Is bigger really always better?

550km2.

That’s the apparent size of the world of Cyberpunk 2077, an upcoming scifi title from CD Projekt Red.

This news comes to us from an as-yet unconfirmed leak from an insider at the studio, which has stated that Cyberpunk 2077 will be 4 times larger than the world of the Witcher 3, including its DLCs.

For those unfamiliar with The Witcher 3, the two largest areas in the game tally up to about 136 km2, or 52 square miles.

The world of Cyberpunk 2077 will be almost 550km2—almost as large as the entire city of Chicago.

That would mean that the world of Cyberpunk 2077 will be almost 550km2—almost as large as the entire city of Chicago.

If this leak is true, this would be almost unprecedented in terms of map size, barring games like Elite: Dangerous which simulate the universe, or procedurally generated titles like Minecraft.

Impressive, and absolutely mouthwatering for anyone who loves open-world, non-linear titles. But it begs the question: is a bigger game really always better?

A new paradigm for size

Bigger = more content = more playtime = more value for money = better game

This seems to be the formula behind a lot of modern games. Developers large and small are pushing for bigger maps, more playtime, more quests and missions, hundreds of hours of gameplay, thousands of items, millions of players, and so on and so on.

The problem is that this assumption of bigger = better isn’t always correct.

In fact, focusing on size rather than substance can be a hindrance for a title, rather than a help.

The Monstrous Map of Mad Max

Mad Max combat

Take Mad Max as an example.

Mad Max has a fantastic vehicular combat system, wonderful modular car customization mechanics and some stellar voiceacting—it even has a somewhat interesting plotline.

Unfortunately, all of these excellent features were set in a map that was simply too large, filled with generic, boring missions and challenges that were nothing but repetitive grindfests.

All of these excellent features were set in a map that was simply too large.

After an hour or two of play, despite the wonderful driving mechanics and car combat, the desert all starts to look the same. The outposts all start looking the same. The size of the map took what could have been a murderously fun romp through a post-apocalyptic Australian outback and made it boring.

They managed to take Mad fucking Mad and make the driving bits boring, simply due to the focus on size.

Skyrim: The Playtime Bloat Party Boat

Skryim screenshot

Mad Max isn’t the only example though, and neither is size only about the map.

Let’s take another notable open-world game: Skyrim. The Elder Scrolls games in general are held up as paragons of open world mechanics: lots to do, across a big map, the player character can look at a mountain and just go there.

Skyrim is the most recent and arguably the most successful version of that idea; after all, it’s going to be released for what seems like the seventeenth time.

Unlike Mad Max, Skyrim’s size was all about the playtime. It even included the boast that it was literally impossible to finish, due to the nature of the procedurally generated radiant quests that could be accessed by various in-game quest-givers. Forget dozens of hours of gameplay—this was a game that could be played forever.

Forget dozens of hours of gameplay—this was a game that could be played forever.

Players ate it up. Back in 2012, it was revealed that the average PC player clocked up a whopping 75 hours on it. Five years and several new versions later, and you can bet that playtime has ticked up already.

But as popular as Skyrim has become, it was also critiqued for being boring and repetitive at times. Many of the caves and ruins players explored were re-iterations of the same basic formula, and more often than not filled with the same kinds of enemies and traps. The radiant quests turned out to be the same kind of repetitive quests you’d find in an MMO.

Skyrim boasted about it’s gameplay, saying it could be played forever. That was true—but that doesn’t mean it could be enjoyed forever.

The playtime bloat gave players value for money, but ask any avid Skyrim player what the best part of the vanilla game was. It’ll probably be some sidequest that they completed—a tailored, one-time experience that could be completed in an hour or two—not getting the chance to raid yet another cave with the same set of Draugr in it.

A short, handcrafted and well-loved experience outperforms a thousand boring radiant quests every time.

No Man’s Sky and the Power of Procedural

No Man's Sky

Come on, you knew this was coming.

No Man’s Sky promised a huge universe that would be unique for every player, that every planet would be new and interesting, that no person’s journey to the centre of the galaxy would be the same as any other players, or any other playthrough.

In essence, they promised an enormity of experience; that through the power of procedural generation, they could offer you a game that allowed you to do anything, anywhere.

Fight. Trade. Explore. Do what you want, whenever you want.

The reality fell short of expectations, and No Man’s Sky ended up being one of the biggest disappointments in gaming history.

Planets weren’t unique, the creatures you found there weren’t individual, and the actual exploration aspect offered very few areas that actually offered anything beyond a reskin of what you had seen before.

No Man’s Sky ended up being one of the biggest disappointments in gaming history.

In relying on procedural generation to create uniqueness (and a failure to include a large enough database of features to combine), Hello Games ironically provided a title that was almost universally critiqued for being repetitive.

Players would come across new creatures on new planets, but the new creatures had bits from beasts players had already encountered, while the planets themselves were just colour-shifted versions of previous discoveries.

No Man’s Sky isn’t unique in its failure here though. Elite: Dangerous has a similar problem, where you have a whole universe to explore but most of it is the same as what you’ve already seen.

It’s such a common problem that there’s even an idiom for it: A mile wide, but an inch deep. Expansive, but shallow.

Size doesn’t matter

maxresdefault.jpg

Enormity isn’t everything, and size doesn’t matter. Map area, playtime, scope—games that focus too much on providing quantity over quality are missing the point of the experience.

The games that affect us the most aren’t the ones that force us to spend hours travelling a map, or provide us with an endless series of repetitive quests, or throw the same enemies at us time and time again simply for the ability to say “hundreds of hours of gameplay!”.

It’s the hand-crafted features that are the true gold of gaming—and it’s a rare game that manages to combine quantity and quality in a way that doesn’t sacrifice one or the other.

Games that focus too much on providing quantity over quality are missing the point of the experience.

Let’s go back to Cyberpunk 2077, and it’s hundreds of kilometres of gameplay area. This news was presented as positive, a signal that this new offering will be wonderful by dint of its enormity.

Considering the pedigree of CD Projekt RED and their fantastic level of quality, I have little doubt that Cyberpunk 2077 will fail to impress.

I just hope that impressiveness doesn’t end at the map size.

Do you think that bigger games are better? Let me know in the comments below!

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