To me there’s a huge difference between “open world” and “open narrative”. A huge game world where, technically, you can go anywhere you want is useless if all you find are trial novelty side quests.
The modern AAA definition (the Ubisoft standard) of “open world” is the worst possible definition. It quickly turns into a blend checklist of things to do to make the icon go away. It’s narratively bankrupt.
So let’s consider some that do open world well.
My first open world game was Elite back in the 80s. No quests, no checkpoints, no narrative, just you and your spaceship and a universe full of stuff to explore and make your story. I spent days and days in that super simple environment having experiences that let my imagination fill in the gaps. It was mind blowing and, honestly, no game has ever given me the same feeling of total freedom again.
Not even No Man’s Sky, which felt overloaded with gathering stuff and crafting stuff and nearly dying because I didn’t gather fast enough. The extensive tutorial left me feeling like I didn’t want to carry on in.
But speaking of crafting, what about Minecraft? Surely the ultimate open world game of our era, it’s provided millions of people with millions of hours of gaming gun while basically not having any narrative at all except what you make.
Let’s deviate slightly and look at role playing games, and in particular the behemoth that is Skyrim. Entirely scripted, but with so many narratives intertwined, with a world that’s full of things to explore, people to meet, quests to take on, it’s at a scale grand enough that you feel like you’re in a world that’s yours to discover. It’s maybe a valid criticism that I completed the main quest line completely by accident (I was just picking interesting things to do from me active quest list) as just another fun time I was having, and I’m still doing quests long after the big bad was done with.
Let’s briefly mention Elden Ring. It’s an open world full of stuff to do. It doesn’t have quest markers. It doesn’t have a map full of pointers saying “look look here is the content”. It’s as much about community as it is about playing alone. It doesn’t spoon feed you anything.
And of course let’s mention Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom. A wonderful mix in which the player has a definite goal, there is narrative, but how the player interacts with the world, the order they do so (or if they do at all) is entirely up to them. There’s no one path to the end, which allows a personal, fulfilling playthrough while still constrained by the story the game is trying to tell.
So in answer to the original question, is being “open world” a selling point to me, the answer is no. If it needs to be used as a selling point, then it makes me think that it’s being used as a crutch to pad them game, make it bigger without making it better. Horizon Forbidden West, all modern Assassins Creed games, I’m looking at all of you.
Open world games that are truly worth the time don’t treat it as a feature. Instead it’s an intrinsic part of them that cannot be removed or added on optionally.