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Games Team Roundtable: GTA V, Saints Row IV and the open world genre

The avforums games team sit down to discuss the open world genre.

by Ben Ingber Jul 29, 2013 at 8:04 PM


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    Games Team Roundtable: GTA V, Saints Row IV and the open world genre
    With GTA V and Saints Row IV both hitting the shelves over the next few months, the AVForums games team sit down to discuss the open world genre. But are they all aboard the hype train?
    The team are as follows: Mark Botwright (MB), Manny Brown (EB), Stephen Carter (SC), Ben Inger (BI), Steve Hill (SH) & Leon Matthews (LM).

    Nearly 12 years ago Grand Theft Auto 3 brought the open world genre to the masses. Since then we’ve all played dozens and dozens of sandbox titles - some good and some less so. What do you think are the fundamental requirements for making a truly great open world game?

    LM:
    For me it’s all about the systems. Well thought out systems can really help you get invested in an open world: State of Decay and its morale, resource and community systems, Far Cry 3 and its animal AI interacting with NPCs and the world, and Saints Row with its crazy character customisations. Open worlds are best when you can get lost in them and deep engaging systems are the way to do that.

    It's incredibly sad but I can see myself spending hours trading in the GTA stock market.

    MB:
    I like to see a balance between adding depth - as in the systems Leon mentions - and making additional material into chore-like distractions. GTA San Andreas, with its relationships, working out and the like just edged past that threshold for me. If I wanted to worry about answering calls, maintaining a relationship or going to the gym I'd stick to real life. The ability to drop in and out of the action is what I value the most.

    EB:
    I would have agreed with systems being the most important feature right up until I played Saints Row the Third. I spent more time in that world than any other simply because it's a massive, utterly ridiculous sandbox of stupidity. There's no economy, chores or anything approaching a grind, and nothing to worry about besides making your character look like an idiot. After GTA IV (and god I loved that game), it felt like a shot in the arm.

    BI:
    I'm with Manny on this. These days it feels like I'm in a minority for liking GTA4, but I thought it was brilliant. Even so, I can accept there was little that was original about its gritty approach.

    Saints Row: The Third was the first open world game in years that felt fresh to me. It went out of its way to dispense not only with grit and grind, but with any kind of repetition or hassle at all.

    I don't want to unlock parts of the world anymore. I don't want to drive for fifteen minutes between missions. I don't want to get caught up in semi-mandatory side-quests. It's all about accessibility, choice and frenetic action.


    SC:
    To me, an open world game has to be believable more than anything. The world in which you play has to be vibrant, full of character and life and can't scrimp on the detail. For that, we have been able to depend on the GTA franchise as the guys at Rockstar have always done a top job of making worlds believable and vibrant. It's not enough to sell a game on its open world or sandbox genre, if the world isn't there then that's half of the game lost already, good mechanics can’t make up for a dry and boring world.

    There also has to be variety, games like GTA need to make use of the space and not just focus too much on one central area. The idea of these games is that they are your play area, it's no good having a massive world and then having a rigid mission structure. Assassin's Creed 3 did this and was a massive disappointment because of it; you had to play the way the developers wanted you to. The story line has to be there to guide you through the game, but you need to have some freedom as to how you take the story on and complete the missions you encounter on your way.

    So turning to the big releases coming over the next few months, what have you seen and heard about GTA V and Saints Row IV that most interest you? And based on what you've seen, what are your hopes and fears?

    LM: GTA and Saints Row appeal to me in very different ways. In GTA V I simply want to explore the world: the size of the map is meant to be bigger then Vice City, San Andreas and Liberty City...COMBINED, which will be amazing. But more importantly the variety is there. Liberty City was great but it was exactly that - a city. Whereas it seems in GTA V we are being given mountains, fields, suburbs and even more city to play in this time. Rockstar have always had a great sense of satire in GTA and I’m looking forward to finding what gems they have hidden throughout the world.

    From Saints Row IV though I just want some off the wall fun, \\deckers.die was a high point for me in Saints Row: The Third and I want them to really keep hitting those crazy notes: more wrestling moves, more self-aware dialogue and more Keith David!

    Also that dubstep gun looks sweet. Shoot it at people, drop the bass and watch them dance to death? Day One!

    EB: My only concern with Saints Row IV is that it's not really a full game, but something extracted from what was meant to be DLC. I'm a little worried that the concept will be stretched a bit too far in that respect, but if they can pull off enough variety and make sure they get plenty of quality in time for release, I can't wait. And yes, Dubstep Gun = instapurchase.

    As for GTA V, I really have no idea what to expect, nor indeed do I know what I want from that game. The trailers left me a bit cold to be honest, and I feel like - thematically at least - they're treading water. If they'd gone in a bold new direction with the narrative then I think I'd be pulled in more, but the old "just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in" plot is hardly blazing a trail through my mind. The idea of three playable characters is interesting, but I'm going to wait and see before I delve into it.

    Ideally, what I want from Rockstar are more open-world games like Bully and Red Dead, both of which I'd argue stand head and shoulders above any of the GTA games. Indeed, if they ever get around to releasing Red Dead Redemption on PC then I don't think you'll see me for a month.

    (**full disclaimer** I think if I had to make a personal top ten games of all time, Bully would probably be on that list.)


    SH:
    OMG! Bully is one of my faves of all time. Its soundtrack is superb, I loved every minute of it. The changing of seasons really gave atmosphere and depth to that game. That was a sandbox game of perfection for me. Time actually meant something during gameplay yet if you decided you wanted to skip school and go rubber band hunting you could.

