GAME DESIGN CASE STUDY
Lessons in Open World Design: A Ghost Recon Story
Reflecting on what I learned about exploration design from building Ghost Recon: Breakpoint
Video games convey the exquisite sense of escapism like no other medium. Documentaries about exotic places, exciting fantasy tales, and delicious novels are like open windows to extraordinary worlds. Yet only video games provide the opportunity to become the discoverer; not merely the spectator.
Exploration of virtual worlds is among the most entertaining aspects of gaming. Hence, game developers like myself would love to crack the code to enrich our creations with these immersive, fulfilling, fascinating moments.
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ in design, no pre-baked recipe: everyone needs to come up with their own, based on what they observed and learned. In my design career, I’ve worked on several AAA open-worlds. But the last I shipped, Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, taught me more than any other about the pitfalls and opportunities to craft a satisfying exploration experience.
Essence of exploration
By definition, “exploration” means “observing something to increase one’s knowledge about it”.
Explorers have a particular mindset that is almost paradoxical: they are both confident there is something to discover and unsure what, when, how and where exactly said discovery may occur. They do not wander randomly, hoping for serendipity; they make assumptions, establish strategies and step in the unknown.
The pleasure is the journey, not the destination.
Armed with a desire to push the boundaries, to figure out what else there is to know and see, explorers don’t just travel from A to B. The pleasure is the journey, not the destination.
Naturally, when players are given both a character to move around freely and a world they’ve never seen before, they’re inclined to be driven by curiosity. They want to discover what the game creator has conceived to entertain them, which problems he or she designed and how to solve them.
With the same mindset as explorers, players enter an unfamiliar world, self-assured that they will find something. Only games can offer this from the comfort of your home. There are no dangers to fear, only the joy of discovery.
The Tale of the Blossoming Tree
A Ghost Recon: Breakpoint Story
Breakpoint didn’t meet expectations. As we were making it, we encountered several design flaws: one of them was the way playtesters moved in the open-world. Contrary to what we intended, they only focused on the main story campaign, avoiding all side quests and free-roaming in the world.
It wasn’t due to a lack of content: the vast island of Auroa features many diverse and beautiful landscapes, filled with dozens of cities, factories, and military camps. Some natural decorations and human-made places were specially crafted to encourage the player to leave the paved roads and discover the world by themselves: we called them ‘wild mysteries’.
I first encountered a ‘wild mystery’ when playing the early vertical slice demo. While searching for my next objective’s location, I spotted a blossoming tree on a small island downhill. I decided to go out of my way and check it out. A chest was lying underneath. I opened it. I can’t remember its contents; that was secondary. The small discovery felt good in and of itself.
The wild mysteries were a welcome change of pace from the tactical — sometimes intense — stealth and shooting experience. They gave slim rewards, but it didn’t matter much, the joy of finding them was enough.
Later, once the missions and the entire world was ready to test, most players had a very different experience than mine. They barely visited wild mysteries and frequently got lost in the vast natural landscapes. They complained, rightfully, that the world was too empty and annoying to travel through.
Among other things, we decided to add question mark icons all over the map to help the player discover the ‘hidden’ locations. Some crates were added to each of them, and if you‘d recon the place using binoculars or drones, you’d also know which equipment they contained.
Icons killed the magic of the blossoming tree for me: I didn’t enjoy discovering a place quite as much. Even with the curiosity-inducing question mark, they were far from mysteries now. These places became simple and occasional things I could do as something of a sidetrack (whenever I felt like doing them, or if I just wanted to pick up some loot).
In short: the satisfying sense of discovery vanished.
Why didn’t the map icon solution work?
The decision to include map icons wasn’t irrational, nor a bad choice per se. I specialise in progression and motivation as a game designer, and I knew we had only two ways to approach a situation where the player isn’t inclined to naturally perform a certain activity. We could either increase the activity’s desirability or reduce the effort to undertake it. We did both.
When the player isn’t inclined to perform a specific activity, you need to either increase its desirability or reduce the effort required to undertake it.
Adding loot chests to all locations and displaying them with map icons is undoubtedly not an elegant solution. But it slightly enhances both of the factors I just mentioned and at minimal cost. Reworking major systems or changing the world itself could yield better results, but those are rarely viable options this late in production.
The decision to add the map icons wasn’t popular within the team, as you might imagine. But at the time, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly why it was bothering us. It took time and reflection to organise my thoughts on the matter, which is why I have sat down to write this piece.
