Open-world games: Can Western Studios compete with Japanese ones?

by Ben Kirby
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I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. After loving Breath of the Wild a few years ago, then falling head-over-heels for Elden Ring, and now Tears of the Kingdom. My love for the open-world game has blossomed.

This is in stark contrast to my experience with games like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Horizon Forbidden West. I’m not saying these games or series are bad. In fact, some have helped pioneer the open-world genre. But they’re lacking something if you ask me.

What makes an open-world game exceptional rather than just good?

Detail detail detail. Or more specifically nuance and care and attention.

Do the Japanese studios just care more about their product? Do work cultures across the globe somehow impact overall design? My three examples of the pinnacle of open-world game design thrive with their massive spaces and don’t feel like a chore. Why?

Open-World - Tears of the Kingdom

Open-world joy

My open-world joy comes from having a massive world to explore and unlock. All those games listed above, deliver that in spades. Horizon Forbidden West is massive and gorgeous. Assassin’s Creed Origins, Odyssey and Valhalla are huge and explorable.

There’s a difference though. Some of it is absolutely the detail. The open-world experience you’re given is another.

What tools are you given to explore? How rewarded do you feel when you go out of your way on an excursion? Most importantly, how much hand-holding is there to truly feel like you’re exploring?

Elden Ring and the modern Zelda games are almost indifferent to the player. Giving you loose objectives and then leaving you largely to your own devices. Western titles are keener to keep you on the critical path and keep your open-world experience a little less open.

This is really broad, I appreciate that. But let’s look at the differences.

Open-World - Elden Ring

Size doesn’t matter

Open-world games don’t need to be humongous. Sure, they can be massive, engaging and gorgeous. Wonderful.

But if it’s a vast, empty space that’s large for the sake of being large. That’s not really very engaging. I’m happy to trek for 40 minutes in real time if it leads to some kind of progress or discovery.

I’ve found that Elden Ring and Zelda have so much detail hidden in every corner of the world. Caves with hidden bosses and gear. Challenges and surprises no matter which way you go.

Western open-world counterparts just don’t seem to deliver that same sense of adventure and exploration. I love all the series I’ve mentioned above. Largely due to the main narrative or some of the mechanics. They just don’t hit the upper echelons like the Japanese-made open worlds, though.

Sometimes, there’s too much going on to enjoy what’s happening. Or massive areas that are level-gated, preventing your exploration because the game is not-so-subtly telling you that you’re not supposed to be here yet. That’s a literal barrier to your exploration and your adventure.

Open-world - No Man's Sky

Right or wrong

I think it’s largely down to preference, and you have to take some assumptions that developers from different cultures build games differently and try to cater to their audiences differently.

The likes of Ubisoft perhaps need to focus on onboarding and hand-holding to get traction with their games. Maybe not understanding the market for open-world games in the same way. Maybe it’s literally that they want to make sure you see the “main bits” and railroad you loosely to the good stuff.

There’s no right or wrong way, particularly when players are so fickle in what they like or required. Open-world games can deliver joy regardless of how they’ve been built, or who built them.

I just think that the Japanese-built worlds suit me better, and possibly suit the genre better overall. Giving the play more agency to just do as they wish and either benefit or suffer the consequences of their adventuring.

What do you think? Am I too harsh on those Western titles? Am I being too generous to From Software and Nintendo?

Let’s not ignore The Witcher 3 (the best example of a rich, dense, huge world!). No Man’s Sky, though not technically the same, it’s open and huge. Spider-Man from Insomniac Games delivers a more condensed but dense experience, too.

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