What would you consider to be “good” open world game design and “bad” open world game design?
Okay, so what are the benefits of open worlds? The benefits are, you have this huge amount of content available at one time, much like a metroidvania, except instead of the levels being hallways, it’s one big continuous space. This means that players can approach any given area from a variety of angles, and they are capable of engaging with any of the content open to them across the entire world instead of engaging with the content in a set sequence. Progression is defined by event flags instead of through the areas open to the player, or the player’s progress through specific areas.
Drawback: Big continuous spaces are bad level design. There need to be walls, pillars, and other barriers that . And because every point is connected to every other point, you can usually go around any sort of roadblocks in your way. In MGSV this meant you could run around the outskirts of almost every encampment and not engage in the core stealth gameplay. A lot of afghanistan had big pillar cliffs organizing the map into giant “hallways” as a result. Far Cry 3 blood dragon had a fair amount of success enclosing every camp in giant walls, limiting the entry points so the inside could have real level design.
The solution of most AAA game devs is to make missions that only concern a small area, which they alter to have real level design for the duration of that mission. Or they make areas segmented off from the rest of the map that have real level design.
So here’s my solution, build the world in chunks. Don’t do the whole thing at once. Build one part, make sure it’s good, then build another chunk next to it that is also good. Open world games have a focus on quantity instead of quality. Make many small chunks that work, and connect them, then build outwards from there. Test each chunk from multiple approach angles to make sure they work. Rather than starting with a giant world and trying to populate it, start with a small world and keep making it bigger as you’re sure each chunk is sound. Treat that as its own style of level design. Consider using Z-action and bridges as another way of binding levels together.
Beyond that, think of ways to play through segments of the open world that are interesting. The most common approach to this is scavenger hunts for collectibles across the world or again the mission structure. Alternatively there’s fetch quests which exist to make you run through the content that’s there, but traversal usually isn’t that interesting in open world games, because the ground is all flat, so that doesn’t work out so well. A smart idea might be triggering enemy migration and dispersal patterns as you move across the world, and selectively opening and closing different paths out of sync with each other so it changes up what’s happening all the time. A rondel might be a good metaphor for how to do this, a couple of them rotating out of sync with each other to rotate level elements as you pass through.
Alternatively, go with a gameplay style that isn’t really dependent on good level design, like Nier Automata did. Most stylish action games work on entirely flat planes and only have the pitfall that you can run past enemies rather easily.