Update: This article has been updated for 2023. I have added an extra section on how level design and world-building go hand-in-hand.
Video games are no longer just aimed at 12 year old boys. The audience for games has become more sophisticated as it’s aged. Culture has changed in such a way that we are demanding more from our entertainment than any other generation.
We not only want to consume content, we want to live it.
This means that we expect immersive video games that allow us to become part of their world.
Game companies only have a certain amount of resources to spend on any given project. The question becomes how to get the most bang for their buck. Worldbuilding is a big part of this as it allows players to become emotionally invested in fictional game worlds. Often blurring the line between the game world and real life.
Worldbuilding is a powerful tool that is unlocking immersive interactive storytelling for generations to come.
What Is Worldbuilding In Games?
The basics of Worldbuilding, the foundation, is a set of rules for your world.
What languages exist and which ones do your characters speak? How does society work? Is the game a dystopian wasteland like the Fallout series where bottle caps are the world’s currency? Do different rules apply such as magic or faster than light travel? What religions exist, and how do they work? What is the history of the world? What is the world’s place within the universe?
These are fundamental rules that all game characters abide by. This is not the story. It is the space in which the story takes place.
Using an analogy of American football, think of worldbuilding as the pitch, the rules, and the history of the game. Then think of the actions that unfold on and off the pitch within those rules, within that history, as the story. For example, the story is the wide receiver making a last second catch to win the superbowl. But without the history, and the rules, the last second catch means nothing. It wouldn’t have even existed without the world surrounding it and giving it meaning.
So it’s the world building that gives rise to story.
Worldbuilding allows for stories to be told within its constraints, within its rules. It is only when characters try to overcome an obstacle do we get a story.
In a game, that character will most likely be the player. But ‘Non-Playable Characters’ (NPC’s) can and do have their own stories.
Worldbuilding is about heightening the emotional impact of your gameplay and story.
Good worldbuilding will enhance the themes of the story.
The team at Bethesda Game Studios created their own language in ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’ called ‘Dragon Language’. There were books around the world that helped you to understand the language. Enemy dragons would tease you in it.
Creating languages for fantasy worlds has been a long tradition. Famous examples are the Lord of the Rings books, with elvish which is a full development language. In Skyrim the language has no gameplay effects. So why did they create a sophisticated language?
Because It adds to the mystery of the world, makes it feel lived in and real.
It adds to the richness of the world. It makes you think.
If they have created a language what else have they done.
Great worldbuilding is like an onion, there should be layers to it.
That’s why you often hear game developers talk about their game world as a character. They want to show how the world is alive regardless of the player’s actions. In older games the technology simply wasn’t available to realize this. The power of modern and future hardware will unlock the true power of stories.
Worldbuilding in games is about creating a unified world, through designing play spaces. Which shares a lot of design theory with interior design. How to master a space in such a way that the player expresses a required emotion. Which should feedback into the gameplay to make a powerful experience.
Check out this great GDC talk about: Interior Design and Environment Art: Mastering Space, Mastering Place. This will show you the importance of designing a cohesive play space that will strongly impact the player’s experience.
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Worldbuilding Isn’t Level Design
It would be easy to confuse worldbuilding with level design and game creation.
Which it is not.
You can have great level design and bad worldbuilding.
Think of level design as the flow through an environment, be it physical movement through the world/level and the challenge.
Worldbuilding is the history and story of the world, shown visually, from the way a building looks, to rubbish strewn on the floor. This will change the way a player will interact in the game spaces. Players will bring their own personal experiences which will inform the way they play and comprehend this new world.
Level designers are often responsible for the difficulty of the game because they are placing the ground and enemies in a 2d side scroller. In a 3d game there are placing the network of paths you can follow.
Through masterful manipulation of ‘wayfinding systems’ they can help you navigate through any area. Think of any Uncharted game on the PlayStation. You know which platforms are accessible to climb because yellow paint lines the edge of the platform.
This is part of the level design language. But this is not worldbuilding, even though these people are responsible for physically building in the world.
Who Is Responsible For Worldbuilding When Designing A Game?
A wide variety of disciplines come together to implement worldbuilding including art, design, and programming. In order to have a powerful cohesive world, everyone in a team needs to be pulling in the same direction. The narrative and mechanical themes of a game are more powerful if they are reflected in the play space of the world. This will often be led by the game director. Whose job it is to make sure all departments are contributing to the whole.
