The Rise of Open World Games in the 2000s

In Short
  • Open-world games have evolved over the last twenty years, starting with the development of the core elements through GTA 3 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
  • Ever since, games like GTA 5, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Minecraft have pushed the complex gameplay and graphical limits of the open world genre.
  • As open-world games like GTA 6 edge closer, we can expect a greater future with more generative AI NPCs, better world-building through cloud storage, and more.

Open world games have been around for a long time now. What started as a freedom of exploration and endless possibilities became a staple in gamers’ favorite genre. Open world games simulate realism and let gamers take matters into their own hands. While many games fall into this category, not all of them have revolutionized the genre. While I can spend hours discussing the future of open world games, I feel like taking a step back and discussing the evolution of these games over the last 20 years and then meeting you there. So, with that, let’s begin!

Building a Base: A Smooth Beginning for Open World Games

Although we are talking about the last two decades of open-world games, it’s also good to remember the roots. The idea was always to give gamers the freedom to do things in a world without limitations.

We still had The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998), which gave us many possibilities. However, the foundation bricks were laid with the release of GTA 3 in 2001.

GTA 3 and The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time
Image Courtesy: Rockstar Games, Nintendo

Rockstar Games already had an idea for open-ended games with its original Grand Theft Auto. However, GTA 3 entered a different ballpark.

Besides simple tasks, GTA 3 opened up a world full of opportunities. Players could roam around the entire map of their own accord, punch, kick, drive, and do everything their hearts desired. However, the highlight was that GTA 3 was Rockstar’s first 3D entry in the franchise.

While few might realize, this was one of the biggest landmarks in the evolution of open-world games. The streak continued with great sequels like GTA: San Andreas and GTA 4 which to this date are considered one of the best GTA games of all time.

WoW and Fallout 3 were a initial base for bigger open-world building games
Image Courtesy: Blizzard, Bethesda

You’d think things would stabilize, but then came the original Red Dead Redemption. The ability to roam around the Wild West while packing improvements over the original Red Dead Revolver was something players appreciated.

All the games above explored the idea of a large map, exploring possibilities and involving more NPCs. The storylines worked along with the game, and even side quests played a huge role. Although there were limitations, the base of the open world in modern games had been built, with these games playing a huge role. However, we were far from done.

Side Quests for the Win

While games like GTA brought immense freedom to the world, titles like World of Warcraft, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Fallout 3 built a great foundation for including side quests in the genre.

Games like these ensured the player didn’t lose interest while going through the main story. So, if the main missions got too tedious at any point, there were side quests to fall back on. This played a key part in the evolution as players often felt lost in the big world. Games like Prototype and Just Cause 2 changed the rhythm of open-world games and made exploration way faster.

Prototype was fast paced open-world experience
Image Courtesy: Activision

Despite some limitations, this new modern gaming category was well-received, and gamers were interested to see what else could be done with it. So, by the end of the 2010s, we were entering a new era of upgrades that would make the open-world genre rise to greater heights.

Upgrades & Advancements: The Rise of Open-World Games

While open-world games had started to walk, they needed to run, and certain advancements were required for that. Thankfully, the industry shifted gears and focused on performance and innovation simultaneously.

The category received huge graphical advancements with the new games from Rockstar Games, such as GTA 5, L.A. Noire, and Red Dead Redemption 2. The NPCs became more responsive, and the game’s performance became stable despite being flooded with on-screen characters.

Similar games like Mafia 2, Watch Dogs 2, and Sleeping Dogs were also based on this formula, and they created notable experiences on their own.

GTA 5 and Red Dead Redemption 2 is open-world game done best
Image Courtesy: Rockstar Games

Thankfully, this advancement came without compromising on important elements like the story. Games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt proved that through their compelling lore. While side quests became a fun addition, the main stories complemented the open-world experience.

GTA Online and Cyberpunk 2077 also constantly updated the genre and introduced new content for their massive open-world environments. This helped keep things interesting while falling back on a trusted strategy.

Cyberpunk 2077 and Witcher 3 Wild Hunt
Image Courtesy: CD Projekt Red

Games like Horizon Zero Dawn, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Ghost of Tsushima also made their way in this open-world storytelling style with their attractive combat mechanics. And while all this was fine, what about added complexity in the genre?

Well, in came Minecraft, the first of many open-world experiences and perhaps the only one in this category with an actual never-ending map. Minecraft pushed the limits and made complex things such as crafting, excavating, petting, farming, and many others possible. To this date, Minecraft is one of the games that is responsible for evolving open world game mechanics.

Skyrim and Minecraft are open-world games with with complex mechanics
Image Courtesy: Bethesda, Mojang Studios

The RPGs also made the open-world aspect a key part of their experience as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim built a great game on their already perfect base of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Death Stranding was another creation that made complex gameplay and mechanics a part of its identity. The game further explored the possibilities in the complexity and adaptation of surroundings in an open-world environment.

Death Stranding gameplay scene
Image Courtesy: Kojima Productions/ IMDB

Even games like NFS: Most Wanted, Forza 4, and Forza Horizon 5 wanted to join the wave as they became open-world racing games. Aviation made an entry, too, with Microsoft Flight Simulator joining the fray. Exploring the world, finding your way, and crafting your stories were slowly capturing players’ minds.

Pushing the Boundaries: The Future of Open World Games

While we cannot deny that open-world games have come a long way in 20 years, many things still need improvement. Games like Dragon’s Dogma 2, with its new Pawn System, and Elden Ring, with its endless ways to complete certain quests or skip past some, are good.

However, the stories are still bound to a script, and open-world games can change that. Instead of scripted endings, players should be allowed to encounter and control the world as they see it. This helps create your own story. Despite the story limitations, NPCs in Dragon’s Dogma 2, especially the pawns, are a massive upgrade in NPC AI as they memorize progress and things you do throughout the game.

Me and my pawns chilling in Dragon's Dogma 2 without Dragon's Plague
Pawns in Dragon’s Dogma 2 is a huge NPC upgrade

We have already seen Nvidia AI and Ubisoft’s generative AI NPCs react to player responses. This could play a major part in creating new experiences in open-world games. NPCs will grow from their own experiences and surroundings, contributing more to realism.

Players will not know how NPCs will act beforehand, so the games could feel more open to possibilities. This would also help generate better story progression and concepts for upcoming events in the game.

The weather and environment should also improve. We have seen Minecraft, LEGO Fortnite, or even Palworld explore this side but never fully bank on it. Games can realistically change the weather or temperature with new hardware and cloud storage.

While the Forest franchise somehow manages it, the map is not big enough to make the weather a big deal. So, will we get better weather mechanics in future open-world games? Only time will tell.

LEGO Fortnite temperature guide cover
Weather is a key factor in survival open-world

While we cannot deny that every other game is trying to enter the open-world category, few will manage to keep it as engaging as the others. For now, we must wait for games like Dune: Awakening, Terminator: Survivor, and, of course, GTA 6 while being hopeful that we will get all the ingredients correct.

Although not all games will have enough spice while they cook an open-world game, the freedom of story building and realistic elements should be covered. But for now, there have been two amazing decades of open-world games in the video game industry, and I believe this evolution will grow with new technology and creative aspects.

What do you think of how far we have come in the open-world category? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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