“Following the fun” in open-world game design: lessons from Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry

Sliding down pyramids in Assassin’s Creed Origins? Definitely fun. (Image link)

The Internet has been abuzz this week with shocking and not-so-shocking news from E3. In the latter category falls the official announcement of Far Cry 5 and Assassin’s Creed: Origins, both developed by Ubisoft Montreal and part of franchises from which we’ve come to expect periodic releases. But what they lack in surprise they promise to more than make up for in new, salient, controversial settings — respectively, a fictional Montana county taken over by a radical religious cult, and a historically accurate Ptolemaic Egypt circa 50 BCE that is a hotbed of slavery and revolution.

I’m trying to remind myself of the strong likelihood that one or both of these installments will disappoint. But it got me thinking about the winding paths to fun that each of these franchises have taken in the last decade. I think there’s a lot they can teach us about building compelling open worlds.

Shouldn’t this be obvious?

“Follow the fun” is phrase that gets thrown around often in game design. Broadly, it means that as developers make design decisions and build game systems, they should move toward ideas that provide immediate fun for the player and away from those that don’t.

This might seem obvious — we are talking about video games after all. But as games have grown bigger and more complex over the last few decades, many have fallen into the trap of focusing less and less on the joy of the immediate player experience. For example, detailed progression systems in which you improve your character, city, or vehicle over time can give games a great sense of depth and investment for the player. But they can also give rise to the “grind” where you spend hours on tasks that help you progress but are not actually enjoyable as standalone activities. It’s why impatient people like me find World of Warcraft and most MMOs entirely uncompelling.

Similarly, as technology improves and game worlds get bigger, we find ourselves in an arms race where developers compete to make their maps more gigantic than the competition. They really seem to like slapping a bullet point on the box highlighting the many square kilometers of their accomplishment. (I’m sure there’s a point to be made here about rampant masculinity in game design — which is doubly ironic because 44% of gamers are now female — but I’ll leave the phallic allegory alone.) Developers seem less interested in making traversal of their huge environment fun than in making it huge in the first place. They sometimes forget that size only matters if a reasonable level of quality is met. (Okay, I’m really done now.)

In short, developers are increasingly asking if they can, not if they should. They are forgetting to follow the fun.

The long-anticipated but much-maligned Mass Effect Andromeda is another example of recent bloat, with many things to do but little personality or impact. (image link)

Audiences are largely to blame. “Feature creep” occurs because audience expectations ratchet up over time, to the point where developers face criticism if they remove a system or make a smaller map than last time. So the list of things that fans demand relative to the competition — and relative to earlier games in the franchise — causes content bloat over time.

No two franchises illustrate this better than Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry. Let’s take a closer look at both.

Too much of a good thing

On the open-world games front, Assassin’s Creed 3 and Far Cry 4 are standout examples of ratchet-induced bloat. They were both preceded by world-class games that were arguably the pinnacle of their franchises. Assassin’s Creed 2 (including its two standalone expansions, Brotherhood and Revelations) was a taut, emotional, expansive thrill ride that managed to merge modern and historical plotlines into a unique experience that was fun from beginning to end. Far Cry 3 was one of the best open-world shooters ever made, refining the best mechanics from prior games, dispensing with unnecessary features, and introducing some compelling novel ideas. The whole thing was driven by a tense, violent, personal story about the potential for insanity in everyone, told through surreal drug sequences and punctuated by brilliantly done quotes from Alice in Wonderland. Stalking targets in AC2 through the dark corridors of a Italian cities and taking outposts with a mix of stealth and explosions in FC3 was some of the most fun I’ve had in video games.

Far Cry 3 also featured some of the best character acting in video game history in Michael Mando’s Vas, the protagonist’s Shakespearean foil, and a madman who makes just enough sense to be dangerous. (image link)

What were the common elements of these two experiences? In a word, immediacy. In the middle of a chase or firefight or story sequence, the player is not bothered with thinking about upgrading buildings, exploring maps, or grinding money. She is focused on a singular goal. She is taking in the experience amidst a compelling backdrop of good world building with emotional weight, but the worlds are allowed to take a backseat to immediate gameplay when they need to. For example, Assassin’s Creed 2 faithfully recreates beautiful Renaissance cityscapes, but it isn’t afraid to take some liberties with design to make building-hopping fun. When the player does undertake side activities like exploration and shopping, they are crisp experiences with a tangible connection to the core goals of the game, letting you quickly get back to the action feeling ready to take on new challenges.

