Some of the best video games of recent times have been vast, open-world experiences.
The genre started, certainly in terms of 3D gaming, with Grand Theft Auto III, released two decades ago. At the time, it felt revolutionary, a real-world you could explore to your heart’s content. It wasn’t the first true 3D game, GoldenEye 007 on the N64 probably holds that honor, but it was nonetheless groundbreaking.
Since then, many other games have developed on the theme. Bethesda released the post-apocalyptic survival game Fallout 4 and subsequently Fallout 76, which had a magnificent open-world, whilst Red Dead Redemption 2 raised the stakes and reinvented the genre once again with its keen attention to detail. Truth be told, blockbuster games these days struggle to gain traction if they don’t include a sandbox environment.
Many of those titles are judged not purely on their story but the minigames contained within. Each world is brought to life by giving players something to interact with, usually in the form of small quests or games you can revisit time and again. For gamers of a certain vintage, these often feel like repetitive but playable experiences they had loading up 8-bit cassettes in the eighties, whilst newer gamers find them a welcome distraction or way to advance their in-game character.
What makes a great open-world minigame? When does a developer know it has the full house, a great story, a unique world and minigames for diversity? Here are three examples of great minigames and why they worked so well.
Poker – Red Dead Redemption 2
One obvious type of minigame to include is something from real life, such as poker. There are advantages to doing so; these games are familiar to millions and therefore need no instructions or introductions. Most people understand basic poker hand rankings and how Texas Hold‘em is dealt, which makes a round of cards feel familiar within the game.
Red Dead Redemption did it well because it took poker and placed it in the Wild West, where it was often played. Some of the legends of the west, such as Wild Bill Hickok, were known to play poker, and he was even killed during a game. Using it in their game, Rockstar helped build the environment with realism.
Gwent – The Witcher 3
The Witcher 3 won multiple awards for its vast, explorable open world, steeped in unique lore that needed to be learned by the gamer. That put it in stark contrast to Red Dead because it gave the developers creative license to use minigames which were not rooted in real life. However, that does pose a problem; how can you create a game from scratch that feels playable and addictive without the player having ever seen it before.
In this instance, the answer was easy. They built the world’s lore into the game, using characters from the storyline in the card game. They built that around a simple battle card concept, which was so successful it spawned a spinoff title. Other developers who have tried this include Ubisoft, who created the game of Orlog for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Orlog was a fictional game, but it felt real and naturally integrated into to AC title.
Crash Bandicoot – Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
We’ve used artistic license here in the same way as Projekt Red and Ubisoft because a Thief’s End isn’t a traditional open-world game, but it introduced a type of minigame that is impressive; retro video games. Some older games used minigames as loading screens; a game might take five minutes to load, so players were given a rudimentary Space Invaders game to play whilst that happened. Uncharted 4 took it further and integrated Crash Bandicoot into the storyline.
Other titles have done similar; Grand Theft Auto Online takes players to an arcade with old titles available, whilst Fallout 4 had some classics to play on the Pip-Boy. Ironically, much of this started with the first PlayStation and Namco; Crash Team Racing, a Crash Bandicoot spinoff, had an interactive loading screen. The Naughty Dog classic seems heavily influential when it comes to minigames.