The issues raised by our solution can be split into three categories:
- The exploration incentive changed from a strong but hard-to-tame intrinsic motivation to a weaker extrinsic driver.
- The new fuels to sustain this motivation — density and desirability of rewards — partly address the issue initially, but they quickly fade in the mid-term.
- The three indirect factors correlated with exploration (movement, observation, and goals) remain mostly unchanged and continued to ‘block’ the emergence of a genuinely enjoying experience.
I’m going to break down each of these components and explore them in the context of Ghost Recon: Breakpoint. It’s important to note that I focus here exclusively on the game design aspect of exploration. The parameters I discuss here don’t include either the size or visual design of the space itself. My expertise — and my role in the team — isn’t to craft the explorable space, but rather to conceive the rules and the game structure to enable exploration.
Part 1 — The Exploration Incentive
A fundamental mistake about motivation
I developed my expertise in progression systems over several years, and in doing so, I grasped a solid understanding of human motivation. There is one mistake I used to make. It’s an assumption that I still often see my designer peers make. It is the belief that players need to be promised a reward to make them perform a specific task in the game.
It’s undeniable that economic systems are powerful motivation machines. We wouldn’t do many things in our jobs if not for the paycheck. Playing games is fundamentally different. By definition, it is an activity the player willingly enters into of their own free will.
After purchasing a game, we are intrinsically motivated to discover, learn, and experience it. That’s especially true when it features a vast world, an intriguing story, and dozens of fun systems to play with. When you’re on holidays, do you need a monetary incentive to go and have fun on the beach, or hang out with your friends?
As a designer, your goal is to nurture that pre-existing interest (which often begins with simple curiosity) — and encourage it to grow. You can’t, and typically don’t need to, create motivation ex nihilo with extrinsic ‘carrots’.
The challenge for games with greater freedom of choice (such as those with open worlds) is to understand how players will choose among several different types of content. Which activity is worth the player’s attention and time at a given moment? Assuming the proposed activities are all equally appealing, the best course of action for the creator is to ensure proper exposition for each; the ‘main campaign’ often acts as a door of entry for all sorts of ‘side’ content.
It’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint’s first mistake. The early missions focus quasi-exclusively on narration. In this context, the player has no choice. They aren’t told very much about the alternatives offered by the open-world or the progression systems. The intro delivers what the marketing campaign sold: a military brother’s revenge story set on an island in the near future.
There’s no space provided to let the player breathe and therefore make room for other interests. Missions chain. Each one tells you what to do, what you’ll get for doing it, and what aspects to enjoy. The opportunity to simply let the player experience a personal journey driven by their curiosity fades away. The player is already on a rail. So much for world exploration.
Can you layer incentives?
Assuming the player is intrinsically motivated to explore, there’s a tendency to assume that it shouldn’t hurt to add an additional layer of rewards just in case. The idea being that, in the worst case, the player will just ignore those rewards and remain curiosity-driven. Yes, this hedging of bets may not necessarily hurt. But the reality of the human mind is complicated; you don’t simply get magic results without trade-offs.
Layering motivations on top of one another usually helps to spark interest and keep it alive a little longer. Games are full of completion mechanics, challenges, checklists, and trophies. These things are all useful to extend games’ lifespan.
However, studies have also shown that extrinsic “stick and carrot” type motivations can extinguish the deeper intrinsic motivational drivers such as curiosity, creativity, or a will to grow. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink recounts an experiment conducted on kids that perfectly illustrates this effect.
Scientists give paper and crayons to two groups of kids. They want to observe how the kids react to different incentives. In the first group, they offer a nickel for each drawing. But they offer no specific incentives to the second group. Just as they hypothesised, every kid in the first group started to draw on the spot and produced more drawings than those in the second group.
The scientists expected this result. Now they wanted to “measure” how much of their motivation came from the monetary incentive. So, they announced that in the next round of drawings, they would no longer pay anything. Then they observed the results. When the extrinsic reward evaporated, the kids in the first group didn’t have any self-motivation to rest on — their desire to draw plummeted. In the meantime, the kids in the second group continued to draw at a good pace — intrinsically motivated by their art.
Extrinsic “stick and carrot” types of motivation extinguish the deeper intrinsic motivational drivers such as curiosity, creativity or will to grow.
Similar effects can be observed from players who completely lose interest once reaching the maximum level or completing the story. If the game is intended to be played in the longterm, players will tend to blame their aimlessness on the “lack of end-game content” — when the root cause is due, in part, to the lack of intrinsic motivation.