Level designers work closely with environmental artists in order to make a functional space. That meets the needs of the gameplay and the story.
Game studios come in all shapes and sizes, from the individuals to ‘triple-A’ big budget extravaganzas. In smaller teams the people or person responsible for the art has to be flexible enough to learn many different skills and put them to use when worldbuilding..
It also depends on the type of game being made, what genre the game is in and time/ budget constraints.
The platform the game is going to be on will also have an impact on the type of worldbuilding. Mobile phone games for example have different challenges in regards to consumer retention, where they are often played for a shorter amount of time compared with PC or console games. So mobile phone games don’t have time to allow the player to explore the world, they have to be more focused experiences.
When Does Worldbuilding Start In Production?
In films, worldbuilding normally comes before the film starts shooting, because they need the sets ready for the actors.
This is not the case for games.
Games often have longer production schedules with three or more years to make a game not unheard of.
Grand Theft Auto 5, or ‘GTA5’, took over 5 years to make. A considerable amount of that time is spent on the creation of the city and its culture. The worldbuilding includes everything from the radio stations to the billboards and ingame brands. Giving the city its own history through different areas. This will start in pre-production but will continue through the game’s development due to the game’s extensive amount of content.
Depending upon the vision, pre-production will often explore multiple mechanics and settings. It all comes down to individual studios. The development of Bioshock was focused on the gameplay first, with the story and setting changing many times in order to meet the needs of the gameplay.
“Story changed radically, but gameplay always comes first for us.”
– BioShock’s creative director Ken Levine.
Bioshock, a game built around the philosophies of Ayn Rand. In which the player sees a mad man by the name of Andrew Ryan. Then the player takes a deep journey down the rabbit hole of progress and questions the relationship of commerce and free will. The game mechanics are aligned with the story and narrative setting so closely, that you would never know which came first.
What should come first, game mechanics or the story? This is different for each studio depending on their project goals and workflow. It also depends if they are even trying to tell a story with their game.
Do You Need An Open-World Game For Worldbuilding?
When you think of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt by CD Projekt Red you think of a story rich, expensive open world.
While that’s true, the ‘Witcher 3’ excels within its worldbuilding through its use of morality.
The game forces you to really roleplay because you have to pursue information to make informed decisions. There is no green good option and a red bad option. There are decisions the player can make that have consequences. Some are good, some are bad, and many have unexpected side effects on the world.
But these diecitions would have no meaning or weight if they didn’t take place within a world that has specific rules governing it. For example, your mission could be to help a peasant remove a rat infestation. But what if within the game world, a certain faction thinks rats are sacred god-like creatures? A side effect of killing the rats means this faction will hunt you for the rest of the game throughout the world. This decision then has huge weight attached to it, all because of worldbuilding.
You don’t need a big open world game to implement worldbuilding techniques. The bigger the scale of the game the harder and more time consuming it becomes to design and make. That’s why it takes so long to build this type of game.
Take any of the ‘Wipeout’ games, they are as far as you can get from an open world game, being a track based racing game.
How could they possibly do worldbuilding?
They started by treating all the teams as if they were real world racing teams. Each team has its own logo and brand identity, they even design their vehicles based on the company’s philosophy.
Half Life by valve was essentially a corridor shooter. Valve made the corridors into a government style facility, which gave it a sense of place. Which was on the cutting edge for games back when it was released in 1998.
After Valve saw the original Portal demo, which was set in a hellscape, a game called ‘Narbacular Drop’. They hired the team and changed the story to fit in with the Half Life universe. So even a 4 hour game like Portal can create a world worth visiting that has its own rules to give the players actions meaning and weight.
So worldbuilding isn’t just about big spaces. It’s about quality not quantity. You can do worldbuilding in the smallest of spaces.
Worldbuilding Doesn’t Need To be complicated
It can be easy to get sucked into a worldbuilding black hole. Where you believe everything has to be thought out.
It can become overwhelming.
Just because you have created lore doesn’t mean people want to hear about it. James Cameron when making Avatar spent a lot of time on worldbuilding before starting production. So much time in fact that it got in the way of the storytelling.
