If there’s one trend that can be attributed to the current generation of consoles, it’s the meteoric rise of the open-world genre. It feels like every third triple-A title released these days features a sprawling landscape. It makes sense. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are the most powerful consoles we’ve ever had, especially with their respective Pro and X iterations. They’re capable of rendering beautiful environments, picturesque landscapes, and vast worlds like never before. It’s only natural that developers would want to use this technology to craft game worlds on a much bigger scale than previously possible. But where did it all start? When did games get so big?
Of course, open-world games existed before the current generation started five years ago. There were quite a few of them, in fact. Grand Theft Auto has always been a hugely successful example, as well as things like Just Cause and The Elder Scrolls. They were hardly uncommon, but not nearly as abundant as they are now. Ten years ago, games were content to be briefer experiences that were clearly defined by a beginning and an ending. Now, it feels like every game is chasing the open-world trend. The dream of having a vast world that players can get lost in is seemingly proving too enticing for developers.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Capcom has been killing it lately with tightly constructed experiences that don’t ask the player to invest 40-50 hours of their time. However, Resident Evil 2 is a faithful remake of a beloved classic, and Devil May Cry 5 is a long-awaited sequel with very clear expectations. Every other major triple-A game released this year has been open-world. For instance, Metro Exodus is a great example of the perceived need to be bigger and longer. The latest entry in a series traditionally dealing in the claustrophobia of underground Russia is now vast and sprawling. That’s not to say that the game is bad (it’s quite good, in fact) or that this approach isn’t valid, it just feels like the pressure to make games as huge as possible is very real.
Where did this all start? Well, the more capable hardware invited developers to make their games as impressive as possible, but there was one game that showed us what this additional power could achieve: Watch Dogs. Now, hear me out, I’m talking about the Watch Dogs we were promised, not the one we got. It was a decent game (I think I liked it more than most) with some neat ideas, but the game marketed to us was a vastly more impressive one. The version of Watch Dogs that promised a beautifully rendered world, and rich and dynamic interaction with a living world. A game where every random person you walked past in the street would have substance. It was a game where anything was possible, and it became allegorical of the potential of 8th generation hardware. Of course, the end result—following several delays that pushed it beyond its initial launch window—was a pretty major disappointment for most people.
However, the final game isn’t important here. The intense hype it generated got people excited to experiment with the new hardware. It got developers thinking about what was now possible. They wanted to deliver on the promise of Watch Dogs. It set the standard for what games could be in the next generation. Since then, it seems that’s become the standard. Think about the most acclaimed games of the past few years - Red Dead Redemption 2, Breath of the Wild, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. They’re all open-world and they all present an interpretation of Watch Dogs’ initial pitch. Each is more expansive than the last, attempting to one-up each other in a kind of endless competition.
We’ve had so many quality games that have expanded upon—and surpassed—this vision of a huge, stunningly detailed world that’s both dynamic and interactive. Frankly, there are so many that it’s impossible to recall them all. And it’s even more impossible to play them all at the pace that they release. When every game demands an investment of dozens of hours—and they’re all being hailed as the greatest thing ever by fans and critics—how are players supposed to choose. In the modern gaming space, there’s no room for shorter, tighter experiences, and there’s seemingly no room for players who don’t have the time to invest 40 hours in every new triple-A release.
It seems ridiculous to complain about there being too many good games. It probably makes me sound like a spoiled brat, but there’s a real sense of fatigue starting to dawn on me. I’m hesitant to start the latest triple-A game when I know it's going to demand dozens of hours of my time. It’s the reason I still haven’t jumped into Assassin’s Creed Odyssey despite the fact that it’s been installed on my hard drive since November. Maybe the real problem is my eternal FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), but games are just getting too big.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is the perfect example of that. Merely 12 months after the release of Assassin’s Creed Origins—a massive open-world game that takes a minimum of 50 hours to beat - Ubisoft released Odyssey—another massive open-world game that’s even more than 50 hours long. Despite starting Origins upon release, it took me six months to finally see credits. I wasn’t playing it for six months straight, of course, but that’s how long it occupied a space in my gaming roulette. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. It was a hugely refreshing change of pace for a tired series and Bayek is one of the series’ strongest protagonists. But the idea that I’m supposed to do it all again just one year later is simply too much.
Games in the triple-A space need to realize that they should focus on quality rather than simply competing for the player’s time. Although I haven’t played Odyssey myself, the criticisms laid against its excessive size and length—including side quests that are so generic they seem procedurally-generated—are widely known. They indicate a game that opts to overload itself with content rather than carefully construct a consistent experience. Triple-A games have gotten away from being worthwhile experiences, trying instead to compete with the likes of Fortnite and Apex Legends—live service games that are meant to be played indefinitely.
I miss the age of the "B-game." Back in the early 2010s, when the likes of THQ and Sega were putting out games like Red Faction Armageddon (not a great game, but you get it) and Binary Domain (a personal favorite of the last generation). Nowadays, games are happy to be labeled as distinctly "indie" or "triple-A." There's no middle ground. You're either a short-but-sweet low budget game or the biggest thing ever created. It's counterproductive. Gaming has lost its sense of modesty, desiring to be grander and more epic than anything else on the market at the expense of cohesion and fun.
More and more I find myself seeking out shorter, tighter experiences that only the indie space seem to be offering. In recent years, games like Night in the Woods and Donut County are the ones that have stuck with me long after finishing them. It’s the smaller, deliberately-constructed and tightly-paced games that I actually recall playing. Not the likes of Far Cry 5 or Final Fantasy XV, which are mostly a blur of mindless side quests and forgettable content. Big budget blockbuster games should take a cue from indie games and just take it easy with the length. Perhaps the success of Capcom’s recent releases, which offer relatively breezy hour counts, will encourage publishers to pursue tighter experiences that are confident enough to actually end and not pad themselves out with meaningless material.
There is a middle ground, however. Games that fit into the so-called "AA" space, existing somewhere between indie and triple-A. Titles such as Shadow Warrior 2 and Cities Skyline exist almost in a vacuum, separated from the world of goliath publishers and supported by mid-tier publishers like Devolver and Paradox. These games are able to perform well with a modest budget because they serve a niche audience who enjoy the clear and uncompromising vision on display. There's a tight focus in these kinds of games that has become less and less prevalent in the triple-A space. Name a major triple-A release from the past few years that can be nailed down to a single genre. You might think of a couple, but they're pretty rare. Games like Horizon Zero Dawn or Spider-Man have been blending action with stealth and role-playing elements for years now. This "AA" space is essential for tighter, more focused experiences that innovate on their respective genres.
With games like Cyberpunk 2077 on the horizon, it’s clear that the next generation of games isn’t going to get any more modest. I’m not pushing for the extinction of open-world games. I yearn to get lost in dense and beautifully-realized worlds as much as anyone else. I just hope tighter, more singular experiences still remain a valid option. Gaming should be a creative space to strive for the most exciting, emotional, cohesive, or inventive experiences, not simply one with a hefty hour count.
What do you think? Have you been enjoying the meteoric rise of open world games in this generation of consoles? Do you miss smaller, tighter triple-A experiences? Let us know in the comments.