Posted on 24th May 2008 at 9:00 AM UTC

The complete history of open-world games (part 1)

Feature: From Elite to Elder Scrolls

Todd howard, game director at Bethesda reckons gamers love freedom. "They feel more like the character they're playing." he explains.

"They're doing what they want to do and not what you, the designer, wants them to do. The more open, the more reactive you can make it, the better the player experience."

Rather than preenting us with a thrilling, scripted rollercoaster ride, titles such as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and the forthcoming Fallout 3 present us with vast worlds that we can inhabit, and decide what kind of character we want to be - whether it's a Redguard bard with penchant for alchemy or a lone Jet addict and his dog battling mutants in a post-nuclear wasteland.

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Of course, no one is going to deny that linear games such as Half-Life 2 and Call of Duty 4 are any less than superb despite their on-rails nature, but we're going to celebrate open-world gaming on PC and discover what it takes to deliver a living, breathing universe where the player is free to roam...

Open For Business

The first truly open-world game was made for the BBC Micro back in 1984 - David Braben and Ian Bell's Elite.

Until then, space games were flat, 2D experiences where you were restricted to a choice of when to move your ship and fire laser bolts at ever-descending dot-matrix aliens.

Elite created a believable open-ended wire frame universe of planets, political systems, economies, trading routes and space stations, in which you could explore the galaxies and define your Commander Jameson - would you live the life of a bounty hunter, a miner, a trader or a pirate?

Soon after Elite, Mike Singleton, already a legend for creating the Tolkien-inspired The Lords of Midnight on the ZX Spectrum, delivered the seminal PC game Midwinter in 1989.

Set in a snowy post-nuclear war wasteland, Midwinter had many innovations - it was one of the first solid-3D games on PC, allowed you to use more than 30 vehicles including hang gliders and snowmobiles, introduced a sniper rifle and was - revolutionary, this - completely non-linear.

The player could locate, recruit and control any of the last survivors of the human race scattered over 160,000 square miles of terrain.

"It was inspired by a desire to recreate an in-depth, free-roaming world where you have an almost infinite number of ways to approach the game and win it," says Singleton.

Even now, when many shooters rely on 'action bubble' mechanics to give a feeling of the non-linear (such as Far Cry or Crysis) Midwinter's level of strategic depth is entirely remarkable.

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Operation Flashpoint creators Bohemia Interactive's community manager Paul R. Statham, believes that giving gamers such freedom to express themselves within a virtual universe is infinitely more immersing because it taps into our "don't tell me what to do" mentality.

Everybody wants to buck the rules in the real world, so in the virtual world it follows suit.

"In open-world games, if you're the one making decisions about how you approach an objective, how you complete that objective, who you complete it with and what weapons and transport you use, there's a much greater sense of satisfaction and greater sense of being on an adventure," says Statham.

"Gamers have more of a feeling of 'that's me in the game doing that', rather than a sense that you're a disembodied character on a linear path with little possibility to really influence the events and surroundings."

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10 comments so far...

  1. Lewbyface on 24 May '08 said:

    I see you've not mentioned Mount and Blade, and you probably will not.

    Question - Why the hell not?

  2. Dajmin on 24 May '08 said:

    I suspect because a game that's not even out yet can't exactly be said to influence a genre - and it certainly isn't ging to be rivaling a franchise like Elder Scrolls.

  3. humorguy on 24 May '08 said:

    This is about the fourth time CVG/PC Zone/PC Gamer seems to be writing an article based on what I have said in threads many times many months or even years ago! I must be getting something right! :)

  4. Lewbyface on 25 May '08 said:

    It cant be said to be influencing a genre?

    Then why have many new games coming out from Age of Conan, hell, even to Too Human, referenced Mount and Blade in what influenced them during the creation of their games?

    Yes however, Mount and Blade isn't officially released, its not 1.0 yet, but it has been around for many years and has many many people playing it. Almost everyone whom has discovered it has fallen in love with it.

    If Mount and Blade isn't the least linnear, most free roaming game there is out right now, then I really don't know what is.

    This may just be from a personal standpoint, but I feel M&B is a far better game than Oblivion. Yes, Oblivion is polished and certainly there are more things to do, but you never get a nice sense of accomplishing something in that game, in Mount and Blade when you capture an enemy castle and push towards one of their cities, you certainly feel the world is changing around you.

    Man, I'm now ranting, but with polish and a lot more content and work done on it, it could be the best free roaming game, period.

    Thats why I feel it does deserve at-least some attention from this site and indeed others, because if it was talked about more, more people would buy it, more money would go into the production, and we'd have an epic game on our hands.

    Just my 2 cents.

  5. Whiteball on 26 May '08 said:

    I have never seen Mount & Blade, but I will certainly look it up now. Seems this article has at least done one good thing.

    Going back to the article, in general I don't think these are ever comprehensive enough. Mainly they always consist of the big name games everyone has heard of, which and are good, but not necessarily genre defining, first or even the best in their class.

    The other issue is that they also always seem to reflect what the writer has seen, played or heard of. There never seems to be a truly in depth article that traces things fully to the dawn of time. To call an article the A-Z of, or The history of, etc seems wrong when so much is missed.

    Still I suppose they do help some people, discover somethings they may not have seen or played before.

    While this article itself hasn't for me, this thread certainly has.

  6. Anonymous on 26 May '08 said:

    I don't get why Ultima was not mentioned in this. They all have a main storyline of course but you could always free roam the whole world and basically kill anyone you wanted...etc..

  7. johnman on 31 May '08 said:

    weres part 2+?

  8. Donedy on 31 May '08 said:

    It can't be the future of gaming! What would become of the adventure game genre? I personaly like games which lead me along a story. When I finish the game, ie Monkey Island, you feel like you have accomplished something, completed a challenge someone has set you. Free form games are all well and good, but we have to be careful they are not becoming like virtual life!

  9. Donedy on 31 May '08 said:

    It can't be the future of gaming! What would become of the adventure game genre? I personaly like games which lead me along a story. When I finish the game, ie Monkey Island, you feel like you have accomplished something, completed a challenge someone has set you. Free form games are all well and good, but we have to be careful they are not becoming like virtual life!

  10. humorguy on 2 Jun '08 said:

    Donedy - I like adventures too, but I have plenty in my collection, and more than any other genre, they do not age in the slightest!

    But I do look forward to the first open world 'adventure', and to me that will be the first open world game where there are no guns and no violence. Or at least where the story allows no for no violence. There are many private detectives, for example, that do not own a gun and have seen little violence. the TV series 'Monk' is a good example of this. And there are many films and TV shows and books where no one dies. If a publisher took a leaf out of one of those entertainment vehicles it could do PC/Video gaming a lot of good!

    Oh - and one last thing: Who says open world games just have to be RPG's?! One of the most open world series of games in that you start the game and then YOU decide how to approach the world around you - and that's the Total War series! :)