They even modeled the Avatar universe so that the position of the sun’s and planets would always be in the correct place. But how much of this does the audience really need to know? No one left the theatre thinking, I really want to know the history and life cycle of the plants.
A little can go a long way.
It all depends on the message you are trying to convey. Worldbuilding should only be done to match the tone and theme of the story.
It’s all about telling a story with the world. Check out this video from Game Maker’s Toolkit on How level design can tell a story.
If you are doing an alternative timeline story. Take Dishonored by Arkane Studios for instance. The deviation from modern technology will force the world building to be more front and center, but we see this through the architecture and feel it through the society.
If the world you are creating is a match with the real world, then by copying the real world you are doing worldbuilding. Even if it doesn’t feel like it. The question that should be asked is how does that affect the story.
Worldbuilding Techniques In Video Games
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds by PUBG Corporation popularized the ‘battle royale’ genre. So when Fortnite by Epic Games was released PUBG tried to sue them for copying. You can not copyright gameplay or dances. The brands within the world are another story.
Where PUBG was made of generic items like, storage containers, concrete floors and wide open spaces. Fortnite focused on unique brandable items. Instead of a plain american school bus to drop you into a map. Epic games designed a battle bus that is instantly recognizable as part of the Fortnite brand.
A lot of worldbuilding in games is just a way of justifying game mechanics.
Take Bioshock’s plasmid system, there is a whole history and industry built around them within the game. From a technical standpoint is just another way of repackaging a magic system, for a science fiction setting.
There are a lot of techniques employed and video games in regards to worldbuilding. These will help the player create a connection to the setting or place.
Game Specific Brands – we all have our favorite brands in the real world. Having fictional branded items allows us to transfer our love of the game on to these brands. Game publishers can then sell us real world items with these brands attached. This works both ways we are more likely to buy a real brand in a game if it works with the game world.
Game World History – This gives the player a reason to invest in their actions. Why should they care if they should save the kingdom? How about rescuing a team of trapped scientists on a space station. Creating history for narrative allows us to invest on a more emotional level.
Currency – Mario has his coins, Sonic has his rings, and Fallout has bottle caps. Most games create a form of currency or resource management. Making this part of the game world makes it feel more aligned to our own.
Is Worldbuilding Different In Virtual Reality?
Worldbuilding is about building a sense of place.
Allowing the audience to experience a sense of ‘presence’ within that world. A sense of presence is something virtual reality excels at. Wearing the headset allows your body to become part of the experience. It uses more of your senses, you can judge the objects in a spatial environment, with 3d sound often being employed.
Microsoft and Sony are pushing their sound capabilities in the PS5 and the Xbox Series X.
Sound adds to the experience of presence, which helps the player to invest in the believability of the environment whether in VR or not.
In VR we have expectations that the game will work with our model of reality.That’s why when the frame rate drops in VR it can make people sick. Our brain gets disoriented because the input it is receiving visually doesn’t match the data the rest of the body is sending. In VR the player needs to comprehensively understand the physical environment.
Worldbuilding needs to take this into account. What might be a normal size room in a standard game could become an overwhelming experience. The environment also needs to reflect and match the complexity of the spaces players are used to in the real world. A plain long corridor could become a claustrophobic tunnel, which might not have been the designer goal. When building the world the player’s personal space needs to be taken into consideration.
You are not replicating real life
Game worlds/levels need to be more functional than their real life counterparts. This means that if you are designing any space, be it a room in a hotel or a castle courtyard, the primary goal for the space is to make sure the gameplay loop works within the space as well as telling a story about the space.
Level designers don’t have to follow the rules when building a creepy mansion like in ‘Luigi’s Mansion 3’, all the rooms don’t have to fit inside. Designers don’t need to conform to building regulations and zoning. It doesn’t have to be architecturally accurate, just have the Illusion.
This freedom from real world constraints allows for the creative designs, that delight and surprise. Whether it be a Haunted hotel or a 1960s world under the sea.
Game worlds share more in common with theme park style design than real life. It’s about guiding a player through a world.
Technology such as ray tracing will allow environments to become more realistic. With realism comes the expectation for everything in the world to match that level of detail, from animation to sound.
Replicating real life is not the goal of games, it’s about creating the illusion of life in another world with its own rules, history, ideas, societies, and cultures.