We decided to go down the extrinsic route when it came to adding those map icons in Ghost Recon: Breakpoint. Numbers, completion marks, and checklists are reassuring for our human brains (both for the creator and the player). It’s also easier to grasp visual incentive systems rather than abstract concepts like curiosity or creativity.
Although this shift did help to engage players in the short term exploration loop, and give them the sensation of a “fuller” game, it wasn’t sufficient to sustain longterm motivation.
Part 2 — Fueling the Motivation
On rewards desirability
In Part 1, I explained that while adding tangible rewards isn’t an efficient way to ignore the desire to explore, they are still essential to fuel motivation in the longer term — to keep it alive.
If you look at competitive multiplayer games these days, they all gift you with occasional cosmetic rewards. It’s a game loop designed to support and renew your interest over time. Remember, though, that the social connection, will to learn, and sense of achievement remain the primary intrinsic motivators; unlocking skins is the cherry on top.
Let’s return to exploration for a moment. Few players find appeal solely in visual stimuli alone. Most still need positive reinforcement to keep their interest from fading. In order to encourage curiosity in the longer term, designers usually incorporate tangible rewards, which may include narrative collectibles, extra times, or extra activities to perform. Importantly, the rewards must be desiriable throughout the player’s journey in order to be maximally efficient. But as you might have guessed, this wasn’t the case in Ghost Recon: Breakpoint.
As I previously mentioned, we didn’t just signal content with map icons. We also added numerous loot chests to the world. The new RPG-esque equipment system we added this time around was disliked by many. But still, gaining a new weapon or armour piece should be an exciting reward in any game of the genre. So, why didn’t our chests attract players as we intended?
Without wading into the details of the entire loot system itself, there are three specific elements that reduce the appeal of these ‘exploration rewards’:
- When you recon a location from afar, you know in advance which loot chests it contains. It kills the ‘what’s in the box’ curiosity, and if you don’t like the equipment, you won’t go out of your way for it.
- The equipment pieces you collect from chests are the same as the ones you can loot or buy to the merchants. The lack of exclusivity is another reason not to invest efforts into collecting a specific chest from a particular place.
- Unlike most RPGs, there is no minimum level to access missions or regions; you can complete the game while mostly ignoring the loot system. We didn’t want to implement level gating that would force players to grind — but that clearly has its trade-offs.
Although these exploration rewards exist, we didn’t rely on traditional layers (for valid reasons) and as a result, the rewards didn’t end up being particularly attractive. Most players enjoy the loot they get on the critical path already. Chests aren’t enough to encourage them to stray from the beaten path.
Rhythm and density
In addition to the desirability of the exploration rewards, it’s essential to be aware of their density within the play area. If the collectable items are attractive but too scarce, players will rarely encounter them and end up more frustrated than satisfied with exploration.
Game developers rarely discuss rhythm because most figure it out intuitively as they build the game. This often happens late in production when the experience is being tweaked and balanced. Finding the right pacing to accompany the flow of your game experience is a crucial aspect of the design, nonetheless. The analogy is to imagine listening to your favourite song at half or double speed.
There isn’t a once-size-fits-all design solution to nail the rhythm. Rockstar Games has an interesting approach to the problem. They try to stick to a golden rule: there’s never more than 45 seconds of travelling between two consecutive points of interest. In the absence of physical structures, their system spawns events on the road (such as the diligence assaults in Red Dead Redemption, which break up the monotony on long trips).
Finding the right pacing to accompany the flow of your game experience is a crucial aspect of the design, nonetheless. The analogy is to imagine listening to your favourite song at half or double speed.
Auroa is big. Too big. Even with hundreds of points of interest, the density feels too low. Prior to us putting icons on the map, players would rarely discover stuff on their own. Now you never do, but at least moving from one place to the next doesn’t take as long.
Map icons help games get around the density issue. Undiscovered places don’t remain undiscovered because they simply appear as ‘empty world’.
Part 3 — Indirect exploration factors
Designing for exploration goes beyond igniting intrinsic motivation and stuffing an area with enough attractive elements. Allow me to elaborate further on three key aspects of the bigger picture that all had a substantial impact on Ghost Recon: Breakpoint exploration.
Bear in mind that these factors typically wouldn’t be in the hands of the same group of people in a large team. And yet, they have the power to diminish — or to amplify — the enjoyment of exploration in the game.
