Open and Guided Games

Today, I wanted to take a step back and discuss a little game design theory. I’ll be discussing two extremes to one spectrum: open and guided games. Now, truth be told, other designers have probably discussed these concepts before, and I’m sure have called them something else–if you happen to know, please do tell in the comments!

Game designers sculpt experiences for players out of rules and game components. As a game designer, one way you can determine what a player’s experience will be like is controlling how open versus how guided the game is. I’ll go into more detail about what I mean by “open” and “guided” later, but the short explanation is that open games are areas for free play, whereas guided games are more structured experiences.

All games are open to some degree, and almost all, though not quite all, are at least a little guided. Bear in mind that they’re the extremes of a spectrum, and almost all games fall somewhere in the middle.


All games structure behavior and action based on their fundamental rule sets, but they also encourage play and exploration within those rule sets. The degree to which a game allows players to experiment within its rules is how open the game is. Open games are open because their rules create spaces in which players can play, and they have no additional structures to guide that play.

Minecraft provides players with lots of rules and toys to play with, but doesn’t tell them how to play. Image from an article about Minecraft addiction (another potential benefit of open games!) from Urban Moms.

Open games generally have expansive rule sets, but give players a lot of freedom in what they do within those rules. Minecraft is probably the best recent example. Minecraft is a sandbox game in which a player finds him or herself in a vast, procedurally generated environment which can be modified in many ways. Players harvest resources, produce tools and structures, and defend themselves from the monsters that appear every night with an appetite for blood.

Other great examples of very open games include SimCity and Civilization, both of which allow the player to experiment with a complex rule system. Even games without a lot of freedom can be open. For example, in Zelda, the fighting system gives players the chance to experiment with a rule set, even if the overall progression of the game is predefined. Similarly, in a game like Portal, the structure of the overall game is very rigid, but the physics define an open space in which there is a fair amount of freedom.

Why would you want your game to be more open? For starters, many players get a lot of joy from exploring a system. Not only does the exploration of the system offer intrinsic fun, but it allows players to express themselves creatively. Minecraft is an excellent example of this: the game allows people to create whatever they’d like, including machines and computers. Giving your players an outlet for expression is almost always something you’ll want to do.

Open games also allow a lot of room for strategies to evolve. Since they allow a lot of freedom for players, many different routes to victory (or fun) are possible, and different routes will be more applicable at different times. This is especially important for multiplayer games, when you want to allow players to grow with each other. Open games allow players to react to each other’s strategies, and for players to learn new, deeper nuances about the game as they play more. Each new opponent you play with will teach you new things, since there’s always something new in the game system to learn.

Open games sound pretty sweet. Why isn’t every game as open as possible?

Well, first off, open games are less accessible than guided games. This is especially problematic for new players that don’t have a lot of gaming experience, because they will miss clues about what to do that experienced gamers might pick up. Open games present a high barrier to entry, since the number of options a player has is often overwhelming at first. This problem can be mitigated by making the first part of the game guided (i.e. a tutorial).

If you want your game to tell a specific story, an open game probably isn’t for you. Open games are great for allowing players to create their own stories, as some zany off the wall strategy they employ creates all sorts of havoc in the game world, but if you want the player to experience a specific series of events that translate into a coherent story arc, you’re going to have to eliminate a lot of player choice and guide the player along a track.

More generally, your player’s experience is going to be out of your control with open games. For one thing, player choice dictates what’s going on in the game, and you won’t know what that choice is in a game that offers so many choices. But on top of that, many open games employ some degree of procedural generation (such as the terrain in Minecraft), and it will be difficult to be sure that the terrain (or whatever) is providing the excitement, challenge, or serenity you’re hoping for at a given time. This means that your game might have long, boring stretches, or it might have regions that are impossibly frustrating. Some players can handle this; many can’t. Just make sure you know who you’re making the game for.

Right this Way

Typing of the Dead, a variant on House of the Dead, does not give the player any real choice, instead letting him or her focus on killing zombies… by typing quickly. Image from Coding Horror.

On the other end of the spectrum are guided games. They feature scripted directions the game can go. Probably the most extreme version of a guided game are rail games such as House of the Dead, where players have so little control the game chooses how they move for them. Slightly less guided games include Zelda, which has an overarching story line that does not change, and mechanisms to control movement during certain parts of the game, but still allows exploration within those constraints.