How Games Bleed Into The Real World With Worldbuilding
People want to interact with the brands they love, just look at Disney for example. Brand loyalty is something money can’t buy.
Fallout fans were queuing in long lines just to try ‘Nuke-a-cola’. Not just because they wanted to quench their thirst, but to for a short moment in time, live the life of a wastelander.
Events like ‘Electronic Entertainment Expo’ E3, and Comic Con show that fans are willing to invest time and money in their favorite worlds. Nintendo Land at Universal Studios shows how immersive worlds can cross over from a simple side scrolling platformer to a billion dollar industry.
Worldbuilding allows games to more easily cross media.
The types of properties transitioning into different media, usually employ stronger worldbuilding principles. Take Gwent the card game from the Witcher 3 for example, a great game in its own right. It is taken to the next level by making it a game within the witcher. They didn’t need to include Gwent, it would have been the game of the year regardless. But they did, going above and beyond like creating a fictional language, it made the game world feel richer. Gwent felt like a game that had existed for decades within the game world. Gwent was so successful CD Projekt red made it into a standalone game digitally and physically with real playing cards. When playing Gwent in the real world you have that same experience as with the Nuke-a-cola.
One of make-believe.
Where the player can feel like Geralt of Rivia. That is the power of storytelling and worldbuilding.
Level Up Your Worldbuilding with Level Design
Imagine you’re playing a perfectly balanced match of Super Smash Bros., where every platform, every ledge, and every item spawn point plays a crucial role in the battle’s outcome. That’s what level design is to the grand tournament of game development – a critical player that can either make your game a knockout success or send it careening off the stage in defeat.
Much like a game of chess, worldbuilding and level design are inextricably linked, each move in one influencing and shaping the strategy in the other. They’re two sides of the same Zelda rupee, if you will.
Let’s set the stage. Think of worldbuilding as the grand narrative, the overall setting and story that you’re weaving. It’s the lore-filled books in Skyrim, the intricate history of Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda, or the post-apocalyptic society in Fallout. It’s the big picture, the overarching world where your game lives.
Now, level design is the detailed crafting of the individual environments that your players will explore within that world. It’s the haunted halls of Luigi’s Mansion, the tricky platform puzzles of Celeste, and the neon-lit streets of Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City. Level design is where your players actually get to touch, interact with, and experience the world you’ve built.
The best level designs are those that manage to subtly weave in elements of the world’s larger narrative. For instance, in Dark Souls, the decaying architecture and menacing enemies not only serve to challenge the player, but they also reinforce the game’s somber and desolate tone. The levels aren’t just stages for combat; they’re physical manifestations of the game’s overarching narrative. It’s like playing through a haunting symphony, where each enemy encounter is a note and each level a movement in a grand, melancholic composition.
So, how can you ace this high-stakes balancing act in your game? Here are a few tips to guide you:
- Consistency is Key: Ensure your level design matches the tone and style of your world. If your game is set in a vibrant, whimsical world, your levels should reflect that with bright colors, playful elements, and cheerful music.
- Show, Don’t Tell: Use your levels to show off your world’s history and culture. Crumbled statues, graffiti on walls, or even the way NPCs interact with the environment can give players insight into your world without a single line of expository dialogue.
- Challenge and Reward: Good level design challenges players, but also rewards them for exploring. Hide little nuggets of lore or bonus items in out-of-the-way places. This not only makes players feel clever for finding them, it also encourages them to engage more deeply with your world.
- Think from a Player’s Perspective: Always consider how a player will experience your level. Test it, adjust it, then test it again. The best level designs are those that are fun to navigate and provide a satisfying sense of progression.
Remember, good worldbuilding draws players into your game, but good level design keeps them there. It’s the powerful combo of a stunning final smash and a well-timed recovery. So grab your game dev sword and shield, and start crafting levels that aren’t just stages, but stories in their own right. Your players, like loyal citizens in a well-crafted gaming realm, will thank you for it.
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What Next Section
Where can I start if I’m interested in level design? You can study level design as part of most game design courses. If you want to jump straight in, try playing games that let you make a levels in them. Mario Maker on the Nintendo Switch is mainly a tool for making your own levels. It comes with videos from Nintendo showing you fundamental level design principles, which will further understanding while not over-complicating the process. You can also check out my article on 3d platformer level design.