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RPG Grind Time – Is Open World The New RPG Standard?

by Kimberley Wallace on Aug 31, 2016 at 10:00 AM

Every generation, technology advances and changes our expectations for what games can be. In recent years, we've seen a trend of open-world games across many genres. It almost seems that in the triple-A market, this needs to be an integral part of your game. I don't begrudge developers who follow this trend. I think games explore worlds better than most other media, providing a satisfying sense of discovery and allowing you to inhabit them. It's no surprise that RPGs have adopted more open-world backdrops; they provide a great way to add side quests and activities, while immersing players with the lore of the landscape.

However, I don't think that an RPG has to have an open world to be worthy of your time. For instance, I love the Persona and The Legend of Heroes' Trails games, and these are mostly linear. Sometimes I'm not in the mood to be overwhelmed by a massive world. I like a more condensed, contained experience. Ultimately, it's more of what makes sense for the story the developers want to tell, and what the developers are comfortable with for the game. After all, an open world requires a lot of resources to do it right; it's not something you can rush into head first. Just because CD Projekt Red knocked it out of the park with The Witcher 3 doesn't mean other developers can and will do the same. See Two Worlds II. And even though CD Projekt Red did well with an open world that doesn't make Witcher I or II, more linear games, any less fantastic.

The reason why I bring this up is last week some information appeared about Final Fantasy XV and it got me thinking. The game has never claimed to have a fully open world, but to have more open areas to explore than in past games. In an interview with Famitsu, translated by Siliconera, director Hajime Tabata said, "Final Fantasy XV consists of both open-world and linear parts. The first half keeps going as an open world, but the story in the second half is led by a linear path. That way, you won't get bored of an open world as the rest of the game tightens, so we made it in a way that you'll also get to advance through it as you have in conventional Final Fantasy games." 

Immediately, people took this to mean something negative. I get it. After Final Fantasy XIII, the last thing we want to hear is anything taking a more linear path. I also understand, as I addressed in my last column, the long wait and worry about Final Fantasy XV. However, it's not exclusive to Final Fantasy that we think of "linear" as a negative term, especially in RPGs. It depends on what the game offers in that linear space that determines if it's a good game. Are there cool battles? Some interesting choices for you to make along the way? Are the character interactions so engaging that you're more focused on that than the landscape? Is there fun loot to find? Are NPCs with cool tales and quests scattered throughout? 

I hate to sound like a broken record, but the world is only one component of an experience. While I don't think an open world is necessary, I at least think an RPG has to have an interesting world with plenty of history and lore to make it exciting. The most important part is how the gameplay and story play off it. Nothing is worse than giant open spaces with nothing to do – I'm looking at you, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness. For me, games like Persona and Cold Steel make up for their lessened sense of exploration by allowing you to delve deeper into characters via social systems. These systems gave me enough freedom to decide which characters I wanted to engage with, even if the world didn't provide the same experience. At the end of the day, it's about how all the parts come together, and if they do in a fun way, that's what matters most.

I love open-world games, but I don't want all my experiences to be that way. Variety is the spice of life, after all. Sometimes I like the comfort of having two paths available before me and knowing that if I go down the one leading to a dead end, I will at least find a chest for my efforts and can then get right back on the main path. Sometimes I'm more invested in the narrative and don't want to be distracted by exploring every which way and getting sidetracked and lost by extra activities.

Game development isn't as cut-and-dried as "do this" and "not this." Every series and game must do what works best for it. I don't think an open world is a requirement for the genre. Sometimes it's better for series to explore smaller spaces until they try something bigger, such as The Witcher 3 and upcoming Mass Effect: Andromeda. Both those franchises were linear and some of the best RPGs of last generation. Then they decided to be more ambitious. Final Fantasy XV is trying to be ambitious in many different ways, from the combat to the world. The jury is still out on if it will be a success story, but just because the game becomes more linear as it goes on doesn't necessarily mean it will be bad. It may make sense for the story. I suspect as technology grows, the scope and expectations for RPGs will continue to rise. That's great and makes the genre stronger, but check lists for what should be in an RPG or any genre are dangerous. Open world or not, it matters more that the game is well done and enjoyable to spend hours upon hours with.