Enhancing Open-World RPGs: The Case for Smaller, Denser Worlds

Isla Davis

Updated Tuesday, June 18, 2024 at 8:50 AM CDT

Enhancing Open-World RPGs: The Case for Smaller, Denser Worlds

The Appeal of Compact, Content-Rich Worlds

In the realm of open-world RPGs, the balance between size and content density can significantly impact player experience. Games like "Breath of the Wild" and "Elden Ring" showcase vast landscapes filled with potential, yet they could benefit from a more compact design that emphasizes dense and complex areas. Traditional RPGs have long focused on the thrill of uncovering hidden secrets, solving intricate puzzles, and exploring every nook and cranny. This sense of discovery can be diluted in overly expansive worlds with repetitive elements.

"Breath of the Wild," for instance, has been criticized by some players for its large, empty spaces and repetitive rewards, which can diminish the excitement of exploration. The game offers a vast playground but often lacks the variety and complexity in its content to keep players fully engaged. By reducing the overall size and enriching the areas with more diverse and intricate challenges, the game could enhance its immersive experience, making every corner of the world feel rewarding and purposeful.

Lessons from Classic Platformers

The success of compact, content-rich games is exemplified by titles like "Banjo Kazooie," a platformer renowned for its well-balanced design. The game offers a dense world packed with varied content, ensuring that players are constantly engaged and rewarded for their exploration. On the other hand, its sequel, "Banjo Tooie," faced criticism for being unnecessarily expansive, spreading its content too thin and detracting from the overall enjoyment.

In open-world RPGs, running straight for several minutes without encountering anything of interest is generally not considered fun. "Death Stranding" attempted to address this issue by incorporating unique traversal mechanics, but it didn't fully succeed in making long stretches of travel engaging. A more compact world design, similar to "Banjo Kazooie," could help maintain player interest by ensuring that every moment spent exploring feels meaningful and rewarding.

Elden Ring: A Model of Balanced Exploration

"Elden Ring" has been praised for its masterful use of expansive space, maintaining a delicate balance between density and scale. The game offers varied, unique, and interesting loot, making the exploration process both engaging and purposeful. Unlike many open-world games, where the drive to explore can be hampered by repetitive or uninteresting rewards, "Elden Ring" ensures that players are consistently motivated to uncover its secrets.

However, even in "Elden Ring," some rewards may not appeal to all players. For instance, memory slots and spells might be useless to those who don't use magic. This highlights the importance of thoughtful content design, where every reward feels valuable and tailored to different playstyles. It's a reminder that more content does not necessarily equate to a better game; quality and thoughtfulness are key to creating a truly immersive and rewarding experience.

The Pitfalls of Repetitive Content

Games like "Skyrim" and "Hogwarts Legacy" illustrate the pitfalls of repetitive content in open-world RPGs. In "Skyrim," 90% of dungeon loot is often considered trash due to the player's ability to craft superior gear. The remaining 10% of useful loot is only beneficial if obtained after level 40 due to scaling, which can make the exploration feel unrewarding for much of the game.

Similarly, "Hogwarts Legacy" has been noted for copy-pasting elements like Merlin trials and cave interiors, making some areas feel unnecessary. Players have expressed a preference for a more focused experience, emphasizing key locations like Hogwarts and Hogsmeade, and a more immersive student life. This sentiment challenges the notion that a world is "empty" without frequent treasures, suggesting that well-designed spaces can still be engaging without constant rewards.

Ultimately, the key to enhancing open-world RPGs lies in finding the right balance between size and content density. By focusing on creating smaller, more intricate worlds filled with varied and meaningful content, developers can ensure that every moment of exploration feels rewarding and engaging.

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