Then, the bloat happened. Assassin’s Creed 3 looked the same as it’s predecessor on the surface, but it sacrificed the great stuff (e.g. tight and consistent stealth gameplay, simple but effective economy) in favor of complicated systems like hunting/homestead management and awkward mechanics like muskets. It became a sprawling action adventure game rather than a focused story-driven stealth experience. There is nothing innately wrong with that pivot, but it must be accompanied by a change in the game’s core identity and storytelling, otherwise you get (as we did) an open world adventure game masquerading as a stealth thriller that wears neither hat well. Speaking of story, it was devoid of payoff as the game struggled to wrap up the modern storyline from the prior games while introducing, developing, and concluding a brand new historical character in a new American Revolution setting. Ubisoft complicated matters for themselves further by having the player spend a 3+ hour prologue with another character entirely.

Far Cry 4 looked even more similar to its predecessor, except all the old systems were turned up to 11 and set in the frigid Himalayas. The game felt bigger, deeper, and less fun as a result. When capturing an outpost — arguably the best mechanic in FC3 which made a return here — I often found myself forgetting why I was doing it. I struggled to remember what I was fighting for or why I should care. Whereas FC3 was motivated by a desperate moment-to-moment struggle to survive and a surprisingly personal story about saving your friends and your sanity, FC4 was driven by seemingly arbitrary tasks dispensed by forgettable characters.

The end result was two of the most disappointing games in recent memory. I played them, I finished them, and I had an okay time. They weren’t bad games. But they didn’t stick with me, and at no point did I have one of those amazing gaming moments where you realize the power of the medium to tell meaningful stories. I’ll take AC2’s climactic final battle with the Borgias in a mysterious ancient ruin or FC3’s drug-induced montages of self discovery over anything in their sequels any day.

Step away from the spreadsheet

Did critics pick up on the decline between these games? Yes and no. The metacritic score for each game did decrease relative to its predecessor, but only by 6 points and 8 points respectively (see chart below). Many journalists noted the criticisms I laid out above, and yet the aggregate score for both games fell by less than 10%. What does it really mean to go from an 88 to an 80?

This speaks to a serious challenge in how we review games. I would argue that reviewing games is fundamentally different than reviewing other media like books, movies, and television. Those media are static — everyone watches or reads the same thing. Gaming is interactive and dynamic. Each player’s story will be different and to some extent self-determined. With games, we’re not reviewing a fixed narrative, we’re reviewing a set of systems that interact with both the player and with other systems to produce an experience.

Here’s the hard part: perfection is not necessary or even desired across the board when it comes to good game design. Taken in isolation, a great mechanic or system does not equal great fun. It’s how the systems interact to produce a moment-to-moment player experience that matters. You might even argue that making one system perfect on its own can actually make other systems worse.

For example, take the sequences in Far Cry 4 where you assume the identity of your ancestor and embark on a fantastical journey to Shangri-La. The gameplay is amazing, the world-building is top-notch, and the environments are absolutely stunning from both technical and design perspectives. These sequences could easily stand alone as their own indy game. But in the context of the broader Far Cry 4 experience, they are distracting and encumbering. These missions appear seemingly randomly throughout the game, and they are not well connected to the main storyline. In the end, they feel like side quests and the overall narrative suffers as a result. Juxtapose these to the equally surreal drug sequences from Far Cry 3, which always included an element of discovery about yourself or the quest at hand.

Far Cry 4’s Shangri-La sequences were gorgeous, innovative, and extraordinarily well done, but they had almost no connection to the main plot. (image source)

Point-based reviews are woefully bad at capturing intangibles like that. If a game has bad pacing, how many points should we deduct? If a game makes me cry tears of joy at an emotional reunion of two characters due to a unique decision that I made in my play-through, how many points should we add? And if it contains a singular moment of emergent gameplay unlike any we’ve experienced before, when two systems interact in an unexpected way, how do we even attempt to quantify it? These problems are magnified when we rely on aggregated review scores like metacritic, which tend to drown out nuanced views even further.

