Yesterday, Wired published an intriguing editorial that argued “open worlds are changing how we play videogames.” Author Jake Muncy is talking about single-player games, of course: sprawling, open-world exploration sandboxes in the classic Bethsoft style, of which he’s not traditionally even a fan.
“This year, perhaps more than any other, has seen more examples of the genre, which are becoming the norm for big-budget triple-A releases,” he writes. “It isn’t hard to see why. Done properly, it’s a goldmine. It keeps players from trading in games too quickly; you’re more likely to ditch a linear action game that’s done in 10 hours than a sprawling epic that can take 100 hours or more. It’s easier to tack downloadable content onto an open-world experience, too.”
The subgenre’s willingness to let people walk away and entice them to return rather than binge obsessively, he opines, allows devs to “move away from an emphasis on filling open worlds with mounds of meaningless stuff, repetitive experiences, and canned encounters” so that “developers can focus on crafting places that reward thoughtful exploration that yields incidental moments of personality and depth.”
I found myself musing on how his argument relates to MMORPGs. MMO players talk about “open worlds” as the antithesis of instanced gameplay and “freeform sandboxes” as the solution to rigid themeparks, but we don’t really have very many of them, and of those we have (or expect to have soon), very few are triple-A. They’re incredibly popular as single-player games — Skyrim and Fallout 4 are but a tiny fraction of the open-world games that exploded in popularity in the last decade — so where are their MMO equivalents? Shouldn’t MMOs be at the forefront of this revolution? How can MMORPGs capitalize on the success of open-world, single-player sandboxes?