Watch Dogs, or Why Developers Should Drop Linearity for Scaled Open-Worlds
Posted on Thursday, May 22 @ 01:00:26 Eastern by Daniel Bischoff
I’m at Ubisoft’s San Francisco offices playing Watch Dogs all week long for review and while the game’s digital Chicago offers tons of things to do and see both inside and outside of mission gameplay, I think the French publisher is one of few that can launch an new IP in the open-world genre these days and that’s only thanks to the company’s pedigree of established open-world brands.
If you think about it, open-world games have a proven track record of hit-or-miss launches both in established franchises and in new licenses like Watch Dogs. If you asked me two years ago when Aiden Pearce and the CtOS concept were revealed at E3 whether or not I thought the brand could succeed, I would have given you a hopeful nod followed by a sheepish shrug. Who the hell knows how this project would turn out after years of development, straddling console generations? Watch Dogs was certainly one of, if not the most ambitious project I’d seen or heard of in a few years and that was even stacked up against Rockstar Games and the massive Grand Theft Auto V.
How much of Grand Theft Auto V’s presence last year gave Ubisoft the impetus to delay Watch Dogs and continue polishing the title for a dead-of-summer release? Whether or not the game’s code or mechanics needed the extra time, a few more months of hype weren’t going to hurt day one sales or the excitement surrounding what could be Ubisoft’s console-generation money maker. I know plenty of gamers might accept trading Assassin’s Creed for Watch Dogs (so long as Watch Dogs has a decent hook and can crank out entertaining story-extending sequels as easily as Assassin’s Creed did).
Still, my time with the game this week has left me with a peculiar stance on the need for games to continue evolving, pushing freedom over restriction and interactivity over cardboard cutout scenery. I will trade a small open-world with lots of varied things to do over a strict linear experience any day of the week and that’s never been truer now that I’ve played about half of Watch Dogs.
I’ll use one of my favorite open-world games in the last five years as an example: Batman: Arkham City.
Never mind that I’m a huge Batman fan or that I loved Batman: Arkham Asylum’s take on Metroid-vania style gameplay, slowly doling out new tools and gadgets in between boss encounters on a progressive ladder of challenging combat and stealth gameplay. That game laid an incredible foundation for Rocksteady’s next Bat-game on a totally different Bat-channel. If Arkham Asylum was the Super Metroid of Batman games, then Arkham City was the Ocarina of Time of Batman games.
Arkham City’s open-world was small, that much is true. Players had every right to complain that the game world was too small, especially given they could glide-and-grapnel from end-to-end in record time. Fortunately, Rocksteady made sure that it was dense as hell, stacked with interesting landmarks, random enemy encounters, and more than a few dungeons… and that’s exactly what the different locales throughout Arkham City were. While Arkham Asylum presented one big dungeon (and did that really well), Arkham City said to the player “here are obvious hideouts of classic Batman villains, it’s up to you to carve a path through them.”
Now, neither Arkham Asylum nor Arkham City were linear. That was the beauty in Rocksteady’s approach to Batman game design. Instead of basing the progression of gameplay and mechanics entirely on what villains were present on the silver screen or in the cartoon, Rocksteady said “we want to use these villains and we want the player to face-off against them in order.” Knowing where they wanted to lead the player, how they wanted the player to get there, and how frequently to create ebbs and flows in tense stealth gameplay and all-out combat made each Arkham game successful in its own right.
But my argument here is that developing a smaller open-world as in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City will almost always succeed in ways that strict linearity fails to entice players thanks to freedom and a go-anywhere do-anything on-your-own-time attitude. I could never say “f*** all these linear games,” especially with works of art like The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite. Telling a story in games is hard and knowing what story you want to tell kind of negates an open-world in certain contexts. I wouldn’t have wanted to explore a chunk of Boston in the Last of Us, followed by a chunk of Pittsburgh, followed by a chunk of… you get what I mean?
Some experiences demand linearity, but if you’re hoping to launch a big new license or entice a lot of consumers to games they might not normally play (like those in the hugely valuable once-a-year Call of Duty crowd) you need to be OK with letting the player fail to finish your game. The point is that they have fun doing what they’re doing when they do it, whether you planned for them to do it or not.
I spoke with Nick about Watch Dogs briefly and twice now he’s expressed to me that the most fun he’s had has been causing car accidents in the streets of Chicago. That’s not the point of the game, Nick! You’re not supposed to drive up insurance rates just because you can, but for many players having that control and seeing the effect they have on a world is all they need. For many players “Screw it, I’m just gonna run around” is the end-all be-all of game design and huge publishers like Ubisoft will only find success when they’re aware of that mindset.
Why shouldn’t Nick go around causing car accidents for hours, ignoring the story, the online multiplayer, or the gunplay? In a linear game, there’d be no choice. In a linear game, one that attempts to shake the player with an emotional roller coaster or intense action, you might actually disconnect from the experience because of the choices you don’t have available to you.
For developers and publishers hoping to launch huge IPs in this console generation, small-scale, but densely interactive open-worlds are the way to go. Don’t hang your new brand or all your development budget on a character some people might not give a sh** about. Just focus on playability, reactionary systems, and the opportunity for a sequel because that’s the point your publisher will want to hammer home in preorder campaigns anyway. If players have to stomach the endless sequelization of video games, they should at least have the choice to cause nothing but car accidents all day long, as they do in Watch Dogs.
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