Are Open Worlds Shallow?

I’ve been playing some No Man’s Sky since it was released last month. And while it’s fun played sporadically, it reminds me of problems I encountered with other open world games. Some games I’ve played include Skyrim, Shadow of Mordor, Rust, and Elite Dangerous. They offer a crazy amount of gameplay, but all of it feels so shallow.

It’s really hard for me to feel connected to the overall universe in No Man’s Sky. And I feel the same way about NMS as I do the other games I listed above. There’s so much land mass to explore, but after not too long it all starts to feel the same. It feels really formulaic. What am I supposed to do with that? The result is I build up my characters, look for some slightly more challenging content, and repeat the same pattern. It’s really similar to playing MMORPGs. The big difference is that MMORPGs have other, real people involved. These open world single player games instead have generic, cardboard cutout type characters. It’s not really that interesting.

Top MMO games actually might even do a better job at single player content than single player, open world games. (Boy, was that a mouthful.) Now that questing in MMORPGs is so solo centric, I can get the best of both. I have real human interactions when I want, especially for PvP or raiding. When I want to sit back and just explore some new places, I can do that as well. There’s really not much that’s off limits in an MMO.

By contrast, open world games (I say this referring to single player games only) actually feel limited. There’s just not a lot of content to keep me interested. While I’m actually free to go to a lot of different land masses, there isn’t a lot to do once I’m there. Kill some creatures, mine some ore, finish a quest for some random NPC. Whatever. Either way, what do I get for it? I get treated to another very similar experience an hour or two later. I may not be limited by where I can go. But I’m limited by what I can really do. Open worlds don’t have to be this way of course, but it’s a cause and effect situation from how they get built.

Going back to No Man’s Sky, there’s some insane number of planets. Like multiple quintrillion or something. There’s no way to handcraft that many so they are procedurally generated. Unfortunately, the technology for generating these in the current era of gaming is boring. It’s just the same stuff with different skins and different resources. It’s fun for a short play because I don’t see the monotony as much. Longer plays though shows the monotony crystal clear. There’s also many Steam early access titles that are open worlds that just fail to be fully realized. All of these come back to the same problem.

Maybe the best way to fix open world games is to introduce more multiplayer. People can give life to these games in a way that’s much more difficult for AI to do. Programmers can rely on other players to provide the “realism” experience. From there, the game itself can be created to deliver content around these repetitive activities. Only, they won’t feel so repetitive when the dynamic element of other players are introduced. MMORPGs might just be the only way to go here. Maybe I should be sticking to those instead of No Man’s Sky, Skyrim, and the like? In fact, Legion is calling me right now. Maybe I should answer that call.

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