Before I start, I don’t want this to sound like a direct criticism of Cyberpunk 2077 given that it, too, is guilty of this and I wrote about the game just yesterday. This is a broad point about pretty much all open world games to have been released in the last decade or so.
I also know that this is far from an original complaint. Long has playing these sorts of games been referred to derisively as, essentially, map-marker vacuuming. What I don’t understand is why this principle continues to be the norm.
Obviously it would be insane to release a game nowadays which had absolutely no map markers and expect it to appeal to a large market – I understand why AAA games need to provide a way of easily progressing and pointing people to side content which doesn’t require them to invest hundreds of hours into playing the game. I do get it, so I wouldn’t be so extreme as to demand that map-markers be dispensed with entirely, replaced instead with characters simply giving you directions and you figure it out from there. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect something like Daggerfall or Morrowind‘s approach for a big-budget game in 2020.
What I’d argue for, instead, is simply that some of the content is not displayed as a map-marker. Let’s say, 30% of your side content. You plop markers on the map for the main quest and a good chunk of additional content so that the more casual (sorry to use that term) players get a good experience without the requirement of a time-sink, and the people who really want to dive in and experience the world get meaty content to discover.
At the end of the day, when you create an open-world game what many players really want to do is immerse themselves in that world – to feel like they’re living in it. When Fallout 76 was initially released, one of the biggest complaints was the lack of organic NPCs – all quests delivered by either notes or robots. The issue here is not really the absence of humans, but more that it reveals the mechanism. Almost all open world games give quests like this, it’s just normally you dress it up a little – it’s a human, not a robot, and they have a little conversation with you with maybe some player choice in the way the conversation goes. But ultimately, that character is simply a robot dispensing a quest.
When Bethesda released Oblivion, a big part of the marketing centred around how all the NPCs lived actual lives rather than just being shopkeepers permanently glued to their shop. It was an admirable approach to breathe life into the world and towns but, ultimately, unnecessary and also somewhat detrimental to the quality-of-life of playing in my opinion. What adds life to towns is not whether the shopkeeper goes to sleep at 10pm, but whether that shopkeeper delivers any meaningful content. In Skyrim, you could be on good or bad terms with a shopkeeper which is the right idea, but they did this backwards. You do a quest, and then the shopkeeper likes you instead of you shop at that shop a bunch of times before the shopkeeper likes you and then you get the quest.
So, that 30% of side content not displayed as a map marker – let’s take Red Dead Redemption 2 as an example. What if you went to Strawberry and had a bath. Then later had another bath there. And the third time, the lady giving you the back scrub opened up to you about a problem and this turned into a quest line. A completely unmarked bit of content that you discovered purely by chance due to engaging with the world. Once something like this happens in the game, there’s suddenly reason to really engage with the world. As it is, unless you’re the most hardcore of hardcore RPers, there’s little reason to spend any time in bars, bathhouses, or any other enterable locations beyond the times that a map-marker has told you there’s a quest there.
Ultimately, I can’t understand why doing this sort of thing isn’t the norm in open-world games. Typically the world is the one element executed flawlessly. You might not like the story or gameplay in RDR2, but the world itself is magnificent. You might be disappointed in Cyberpunk 2077 overall, but Night City and the surrounding areas live up to expectations visually. When you’ve created a dense and visually striking world, complete with shops, bars, etc. it is an absolute waste of the time, money, and creativity which went into developing it not to encourage your players to really live in it by way of content reward for doing so.
And yes, many games have had “unmarked” side quests. The Witcher 3 did, for example. But they’re only unmarked in-so-far as they don’t appear on the world map – they’re still an exclamation mark over the character’s head in the game. In this case they certainly reward you for exploring the map, which is half of the battle, but not for living in it which is what I want. Red Dead Redemption 2 had a few literally unmarked quests but, again, they were more linked to exploration than engagement and ultimately better categorised as Easter Eggs than as full side quests.
As things stand, it seems to me as if developers of open-world games know that there is some expectation of hidden content from their players. Better put a few things in, eh? But don’t spend too long on it because only about 1%, if that, of players are going to find it and time is money, and that money is best spent on content the 99% of players are going to find. But I humbly submit that if very early in the game you strongly hint in dialogue that there might be a good reason to stay the night in that hotel that first quest has brought you to, the number of players who experience the extra content which follows might climb to 10%, 25%, or maybe even higher if your hints are hinty enough. And in prompting your players early on that this stuff can happen, you’ve primed your players to look to experience the game slightly differently, and more completely, from the outset.