What's the Shape of the Next Open World Fantasy RPG?

In 2012 I discovered the biggest, best fantasy RPG consoles had seen in years.  No, not Skyrim;  Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, my GOTY of 2012 and also winner of the most ridiculous title.   Of course, I'm aware that Skyrim is by far the bigger name, with the TES franchise actually having a guaranteed chance at a sequel, while Amalur is wrapped in so much legal tape the behind-the-scenes story of its developer is almost more intriguing than the game's actual plot.  Still, it was Amalur that captivated me with its far more colorful world, gorgeous and inventive character and armor designs, and addictive battle system.

 


I sunk dozens of hours into Amalur, exploring it's five unique, massive zones that each felt like their own mini-worlds--all filled with their own cities, characters, problems and questlines.  It nailed the scale of a large continent for its time, but more than that the actual gameplay of Amalur was rock-solid.  It boasted three skill trees--your standard warrior, mage, and thief--but allowed for players to customize their characters with skills from all three.  Mix that with a wide variety of weapons that all felt good to use and you have a combat system that's dynamic and fun to play even despite the game's embarrassingly low level of difficulty.

There were also a trio of guilds you could join that all had their own questlines and offered special armor and weapons for completing them all.  Add that with the massive amounts of lore the game was filled with--from the books to the armor sets and weapons that had their own histories to them, and you get a world that feels lived-in.  And speaking of that, you could even buy your own homes in several of the zones to make your character feel like they're a part of the world--ranging from a creepy, spider-infested home in Webwood to a literal mansion.


Still, Amalur had its flaws.  While there was no shortage of quests, they all usually end in death for either the quest-givers or the people you're looking for, making your actions feel pointless in the grand scheme of things.  Additionally, you could climb to the top of the mage, warrior, and thieves' guild and somehow no one ever blinked an eye as you turned into the most blatant "chosen one" ever.  Lastly, once all the game's content was completed the world possessed this strange, empty quality to it I don't believe I've felt in any other game since.


Two years later, Amalur would be followed up by Bioware's Dragon Age: Inquisition.  While I initially avoided both Dragon Ages due to the first game's lackluster combat (I played it after Amalur) and the second's poor reputation combined with overall awful visuals, Inquisition's next-gen upgrade grabbed my attention.   Inquisition's world felt reminiscent of Amalur, with its lush greenery and vivid colors, and it was easy to allow myself to be taken by the change in art direction.

Dragon Age: Inquisition boasted nearly twice the zones as Amalur--from zombie-filled marshes to snow-capped and war-torn mountaintops.  It also featured an eclectic cast of characters who all had their own backstories you could learn about, and the ability to romance them.  There wasn't as much need to make it feel lived-in, as two games and lots of supplementary material had accomplished that job already, but the game was still stuffed with lore to fill out the part of the world we were exploring.


Lastly, in place of Amalur's series of houses in different lands, Dragon Age: Inquisition offered multiple forts and camps that helped developed the zones you found and "occupied", as well as a massive castle to call home in the form of Skyhold.  And while they didn't do much, your choices during the game could affect the way they developed, whether you wanted more militaristic bases or centers of trade. Between camps, forts, and castle Skyhold the game tried its best to hammer home how you were a commander of an army.

...But, no matter how much work they put in, it didn't mean a thing when your army never actually did anything.  How you developed your castle failed to affect your game outside of the most superficial of ways, and outside of the character-focused stories most of the quests were of lackluster quality.  And all that without mentioning the game's absolutely dreadful battle system.  Reminiscent of Xenoblade Chronicles X only without the bells and whistles to keep you on your toes, Dragon Age: Inquisition's pseudo-MMO style managed to displease both fans of turn-based/RTwP combat as well as action fans like myself.   Having said that, none of this stops me from having played this game for 100+ hours and considering it my GOTY for 2014.  The flaws certainly exist, but I enjoyed every minute I spent exploring this game's world.


Not even a year later though, The Witcher 3 would hit store shelves and upend everything we thought was possible with AAA, open-world RPGs.  The game is gargantuan, boasting a starting area alone that players could spend over a dozen hours in, and that's before progressing to the game's even larger main area of Velen and the watery islands of Skellige.

The game trades variety of biomes for a dynamic weather cycle, as you spend most of the time in the game exploring forests, plains, and the wintery Skellige lands, but the world goes beyond feeling merely "lived in" due to the lore and becomes one that gives schedules to all the individual villagers.  It takes the scale that Amalur and DAI could only begin to hint at to its natural conclusion, providing us with the kind of believably substantial cities that Amalur's Adessa and DAI's Orlais no doubt desired, but were likely held back by last-generation technology.

The game was also a quantum leap in terms of quest design--featuring hundreds of side-quests, treasure hunts, and monster contracts, each backed by writing to make the player feel like they're doing more than just ticking off boxes.  Like Amalur, The Witcher 3 boasts a triad of upgrade trees; there's signs for the more magically inclined, sword techniques for the battle focused, and alchemy if you just wanted to be a weirdo.  (Kidding.)

