It’s time for open world games to ditch the question mark

A more common complaint about modern open world games is how they become an exercise in “icon chasing”, where you spend most of your time jumping around between dozens of different question marks on the map, like weaponized cleaning Agent. It turns what should be a free-spirited adventure into an exhaustive to-do list, and makes your relaxing time more like work.

Of course, the question is how does the game solve this problem? One potential solution is to make the open world smaller and easier to accomplish. But size is not a problem in itself, the problem is the role of the open world in these spaces. Pointing the player to the “interesting” part of the open world means that everything between these icons (which may account for most of your game world) is not interesting. But open world games should be about these spaces. Their existence is specially used to pass through.

So maybe the solution is to make the act of traveling more interesting. Many open world games admit that the journey should not be completely passive. Skyrim occasionally strikes up with robbers on the road, and Red Dead Redemption may spawn a horse thief, which will scratch your steeds and force you to chase them. These are all steps in the right direction, but the problem with such randomly generated events is that they are specific events. They repeat themselves, which quickly changes from freshness to excitement, pushing your finger to the fast travel button.

(Image source: Capcom)

In order to truly create this sense of adventure and make the player’s journey feel meaningful, open world games need to emphasize more on what happens on the road, rather than the end of the road. In Dragon’s Dogma, many of the most spectacular battles take place on the way to other places. You might try a shortcut through the mine and eventually fight the giant cyclops, or approach the city of Gran Solon and be attacked by a giant bird monster, forcing you to grab its body and shoot it down in flight. The game is essentially a fantasy road trip, and its approach to encounter design makes it feel more personalized and unpredictable than a more open world.