November 11, 2004

Bigger Isn’t Better

by Michael Mateas · , 8:16 pm

UC Riverside isn’t the only place discussing GTA: San Andreas. This last Monday, in the Experimental Game Lab at Georgia Tech, we held a group play-session and discussion of the game (part of the Game Night series we’ve started in the lab). At our next Game Night we’re discussing Fable: we want to compare two recent, large open-world games back-to-back.

The discussion left me feeling disappointed with San Andreas. With all the positive reviews, I had expectations for an even higher-agency GTA III experience. While there are some hilights (the rhetoric of poverty implied in only being able to eat crappy fast food, the character-appropriate accessorizing, the gang reputation system), I actually felt like I had less agency in this game than in previous installments. The fundamental gameplay is almost identical to GTA III: now the game is just really really big, with a simple RPG stats system attached.

The effect of a really-big world, with most of the buildings being facades that you can’t enter and that have no game-specific function, combined with characters you can’t really effect (ok, you can kill them or increase your reputation with your own gang) made the world empty and hollow there’s no reason to really do anything. Sure, joyriding is fun, but I’ve already been joyriding for two previous games. Now I want more. Particularly, after three installments, the lack of more sophisticated NPC interactions is really starting to bother me. Some examples:

Matt said that one of the things he likes about open-world games like San Andreas is the lack of edges. The world has no edges; it’s impossible to fall off. I countered that there are lots of edges; every NPC is a cliff you fall off when they respond in an entirely predictable, mechanical, context-free way. The physical space is large and relative edge free, but the social space is tiny, hemmed in on all sides by edges. Sure, you can spend the 5 or 10 minutes to drive to the top of a mountain, find a parachute, and jump off. But, as a gameplay mechanic, this feels like an endless hunt for easter eggs. You can hide a lot of easter eggs in a huge virtual world. And while easter egg hunting has a long and venerable history (as recent examples, look at any of the crazily detailed guides for Zelda Windwaker or Kingdom Hearts, two games I’ve played somewhat recently, and no, I didn’t exhaustively search for all the secrets), I don’t see how it has any legs as a fundamental game design approach. What’s the next installment: a continent with hundreds of large, empty cities in which all the inhabitants act exactly the same, except now you can go to Cape Canaveral and carjack the space shuttle?

On the way home, Ian and I chatted about why San Andreas felt disappointing. Part of the problem is that, while GTA III introduced a major design innovation, San Andreas feels like more of the same (a lot more of the same). Without being able to bring more life to the world, richer NPC interactions, dynamic, generative mission (story) structures, and long range effects of your actions, there’s nowhere for large open-worlds to go. Bigger is not better.