Size Matters: Are Bigger Game Worlds Less Fun To Play?

Joel Harvey

These days, video games are big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big some video games can be. You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to modern games. We live in an era of gaming where the capabilities are at the hands of developers to make unbelievably big game worlds. But just because developers can do it, does it mean that they should?

To firstly understand the scale and scope of game worlds today, we must realise how small they once were. There were no vast gaming worlds at the start of video game history, it was all done on only one screen. This wasn’t by choice of course, the technology simply wasn’t around in the ’70s to create those kind of digital worlds. Instead, you had single-screen affairs like Space Invaders, Pong, and Pac-Man. And for an entire generation of gamers, that seemed to be enough.

But let’s take off those rose-tinted specs for a moment, because progression and technology are actually good things. As we evolved from single-screen games to the side-scrolling worlds found in Super Mario Bros., video games got better too. Level design became more pivotal, and secrets could be hidden away in these new worlds increasing their challenge. For platform games, this change was an entirely necessary one. No more were we treated to static games, but we had new and varied worlds to leap onto. For RPGs and adventure games though, this development literally changed their landscape.

Early RPG games were hampered by a lack of technology. They exclusively relied on you, the player, to imagine the game worlds yourself because they simply couldn’t show this on-screen. This was the era of the text adventures, when typing “Go North” became your joypad. When the 8-bit machines started to roll-out though, the opportunities to visually grow RPG game worlds became more available. Phantasy Star on the Master System was an early adopter of this, as Sega created a huge (for the time) game world, complete with living towns and dungeons to explore. The doors to massive virtual worlds had opened.

As consoles grew in power, so did the size of the game worlds. Each new generation of machine meant developers could add more depth, and more complexity, to their gaming worlds. Whilst RPGs were the main beneficiaries of this, it was a third-person action game that changed everything – namely, Grand Theft Auto III. With their fifth entry in the series, DMA Design opened up the world in 3D, and collectively blew our minds. GTA set the trend of video games where you could actually traverse a living, breathing city. Hugely entertaining and ridiculously popular, the GTA series convinced many in the industry that large-scale sandbox games were not the future, but the present.

Today, we live in a time when these kinds of games are considered the norm. With game series like Fallout, The Witcher and Zelda, we now fully expect our triple-A franchises to contain huge game worlds for us to explore. But with great size, comes great responsibility. You can’t just spend your whole time developing and designing the world, but then forget the gaming fundamentals. It still needs to be fun to play, and if a player becomes bogged down in the sheer scope of a gaming world, there could be problems. Which brings us onto No Man’s Sky…

Ah, the infinite promise and beauty of No Man’s Sky. Thanks to a procedurally-generated open universe, its game world was the biggest yet in video game history. With 18 quintillion planets, it would take a player the lifetime of our actual Sun to conquer it all. And herein lies the crux: No Man’s Sky was just too big. Its newly formed universe was a scary prospect for some players, who could find themselves lost amidst it. Sure, there’s a main plot propelling you on if you choose to follow it, but without this story-telling anchor you were left meandering to your own devices. And for the critics of NMS, such a prospect was a fatal flaw that they couldn’t get past.

However, for some people this epic gaming world made perfect sense. Despite other aspects of NMS not living up to the hype, it was hard to argue that Hello Games didn’t deliver on their promise to create a living universe. Subsequent updates have built upon this too. Every feature has added a new dimension to the NMS universe, improving and evolving it all the time. And while this is undoubtedly a stunning achievement in game design, the sheer size of it all remains the elephant in the room.

You see, not every game should create big game worlds. It can work when it’s done right, but if it fails then it leaves players feeling alienated and uninterested. Many prefer the sense of control that video games give them, that feeling of being at the epicentre of the world they inhabit, and where story and characters revolve around them. Infinite gaming landscapes just don’t allow for this yet.

Things will change though, as it did in the early evolution of gaming worlds. Technology will improve and developers will learn from past mistakes. Perhaps then, audiences will become more receptive to unquantifible universes like the one found in NMS. For now though, it’s not about the size of your gaming world, but what you do with it that counts.

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