I’ve played a lot of open-world games in my time, and my favourites have been from Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. I started with Daggerfall way back in the mid-nineties and played my way through the next three Elder Scrolls games, and I have enjoyed watching the series evolve over time, getting more and more complex with each iteration.
Just before Oblivion came out in 2006, I read a lot about a brand-new artificial intelligence system Bethesda was calling “Radiant AI” that was being put into the game. The Wikipedia entry for the technology says “This allows non-player characters (NPCs) to make choices and engage in behaviors (sic) more complex than in past titles”, which I had hoped would breathe a bit of life into the game world by making it seem as if it didn’t exist just to serve the needs of the main character.
In fairness, it did that to a degree, with NPCs sleeping at night, going to “work” during the day and occasionally sitting down to have a meal, which I really appreciated. But that’s not all it did: it also introduced a bunch of new behaviours that annoyed me, like storekeepers and town guards knowing I’d stolen stuff from many towns over despite not being around to see me steal, or being instantly aware that I had killed someone even if I had done it in the shadows with no witnesses.
This continued into Skyrim, so I sat down and put together a list of things I’d like to see in the next Elder Scrolls game, or heck, any other sandbox-type game that has me tromping around a quasi-medieval world swinging swords and slinging magical fireballs.
1. A fair stealing mechanic
If I get caught stealing, I’d like it if every other NPC in the game doesn’t magically know about it. How about something like if I get caught, and I don’t pay for my crime with a bribe or apologise to the store owner, the store owner can only tell the people he meets about my exploits, and those people can only tell the people they meet and so on, so that the news of my evil spreads organically. That makes more sense to me than this supernatural everyone-knows-everything Hivemind-like response I’ve experienced in The Elder Scrolls games and elsewhere. Should the store owner call the guards, and I manage to take them out, I shouldn’t have to deal with the entire guard complement when I leave. That sort of thing.
2. If I’m not seen doing evil, I’m good
Only if I am seen killing someone should NPCs react. For example, if I find a clever way to take someone out, like by firing an arrow into the air that only hits its target a literal minute later, I can’t be fingered as the culprit unless the person fingering me saw me fire the arrow initially, they saw it kill someone and I’m still in the area. If I leave the area just after firing the arrow, the person who saw me should only have a vague recollection of what I look like and a small probability to even connect me with the arrow-shot-into-the-air murder. I just think it will allow for more creative, free-form open-world adventuring, and that’s what I want.
3. No psychic guards, please
I also want an alert mechanism that works on the basis of news spreading from person to person, since RPGs exist in worlds where instantaneous communication isn’t available to non-wizards. If I kill someone, and a guard sees me, he must shout that I’m a murderer, describe me at the top of his lungs while he chases after me and only those guards within earshot of his shouts must be drawn into the chase, with a vision cone that encompasses what they can actually see rather than just knowing right away that I’m the guy, and exactly where I am. Or they can just follow the person crying blue murder based on the noise he’s making until they also see me, at which point it’s a fair cop if they attack me. Keep it logical.
4. Let me build stuff
I liked that in Skyrim’s Hearthstone DLC I could build a house, but all I was building was the house that the developers had envisioned. I’d have preferred to build a free-form home where I get to choose where the walls/ceiling/floors are, how big they should be and exactly where I’d like to place them. Of course, the amount of resources I have available should limit how big I can go, but at the same time if I have them, the sky should be the limit. Sort of like Minecraft in principle, just with prefabricated house parts to work with rather than blocks. Choosing or building furniture and being able to place it myself would also be nice.
I’d also like to be able to design and build my own weapons. Put resources in the world that are hard to come by and send me on quests to gather them (or just leave me to discover them by accident), and give me the necessary skills to level up before I can work with the more advanced materials. While Skyrim did let me do that to a degree, it didn’t let me design and decorate my own hilts, handles, guards, blades and put them together in a modular fashion. I’d love to be able to swap out old weapon parts for newer, better ones as my skills improve.
5. Make magic more powerful
It’s probably a balance thing that keeps game makers from giving magical attacks more power, but I’d really love to see spells having a realistic effect on enemies and the environment. For example I’d like to see a fireball setting foes on fire, who then forget all about the silly fight they’re having with me as they run around hysterically trying to put themselves out.
I don’t even mind if I can accidentally set myself on fire, as that’s only fair and will force me to make more strategic use of my flame-based spells. I’d like to see any spell that causes flames to erupt from my character’s palms force approaching enemies to shield their faces from the heat and back off.
Such an approach could also force developers to create a more diverse range of enemies, some of whom are specifically kitted out with fire-retardant clothes and armour. Realistic spell consequences could also let mages deal with enemies clad in metal armour more effectively: I can’t imagine a metal suit is a good place to be when your personal space is on fire.
Ice bolts could make surfaces slippery, and cause anyone treading on them to slip and fall over. They could cause water to freeze, immobilising anyone wading through it unless they’re strong enough to break the ice, which only much bigger enemies can do. Bolts of electricity could knock enemies out or even cook them if applied for long enough, and of course water and metal should conduct it as happens in real life.
All of these advantages could be offset by a need to rest once the mage’s mana has been drained, and should that happen in the middle of combat, the mage becomes incredibly vulnerable to even the slightest attack. This should motivate players to manage their mana more strategically.
Caveat: I am not a programmer or a game designer
As such, I probably don’t understand the nuances of implementing these ideas in a bigger game world without breaking everything. Besides that, everything I’ve just mentioned has probably already been bounced around – and canned – at the various studios that specialise in open-world RPGs. Still, that won’t stop me from hoping that somehow, someday, these ideas will see the light of day in some form or another, and I will get the chance to play my dream sandbox RPG and that it will be as good as I’m currently imagining.