Open world games have been around longer than some people may realize. Barring a few obscure titles, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda is one of the first notable open world titles. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was my first experience with open world games, and after 25 years I still remember exploring the villages, forests, and deserts of Hyrule.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Photo Credit:

Open World Games in the 90’s

Since the release of these early open world titles, the open world genre of games has emerged as one of the leading platforms for game developers to use. During the 90’s, when 2D platform side-scrolling games were the dominant genre, JRPGs and PC games were branching out into open world titles. Titles like Final Fantasy and The Elder Scrolls became more popular and expanded the open world genre. Games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario were the pinnacle of 2D gaming, but gamers were ready for something new.

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Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Photo Credit:

What are Open World Games?

Open world games can also be known as the sandbox or free roam games. 2D open world games utilize a top-down view, whereas 3D open world games are generally third-person, first-person, or isometric views. There are some 3D games that are not open world, for example, the 3D Sonic and Mario games are not open worlds since they have distinctive levels that can be chosen from a hub world.

What Makes a Game Open World?

I’m sure there is a debate on what category some games fit into. I also think there are some games that blur the lines between open world and linear level based games. The Dark Souls series is a game that encourages exploration but also features a hub world that allows you to travel back and forth from different checkpoints and levels. The levels in Dark Souls can be huge, but the traveling back and forth from hub world to level means it’s not truly an open world game, in my opinion.

Dark Souls
Dark Souls 3 Photo Credit:

Differences Between Open World and Linear Games

One of the primary differences between linear games and open world games is the way you experience the game. Linear games act almost like scenes in a play or movie; there is a clear beginning, middle, and end to each scene or level. Take the Uncharted series, for example, each level acts as a chapter that separates you from the area you just were. In some instances, you can backtrack, and exploration of these levels is encouraged. However, there is still a clear beginning, middle, and end to each level leading to another level and progressing the story. The benefit of this is getting to experience the story the developer intended, as opposed to experiencing the story on your terms.

The freedom of open world games sometimes means players can trigger certain story events in a different sequence than others. Games that implement player choice and consequence further differentiate the experiences one gamer can have over another in open world games. Some games, like Mega Man, give the player the option to choose levels in any order but still don’t meet the requirements to be an open world game.

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Uncharted 4 Photo Credit:

Open world games allow the player to move about freely and explore non-linear areas. This gives players the ability to forge their own path and experience the story on their terms. The idea for open worlds is to encourage players to seek out treasures, or upgrades to make the journey easier. In other cases, areas may only play a small role in fleshing out a story or provide an alternate path to an objective. Some games utilize their open worlds better than others.

The Risk-Reward Factor of Open World Games

Open world games can be a double-edged sword for developers. Fill it with too much tedious content and you risk overwhelming or boring the gamer, don’t fill it with enough content and you waste a lot of space. Some open world games strike a good balance between exploration and progress.

Rockstar Game’s Grand Theft Auto series offers a variety of side missions and activities to keep players exploring and completing activities not related to the main story. Other games, like Assassin’s Creed, have lots of things to do, but there isn’t enough variety to keep things from getting stale quickly. The worst offenders are open world games with no reward or purpose for exploration. Mafia 2 is the only title that really comes to mind; the game was great, but it was set in an open world that had no purpose other than something to look at driving from one objective to another. There were vintage playboy covers to be collected, but that was a pointless endeavor unless you were after a platinum trophy.

Mafia II
Mafia 2 Photo Credit:

Exploration is in our Genes

I think open world games spark a natural inclination towards exploration that humans have. In fact, the desire to explore may be embedded in humanity genetically. This desire, combined with instant-gratification rewards, gives game developers the canvas to create entire digital worlds for gamers to explore.

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Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Photo Credit:

Today’s Open World Games

Open world games have become the template for most titles these days. The biggest titles in gaming today consist of open world franchises like Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls, and much more. These games are growing exponentially each generation. The maps from each Grand Theft Auto title since the third entry of the series have grown to the point where it feels like actual cities are being copied. In Ubisoft’s case, The Division is a direct copy of lower Manhattan Island, New York. When playing The Division with a friend, he was able to remember the underground shopping area near the Rockefeller Plaza based on his recollection of being there in real life.

The Division Photo Credit:

Open World Racing Games

Most open world games are action-adventure games, RPGs, and MMORPGs. But, there have been other genres that have adopted the open world platform. Racing games have blended racing into the open world genre to great success. Games like Driver, Forza Horizon, and Need for Speed have all used the open world format to give gamers a digital playground to cruise around and explore.

Open world formats give racing games the freedom to break away from traditional racers like Gran Turismo and the Forza series. No complicated menus to navigate and cars to micro-manage makes open world driving games more appealing to some gamers. San Francisco Rush was one of the first titles to flirt with open world concepts. There were several tracks to choose from, but each track had large areas meant for exploration. There were hidden keys that unlocked items in the game.

Need for Speed expanded on this and made games that featured a fictional city for gamers to explore. Hidden routes and shortcuts were strategically placed throughout the city to give gamers an edge during races. The Driver series blended action-adventure narratives to an open world driving game that worked well in some cases. Open world games and driving go together like peanut butter & jelly.

Need for Speed Most Wanted Photo Credit:
Need for Speed Most Wanted Photo Credit:

What does VR bring to Open World Gaming

These digital worlds allow gamers to utilize more senses and feel more involved than the experiences delivered from reading, or watching a movie or television show. The immersion experienced in open world games is becoming even stronger with the development of VR technology. I’ve already experienced Driveclub VR and it was not gimmicky like I thought it would be. Granted, Driveclub is not an open world game, I instantly recognized the potential for VR gaming once experiencing Driveclub VR. The ability to look around and take in your environment is going to be a great addition to open world exploration.

I think photo-realism and VR technology both make the future of open world games look promising. Fantasy worlds are cool, but recreating real cities to scale in a photo-realistic manner for players to explore is far more interesting to me. I really like The Division’s take on lower Manhattan and want to see more of that in open world games.

The Future of Open World Gaming

The future of open world games is bright. Games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and the new Red Dead Redemption title show that the genre hasn’t reached it’s full potential yet. The new Mass Effect series is aiming to reduce load screens and have seamless transitions from one area to another. Advances in technology allow developers to keep pushing the boundaries of open world games to the point where we could have living worlds. Like The Matrix, where gamers can interact with non-player characters resembling real people. I’m sure there is a relevant Black Mirror episode showing us the dangers of this.

Kamel’s top ten favorite open world games

Here is my top ten selection for Open world games:

  1. Driver San Francisco
  2. Grand Theft Auto V
  3. Sleeping Dogs
  4. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
  5. Batman Arkham Knight
  6. Watchdogs 2
  7. Need for Speed Most Wanted
  8. Forza Horizon 2
  9. Fallout New Vegas
  10. Mass Effect Trilogy

So what do you think of open world game and have any best experience in open world game? Feel free to comment below!


  1. I agree that open world gaming has become very common in new games nowadays. If we look at the Horizon: Zero Dawn, looks like they combined open world action-RPG with some action element like in Tomb raider or uncharted series with other some fresh new elements. But we wouldn’t know the details until it released.

    Also with open world, I think the developers will get advantages too in term of add-on and DLC. For open world type game, surely a new DLC or expansion is required and will enthusiast the gamers. It will be easier to implement in the open world, too.

    Anyway, my first open world RPG is Divine Divinity which still uses 3D isometric view. A good-old classic RPG 🙂