In June of 1981, the California Pacific Computer Company released Ultima 1: The First Age of Darkness. Developed for the Apple II home computer, the game tasks players with defeating an evil wizard. Even though Ultima 1 has an end goal, players can go anywhere they want on the map at any time. This freedom, coupled with a multitude of optional quests and equipment, gives Ultima 1 the honor of essentially being the world’s first open-world RPG.
Of course, because Ultima 1 was built for 8-bit computers, so it was obviously bare bones by modern standards. The game unfolds from a top-down perspective, and combat never progresses past “awkwardly bump into enemies to attack.” Plus, Ultima 1 is extremely short; anyone who knows what they are doing can finish the game in about three hours, and the story never deviates from the initial mission. Still, the sheer freedom and general lack of direction gave early gamers a taste of what would eventually blossom into the open-world RPG formula.
Since Ultima 1 laid the groundwork for more advanced open-world concepts, one might expect the genre’s next big leap to essentially be an Ultima clone. After all, once Doom hit the market in 1993, many subsequent FPS games tried to mimic its formula while also improving on it. That’s why those games were often called “Doom clones” and not FPS titles. However, the next noteworthy leap into the open-world frontier after Ultima 1 played nothing like that game. Instead of adventuring in a land of swords and sorcery, gamers took to the stars in 1984’s Elite.
When you Google search for the game Eliteodds are you will instead find Elite Dangerous. Unlike Arkane Studios’ Preythis isn’t another case of a studio utilizing an old game’s name to produce an unrelated product; Elite Dangerous is a faithful, updated version of the original Elite. The games are both open-world (or “open-space,” if you want to be technical) titles that give players the freedom to explore procedurally generated galaxies as they see fit. When the first Elite game was released, players were given a then-unheard level of agency. The game’s only goal is to become an “Elite” pilot, and players can reach that level of in-game fame however by diligently hauling cargo, raiding other vessels, other hunting down space pirates. Plus, Elite features one of the first examples of 3D wireframe graphics, as well as procedurally generated star systems. Yes, Elite was both one of the first examples of an open “world” title and a procedurally generated one.
Up until this point in the gaming industry, open-world titles had primarily if not exclusively stuck to computers, but in the early-to-mid 1980s, home consoles grew in popularity, thanks in no small part to the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was only a matter of time before the open-world genre would transfer to living rooms and television screens, and one of the first examples was none other than the seminal classic The Legend of Zelda (although 1984’s Hydlide and a couple of other titles from that era certainly helped pave the way for that game).
It’s easy to forget these days given the scope of modern open-world titles, but the original Zelda epitomizes many of the design philosophies of the open-world genre. At its core, the game is a sandbox experience that lets players find their own path, accidentally open secret chambers, and tackle dungeons in any order. One could argue that the original Legend of Zelda was a little too open since it was far too easy for players at the time to miss valuable items. That might be why Nintendo course-corrected a little too much in subsequent titles and produced more linear Zelda sequels. However, the company returned to the open-world formula that started the franchise in Breath of the Wild.