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How to Design an Open World Game: Tools & Guidelines for Beginners

The design of an open world game is sprawling, captivating, and even intimidating for some people. It takes a village to develop an immersive one, or at least a suite of tools and knowledge if you want to make it look jaw-droppingly good.

Open world games are massive projects not every game company is willing to undertake, whether for reasons of time or budget. To complete one, your investment in the project will require years, not to mention the number of artists you’ll have to hire. But if you’re committed to your seedling of an open world idea and believe in the potential of its growth, we’ll help you get started.

In this article, we’ll discuss the budget-friendly tools and approaches you must consider to build an open world game. We know the work sounds daunting, but we’re here to make it easier for you.

Image credits to Canva

What is an Open World Game Design?

The design of an open world game hinges on a player’s freedom. Freedom to roam around the game world, freedom to do (or not do) tasks, and freedom to customize a character are only a few of the freedoms an open world game grants its players. 

Unlike titles with a linear game level design, an open world game is as free-range as your supermarket eggs. It simulates real life but is set in a different, and arguably elevated, context — which makes it extra exciting. 

The likes of Grand Theft Auto and Elden Ring bring players to completely new or parallel worlds. And how they explore the setting gives them unique gaming experiences.

On account of this, you can say the key component of open world games is the game environment design. You want to make it as believable and immersive as possible. 

Our seasoned digital artist said an extra level of attention and care must go into the environment art to prevent the setting from looking repetitive. But in some cases, this is not avoidable (we’ll explain later on) as not all open world games are made the same.

Several open world games tend to coincide with other game genres. Some of them may be combative, narrative-driven, or action-based. So to tell if a video game is, indeed, set in an open world, see whether your player can roam around freely and if the areas are interconnected.

The point is the world is free to roam and how the game goes is primarily dictated by the player.

Tools You Need to Design an Open World Game

There are no hard and fast rules in any creative project, and the same applies to game development. So while the following will help you design an open world game more easily, you can either branch out or size down from this list. 

What we’re offering is a basic and foundational set of in-software or third-party tools you need to start your project.

Asset creation tools

Because open world games are expansive, you’re going to deal with a million assets. Here’s our tip — don’t waste your time meticulously making each one. Focus your time and resources on game and environment objects material to the game. Otherwise, make use of the following tools:

  • Modular models for architecture
  • Tree factory
  • Character makers

According to one of our game developers, modular architectural models allow you to reuse buildings to populate scenes. You can also use tree builders and character makers for the same purpose. 

The latter is particularly helpful in quickly creating non-player or crowd characters as a separate software application becomes unnecessary. 

Now, using these tools might sound counterintuitive to what we cautioned earlier against repetitiveness. But if you want to build your open world game fast, you’ll need to optimize the way you populate and develop your environment art. So use the features you can find in top-notch engines like Unreal.

The type of work the Unreal engine can do includes rendering realistic “flora and fauna” for expansive environments with its Open World Tools. Of course, several game companies will go out of their way and even travel to far-off places to collect data. But that’s not exactly the most efficient approach when you’re on a budget. And with the sophisticated game development tools we have today, there’s little need to go out of your way to capture beautiful landscapes.

If you’re dealing with time constraints, however, a viable option is outsourcing game developers with knowledge of top-of-the-line game engines like Unreal and Unity. Not only will this save you time but it will also help you reduce costs.

Custom tools

Not all assets in an open world game should result from random computer creation. You’ll need custom tools to make your world and the things inhabiting it believable.

Custom tools are a staple in any game development project, and the good news is game engines already have them. According to another one of our game developers, dialogue editors, quest editors, an integrated development environment, and a scripting system are only a few of the things you need to build an epic open world game.

But as long as you have quality or popular game engines by your side, you’re good to go.

Dialogue tree systems 

Some open world games will require players to interact with non-player characters or NPCs. These characters are controlled by the computer instead of the players themselves and may be used to enrich a video game’s setting or move its narrative forward. 

According to one of our developers, dialogue tree systems enable NPCs to interact according to a player’s response. These systems “simplify managing the story and quests the NPCs are divulging to the player,” our developer said.

So when a player chooses a response to a dialogue with an NPC, the NPC will then respond according to the player’s choice, making the conversation between real players and NPCs a little more immersive.

Image credits to Canva

Procedural generation

This open world game design tool or approach is one that veers far, far away from the repetitive advice we made about repetition. 

Procedural generation is effective for a unique type of open world game, one that nearly truly mimics the randomness of the real world. Generally, exploration is not top of mind for open world games that employ this method.

Through algorithms, computers build landscapes so developers and artists don’t have to hand-craft them. Developers first source and input visual data, and from the data gathered — or manipulated according to the game’s needs — the computer can make an infinite landscape. 

Minecraft, Raft, and Subnautica are arguably procedurally generated, but a few will argue they’re not truly procedurally generated as the randomness stems from where a player spawns. No Man’s Sky is an oft-cited procedurally generated game with quintillions of planets and moons, according to an article by computer scientists Jessica Van Brummelen and Bryan Chen.

In Summary

Open world games offer players the experience of exploring new worlds. But creating this expansive type of game can be difficult, especially if you’re working within a small budget and short timeframe. 

To make things easier for you, gather the following tools to begin your project:

  • Asset creation tools
  • Custom tools
  • Dialogue tree systems

Procedural generation is an algorithm-based approach to world-building and works for a unique type of open world game. However, it’s generally inadvisable for games relying on exploration.

Looking to outsource 2D video game art or 3D modeling for games? You landed on the right page. Contact NarraSoft today to partner with experienced game developers. Send us an email at sales@narrasoft.com or drop a message on our chat box. Let’s bring your game to the next level.