ArmA III And The Future of Open World Scale

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After playing enough of ArmA III to actually enter its main phase, the one thing that is consistently impressive about the game is the variance in scale of its open world. Like its predecessor it takes a different approach to scale from most sandbox games which I hope is indicative of all the open world games the new consoles seem to be getting.

Every developer that tries to make an open-ended world in a video game, especially one that’s supposed to represent landscapes of plains, mountains, and cities, has run into the problem of scale, each one making its own compromises. Classic RPGs have you run across a map as a miniature character and visit cities with less than 10 characters and half as many buildings. Games with world sizes closer to reality have 90 percent of their doors locked. More recent games still have their worlds significantly scaled down from reality (the land of Skyrim would be much bigger than 16 square miles in real life). Other games choose to render a smaller area in higher detail. It’s like a push and pull. ArmA III’s main map has convinced me that hardware advances are beginning to loosen that push and pull.

The island of Altis is massive, feels realistic in scale, and is potentially capable of surprising density and interactivity for its size. Officially Altis is around 270 square kilometers (104 square miles) — about 75% the area of the real Greek island it’s based on. Some measurements pit it at maybe twice the size of Grand Theft Auto V. Yet, you can enter 100 percent of Altis’ buildings and open around 99 percent of its doors. ArmA III’s gameplay in this world ranges wildly in scale between indoor corridors and battles seamlessly ranging across mountains and cities. It’s the only game I’ve played where I can look at distant mountains and towns that in other games would be background images or at best simple set-dressing and say “I can go there, and I can go inside all those buildings without seeing any loading screens.” Even the fields, hills, and all the wilderness between towns looks like it’s scaled either 1:1 or closer to 1:1 than most open world games. If ArmA III makes any compromise, it’s that its world is nearly barren of civilians — it feels like a vast ruin.

A lot of the PS4 and Xbox One games we sat at E3 were open world, and I hope ArmA III is a preview of what modern hardware can do to reconcile scale versus density. The Batman: Arkham Knight demo was particularly impressive for its sense of scale. Witcher 3 developer CDProjekt RED likes to talk about how you’ll be able to explore everything you see in the distance in its cityscape screenshots. Even Zelda director Eiji Aonuma said basically the same thing about his game. John Davison on his F!rst for Gamers podcast claims he saw AI characters go about real daily routines and ships follow shipping routes in real time in a Witcher 3 demo. Ubisoft claims that Assassin’s Creed Unity’s world will be 1:1 or nearly 1:1 scale and that around a quarter of its buildings will be fully explorable.

Another reason some developers don’t create extremely huge worlds though is to tighten the pace of a game. The first two Elder Scrolls games — Arena and Daggerfall, still have some of the largest worlds ever created in video games despite having been made almost 20 years ago. Daggerfall’s size is comparable to the real Great Britain I believe. But I hear in that game it literally takes hours to get from one town to the next. The developers of the upcoming Kingdom Come: Deliverance discussed this problem in a blog post — Warhorse studios wants their world to feel realistically big, yet intricate, but not boring. I think they settled on creating a realistically-scaled three square kilometer map. ArmA doesn’t care, mostly because it’s a simulator going for realism over entertainment. It’s not afraid to make you spend 30 minutes getting from one place to the next. It’s only concession is a time acceleration feature.

One thing that probably governs the size of a lot of open worlds is the player’s main mode of transportation. Skyrim needs to be small because you’re on foot most of the time. Grand Theft Auto needs to be larger because the word “Auto” is in the title. Some of the biggest worlds in games are actually in open world racing games because you spend all your time driving upwards of 100 miles per hour (but those games don’t have on-foot exploration). One reason ArmA needs to be big is to accommodate aircraft. Scale-wise could probably think of the game as an air combat simulator where you can also walk on the ground.

No Man’s Sky seems like the logical conclusion to all this: starting out walking on the ground and ending up flying a space ship all over the galaxy without any break in player control. That game is pretty much trying to be the ultimate realization of video game scale many of us have probably been dreaming about for decades.

BULLETS:

  • Also of note is the island of Skira from Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, which is around the same size as Altis, except they got it to run on PS3 and Xbox 360. I don’t know what Dragon Rising’s gameplay is like compared to ArmA III though.
  • So there’s an Eve Online comic based on actual player-driven events. Do any other MMOs do this?
  • Man I don’t know about Ridley Scott’s Exodus. http://t.co/SuYKe2v8Kt
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