Very few guided games are purely guided. For one thing, they are hardly games if players have no choices. Even if the overall structure of the game is scene A to B to C, players must get from A to B and from B to C, and can do so however they like.

Additionally, many games include small branches that allow players options as they progress through the super structure of the game. Star Fox 64 is a classic rails shooter game, offering slightly more basic control than House of the Dead, since players can move their ship around the screen. While the individual levels have a fixed progression, secret objectives in certain levels allow the player to take different branches through the super structure of the game, opening up new levels to play. Eventually, these paths all lead to the same destination, but at least there’s some flexibility on the way there.

Some games also have multiple endings, even though the progression to the endings is very much guided. Deus Ex comes to mind. The game does offer a lot of flexibility in terms of how to progress through each level, with the player able to customize his or her skills and equipment, but the overall story structure is relatively fixed for most of the game. However, at the end, the player can decide between several possible endings based on how he or she approaches the final level.

Many of the greatest games are highly guided, primarily because they allow for carefully controlled and tuned experiences. That said, many players don’t like feeling controlled. If you’re not giving the player real choice, why not make a movie instead of a game?

Two solutions to this problem come to mind. First, give the player choice, but make sure he or she always makes the right choice. For example, use a visual cue, like light shining in the direction the player should go, to guide the player in the right direction. Not everyone will follow these cues, but you’d be surprised how many people do.

Second, make the player feel like they have a choice, but make it quickly apparent that the wrong choices won’t lead anywhere. Half Life makes excellent use of this technique. The game is really very structured, but the physics system and crumbling world make it seem like you’re playing in an open space. It just so happens that if you head down that tunnel, it’s going to collapse right as you approach it… I guess you better find a new path!

Why would you want your game to be guided? One reason is that you want to communicate a very specific thing. For example, maybe you want the player to experience a story. It’s probably a good idea to constrain the player somewhat to make sure that story unfolds properly. Or maybe you want the player to experience a slow build up of tension until it all climaxes in the final boss battle. In this case, you’re going to want the player to follow a set path with increasing challenge and suspense. A big part of the game design will be making sure that path seems natural and not restrictive.

Another reason you might want to make an open game is to keep players from feeling lost or overwhelmed. Obviously, it depends on your target audience, but open games offer too many options and not enough guidance for many gamers, especially inexperienced ones or those without a lot of time and mental energy to dedicate to a game. If you want your game to be accessible to a lot of people, increase the amount that you guide players in it. (Doing this could easily cause a backlash from players who consider themselves hard core–be warned.)

Why wouldn’t you want your game to be guided? Probably the biggest reason in my mind is that you want the game to be multiplayer. While there are some great examples of excellent multiplayer guided games (say, shooters like Metal Slug), open games usually provide the space necessary for two or more players to develop strategies, develop counter-strategies, and adapt yet again. In multiplayer games, it’s often the other players that give the game its exciting progression, not the game itself.

Existing in Harmony

I’ve been talking about open and guided games as if they’re mutually exclusive, but really one game can contain features of both. A great example of this is an open game that features a tutorial to help explain how to play.

The levels in Braid constrain how the player progresses through the game, but also force the player to explore the open space created by the time manipulation rules of the game. Image from JayIsGames.

Another is a game like Braid. For those unfamiliar with the game, go play it. Right now.

Done? Great. So you will have noticed that much of the joy of Braid comes from its always interesting time manipulation mechanics. Each level contains a different unique way that the normal rules of time are broken, and the player is forced to explore those rules to solve a number of puzzles. At the same time, each level is incredibly structured: you will traverse each level in the same way as every other player. But the structure actually compliments the openness of the time mechanics, by forcing the player to really explore the play space provided by the time mechanics. In this way, Braid employs both an open and guided gaming experience, and uses those different styles in unison to create a coherent and extremely fun experience.

Whatever game you’re working on, think about how open or guided it should be. Ideally, it will contain elements of both that support each other to make the perfect gaming experience for your players.


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  1. Adam Wardell

     /  September 25, 2012

    Isn’t what you said about Braid only a variation of what you said about Zelda or Portal?

    • I think you’re right Adam. After thinking about it a bit, it seems to be the nature of puzzle games like this. While the overall structure of the game is predetermined, the actual game play comes from exploring bite sized chunks of the open space created by the rules of the game. So yes, Portal and Zelda should probably be classified in the same way I classified Braid (putting a reference to Zelda in all three sections of the post 😉 ).


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