One of the defining features of this first HD generation has been the predominance of cinematic games with streamlined, tightly controlled environments. Whether due to technical constraints, developer vision, or a simple focus on multiplayer gameplay over single-player campaigns, it would be difficult to become lost in many of this generation's games.
Many of these cinematic games were highly popular, like the Uncharted series and, of course, Call of Duty and its many imitators. Still, at this point gamers have begun to tire of streamlined experiences and are looking for games that offer more freedom to explore and experiment with game worlds. Along with eating up the greater freedom offered in games like Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim, and even Minecraft, gamers have begun to criticize games that offer overly confining experiences. Even the recent Tomb Raider reboot, while generally given high praise, has been critiqued in some corners for too often taking control away from the player.
Many of the most anticipated games coming down the pipeline are advertising themselves as offering open worlds for players to freely explore. There are the veterans of this genre, of course, such as GTA V, but plenty of newcomers are entering the open world fray as well. The Witcher 3, for example, sees that series switch from small, chapter-based environments to an open world format. Even the LEGO series has jumped into open world gaming with the recently released LEGO City.
Then, of course, there's Watch Dogs, one of the most promising upcoming games for the next generation of hardware. Not only are the developers aiming to provide an open city with organic gameplay, they're integrating a social online component into the game in an interesting way. That kind of additional innovation will be important for open world games going forward.
Developers of games that emphasize exploration and player decision-making will face challenges with the younger generation, however. Gamers have been trained by countless action-adventures and corridor shooters to expect games to tell them how to proceed from one mission goal to another. Developers of games like Dishonored have added quest pointers to their games because play-testers didn't know how to proceed without direction. While older gamers may sniff derisively at these friendly arrows, they're not necessarily a bad thing if it's possible to turn them on and off at will. Freedom is great, but sometimes a player just wants to get on with the story and can't remember where Cymfwynd the quest-giver lives.
The next generation of games is likely to offer a mix of player freedom and the kind of streamlined gaming experience we've seen in the modern era. While some may fail at this task, the best games will add new innovation and interest into the open world formula we've seen in previous eras. It's no longer going to be good enough to populate one's world with randomly or procedurally generated content. Players want real entertainment, whether it’s in the form of handcrafted content or in another form such as multiplayer additions to games.
Not every developer is betting on freeform experience to define the next generation. Some are working to make games even more like movies, like David Cage with Beyond: Two Souls. No doubt many shooters will continue making highly linear single-player campaigns as well, or perhaps eliminate the single-player campaign entirely in order to concentrate more on multiplayer modes. There will always be a place for games with tightly structured experiences and cinematic scenarios, but it's nice to see developers realizing that there's no reason why interactive entertainment needs to minimize the “interactive” element.
As a gamer who particularly loves exploration, I'm looking forward to this new emphasis on freer environments in games. There's certainly a place for games that feature controlled, cinematic experiences, but the next generation of console hardware gives developers more space to allow expansive environments that still look good. All that's left is to see who makes creative choices, improving the open world genre, and who can't hack the brave new world in which players are able to take the driver's seat once again.
Date: April 4, 2013