Linear vs. Open World game design

As games become more expensive, bigger and gain prestige. I do wonder if we could discuss about the benefits and issues with both type of designs. I think in both cases there are good and bad examples, and in a way it's in opposition with the other type of design.

Linear games have:

- Focus on the main aspects of the game, since the developer builds the game knowing when and where the player will be it's easier to polish things like set pieces, cutscenes, challenges, and level design, since for the most part one can see the flow of things knowing how the path is put.
- Story can have better pacing, since a linear story can have control of both fast action moments and slow building ones. Many times in open world games, there's no sense of urgency since an urgent moment will wait until the player finishes wandering or doing sidequests.
- Level design is more polished in a linear experience, since the developer can be in control to what will the player see, plays or confronts.
- Difficulty if the path is set I suppose it's easier to control the challenge as well.

Open World Design

- It's free roaming, the player will have more options paths, and places to find. This free roaming aspect can also IMO be at there best when they make a moment of contemplation, looking to the horizon, a place changing from day to night, or meeting a character you don't know, in the most unexpected of places. There can be a sense of feeling like each discovery feel more personal.
- The player controls the challenge, with all the options these games give you, the best open world games give you the option to tackle a problem in different ways. Using stealth, or guns blaze through one part, maybe using a vehicle or a cool gadget. I think the hard part to garner is what option will be the most enjoyable for each player, since IMO it's not always obvious, but that may be more subjective.
- Sidequests can matter more in open world games. Since main campaigns can wait for you, I think sidequests can mark a bigger impression, since it ties to a sense of discovery, or unexpected revelations. A side character could matter more than the main ones, or a side story can take risks with certain subject matter. Sometimes helping and being at a wedding can feel more special than beating the next bad guy wanting to take over the world. Or stumbling into a haunted place, that always is fun.


Linear games
- Feeling predictable and having little to no options on how to progress. Though to be fair, I think if you like what you're doing, it might be fine, but not the best.
- Losing the illusion of the game's world, mainly the necessary roadblocks will make or destroy the illusion of how lively this world is.
- All in all limitations in terms of options are an inherit issue with linear game design, since in my experience giving too many options makes less likely one will try them all, and just stick to what works, given the linear nature of this types of games. What makes you push forward more efficiently is what you will use.

Open World game
- Bad boss battles, there may be good ones but in what I've played, there aren't good boss fights in open world games. Most of the times is a variation of a common enemy just made harder to kill. Or an original enemy harder to kill. In Metal Gear V bosses felt out of place, locking you in an evidently open area, and in my experience the trial and error way of searching through my many options to take them down, left me feeling very unprepared and instead of being killed for that mistake I had to grind with whatever I found, because the bosses were also built to be beaten but whatever you found in that area. Or being able to escape from them.
- Repetitive activities. I understand this flaw, a big area needs things to do, since otherwise it'll be boring. But like with autogenerating dungeons, the world loses a bit of the magic when you notice the patterns. Suddenly those ranches in Zelda feel less special, since apparently they're everywhere, as with the Korok seeds, or the enemy encampments. I think a solution could be making a set of them feeling really special, like some of the bases in MGSV, that are big and complex, despite being also enemy strongholds. Maybe a korok seed being tied to a sidequest, and have meaning in some way, or a ranch having a different design, like a racetrack just on the side. Even in real life as repetitive as some things are, a bit more thought can add a moment or two on that repetition.
- Getting overpowered too quickly. Since by it's very nature open world games, are built for the player to get, get and get stuff and the enemies hit a threshold too quickly. I don't know what could be changed aside from like with class systems a player having a hard time learning or obtaining certain stuff, but still, the player just gets too strong for most of the conflicting forces, inevitably one has more money than they will spend, and every area is at a fingertip given fast travel and other options. I think post game, the game rules could change, maybe one starts finding very agile and dangerous enemies, maybe there are traps in previously peaceful places, or prices suddenly go high as a more challenging part opens. Maybe like with FFXV an area external to the game world opens that puts to test skills and attributes the player gained. Though it's in a sense making the open world linear post game. So maybe that's not the solution.

Anyway, I don't think one is better than the other, but I can see areas of improvement.

One of the best examples I've seen of linear design done right is Super Mario 3D World. Say what you want about it not being a 'true 3D Mario', but it is great fun, has great multiplayer and is all about the platforming.
Its structure allows it to develop an idea throughout the level, and twist it in a way you never expected that you just couldn't do without that linearity.

On the other hand, open world games often fall flat when you find something you can't do. If you've experienced VR, it's just like that. Breath of the Wild is great in this regard, as you can touch every single point on the map.

From what you're saying mechanics need to fit to the design of the game. 3D World because it is contained and focused you just need to add the things to a small box. Zelda instead separates these small boxes in shrines and leave the main world be like a toolbox in which you can mess around with things even if it looks odd.

But also open worlds in a way have more cohesion in regards to space. You technically travel from one place to another, while linear games, jump you around from a place to another. Which may be why that despite 3D World has harder levels than Odyssey, there's less cohesion, I mean even the worlds aren't thematically tied in terms of levels. On the other hand, Odyssey gets a bit emptier as you conquest each moon.

The mechanics (such as world type) need to fit the style and purpose of the game.

Want to join this discussion?

You should like, totally log in or sign up!