History of Open-World Games: What Were the First and Most Popular Titles?


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Open-world games are some of the most popular titles on the market today. Players can explore a virtual world at their own pace, and take on quests and missions as they see fit. But what was the first open-world game ever created? And which developers pioneered this popular video game genre? In this article, we will take a look at the history of open-world gaming, and find out which titles started it all.

What defines an open-world video game?

An open-world game is typically defined as a game where players are free to explore a virtual world at their own pace. This can be contrasted with linear games, where players are confined to a specific path or story and must complete missions in a specific order. Open-world games often give players the freedom to choose how they want to play the game, and which missions they want to undertake. This non-linear gameplay was first popularized by early adventure games such as The Legend of Zelda.

The early open-world games

The first open-world game ever created was Adventure. Developed by Atari in 1979, Adventure was a text-based game that allowed players to explore an imaginary world. While it did not have the same level of graphics and gameplay as today’s open-world games, it laid the foundation for the genre.

In the early 1980s, a number of developers began experimenting with open-world gameplay. One of the first was Ultima III: Exodus, which was released in 1983. This game featured a large, explorable world, and gave players the freedom to choose their own path.

Also interesting: Early Gaming History – What Was the First Video Game?

The Legend of Zelda was another groundbreaking title that popularized open-world gameplay. Released in 1986, The Legend of Zelda featured a vast world to explore, with plenty of secrets to discover. This game set the standard for future open-world titles and is still considered one of the best video games ever made. Even though many elements would later be included in popular esport titles, this was in a time before most of the esports games we know today were published.

While contested by some, other noteworthy mentions include titles such as Inverse, Jet Rocket, dnd (PLATO), Elite,  The Portopia Serial Murder Case, The Lords of Midnight, The Seven Cities of Gold, Sid Meier’s Pirates, Ant Attack, Sabre Wulf, and Mercenary, among others. While not in 3D, the first Pokémon video game for Game Boy could also be considered a very popular open-world RPG, with the Japanese release of the original in 1996 and the international version in 1999.

Turning 3D in the 90s

Nintendo was one of the first to work on turning open-world games into 3D adventures on the platform Nintendo 64. While some might say that Super Mario 64 (1996) was a big step forward as far as the size of video game worlds goes, I’d not be too sure if it could be considered a truly open-world title due to it being split into smaller areas that need to be accessed through portals and aren’t truly connected to each other.

I think the first true 3D open-world game that I played myself was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time which was released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64. While Banjo-Kazooie (1998) was also fairly popular, it used a portal system similar to Super Mario 64 but introduced a new franchise. Another key moment in open-world gaming was Sega’s adventure Shenmue (1999) which also introduced the open-city subgenre.

While not released in 3D, the early GTA games like Grand Theft Auto (1997) and Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999), would prepare the franchise for massive success and let GTA V become one of the most sold games of all time in later years topping with 370 million copies sold. So let’s jump into the 21st century and see the more recent history of open-world video games.

Open-world video games since 2000

In the year 2000, we got Deus Ex which is considered by some to be one of the best video games ever made. This game featured a large open world to explore and gave players a lot of freedom in how they want to complete missions. We also got GTA III in 2001, which took the franchise to a whole new level and popularized the open-world genre. This first GTA in 3D is said to have set the standards for an open-world game and it was one of the first titles to offer a type of replayability that might have been unsurpassed at the time.

In 2002, we got The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which is still considered one of the best RPGs ever made. Before Ubisoft acquired the Far Cry franchise, it was developed by Germany-based studio Crytek (waving to the other end of the town, from the TechAcute to the Crytek office) and the first Far Cry from 2004 established a new normal for how a good FPS (first-person shooter) should look like with many more good titles to follow in the series.

While Blizzard has been known for their RTS games before, one of its biggest hits was the online RPG World of Warcraft from 2004 which combined a huge world size with fantastic visual quality, considering the time. While the game may no longer have 12 million monthly subscribers these days, it’s still played today. This title has set new standards for what an open-world MMORPG should deliver.

The Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft) series began in 2007 and has become one of the most popular video game franchises in recent years. The series is known for its large, open worlds and historical setting. In 2009, we got Prototype, which was an open-world action game set in New York City. We also got inFamous that same year, which was another open-world action game set in an urban environment.