    For me the key thing is still multiplayer. Mark mentioned this on the podcast and I totally agree. We have still yet to see anyone make a sandbox multiplayer experience feel anything more than tacked on. Co-op in Saints Row 2 & 3 was brilliant fun but I crave something more than that. We used to organize GTA IV multiplayer nights and have about 10 odd forum members running around trying to do the scenarios. Within about 20mins it would degenerate into jacking cars and doing circuits around the Airport runways! We had this (on the face of it) huge playground yet nothing meaningful or well-structured to do as a group.

    SC: To be honest, I haven't really been keeping up to date with GTA V announcements and details as I don't want to build it up to be something that it is not. Whilst I enjoyed GTA IV, I found the most enjoyable parts of it were the add-on packs as they had the most personality and biggest enjoyment factor.

    I'll say it now - Saints Row: The Third was every bit the game that I thought GTA IV would have (and should have) been. Granted it wasn't technically as good as a Rockstar game in terms of visuals, scripting and size of the open world but it was full of character and satire which was absolutely top notch. I hope GTA V will go back to having personality and satire throughout much like San Andreas and Vice City. Of course there will have to be serious elements to it, as there were in the aforementioned outings, but I can’t help but get worried about the three protagonists and the possibility of getting lost with so much going on with them all.

    Saints Row IV just needs to do what it does best and go out balls to the wall and not care about anything. I share some of the concerns mentioned by Manny about this not being a game based on a full idea, having initially meant to be DLC. As long as the idea goes far enough and doesn't get flogged and repeated to death then it should be very good. It's the crazy concepts like the dubstep gun that made the third instalment fantastic, who can forget that dude with the techno-electro voice in the last game. Pure genius.

    Being more of a single player gamer, multiplayer comes as a secondary issue to me. If it's there and works well and provides something extra then I will play it for sure, but if it turns out to be nothing more than the chaotic mess that GTA IV was then I'm not sure I will go near it. Fair enough messing about with mates is fun, but if they're not online and you can't get a serious bunch of people together then you're a bit screwed.

    MB: Saints Row will continue to be the anti-GTA - the answer to the increasing seriousness of open world games - and because of that I can't see it going wrong. By aiming for outright zaniness there can be no criticism of things not fitting in with the narrative as the whole point is to throw people as many curveballs as possible.

    GTA V worries and excites me in equal measure. The premise of character switching lends itself to re-enactment of cinematic heists and the like, and could be the antidote to long drawn out "drive here" missions as potentially you could leave the boring stuff to another character. But I fear this option will only come into play during certain sections.

    I'm also concerned that it's a bit of a reaction to Niko falling a tad flat, perhaps Rockstar - having tried to go outside their catalogue of overly-stereotypical crims once - have decided that many didn't get it, and thus revert to form but simply throw three cut-out cons at us at once.

    Multiplayer is where the biggest potential is though, however as Steve says, the open world setting lends itself to just looning about, so they need something unique to try to keep people playing in any kind of an organised fashion. I have no idea how they'll achieve that.


    Finally, with next gen just around the corner, what do you think the added oomph of the new consoles could bring to sandbox games? What are the main developments in the open world genre that you'd like to see?


    MB:
    I'd love to play an expansive game with explorable buildings, different locales and not have that momentary loss of suspension of disbelief when a load screen pops up. A consistent, believable world to me is preferable to a huge one that needs to load in key places.

    Gameplay wise, the whole marketing blurb of worlds that exist even when you're not there is interesting, but as with my gripe about chores, I don't want to feel I need to sign up to dedicating a set amount of time per day/week to a title in order to get the most out of it.

    Ideally, bigger worlds, no load times and complex interactions. Seeing the same five faces or cars pass you in a row only highlights that you're witnessing a basic algorithm for repopulation play out before your eyes and it's not fooling anyone. I want to think that if I were to run over a man crossing the road there'd be a hole in the game world somewhere that he should be, rather than another figure to run over popping up to take his place.
    SC: First and foremost I'm hoping it will either rid of, or significantly reduce load times and late texture pop-in, as well as enable much greater draw distances. There's nothing more satisfying than being able to sit in awe of a beautiful vista in an open world, and I couldn't imagine a next-gen title having anything short of massive draw distances that are an absolute delight to behold.

    What's more, I'm hoping that the added power can be used to add extra depth to the world through NPCs, player models and AI. I'm not expecting much really am I? In all seriousness though, we have had a few excellent titles this generation which are solid platforms to launch from when it comes to next gen technology. We've already seen games that are capable of processing massive loads on PS3 and 360, so if we get anything less than a significant improvement from titles on the PS4 or Xbox One then I can’t see how our money will be well spent.

    EB: I'd echo the technical stuff mainly. Higher resolution textures need to be mandatory (anybody with a modded GTA IV on PC will attest to this), draw distance pushed out and pop-in eliminated from the equation. Greater persistence for characters, the environment and vehicles would also be nice, as would something like the environmental destruction typified by EA's Frostbite engine, although I realise that'd probably never work in practice.

    The richness and content of those worlds is always going to be dictated by design and raw development hours however, so although I'd love to see a huge city that was populated with exploratory buildings and shops, I can't see that ever being a practical reality unless a massive studio commits all its worldwide resources into one project, or a normal size team sits there for ten years making content. Maybe the technology will evolve to procedurally-generate that stuff one day, who knows!

    LM: No more compromises, since GTA III the genre has always been cut breaks in lots of areas due to the open world nature stopping them from throwing as much as they can at environments, A.I. and detail due to lack of resources.

    Why can't GTA look like The Last Of Us? Because its open world.

    Why are there only 15 character models walking round the city? Because it's open world.

    Why do the physics freak out sometimes? Because it's open world.

    No more excuses, I want an open world game that looks, plays and works as well as this generation's scripted titles with all the freedom and options the genre is known for.

    So those are the team’s thoughts – “No more excuses,” says Leon. But what are your expectations for GTA V and Saints Row IV? And what next for the genre?

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