Overworld vs Open World

An important thing to consider early on in the design process of a new game is the setting, or the world that the game takes place in. Traditional storytelling mediums, like books or movies, only contain the character’s immediate surrounds, while more mundane areas are left out like transitions between scenes. However, games can allow for a player to explore for themselves and sometimes emphasise parts of the world that traditional mediums leave out. I want to consider these two styles of setting development: On the one hand the setting is striped down to exist only where there is important content, and on the other hand the story is embedded into a larger world. With that in mind, let’s set some definitions.

Overworld: A type of setting that contains pockets of interesting content that the player is teleported to. The transitions between scenes is sudden so as to trim out unimportant areas or down time. The term overworld is sometimes taken literally and provides the player with a map of points of interest that a player can warp to, and other times a “hubworld” is used where the player has access to all the other levels of the game. Some example overworld games include Ratchet and Clank, Mairo (both older 2D and newer 3D games), and first person shooter games like Halo or Doom. In general, games that have discrete levels often times are overworld style games.

Open World: A type of setting that is continuous and has areas of content embedded into a larger world map. Often times a player can walk continuously from one end of the world to the other. Usually an open world doesn't “rail-road” the player and provides them with meaningful crossroads. Some examples of open world games include Runescape, Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild or Hollow Knight.

Why would a designer pick one of these settings over the other? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

First consider the Overworld style of games.

By definition, an overworld has (mostly) isolated pockets of content. These pockets are where all the stuff happens. Using Ratchet and Clank as an example, the player flies to a new planet and finds a self contained experience complete with enemies, weapons, buildings, platforms, boxes and loot. Generating engaging content between levels is a lot of effort, and may not contribute much to the game. So cutting it out saves development time and resources. This allows the designer to focus on the “fun” parts of the game and condenses game content into a series of compelling levels.

Additionally, who wants to watch their character walk along a boring old road anyways? Overworld settings take the player straight to the action and can keep the down-time low. So if your game has pushes fast paced action (like Doom) or focuses on some other concentrated affordance (like puzzle games), then an overworld style of game can help ensure that the content is not diluted.

A neutral aspect of overworld style games is that player mobility often times becomes trivial. Allowing a player to teleport to any previous level or section of the game is not good or bad, but simply something to keep in mind while designing. What incentive is there for a player to progress through the game if they can just go back to the first level and dominate?

One possible negative of overworld style games is that the sudden teleportation into a new area takes the player out of their suspension of disbelief. Some games however actually encourage this meta-game behavior and actively pull the player out of the story. In the 3D Mario games each area has a certain number of stars to collect, so the player must replay the same area to try and get more stars. It doesn't entirely make sense in the story why the player is going back to the same place, which breaks immersion. But here, the game is the focus, not the story. An overworld map is just that: a map. It lends itself to meta-game planning, or thinking about the game like a game, not an unfolding story.

Now consider Open World games.

Open world games, by definition, need content to fill in the space between points of interest. So while overworld games focus on concentrating the game in pockets, open world games often focus on this inbetween space. Games like Pokemon or other RPGs are a great example where the travel between gyms (or points of interest) is filled with new monsters, environments, characters, side quests, etc. This extra game content takes development time to produce but if designed correctly the ‘travel between story points’ itself may become the gameplay.

Open world games tend to emphasize exploration, experimentation and individual choice. This enables the player to project themselves into the character they control and effectively become the character. A lot of modern open world games only allow the player to control a single character which also reinforces the idea that the player themselves is an entity in the game world, as opposed to the idea that the player is watching a story about other characters.

Open world settings tend to take the storytelling responsibility away from the designer and hand it to the player to allow them to make their own story. Because open world games have “meaningful crossroads”, the designer can’t know what the player will do. For example in Skyrim, will the player become a wizard, archer, swordsmen? Will they follow the main quest to save the world, or follow a side quest and become royalty of a small village? Open world games naturally lend themselves to emergent storytelling. In short, open world games enable players to make subtle, spur of the moment decisions that can have impacts on what the player is doing for the next 10 minutes, or next 10 hours of the game.

On the negative side, open world games sometimes require a lot of in game travel time. Open world games live and die by their ability to design interesting roads. Running through old content, backtracking, or the dreaded “fetch quests” can quickly get boring. So designing roads or landscapes that are compelling for a player is a top priority, but not an easy task.

These are the general trends of overworld and open world settings. It’s possible to mix the two. Many traditional turn based RPG games like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy use a mix of overworld maps with embedded sub-regions of open world settings. Pokemon is an open world game that is very linear in story and map progression. Finding the right mix of open and overworld for your game is a challenge and requires lots of play testing, planning, and thought. It all depends on what your trying to achieve. In summary, overworld maps have pockets of well made content while open world maps enable for player agency and emergent storytelling. Once you figure out what your game is about, then you can use the right tool to achieve it. One of those tools is the map and setting of the game.