, they degraded into irritating, shallow encounters due to the fact that they happened so often and in the same way, in the same locations, at the same inconvenient moments, no matter where I explored or what choice I had made in-game.

I didn't have the time or the will to kill every single beast for their dragon soul because I knew one would be around the corner again anyway. Sure, maybe players wanted lots of them to kill, but I would have traded the 50 or so generic dragon encounters I had for 10 utterly engaging and immersive battles with the beasts, as somewhat experienced in the Main Quest and DLC.

"For the last time, I don't have tree fiddy!"

A major problem in offering players so much to do in an open world game is sufficiently striking a balance between quantity of quests and making them feel like they have impact and meaning -- that they are worth completing. In the same file, you can become the Master of the Thieves Guild, the Dark Brotherhood, the Arch-Mage of the Mages' Guild and the greatest Dragonborn to ever live. But hardly anyone in Skyrim will ever acknowledge it, or anyone react to your choices beyond the characters tied to the questlines. I wanted there to be consequences from my choices; I wanted some impact from having the in-game freedom to join all of those often opposing factions at the same time.

It all felt inconsistent and tedious, and by the end I craved a game that had a set objective with clear direction for the player. But that's just me. Many of you probably won't experience the same sort of disillusion as I had, and indeed there are some games which manage to balance this problem out: Fallout New Vegas is one such example which manages to make every quest dynamic and most side-quests meaningful without resorting to generic quests to fill play-time.

There is a place for peripheral activities alongside fully-realised main campaign narratives, but a balance needs to be struck to give players more incentive to finish everything -- they advertised themselves as open-world games where choice is paramount, but having more things to do doesn't keep everyone playing; meaningful impact from player freedom does.

When, if ever, do you feel open-world games become overwhelming or tedious rather than compelling and engaging?

By Nathan Misa

Nathan Misa is the senior games writer, reviewer and contributor for MMGN.com and GamesFix, and is lost in the Skyrim wilderness. You can hear his ramblings and thoughts here on MMGN, and Twitter.

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When do open-world games become overwhelming rather than compelling? Comments

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Every time i have played one.
Sometimes I wish open world games were bigger like Fallout New Vegas. Bethesda takes the good approach that if you don't want to go and explore the whole world you don't have to because you can fast travel. If you don't want to go and search every nook and cranny of the game you don't have to play it.

I do agree though that Skyrim can be a dauntingly large place. I too haven't played since last March. I know what would be involved for me to play again, picking up the pieces where I left off, cleaning out my inventory of crap you think you don't need... only to need it again later when you remember what you had it for. Its daunting staring down a big RPG you havent played in a while but know you have to. The best thing to to is jump straight into quests.
after all the good quests are gone and areas discovered but I keep going back to fallout I feel like I need all the achievements 1 to go in fallout 3 and 2 left in new vegas but I think I will always go back to fallout because its so unique and the elder scrolls isnt well it is but Its very close to other games and movies a big world needs to be stuff thats super exciting
When they make you go on dates or your annoying cousin wants to go bowling while you're in the middle of fighting off the mafia.

I don't mind open world games too much if most of the time you're doing all these tedious side quests. I find that it causes me to not really enjoy the setting so much since I'm rushing all over the place from point A to B. By the point, I guess you should take a break and focus on the main quests.
Speaking of Skyrim is it still a broken mess on PS3?
When are open world games compelling?

OllyEbbz said: Speaking of Skyrim is it still a broken mess on PS3?

I think so. I bought it on steam and started again.
Depends. I found skyrim overwhelming but not fallout 3 I think it just depends how much you love the game
Wow, this is very similar to my experience. Was having an amazing time playing Skyrim and kept putting off the main quest because there was so much to do. One day I put it down and haven't gotten back to it... not sure if I ever will.

M@ndyz said: Depends. I found skyrim overwhelming but not fallout 3 I think it just depends how much you love the game

That's very true. I loved Skyrim initially but indeed towards the 20 hour mark I became tired of the same old caves- same old foes and the same dragon battles.
To this day I don't even believe I have finished the main quest.
I recently got myself back into Skyrim after taking about 12 months off it.
I was 20hrs or so in before I put it down, coz I got a little bored with it. But since getting back into it I'm now sitting at about 90+ hrs of gameplay.
The game, to me, is really what you want it to be. Outside the quests you make your own goals.
I've currently decided that I'm going to complete every dungeon the game has. I'm also going to go after the Dragon Priest masks.
The shear number of thing can be overwhelming, but you have to choose 1 or 2 goals at a time I think.
Depends your mood... if im angry it's shootem's, if i'm tired I play skyrim (exploration mostly) if I'm in a friendly/team mood ill play an online MMO and do some endgame content... if i'm sporty it's fifa or go outside and play real soccer
I am so over Skyrim, after the Dragon born DLC I went and walked around the new map for a few hours, it just felt like I was in Skyrim still. It just doesn't have much of a distinction that separates itself enough. Bigger isn't always better, I believe quality is preferred.
Interesting this topic comes up... I noticed the lack of compellingness, the lack of dungeon/map variety and the repetitiveness right from the start of playing Skyrim. At the time, I brought it up and most people criticised me for my opinion.

I wonder if many people have now changed their opinion and agree that Oblivion is the better game?
@Makra: I'm guilty of being one of those people. I think it's something which only clicks with most people hours into the file, when the majority of the world is discovered and you get a rhythm and feel of the quests and activities and their patterns. It's a shame, really. But perhaps it's just me and other gamers expecting too much from open-world games.

Oblivion is a better game is some ways, but Skyrim is better overall. I just keep feeling that annoying lack of direction (outside of the Main Quests) when playing it or other games like Saints Row The Third, and was curious if it was just me who suffered from inevitable boredom.

stublu said:

OllyEbbz said: Speaking of Skyrim is it still a broken mess on PS3?

