What do Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, Assassin’s Creed Series, Far Cry Series, GTA Series have in common? Apart from being great video games in their own unique style, they are all open world games.
Open World Games are the most famous and perhaps, the most loved video games of all types.
The reason for that is the availability of an entire world, full of people behaving in their own unique ways, that functions just like the real world.
The game world seems real, and not because of visuals but for subtle things like weather systems, day and night cycles and much more. For comparison, just look at non-open world games like Call of Duty, where in some levels, it always rains or sun is always shining, no matter how much time you spend in that level, and that is unrealistic.
In open world games, you don;t feel like you are playing a specific level, where there are some fixed weather and time conditions. Instead, you are living in that world and every encounter, even against a same opponent seems different in some way. Of course, the game reloads if your character dies, but still you can choose when to attack an enemy camp or do anything, depending upon time of day and weather.
Now, let me say for this, open world games are not easy to make.
Open world games are a remarkable feat of software engineering and programming.
The very fact that open world games like Witcher 3 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey etc. exist is a testament to dedication of developers and how much the tools needed for video game developed have been advanced over time.
Development of Open World Games
Much like any other video game, Open World Games go through 8 Phases during their development. There maybe other phases depending upon the game, but these 8 phases are common in all open world games. These phases are:
- Coming up with Concept
- Writing the Story
- Fieldwork and Research
- Asset Creation
- Game Mechanics
- Quality Assurance
- Releasing the Game
We will go in detail for each step.
1: Coming up with Concept
Unless your game is part of a franchise, the first thing an open world game (or any game) needs an idea about what kind of game it is going to be.
It does not have to be a complete story, or detail about mechanics of game, but just an idea.
For example, the idea for first Assassin’s Creed started as a spin-off of Ubisoft’s other series at the time “Prince of Persia”, back in 2004. The original idea was about a game about an assassin who would fight for the family of titular prince, but Ubisoft saw that game was going to far from prince, and hence, decided to make it as a seperate game.
Now, at that only one thing was decided that game would be about assassins and will be set in ancient world. No other details were known, and that was enough for an initial idea.
The idea for the game is the first thing, and the basis for every other step later on in the development process.
The original idea or concept gets modified or improved a lot in later stages, for streamlining the game performance and other variables.
2: Writing the Story
How the game functions and what are its game mechanics, are only one component of a great open world game.
What most players are interested in, is a compelling a great story. Otherwise players won’t be interested in the player’s journey.
A great story makes the players care about the character, just like we care and feel about characters in movies and books etc.
Without a story, the world looks blatant and still and not functioning the way, a real world does.
And writing a story does not only mean that your character have a story, but every character around you, must have some drive or story to themselves. Of course, not as detailed and focused as the main character but still, everyone needs to have an identity.
Now in this case games which are based on some pre-existing properties like Witcher games have an unfair advantage over other games, as they already have much of story material in the beginning. Of course, they need to modify it for games but it helps a lot.
Original concept games like Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry series are hard to make in this regard, because they have to be written from the start. They do take inspirations from other materials, like Assassin’s Creed series is literally based on events of historical significance. Even still, they need more work.
In a nutshell, a compelling story is a main component of good open world video game.
Here is a great article on how to write stories for video games.
3: Fieldwork and Gathering Reference Data
The most important thing for an open world is believability and immersion- the reason these games work so well is because they sell the idea of this vast, open, massive world existing independently of the player and their involvement with the game. They give the impression that the world exists persistently, that it’s not just a video game sandbox that was built to accommodate the player.
So it wouldn’t do to have the world not be authentic enough- that would completely break the immersion, and take players out of the game. This is why one of the most important steps in crafting an open world happens before a single line of code has even been written. it’s when the developers, having decided on the setting for their game, conduct fieldwork and research to ensure that they can recreate that setting authentically and accurately in their game.
For example, for making the world for Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, developers from Ubisoft conducted fieldwork of Greece, and also worked with archaeologists.
For Ghost Recon: Wildlands, they Ubisoft sent teams to Bolivia to capture the natural look and feel of the region.
The video below from IGN explains how Ubisoft created Athens for Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.,
Interestingly enough, this kind of research also takes place when the setting for your game is fictitious, or mostly fictitious anyway.
For example, Far Cry Primal,Ubisoft specifically had an entire new fictitious created based on the projected reconstructions of the Proto-Indo-European language, allegedly the common ancestor to most modern languages.
This was done in the interest of selling a believable and authentic setting, even though, if you think about it, this is not the kind of thing most players notice. But Ubisoft were committed to an authentic setting- so they went the extra miles.
4: Asset Creation
Now begins the hands-on technical work.
Now, the game assets contain a lot of things that comprise the entirety of game. These are:
- 3D models
- Sound Effects
- Ambient Sounds
3D modelling of characters begins with concept design of characters and are then turned into 3D in some modelling software.
The world is modelled using reference data gathered in previous step. Softwares used for modelling may vary depending on the choice and budget of developer. Mostly Autodesk Maya, 3DS Max and Pixologic Zbrush are used, since they are considered as ndustry standards.
[Also Read: How to make money with 3D Modelling]
After all the 3D models have been completed, they are sent to a team which is responsible for animating those characters.
Nowadays, animations are done via motion capture, but still translating that data to a model is a mammoth task. All kinds of animations like characters walking, running, jumping and others which are not related to characters like terrain and other worldly animations, are done in this step.
