E3 Notebook: Brave New Open World

Game makers are trying to entice with open-ended story lines.
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Senior Writer Troy Wolverton attended the Electronic Entertainment Exposition -- aka E3 -- in Los Angeles this week. Below are some of his thoughts and impressions from the show.

Keep an eye out: The game publishers are looking to do a new twist on

Grand Theft Auto


Following the success of titles such as

Take-Two Interactive's

(TTWO) - Get Report

Grand Theft Auto III

, many in the industry tried their hand at knockoffs, such as the

True Crime

series from


(ATVI) - Get Report


But now, publishers are going beyond doing their own versions of shoot-em up cops-and-robbers games. Instead, they are focusing on -- and trying to duplicate -- what many see as the essence of the game.

One of the buzz phrases heard around E3 this week was "open-world gaming." The idea is to create games that, like the


series, allow users much more choice in how they play.

Most roleplaying or combat-type titles force gamers to accomplish particular tasks in a specific order within a particular virtual area to advance. The way the game is designed, they can't move their characters out of a particular area -- a hallway, say, or a bridge -- until they accomplish the set task.

In contrast, games such as

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

create an entire virtual world that users can explore at just about any time and in any order. Although the games still require users to accomplish tasks, they have more freedom about the order in which they accomplish those tasks and the way they do them. Need some money? You can rob a bank or beat up some poor guy walking down the street. You get the idea.

Other publishers do, too. They see the open-world concept as a way of creating titles that are more compelling than the standard video-game fare currently offeredand figure that consumers are going to increasingly demand games that give them more choice and greater room to explore.

Electronic Arts'


recently released

The Godfather

game and




Saint's Row

are essentially direct descendants of

Grand Theft Auto

in that they combine the gangworld concept with an open-world format.

But the schema is now showing up in other kinds of games as well. EA's

Superman Returns

, based on the upcoming movie, and

Medal of Honor: Airborne

, a World War II fighting game, both include open-world elements. In the new

Medal of Honor

game, for instance, players will be able to control where they land once they parachute from their planes, instead of being placed in a set location.



is taking the open-world concept to racing games with its forthcoming

Test Drive: Unlimited

, which allows players to drive pretty much anywhere on the Hawaiian island of Oahu rather than being confined to particular tracks. And THQ is using open-world concepts in its upcoming

Frontlines: Fuel of War

battle game. Although that title will require users to do battle sequences in a particular order, players will have a wide range of choices about how to fight individual battles.

The problem with the open-world format is that the games are much more complex -- both to design and to play. Indeed, Paul Lee, EA's president of worldwide development, says it's no coincidence that three of the high-profile games that the software giant has delayed over the last year --

The Godfather


Superman Returns


Medal of Honor: Airborne

-- are also open-world games.

And there's some question about how much demand there really is for open-world games. Theoretically, more choice is a good thing and should make playing more fun. But more choice also means that the games can take longer to play and finish. That might be OK if the title is as compelling as many people find

Grand Theft Auto

to be.

But Take-Two's rivals found that there was more to


success than simply the vicarious thrill of being a gangster. Similarly, they could find that there's more to making a successful game than giving gamers more choices and more virtual territory to roam.

Not every game is

Grand Theft Auto


As might be expected for an industry that's all about virtual reality, the announcements that companies make at E3 are often less than they appear.

The first case in point this year was


(MSFT) - Get Report

announcement on Tuesday about its "exclusive" deal with Take-Two. As

reported earlier, the deal is no such thing. Microsoft will get the next version of

Grand Theft Auto

for the Xbox 360 at the same time that


(SNE) - Get Report

gets it for the PlayStation 3. That's a significant deal in itself, but by no means as exciting as Microsoft made it sound.

It turns out that wasn't the only thing Microsoft oversold at its

media event.

Making his first appearance at E3, Chairman Bill Gates announced that Microsoft is rolling out an innovative online service that will link the company's Xbox Live online gaming service with Windows-based PCs and cell phones running Windows mobile.

Gates enticed the audience with the vision of a service that will let users of all three platforms play games against one another, send instant messages and buy add-ons and configure their games, no matter the platform. Dubbed Live Anywhere, the online service will be rolled out early next year as a built-in feature of the company's new Windows Vista operating system.

Well, not exactly. It turns out, according to Todd Holmdahl, corporate vice president of Microsoft's gaming and Xbox group, that most of what Gates unveiled was more vision than reality. What's happening in January is that Microsoft will release two versions of


, a first-person-shooter game, one for the PC and for the Xbox 360. Players of both versions will be able to play against each other online, no matter what version they are running.

So, if you are playing


on your PC, you can connect to the Xbox Live service and play against gamers who are running the game on their Xbox 360s.

As of January, that's Live Anywhere.

As for the rest of the vision -- the instant messaging, the game customization, playing online multiplayer games from your cell phone -- well, that will come at least "months" later, according to Holmdahl. And no word yet from Microsoft on what any of this is going to cost.

But Microsoft wasn't the only company that left out a few niggling details from its vision of the future. In its own presentation on Monday, Sony announced that it will be offering two versions of its upcoming PlayStation 3 platform. At least according to the presentation, the only difference between the two versions will be the size of the hard drive included with them: the cheaper version will have a 20GB drive, the pricier one a 60GB drive.

As you might expect, there are a few more differences. In addition to the bigger hard drive, the top-of-the-line PlayStation 3 will have a memory card reader into which owners will be able to plug memory sticks, SD cards and compact flash cards. It will also have a built-in wireless Ethernet antenna, allowing users to connect to the Internet and online services without having to run a cable from their routers. And it will have an HDMI connector -- a cable connector necessary to link the box with high-definition televisions.

The cheaper PlayStation 3 will have none of those things. Meaning that while Sony is touting that it will be offering the only "true" high-definition game console, that's going to be the case only if you buy the more expensive version.