Why Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon’s compact open world is so effective3 May 2013
When a game is described as ‘open world,’ certain titles and expectations come to mind. Your brain will probably do that thing brains do and make a connection to a different, recent game with the same descriptor. Sleeping Dogs, perhaps, or Skyrim. It might take you back to some classics like Daggerfall or Grand Theft Auto III.
Chances are, the phrase will give you a sense of scale and scope. Open worlds tend to be all about letting the player roam freely through whatever countryside, cityscape or weird planet the developers have put together, and in contemporary gaming that tends to mean vast, expansive spaces.
It’s no surprise that CD Projekt has been keen to run the “bigger than Skyrim, 30 times larger than The Witcher 2” line about upcoming, open world sequel The Witcher 3. Players who gravitate to these titles love exploration, and open world titles cater to that desire. The more of the world there is to tromp around in (the theory goes,) the greater the chance of finding multiple, interesting things to do and see.
If, that is, the developers have the time, creativity and/or processing power to add them in. There’s always a risk with these projects that huge swathes of the landscape actually turn out to be quite dull. The quicker the player begins to rely on a fast travel system to zip around the place, the more likely it is that the bits in between just aren’t worth seeing more than once or twice. At that point, maybe it would’ve been better just to make the world smaller?
That’s exactly the route taken by Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, which reduces the original game’s island area to a more compact space that Sergeant Rex Power Colt’s cyber-legs can sprint across in a matter of minutes. In part this is a consequence of the stand-alone game’s budget nature (it’s $15 USD rather than $50-60,) but it’s a design decision that works rather well.
To make a bit of a literary comparison, Blood Dragon has the open world equivalent of a short story or novella. It’s still ‘open’ in all the ways that matter; you can (after a linear intro) go wherever you please, tackle side-quests and garrison posts in whichever order and whatever style you choose, and generally cause unchecked mayhem. But the more focused nature of the world means that it, and the over-the-top story, don’t outstay their welcome.
There’s a fast travel system in the game, but I never really felt compelled to use it. The game is tight enough that it’s really not necessary. Rather than presenting a myriad of locations sprawled over a vast space, Blood Dragon sticks to what it knows; absurd 1980s action film dialogue and encounters with cyborgs. The ‘open world’ aspect here refers to the freedom to act how you like, decoupled from the guiding hand of a developer, rather than the freedom to roam all over gigantic open spaces.
There’s still just about enough space between garrisons and landmarks for the odd dynamic firefight between motorcycle helmet-clad baddies and hapless scientists to pop up, but not so much that you’re ever far from another story mission or ridiculous side-quest about rebellious animals. Like the overall tone and the ridiculous one-liners, the game would’ve been poorer had it been spread too thin. Staying (relatively) short at 6-8 hours, and compact in size was a wise design decision.
Of course, Ubisoft was able to make a game like this because all the code and much of the technology had already been developed for Far Cry 3. That must still have left a sizeable amount of work to do (mostly in the art and writing departments, you’d imagine,) and as a stand-alone game Blood Dragon presumably required a pretty hefty marketing budget for all those trailers. But that’s an expense that a large publisher/developer like Ubisoft can absorb and is a lot cheaper than developing a ‘new’ Blood Dragon game from scratch.
If this experiment sells quite well for Ubisoft (and right now it’s the second highest seller on Steam behind a 50%-off Tomb Raider,) it could encourage other companies to follow suit. Those lucky enough to have similar resources and multiple studios at their disposal could allow small teams free creative reign to make stand-alone spin-off games based on the tech of established titles. Let’s have a 1970 World Cup game based on the latest FIFA engine complete with period appropriate rules (yes, ok, that’ll never happen because EA wouldn’t sell a FIFA game for $15,) or a 1940s noir crime thriller in the Deus Ex: Human Revolution mold, please.
It’d be unwise to encourage every developer to go the ‘lol 1980s’ route, but there’s a part of me that would crave a bite-sized Hawk the Slayer-esque fantasy romp based around Skyrim. Nobody dictated that fantasy RPGs have to be (urgh) ‘epic’ and 30+ hours in length, yet for some reason they always are.
In many ways, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon defies conventional big-budget title wisdom. It’s an open world game with a small world; a ‘Triple A’-styled title that doesn’t take itself at all seriously; and a polished release from a major publisher that doesn’t come with a $60 USD price tag.
Its apparent level of success should be an indicator to other publishers that it’s fine to take creative risks on more outlandish projects when they’re based on previously developed, full price titles. Blood Dragon also demonstrates that an open world doesn’t have to be gigantic to function just fine. I’m as keen as anyone to see the scale of the world that The Witcher 3 will offer when it comes out in a year or so, but there’s no reason why the same principles can’t continue to be applied to more compact locations.