Today we’re answering another reader's question. Davin asks:
“How would I design a world for a game?”
Davin, thanks for asking this. It’s an incredible opportunity, to design a world. I joined a AAA project early in development last year and we worked on exactly this. It was exhausting and awesome at the same time.
Worldbuilding is powerful stuff. When it works, it draws us in and casts a spell. Great worlds capture our imaginations and blow our minds. We just want to live in that world, exploring and making discoveries for as long as we can.
Imagine creating the next Westeros, or Hogwarts, or Middle Earth. Goals!
But…but we’re talking about creating an entire WORLD here. Yikes! Where do we even begin? And more importantly, when do we know when we’ve done enough?
Depending on the type of game you’re making, you may have a LOT of world to fill. The team may be looking to you to explain whole galaxies! Open-world games want to deliver a rich world to the player because they want players to explore every inch of the place. And a lot of game narratives are sci-fi or fantasy stories, and those are genres that practically demand huge, deep, neverending worlds. You could work on your worldbuilding project seven days a week for months and still get nowhere near the finish line.
And naturally, we’re thinking about the players, and how we want to deliver great work to them. The last thing we want to do is read on Metacritic that we’ve let the audience down by delivering a world that is too thin or doesn’t make sense.
And, of course, everybody ELSE on the team loves worldbuilding, too. You can get into meetings and blue-sky yourself into the next century. When it comes to worldbuilding, there is hardly any guidance and even fewer guardrails.
We’ve all heard the stories about how Tolkien spent most of his adult life creating Middle Earth. We don’t have that kind of time. We’ve got deadlines here!
So how can we be smart about this? How do we get the job done?
Think like a builder
When it’s time to get serious about worldbuilding, here’s my advice: resist shiny objects. There’s time for that later. Keep things simple. You want to think almost like a homebuilder or an engineer. Focus on structural integrity. Your goal is to build loadbearing walls and a crack-free foundation.
Your #1 goal, when worldbuilding, is to set the stage for challenge and conflict.
Challenge is what gameplay is all about.
Conflict is what story is about.
In your worldbuilding, you can deliver both.
Here’s a three-step approach you can take to build your world from the ground up. I’m keeping this extremely simple to help you get started. Don’t be fooled by how simple this is. It’s simple - and it WORKS. I’ve used it myself on projects and it’s helped me deliver a great world - on schedule, without working late into the night. Yay for that!
Step One: Define your arena
This is your stage. And your stage may cover several galaxies, in which case you’ve got a really big stage. But even galaxies have limits. Define your boundaries. Draw it out. Don’t worry about the details; you’re focused here on the broad strokes. Everything inside the arena is part of the story and game. Everything outside the arena is not.
This is important, because it helps you see your game’s world as its own thing, separate from this reality, and it allows you to take ownership of it, mentally. “This is our stage, now we need to fill it.”
And it allows you to create the space for your story, just like a theater stage creates space for actors. Everything that happens on that stage will be internally consistent, following the same rules, living in the same reality. There’s a lot that will happen there.
But it all starts with this simple step of defining your arena.
Once you’ve got that worked out, you’re ready to move on to -
Step Two: Define your world's values
Values: the principles that help you to decide what is right and wrong, and how to act in various situations.
Remember, your goal in creating a world is to create an arena where conflict and challenge are inevitable - because those elements are the bread and butter of both gameplay and story.
That means you want to create conflict at the deepest possible level so that it becomes a story engine for the world.
And the deepest possible conflict is a conflict over values.
It’s your job to figure out what matters to the people of this world. Where do their hearts lie? What are they willing to fight and die for?
Let’s look at Harry Potter for an example.
In the first book, we can see a values conflict on several different levels. And those conflicts are visible in the worlds (plural) that they live in.
Think of wizards versus muggles. What do wizards value? Loyalty, courage, learning. What do muggles value? Possessions, money, themselves. Their values are in conflict, and we can see it in their worlds (Privet Drive versus Hogwarts).
Think of Harry versus Voldemort. What does Harry value? Friendship, courage, fairness. What does Voldemort value? Power. We can see this clash in the difference between Harry’s Hogwarts and Voldemort’s Dark Forest.
Finally, think of Harry versus Draco. Harry values merit and fair play; Draco values aristocracy and bloodlines. This clash is reflected in the differences between Gryffindor and Slytherin.
“Values” is a step a lot of teams skip. Please don’t make that mistake. This makes all the difference. It creates neverending sources of conflict, both for the game and the story.
Once you’ve got a sense of the competing values of your worlds, it’s time to move on to -
Step Three: Define how power works in your world
Your world is populated by characters. And those characters are living together. That means they live in a system, or multiple systems. If worlds are going to function, they need systems.
We can see this in our real lives. College is a system. Work is a system. A family is a system. A bus route is a system. Systems are all around us, defining our lives in ways big and small.
The important thing to know about systems, for the sake of your worldbuilding, is that they’re a vehicle for maintaining, gaining, or losing power. And that is a real motivator for characters. Some people will do anything for power. (See: Voldemort.)
Think of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. How does power work in those worlds? How does it shift and change?
Write out the systems of your favorite worlds. Then once you’ve got a feel for spotting these systems, you can start to create your own.
Figure out the systems the inhabitants live by - how does power work in this world? Who has it, who doesn’t?
Once you’ve completed these three steps, you’ve done the homebuilder’s job. You’ve framed up your house and laid your foundation. Now you’re ready to turn it into a home for your players.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.