How you move
Traversal gameplay (or just movement, if you prefer) refers to the mechanics used by characters to get from point A to B, be it running, driving, or paragliding. Fundamentally, exploration is about encouraging the player to experiment with different available methods for traversal. The eagerness to explore directly correlates to the pleasure of moving in the game.
Travelling around the world of Breakpoint was painful for a long time. And it still was at the time of release, even after our tweaks. You can get injured, or become exhausted and fall while navigating slopes. Vehicles aren’t particularly fun to use due to the sloppy driving and uneven terrain.
Even when the player is fully aware of the existence of content and where it is located in the world, they are likely to weigh the potential gain of moving to those places of interest versus the additional effort required to get there.
Conversely, if moving is pleasurable thanks to responsive, engaging, and thrilling character controls and animation, then exploration collectables can become a valid pretext to spend more time in the world. Traversal is arguably one of the most fun aspects of Assassin’s Creed, which may have lead people into thinking that open-world collectables are more fun (in and of themselves) than they actually are.
How you observe
Observation is another crucial aspect of exploration, one that is heavily impacted by adding map markers on the map. Challenging the player on their ability to scrutinise the environment and notice things on their own isn’t mandatory. As I explained in a previous article, it’s sometimes better to swap observation for something else. Providing helpers can be vital for the rhythm of the exploration.
On a deeper level though, letting the player move on their own (but also spot points of interest on their own) is a powerful tool to reinforce the joy of discovery. You don’t find stuff because a developer included a bright red sign to attract your attention — rather, you found it because you were observant, and you were rewarded for your natural curiosity.
Observation is the difference between “exploring” and “travelling”.
Putting map icons everywhere introduces another problem: the implicit authorisation to not look at anything else. Without even consciously noticing, players subconsciously recognise that because all points of interest are explicitly marked on the map, there’s absolutely no reason to check on what’s in-between.
Putting map icons everywhere introduces another problem: the implicit authorisation to not look at anything else.
You might spot a blossoming tree in the distance. Your natural instinct might be to go and investigate. But the in the absence of any map icons, you’ll probably move on unless you have some other serious reason to believe the location is an exception to the rule. There goes your curiosity, right out the window.
How you engage
This third external factor is more abstract. I’d call it your ‘gameplay goals’. That is, the goals you set for yourself within the overarching structure of the game, based on your expectations.
In linear experiences, the standard end goal is to beat the final level. In sandbox games, there isn’t necessarily an obvious end goal. And it can be part of the appeal to come up with your own. Think of all those experiences you’ll have along the way; what keeps you playing?
Ghost Recon: Breakpoint has several layers of progression and potential goals (character building, PvP ranking, open-world completion, and so on). As I mentioned in Part 1 about incentives, ‘finishing the campaign’ tends to resonate with the most significant chunk of the audience where other aspects of the game (such as character customisation) are there to flesh out the experience.
Breakpoint’s first mission is carefully crafted to present the narrative first and foremost, explaining the themes of survival, drones, and revenge. The beautiful and varied playground might be a natural fit for exploration, but there’s no call for it early on.
Does exploration really need to be one of the gameplay goals in a Ghost Recon game? If you ask players, they’ll always answer yes. Players always want more freedom of choice. But when you observe them playing the game, the answer is quite different: they don’t care much.
The game design is indissociable from player expectations. Both elements influence each other. At any rate, players will always come to the game with expectations of some kind. In this case, exploring a remote island is likely a secondary concern for most Ghost Recon players.
I like analysing the flaws of a ‘bad game’ as much — if not more — than the qualities of a great one. It’s the best way to figure out the potential pitfalls and gain new perspectives through which to assess my future projects. Remember again, though, that there’s no single formula or recipe here.
You can’t reverse engineer the flaws to figure out the building blocks.
Nevertheless, diving deep into Ghost Recon: Breakpoint from an exploration point of view helped me to articulate key aspects that I simply couldn’t while I was working on it. While you can’t ignite natural desires through external motivators, you can fuel these desires with sufficient tangible rewards connected to fundamentally appealing game loops. This is all while ensuring movement is fun, observation is enjoyable and satisfying, and expectations are aligned. None of that is easy, and it’s certainly a lot to balance — yet, that is by no means an exhaustive list of considerations.
There are many video game worlds yet to be created. And there will be many that have the opportunity to feature exploration. Many creators will take on this daunting challenge in their attempt to reach the holy grail: truly conveying the unique pleasure of being on your own interactive adventure. It’s a sensation that, so far, only video games have achieved.