What happened after 2010?

Red Dead Redemption from 2010 was the successor of Red Dead Revolver and while fairly popular it could only be beaten by the unsurpassed reality and complexity of Red Dead Redemption 2 which was released in 2018, also by Rockstar Games, which is known for their work on the GTA series. It’s fair to say that the Rockstar Games studios are one of the strongest innovators in open-world video gaming in history, being responsible for both franchises. It is also significant that 3d character design services in those years gained new momentum. Large studios began to outsource game art, which was a new level.

The Elder Scrolls (Bethesda Game Studios) series started in 1994 but it was with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in 2011 that the franchise became a global phenomenon. This game is said to have set a new standard for open-world RPGs and is still being played by millions of people around the world. The game is still widely popular even after all those years and new editions are being released.

The other franchise from Bethesda, now part of Microsoft, is Fallout with the first title being released in 1997. The breakthrough in 3D for the series was Fallout 3 (2008), shortly followed by Fallout: New Vegas (2010), which used the same engine but introduced an entirely new story and area to the player. The latest single-player title of this series is Fallout 4, from 2015, which is located in the Boston area.

The latest game in the franchise is Fallout 76 from 2018, which was an online multiplayer game set in the post-apocalyptic world of the Fallout series. It is the counterpart of The Elder Scrolls Online from 2014, and while both franchises offer fantastic immersive RPG gameplay, they can be differentiated by knowing The Elder Scrolls offer a fantastic experience while Fallout games offer an open world that’s our planet Earth, but happening after a fictive apocalyptic event in the future.

Another important open-world game from recent history to mention is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild from 2017 on the Switch which has received great feedback and ratings from media professionals as well as gamers. It’s a pity that Nintendo almost exclusively publishes their best titles on their own platforms but if you truly want to play it, I’m sure you’ll find the opportunity somehow or somewhere to play it.

Beyond open-world games

While we have talked about several milestones in the open-world video game history, I also want to talk about the 2016 game No Man’s Sky, which initially caused a lot of drama for not delivering what was originally promised, but month for month and year for year, the developer kept their word and added new content to the game without charging any additional money for the new content.

Why is No Man’s Sky deserving such a special placement here? Well, one reason is that they managed to create a game that does not offer a single open world to discover. They managed to create a space exploration game that lets you take your ship and explore universes and all the planets within. The scope goes from space exploration down to research on flora and fauna on each planet. If you’re bored by a planet, just take your ship and cruise elsewhere.

It’s a virtually infinite game and while the procedural content generation could theoretically allow for 18 quintillion planets to explore, I’d say we’ll not manage to explore all of them, even combining every player’s efforts. While some might argue that it can become repetitive or boring after a while, I think that it’s a great piece of work with many many hours of fun for a gamer who enjoys exploration beyond a single planet. It even features elements of trade that I found very interesting to delve into but I understand it might not be for everyone.


Since the 1980s, open-world games have become increasingly popular. Some of the most popular titles in recent years include games from the Grand Theft Auto, The Elder Scrolls, Assassins Creed, and Far Cry video game series, among others. These games have taken the open-world formula and pushed it to new heights, giving players even more freedom to explore and experience a virtual world. Surely there were many more open-world games than the ones mentioned here, but I feel like I managed to spot the most significant ones that truly changed the course of development and play.

While some open-world games are better than others, they all offer something unique and special that can be enjoyed by gamers of all ages. There are also a few titles that go beyond the traditional open-world formula, offering players an even more immersive and expansive gaming experience. No matter what your preferences are, there is sure to be an open-world game out there that you will enjoy. Below you can find a cool open-world game history video overview from Nixian, in case you want to have a look at all the games.

YouTube: Evolution of Open World Games 1984-2021

Photo credit: The feature image has been done by Vitalik Radko.

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Christopher Isak
Christopher Isakhttps://techacute.com
Hi there and thanks for reading my article! I'm Chris the founder of TechAcute. I write about technology news and share experiences from my life in the enterprise world. Drop by on Twitter and say 'hi' sometime. ;)
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