At a recent E3 event, Nintendo announced that their upcoming Zelda game would be "vast," feature a "wide world," be "open," as well as "vast," and, on the whole, be "vast." This prompted some cynical commentary from some folks who played Twilight Princess (a previous title in the Zelda series): "How can a vast, open world be fun when the last time you tried a larger, free-moving kind of world, it wound up being kind of empty and desolate and boring?" Well, this is a matter of opinion, of course, but the answer is, "It can't."
I'm a little surprised to hear myself say this, because ever since I was a kid I liked to say that I preferred non-linear, exploratory, free-flowing games, for example, the early Zeldas, Ultima VII, various and sundry RPGs both American and Japanese. It turns out I didn't know what I was talking about. There were plenty of completely linear, restricted games that I loved then (and love now). Final Fantasy II (US), for instance, a game I adored, featured a remarkable number of ridiculous excuses to keep you from going a direction the narrative didn't want you to go ("Sorry, the old man won't let you pass the bridge until you've talked to your love interest in the last town! After that, he has no issue with it"), but I didn't mind a bit.
And this leads to a generally important point when it comes to art-type endeavors - people generally don't have the slightest idea why they like anything, or how to articulate or describe their preferences and opinions. We simply react, and for the most part, everything else is a total mystery. In a musical theater critique group that I'm a part of, I was taught a lesson that stuck with me mightily, in the form of a quote from... somebody. Let's say Mark Twain. "When it comes to emotional reactions, the critic is always right. When it comes to suggestions for how to fix your work, the critic is always wrong." This may be a slight exaggeration, of course, but it isn't. People tend to know what they like and don't like, but not why. For this reason, you can get into a lot of trouble by listening to your audience for anything other than, "How did you feel?"
It's times like listening to this E3 announcement that make me worry that Nintendo is making the mistake of listening to people's stated preferences. They say they want a vast, open, free world, but then, when they get one (Twilight Princess), it's not terribly satisfying. Sure, the vistas are pretty and, I suppose, "vast." But vistas alone do not a 30-hour game make.
So what is it that people (and by people, I mean mostly me) actually want when they say they want large, open worlds? Well, if you look back at some of the extremely awesome earlier Zelda titles, like Link to the Past (SNES) and Ocarina of Time (N64), you'll realize that the worlds weren't actually very large. The games employed tricks to make them seem large and "world-y", but in reality, entire towns can not support themselves on an economy consisting exclusively of midway games (at some point, agriculture HAS to enter the equation). The worlds weren't big, or even "vast." They weren't even necessarily as free and open as they could have been. But they did allow some freedom, which is important, and most significantly, they were FULL of interesting things to see and do.
When people say they like "exploration," I believe they don't really want "freedom," what they want is "content to explore" - and that's a big difference. They also don't want to be frustrated by artificial constraints if they can be helped. This doesn't mean that perfect freedom is called for. It just means that they need enough freedom to not get annoyed that they have to go somewhere or do something. But more significantly, if the thing they have to do is interesting enough, they won't mind having to do it. (For example, when I first played Final Fantasy VII, I was deeply annoyed at the linearity of the multi-hour opening sequence in the squalid modern city of Midgar. Now that I've matured somewhat, I enjoy that part of the game most of all - it has an awesome atmosphere and a compelling story. As a kid, I kept waiting for the "real game" to start. Now I know - Midgar WAS the real game!)
It's tricky. It's not that people want perfect freedom. They want enough freedom to feel that their choices have rewarding consequences. We want to think, "What's behind that tree?", go look, and find something cool. If we don't find something cool, the ability to look behind the tree is no longer that important. The rewards can take many forms - it could be an actual treasure, like a Piece of Heart, or 20 rupees (but it should be a Piece of Heart :P). It could be an exciting new place to look at, with new music to listen to, new characters to talk to, and new designs to admire. It could be something else that I'm too dumb to have dreamed up. But it needs to be something.
Nintendo has been very good at filling worlds with treasures to hunt for and find. Every nook and cranny of earlier Zelda titles had something squirreled away in it - perhaps a Moblin forking over money for no reason, telling you "It's a secret to everybody!"
So Nintendo, please, if you do a "vast" world, try to fill it with as many cool things to find as possible. Make the world free if you have to, but make it interesting and rewarding first and foremost. You've done it plenty of times before!