One of the big headlines lately was an interesting little bit of information from Insomniac, developer of the upcoming Spider-Man game. This game is a huge deal. Spider-Man himself is a big draw just inherently, and Sony is putting big money behind it. It’s also apparently going to be just huge in general. Insomniac told a fan that Spider-Man is going to be “several times” the size of the city in Sunset Overdrive, which was Insomniac’s big Xbox One exclusive if anyone reading remembers it. This statement got me wondering, though. Does a Spider-Man game really need to be that big? Are we still driving games in terms of value with content density? Hasn’t this been a problem before, and when will it be too much of a problem?
The thing about open world games is you have to make all that space mean something. Sure, making it fun to traverse is a big deal. Swinging as Spider-Man, running and leaping in Saints Row 4, and gliding as Batman are all cool. But many games are struggling to fill space and time, while simultaneously feeling the need to do so and expand the space and time with each big, new game. Sometimes it goes really well, and you end up with something like Horizon: Zero Dawn or Rise of the Tomb Raider. Other times, you get Assassin’s Creed Unity or No Man’s Sky.
Assassin’s Creed Unity was a game design disaster. The world was huge and gorgeous; revolution-era Paris was really brought to life in that uncanny valley, AAA video game kind of way, but Ubisoft had to fill that space with things to do. With game development costing what it does and the demands for games to have ridiculous content volume being what they are, Ubisoft tried to cast a wide net and also add some multiplayer to boot. What resulted was one of a set of various jokes and memes about what is largely considered one of the biggest missteps this generation. The map was filled with icons, to the point where you really couldn’t tell what was going on. There were several different types of treasure chests everywhere, with so many different unlock conditions it was impossible to keep track of and some were tied to real money transactions to some degree. There were several different kinds of missions, with some that repeated themselves over and over again in order to pad time and make numbers go up. Meanwhile, the game itself was a buggy mess and the core experience was unstable at best.
No Man’s Sky was a similar story of ambition and scale getting out of control. It was presented as a game with infinite possibilities. Players would be able to go through their own unique galaxies, full of unique planets, unique creatures, and unique discoveries. This is of course functionally impossible. Code is code. Anything that happens in a game has to be built, which is of course where procedural generation comes in. No Man’s Sky is basically a random numbers generator; the game reaches into a massive database of parts and algorithms, and smashes them all together. We all saw how that turned out. The game itself was more of a survival game, with its core experience ending up being pretty uneventful and repetitive. The problem was ultimately more muddled messaging, as people who saw through the bad PR and knew what they were getting still had fun, but the problem underneath the hood was still scale.
For now, while smaller games like No Man’s Sky struggle to fit in and Ubisoft attempts to course correct with its open world fare, many first and second-party developers are still nailing it. Games like Mad Max, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Metal Gear Solid V, and Gravity Rush 2 are all recent examples of different takes on the open world, all of them successful in their attempts. But going back to Spider-Man, how big does a video game version of New York City really need to be? What’s going to fill all that space? People, including the team at Insomniac, make jokes about chasing balloons (shout-out to Spider-Man 2), but what else can you do when you’re programming a game and making that hashtag content?
I’m sure the game will be great. What I saw at E3 was dope. But I’m looking at the future and wondering what the first big misstep will be outside of the third party world. When that happens, what will it mean for the open worlds?