If the game has any flaw, it's that its combat system is nothing to write home about; it doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Amalur's, but it's light-years ahead of DAI's dull MMO like battle system.  Also, it's focus on a pre existing character means while there's plenty of customization making your Geralt play leagues different from someone else's, it's still....Geralt.  Signs don't equal up to spells, he's never going to wield a spear, or a longbow, or anything other than a pair of swords--which he doesn't even duel wield.   This is less a flaw and more a intentional design of the game, but it's still worthy of mention as a limitation.    Plus Geralt's overall status as a cipher in this world means few temporary companions and zero permanent ones, and any kind of base-building or even home settling is absent from the original game.

As we look forward, there's no officially announced AAA fantasy RPGs on the horizon.  Unofficially, I have to believe Dragon Age 4 is the next game up.  With Inquisition being the best selling Bioware game of all time, there's no way a sequel isn't already in development.  BioWare has Mass Effect this year, and a new IP next year though, which probably places the next potential DA sequel into 2019 alongside Two Worlds III, of all things.   Saying that, I'll admit I've never played Two Worlds I or II so I have no idea what level of quality to expect from it--but I do know both games will likely come out in the same year and thus will likely be compared to one another.

I do have some requests based on my last four years of playing AAA fantasy stuff, though.

  • Tone down the world size: The Witcher 3 was too damn big. I get it, more world equals a more realistic landscape, but TW3 pushed the absolute limits of this.  I hear things like the next Bethesda game needing to be even larger and I get drowsy at the very thought of having to navigate lands that size.
  • If you can't make the world smaller, make traversal more fun: When I'm cruising the streets of Hong Kong in Sleeping Dogs, I never think that city's size is cumbersome because traveling is fun.  Riding Roach, or any of these miscellaneous horses for that matter?  Not fun.  If you're going to make a world even larger than Roach, someone needs to figure out flying mounts.
  • Same size, more quality content: The Witcher 3 has it right in terms of content.  Fantasy RPGs should be capable of destroying your free time over the course of dozens of hours.  But it needs to be varied, quality content.  In this Witcher 3 stepped its game up: no simple fetch quests, no asking the player to pick flowers.   Ask them to unhaunt a house.  As them to help make someone king of an island nation.  Ask them to help repair a broken family.  The bar's been raised now, and no one's going to accept you lowering it.  Create real quests that alter the state of the world in small or big ways.
  • Involve the player more deeply in your world: This goes along with better quest content.  Fictional guilds are cool because they do something like this--they (should) introduce you to a side of the world you wouldn't otherwise have seen, complete with their own characters and missions and rewards.  If its a party-based game, maybe give quests through your party members that develops their characters further. 

    And stop introducing all these resources that don't mean anything.  Dragon Age: Inquistion was full of this--the game wasn't remotely hard enough to demand constant crafting of stuff and yet the castle constantly churned out useless resources you stockpiled for ultimately no reason.
  • Do something with your house space: A quest to get a house is cool, but a questline developing that house is better.  If there are multiple houses, give us a reason to have each house/castle.  And maybe don't let a castle you created sit inexplicably empty.  Allow it to be customized, add people to it, maybe a room to look at all the neat armor you designed instead of the player just junking it for cash they'll (likely) never need.  There's no point in all these fetch quests if you can develop hours of content that draws the player into your world.
  • Actual "fantastical" settings: Fantasy games rely far too much on realistic locales.  As much as I love a well-made forest zone, they've still grown somewhat tiresome.  The Witcher 3 is exempt for its attempt at a "grounded" world, but Dragon Age: Inquistion has massive, soaring dragons that caused desert storms and breathed ice.  There's no reason they can't get more creative and make some otherwise impossible biomes, like Amalur's crystalline Alabastra.  You didn't spend very much time there as it was the last zone, but just having it at all was awesome.  Still, in the future it'd be nice to live in impossible places, rather than merely visiting them.
  • Lastly, fix your combat: Amalur did it.  Japanese games do it all the time.  But somehow fantasy RPGs struggle with the most vital part of their game.  Combat needs to have sufficient variety, depth (and difficulty) to feel satisfying for the 100+ hours you're asking players to invest into your game.  Amalur felt great, but far too easy.  The Witcher 3 nailed the feeling of needing to prepare before a battle, and actual battles felt difficult enough to warrant it, but combat never rises above "serviceable" in terms of variety of weapons as well as raw gameplay.   And the less said about Dragon Age's combat, the better.

And that's it.  I know it seems like I'm asking for the world, but I'm not, really.  I'm just asking game designers to do what they've always done--don't settle, and keep constantly raising the bar they set for themselves.   AAA fantasy RPGs are going to need to pull of some incredible stuff if they're going to compete with this new wave of multiplayer gaming.

What about you?  What features do you think should be added to open-world fantasy RPGs?

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