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The next-generation will be open-world

Ubisoft and more on connected freedom.

The bombastic E3 show floor was packed with open-world games.

Mad Max, developed by Avalanche Studios; The Witcher 3, developed by CD Projekt; Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid 5; Dean "Rocket" Hall's DayZ Standalone.

EA also seems to be heading in an open-world direction. The new Mirror's Edge game is open-world, as is BioWare's Dragon Age: Inquisition. I suspect Mass Effect 4, or whatever it ends up being called, will be open-world, too.

Ubisoft's open-world offering is particularly bulky: Assassin's Creed 4; Watch Dogs; The Division and The Crew.

So, what's going on? Why are publishers investing so much in open-worlds now? And what is it about the next-generation of consoles that will make them different?

Ubisoft's Europe boss Alain Corre tells Eurogamer - amid the din of his company's gargantuan E3 booth - that the company is pushing all of its core game developers in an open-world direction. Rayman, Rabbids and Just Dance aren't included here, but everything else is (although I love the idea of an open-world Just Dance game. Perhaps you could roam a post-apocalyptic Paris, dancing to earn bottle caps).

This push, as we've seen, has resulted in the eye-catching The Division, from Massive, and The Crew, a co-production from former Test Drive Unlimited developers at Ivory Tower, and Driver: San Francisco studio Ubisoft Reflections. Both games present huge persistent worlds for players to explore, and a degree of freedom in how they do so. According to Corre, it's this freedom that gamers find so compelling.

"We believe in open-world," Corre says. "When you have freedom in a world - that can also have seamless multiplayer - that brings something new to the gamer, rather than having a scripted story. Freedom brings something unique.

"There have been open-worlds before, but I think the feeling you have when you play an open-world is second to none. And now we're pushing all of our creators to go in that direction."

There have indeed been open-worlds before, many of which have been hugely successful. I have an image in my head of video game executives reacting to the gargantuan success of Bethesda's Skyrim and its chilly open-world by frantically typing out memos to studio heads with the subject line: "Make me one of those!"

But Skyrim was a solitary experience - and wonderful for it. Your adventure in the dour fantasy world was yours and yours alone. No-one bothered you, apart from those pesky dragons.

Open-world on next-gen consoles is different. Open-world on next-gen is connected.

"We believe in open-world. When you have freedom in a world - that can also have seamless multiplayer - that brings something new to the gamer, rather than having a scripted story."

Ubisoft Europe boss Alain Corre
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Look at The Division, for example. It sounds and looks like an MMO, but it isn't. It takes MMO elements and pops them into a Watch Dogs meets DayZ experience. You have a world to explore, but you're encouraged to do it with friends.

And take The Crew. You can drive anywhere, even over there, in the distance. But you're encouraged to do it with friends, in, as you'd expect, a crew.

"Next-gen provides a seamless, get in and get out experience," Corre says. "Friends can help you or be an opponent, like in Watch Dogs. That's something that hasn't existed before.

"In Watch Dogs you can have a friend jump in and help you with his tablet or smartphone to escape the police. Your friend can see your car driving and change the traffic lights to help you escape the police. Or, your friend can play against you, activating a bridge so it opens and you're caught by the police.

"That's something that didn't exist before. It was scripted. Now it's not. Now it's open and free. You do what you want. You play multiplayer or you don't."

"It was scripted. Now it's not. Now it's open and free. You do what you want. You play multiplayer or you don't."

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What Corre is describing is a new type of open-world game, a connected, always-online type of open-world game. Again, it all sounds very MMO, but Corre, perhaps at the behest of Ubisoft's marketing department, describes them as "living worlds".

"Not MMOs," he adds. "You can have an experience on your own or with friends. It's a non-stopping world, which is like life. You're getting closer to life.

"The Division will be always-online, because this is how the game is designed. It's a world that's always on and always living. The fact you're always-online is a must. It's the same for The Crew. You can join your friends or not, but something is happening in this world all the time.

"We believe these kind of experiences are great. You can go on playing while not in your living room. You can use your tablet or smartphone to enrich your character or help your character and friends while you're away.

"We give the possibility for the gamer to always be in contact with these worlds. This is something that is completely new and refreshing."

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Fantasy role-playing game The Witcher 3 is a single-player-only open-world, so differs from Ubisoft's games, but it still takes advantage of connected consoles. There will be social media functionality built into the game so you'll be able to post your achievements to Facebook, bragging while you do it, if you so desire. CD Projekt will also create new achievements on the fly, executive producer John Mamais tells us. "It's a really good way to extend things."

Mad Max, made by Just Cause developer Avalanche, is also a single-player-only open-world, but studio boss Christofer Sundberg tells Eurogamer it'll include some kind of connected feature that he can't talk about.

Sundberg, who's been making open-world games for a decade, believes the genre's surge in popularity is the result of publisher marketing research. "Players want to have a larger portion of freedom in the games they play, and that's driven this new development in the industry," he says.

Sundberg makes a distinction between the term open-world and sandbox. Just Cause 2 is better described as a sandbox game, he says, because it presents players with a world, tools and lets them get on with it. It's this "unlimited freedom", he says, that players love.

"I see Just Cause as a sandbox game," he says. "It's not very story-driven. I see Mad Max as more of an open-world game, where we have a very strong story."

"It's now up to every developer saying they're developing an open-world game to really show how open it is."

Avalanche boss Christofer Sundberg
With Metal Gear Solid 5 Hideo Kojima has gone open-world.

Perhaps that's why, at E3, Hideo Kojima popped along to the Warner Bros. booth to play the Mad Max demo. Metal Gear Solid 5, as anyone who saw the game's eye-catching trailer during Microsoft's press conference will know, is an open-world game in which Snake can ride around on horseback and approach objectives in multiple ways.

Kojima gave the Mad Max demo a thumbs up, according to Sundberg, before trotting off, perhaps to check out Ubisoft's booth.

Sundberg predicts the emergence of sub-genres within the open-world genre, like semi-open-world and super-open-world, and he wonders whether some publishers will claim their games are open-world when they're, well, not quite.

"It's now up to every developer saying they're developing an open-world game to really show how open it is," he says. "To some, an open-world game can be that you take a path around a tree and that's a player making a choice. You can go right or left but you end up on the same path after you walk around the tree.

"We approach it by just giving players a world. So we'll see. We have a decade of experience in developing open-world games and it's not easy. It's hard work. It takes a lot of time. You have to approach game design in ways you haven't done before if you come from a more linear, mission-based structure. You have to throw that away and think about designing worlds with systems that can work wherever you are in the game."

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For most people the next-generation of consoles are an attractive but expensive proposition. Money is tight, and both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One aren't cheap devices. Savvy gamers expect next-gen games to go along with their snazzy new next-gen consoles.

Corre believes the kind of games Ubisoft is making, the likes of The Division, The Crew and Watch Dogs, are the kind of next-gen games we're after. He believes these new, connected open-world experiences will convince us to upgrade to the next-generation of consoles.

Well, those, and the stunning visuals.

"The combination of those two things will push gamers to transfer to the next machines," Corre says with a smile. It looks like fans of open-worlds are in business.

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