After the performance capture and 3D modelling and animation work is completed, comes the next step in creating assets.
The assets are sounds.
Voice capture is done for recording dialogues and other vocal stuff.
Sounds also include sound effects, ambient environmental sounds and soundtrack.
Recording sound effects and ambient effects is more complicated and difficult than it seems.
For example, Ubisoft captured sounds of Chicago City for Watchdogs and for Infamous Second Son, sounds of Seattle was captured by developers. These are the cities in which respective games are set in.
However, the development of sound assets becomes difficult when the game takes in ancient of fictional world.
For example, CD Projekt Red captured sounds for Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt from various locations and recreation festivals of ancient battles.
Apart from sound effects and ambient sounds, a soundtrack is also a key component of creating the feel of a game. Just like movies and TV, games rely on soundtrack and background music for creating the emotion of scene.
Soundtrack is created usually by composers who are hired by developers to develop the music and soundtrack.
5: Game Mechanics
Now comes the actual programming part.
After all of the assets are created, they are programmed to a lot of specifications like, which soundtrack will be played in which level, which button would trigger a certain type of character action.
In other words, how everything will behave and how the players will play the game, is done in this step.
Back in old days,programming for game used to be done in normal software developing environments. Nowadays, the process is still somewhat similar, but now developers have softwares that are specifically developed to do the task. These softwares are called game engines.
Sometimes the engine is developed solely for a specific game, depending on the reqirements of game, but most of the time developers simply use the code repositories of old engine and upgrade it a bit, like Ubisoft do for Assassin’s Creed Games, which are all developed in Anvil Engine.
CD Projekt Red developed a new engine, the Red Engine 3 for Witcher 3.
Apart from these inhouse gaming engines which huge gaming firms use, there also gaming engines available to everyone in the world and the two best of them are surprisingly free. They are Unreal Engine and Unity Engine. Studios who can’t afford to develop an in-house gaming engine, often use these free engines. Plus, they have made gaming development available to every person in the world.
Now, being free does not mean these engines are bad or don’t have much features. Infat, there are countless high end AAA games developed in these engines. For examples, Netherrealm Studios have used the Unreal Engine to develop Mortal Kombat X and Xi, and also for Injustice:Gods Among Us and Injustice 2.
Apart from coding the gameplay, game engines also employ advanced features which are essential for open world games like Weather Systems, Day and Night Cycles and more.
Below is a great video that explains how, game engines work.
The game engine is also responsible for loading and streaming of data for the game world, as an open world is one massive level, and since having separate loading screens for it would break the immersion and seamlessness, an engine must specifically be programmed to load data seamlessly, and on the fly.
Apart from that, as for an open world game, NPCs (Non-playable characters) and AI are also hugely important.
The immersion is only possible as long as the game world is populated by characters who look and seem real and persistent to the player, instead of just a prop placed there to add to the sense of realism.
After all this, game development process is completed, and game is compilled into a beta version, which is not the final version that arrives in stores, but is to be checked and refined in the next step.
6: Quality Assurance
Quality Assurance or QA for short, involves scanning the thousands upon thousands of lines of computer code to find whether there is anything that isn’t behaving the way it is supposed to.
This process gets even harder the more systems the game is releasing on like Playstation, Xbox, PCs etc. and the more languages it will be released in.
Quality assurance is a very critical part of game development.
Game QA includes alpha testing, beta testing and code freeze. These are phases of checking that everything works the way the way it should.
Errors or bugs in games are very important to be detected and corrected before the launch, as they break the immersion and overall feel and look of the game. Moreover, studios also have their reputation to consider as well, as bug filled games can destroy the developers entirely and gamers are unlikely to buy games from developers whose games are known to have bugs.
That’s why it is important for any gaming company to test the games before they go on sale. Without proper testing, releasing a game with many bugs can lead to negative feedback from the end users since it can ruin their experience. This could also lead to a significant reduction in unit sales.
After all the tests are done and game is found to be bug free, it is green-lit for launch.
7: Marketing & Launch
For big studios who know that their game is not going to crash during development stages, start their marketing campaign very early.
Small studios do it after development of game.
This includes releasing trailers on internet, going on tours and much more.
Marketing is a very important for video games just like any other product, because public needs to know that a game has been developed.
Marketing does not only informs the public about the game, but also has to convince the players to buy the game.
After marketing and all that stuff, the launch day comes, when the game is made available to the world.
A successful launch ceremony is also very important as it is the moment when the world finaly gets to get their hands on the product, that has been developed.
And if first impressions are not good, games don’t make much sales. So, presenting the game in the right way is crucial to the success of game.
8: Post Launch Work
The work is still not done after the launch.
Several bugs and errors that have been missed by QA teams, begin to be detected by players and they are patched in the subsequent updates.
Apart from fixing the bugs, other updates are also developed as per feedback from the dedicated fans of the game.
And then, there are also DLCs (Downloadable Content) and expansion packs to be considered, and they also go under development right after the launch.
Overall, making open world games is a mammoth task that needs thousands of people to work on them.
It is a remarkable feat of art, programming, dedication and power of computing, and is also a miracle that such open world massive games even work.
Knowing all that it makes you feel forgiving the developers for occasional bugs or errors you find the game.
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