In the beginning stages of development, you may find this question rattling around in your mind – is your game concept better executed as open world, or more linear? By now, you probably know that some games lend themselves well to both forms, while others clearly do not. While ultimately it is up to you and the rest of the team to decide, it is important to do so carefully. There will be pros and cons to whatever you choose, but choosing the wrong path can make your game go dead on arrival, despite the genius concept behind it. To illustrate our point, we’ll be using the open world of Fallout 4, and the linear path of fan favorite The Last of Us as games for comparison.

Open World

To have an open world means that the players can go where they please, when they please. There is no set, structured path, but there may be a main storyline to follow, along with multiple side quests. It is up to the player, however, to do the main storyline first, last, or even intermittently with side missions in between.

Fallout 4 did this well, with the main storyline being there for the taking, but not demanded. Players could spend hours on end playing the game and completing side missions, without so much as glancing over at the main story. There was so much to do and so many different things to accomplish that it never got particularly boring. If you wanted to build a settlement, you could. If you wanted to explore and look for mutants to kill, you could. If you wanted to follow the Freedom Trail, you could!

Linear World

To have a linear world means that the player can only wander off so much. There is a leash of sorts, a boundary line surrounding the area where the player is fighting, looting, exploring, purchasing and selling items. This means the game dictates where you should go, and lets the story drive the gameplay.

The Last of Us was released in 2013, but it was such a big hit, and quite possibly one of the best games to use as an example of a linear game done correctly. Players were immediately thrown into a situation where they were immersed off the bat! The story gripped your attention, heart strings were pulled at just the right time, and when push came to shove, no one felt like the story was imposed on them. People legitimately wanted to know more and wanted to see what would happen. There was no nagging, nothing telling you what to do to complete an area; it was all dialogue-driven. When you needed to be quiet, the characters mentioned it. When you needed to run, they yelled it out and ran! It felt like you were there and it was realistic. The linear storytelling brought players inside the world of the game.

How To Determine Which To Use

For the sake of argument and proper illustration, let’s assume Fallout 4 had been done in linear fashion. Not only would the game be shorter, there would also be far less to explore. It wouldn’t be anything like what we have come to expect from the Fallout games. Suddenly, every player would see the challenges in the same order. Suddenly, there would be little, if any, deviation. Your path would be clearly designed with the intention of you completing it from beginning to end, with no alternative paths to consider. That would be a different game entirely. The reason why people love Fallout 4 and the series as a whole is because it’s open world. Players want that chance to really seek adventure in the wasteland. People want to go out and not know what they’ll come across.

Now, let’s consider another approach to an apocalypse, with The Last of Us. This is a game that people loved for the sake of Joel and Ellie. Players liked the story, they liked how it was told, and how the game made it easy to care for those characters. If it had been open world, the main storyline wouldn’t have been believable. There is a sense of urgency behind the act of guiding Ellie to the Fireflies. There is purpose there. If Joel were to take off in the middle of it to go help some lonely, old farmer pick berries, it would be derailing a perfectly good story.


Hopefully, through the use of two game examples, you’ve learned that some games lend themselves better to open world design, and some are best left as linear. Ultimately, when creating a concept, you should decide whether it is better created one way or another. If you’re looking for story-driven gameplay, opt for linear design. If you’re thinking of something that is composed of several different stories, use open world design. Just remember the rule of thumb: when creating open world, you’re creating a game that people will explore in and out, all the way through. Provide enough content to make it interesting. If you don’t have enough, or what you have is very dull, consider the main story line. Could it be better off as a linear game? What is the player experience you’re hoping to achieve? Find a solid balance between these two aspects of gameplay and you’re good to go. All the best!


If you need help deciding how you should structure your game and want to bounce ideas off a design expert, get in touch with the Black Shell Media team at [email protected] and we’ll get you set up with a consultation!