There are some redeeming qualities to point-based systems. For those with precious little time for playing games, they can help weed out the junk so we can play the good stuff. Unfortunately, when consumers use scores to decide what to buy, it locks in the ratchet effect. Game developers know that if they include the features audiences expect and they fine-tune those individual systems, they’ll get a decent or better score and people will buy the game. Paradoxically, chasing good metacritic scores can be the opposite of following the fun.

This might explain the marginal downtick in score for AC3 and FC4. These are competent games. If you look at them piece by piece, it’s hard to find anything that is defensibly wrong with them. It’s the intangible, immediate player experience that is lacking, and X/100 scores struggle to capture that. A reviewer who gave these games a 60/100 or 50/100 citing focus or pacing issues would face accusations of viewing the game through a biased lens. But in an interactive medium where we shape our own stories, isn’t that the whole point?

Bouncing back

Fortunately, as the gaming industry matures, some developers are finding ways to mitigate feature creep and return to the fun. Reboots can accomplish this by providing a rationale for tearing down game systems and starting over with an intellectual property. But they aren’t required — sometimes developers can find their footing by making bold design decisions to cut certain systems and focus on new aspects of the player experience.

Black Flag was a return to form for Assassin’s Creed, free of the flotsam and jetsam that plagued its predecessor. (image source)

The Assassin’s Creed franchise did this brilliantly with Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. After the debacle of AC3, it’s clear that Ubisoft did some soul searching with the goal of returning to the core Assassin’s Creed experience. They adapted overly complex systems that had plagued AC3 to the new setting with a focus on streamlining — for example, making gunpowder weapons a powerful but simplified part of the combat system by adding a one-click fire option, and shifting the focus of the economy system to plundering and upgrading the protagonist’s ship the Jackdaw. They took the naval combat system from AC3 (which was supberb, but like Shangri-La in FC4, felt isolated from the main game) and expanded it to form the backbone of the core gameplay loop. By breaking away from the storyline that drove the original trilogy, they established a model for anthology games that are connected to the Assassin’s Creed mythos but not encumbered by it. Ubisoft has since recreated this model with varying success, including the terrible AC Unity and the good AC Syndicate.

That brings us to this week’s E3 announcements.

We can only hope the gameplay of recently announced Far Cry 5 is as newsworthy as the new setting. I’m hopeful that moving from the Himalayas to rural Montana indicates a renewed focus on simple, personal gameplay. The E3 gameplay trailer is encouraging, but time will tell.

The upcoming Origins appears to be a bottom-up rethinking of the Assassin’s Creed formula (image source)

Most exciting of all, the announcement of Assassin’s Creed: Origins represents an entirely new vision for revitalizing the franchise: harnessing rather than fighting feature creep. Set amidst a Hellenistic Mediterranean backdrop that offers a new world of opportunities for narrative and mechanics, this new installment has finally embraced the RPG elements that have been creeping in since the second game. Leveling, skills, and a deeper loot system have all made it in. Combat has been thrust to the forefront, with a flexible system more akin to The Witcher 3 or Dark Souls replacing the old counter-centric system. While still viable, stealth appears to be treated as an option rather than a requirement. (You could argue that’s been the case since AC3, but now, Ubisoft is seemingly embracing it.) And on the story front, the developers have indicated that activities scattered around the map will feel more like mini-narratives and less like repetitive tasks thrown in to placate completionists. In short, the franchise has “come out” as an RPG, and I’m excited to see if that leads to a viable alternative formula.

I think these two franchises illustrate that gaming has reached an inflection point as a medium. It has reached a maturity — technologically, organizationally, and financially — where it feels like anything is possible. Budgets and development teams for triple-A games are getting bigger. The audience is also getting larger and more diverse. The question the industry must ask now is not can we, but should we. How do we build compelling game worlds that feel bigger and better while maintaining player immediacy? And how do we follow the fun when many factors conspire to lead us away from it?