Bigger Overworlds Aren't Always Better - NewsVGChartz Staff , posted on 28 September 2011 / 5,301 Views
Up until the last decade, developers have had quite a few restrictions in creating a huge living worlds. Whether it was the restrictions of the arcade environment, hardware limitations or lack of a proven design for it. As the years moved on, it was a challenge to constantly step up the scope of these environments. The 1998 classic, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, wowed gamers with Hyrule Field. Now, Hyrule Field is miniscule compared to the content we've had in the last couple of generations. Developers are now able to create these huge massive environments for gamers to explore. But sometimes the introduction of larger environments isn't always a good thing.
The idea behind creating these huge landscapes is to give players the freedom to decide where to go and what to do. The bigger the environment, the seemingly more freedom players can have. On paper, it makes perfect sense. The more freedom and space you give the player, the more content for them to explore. But without proper content to fill the world, you can create a repetitive and boring environment, even with quick travel. Large sections of the map just become useless stretches of land with maybe some enemies, an odd chests or generic drops.
This summer's L.A. Noire featured a map for players to traverse GTA-style. As impressive as it may be, it's a title where there's little content outside of just pure exploration. Once you learn how to quick travel to locations, there's little to no reason to get behind the wheel again. The title actually discourages it due to street damage fines. L.A. Noire could easily have had a similar experience by removing the overworld all together.
Just because you have content doesn't mean justify a massive overworld either. As much of a Monolith Soft fanboy I am, the more recent Xenoblade Chronicles falls under a similar curse. There's a seemingly huge number of side quests for the players to partake in. Given the huge environments, it was a smart move. Unfortunately, nearly all of these quests amount to “kill these,” ”find this,” or “kill these to find this.” It's clear that minimal efforts were put into these quests. As impressive as the environments are for a Wii title, they simply amount to empty space between you and your next cutscene or boss battle. Even some of the dungeons just feel flat out excessively big.
Just as easily as you can enlarge the world beyond its effective size, you can also compact environments too much as well. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is a perfect example of a title that lacks a suitable overworld. After Ocarina of Time's original impression with Hyrule Field and the Great Sea from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (although considered too big by many), the small compact room-like outside environments were just flat out disappointing. Every time you turned a corner there was a Heart Piece, usually obstructed simply by an item specific puzzle. There was a single massive field that was even bigger than Hyrule Field, but aside from a single boss fight and a couple of collectibles, it is completely barren.
Finding that perfect balance between content and size is something that many have struggled with. When it works, you get an experience that not only has freedom, but also makes it feel as if every piece of land you traverse is important. The Neversoft's 2005 Wild West shooter, GUN, is a great example of that balance. While the title was short on content, its matched with its overall scale, making every piece of land used in some way shape or form. It's not until you get to the very end that you really notice that the overall world is fairly compact. The compact environment keeps the player engaged in the experience, while still offering a sense of freedom not found in much more linear titles.
Sometimes it is fun to randomly run off into the wilderness and smack things. However, from an overall game design perspective, it seems pointless, if not detrimental to the experience, to create these large pieces of land that are never used and lack usefulness to the player. Sure, it lets publishers put big numbers on the back of the box. But I doubt it's worth deteriorating what could be the next AAA game.