I think so. I bought it on steam and started again.

I wanted to play through it on PS3 for the trophies but if it still freezes and jerks about then no thank you. I still don't get how Bethesda were allowed to release it in such a state on PS3, knowingly too. It's daylight robbery of customers money.
they're all the same in that there's only about 5 things to do, and they make 500 quests/missions out of it... boring.
It all comes down to personal preference really.
Like me, I enjoy a small degree of open-worlded ness, enough to distract me from the main story. But at the same time I want the game to have a solid main story in the first place and that's where the focus should be. A good example of my preference would be Mass Effect 3, I found that balance of main quest to side quest to my liking.

Something in particular I didn't like about Skyrim though was the whole in-built quest generating system. While technically it can generate an infinite number of quests for you, they're often quite simple and repetitive, offering very little variety.
Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaat's whaaaaat mooooooods arrrrre foooooor...

...Provided you can handle them - that is. It will most certainly refresh your Skyrim experience; at least it did for me. With the 'Live Another Life' mod, I didn't need to begin with my head getting chopped off, rather I already was a civilian living in a house in Morthal - ready to adventure.

There are so many mods that can change the game for you but of course you'd need it on PC and have the power to do so. I own the game on PS3 too, and I will admit that I haven't touched it for a while - but am still chipping hours into my copy on Steam thanks to mods.

Don't be afraid to sprinkle some chocolate on that vanilla Skyrim. ;)
@Tyrus for me it really comes down to Skyrim being extremely formulaic, whereas I find Oblivion much more creative and interesting. Maybe I'm just good at spotting patterns but after getting used to earlier Bethesda games, Skyrim just feels stale and uninspired, reusing the same formulas that Oblivion and Fallout used only in a less interesting and more repetitive way.

'Technically', Skyrim might be a better game, but I'll always stand by Oblivion being a more fun game.
I had that for a month or two but after I started again after getting Dawngaurd I got back into playing it again. Maybe you should just try something like starting a new game and then going back to you old game.
someone should rename this site to tyrus.com :P
Red dead is still a great example of open world. It gave u lot to do but never let it over harow the story. I think this was because the side quet gameplay was always a litre different to the main quest gameplay and could be completed in short bursts. And it had a tight story that always dragged you back.
@Makra : I do agree that Skyrim was overly formulaic. As @Fifinho5 pointed out, the "dynamic quest" system might theoretically produce an infinite amount of quests for you to choose, but they're all very generic and repetitive. Once I realised I was doing them as a chore made me lose interest and question what the point was anymore. I'd swap them for less quests with more depth (the Dark Brotherhood storyline in Oblivion was much better and way more engrossing).

@tails : Hahaha why?
The setting of the Elder Scrolls games makes it hard to create a large world that's still diverse imo there's only so many variants of medievil-fantasy architecture going around. The post-apocalyptic future setting in Fallout allows for a much more creatively diverse world to explore.
Great topic, was just discussing this same thing last week with a friend. I put 120+hrs into Skyrim on release and then just got over it, I was doing every single side quest before the main quest, to put it into perspective I've completed 60 side quests and only 7 main quests. My friend has started 5 play through's and never has he once completed the main quest either.
The amount of quests is simply overwhelming and it's not like a dungeon will take you 30 mins to go through either, they often take in excess of an hour to explore and fight everything in them. That being said, I've recently installed some mods (I'm playing on PC) and I'm now starting a generic Nord character with the sole purpose of finishing the main storyline before taking on too many side quests. This is going to be tough to stay focused as the game throws side quests at you like a rabid dog...
@Josh : I think mods would probably fix such woes because the modding community for Skyrim (and Oblivion and Morrowind before that) is so big and dedicated. I envy PC gamers a lot in that regard, but unfortunately I'm stuck with my Xbox 360 vanilla version with only Bethesda DLC. =_=

@Marshal976 : That's one big thing that bothered me, the generic quests usually take a lot longer too and the game literally throws them at you, and they're usually all the same. You're lucky you have the option of mods; let me know if you ever finish the Main Quest, I know I won't. :P
Great read.

I feel the same about all open-world games. I love them to death and they are virtually the only games I play now, but I do find I get really distracted from the main questline that once I stray from it I never go back and that leaves the game unfinished.

GTA IV copped a lot of flak for their under 30 hours achievement, but without I don't know if I would have completed the storyline. GTA is my favourite series, but I've done it before. I've put 80+ hours into Vice City over the years but still haven't finished the main storyline. I just love that world so much that I'd rather explore it and do the side quests than concentrate on the main storyline.

I'm kind of digressing. Yes, I agree. Open-world games are too big, it is what I love about them but they need to give people incentive to follow the main questline through. Side quests should be that, done on the side or after you've finished the game as an extra. Too much focus is on them, and it has been like that for a decade. In a quest to make the game better value they are taking people out of the story.

In a lot of ways it is like single player vs. multi player. IMO multi should be a side extra, but a lot of times it dominates over single player and developers are getting quite lazy when it comes to telling a great single player campaign.
Open world games have been one of my favourite categories and I usually dont get bored by them. I played San Andreas for countless hours (easily over 1000). GTA IV had less variety but I still played it quite a lot. Saints Row The Third, however I didnt play as much as I thought I would.

Far Cry 2 was a large open world game that I lost interest in. I think the setting in GTA games makes it a little easier. Far Cry 2 seemed too linear and the missions didn't feel fulfilling at all.

I think developers of games in this category need to create variety and make special interactions within the game like said in the article.
Loved the article, i completely agree although i only get this long term disdain with Bethesda games.

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