13 April 2010

[Literature] Fundamentals of Game Design, ch4: Game World

A game world is the place where the player pretends to be while in the magic circle. Th world is vital to sustain the interest of new players. Experimented players (of Counter Strike for example) sometimes stop viewing the game world and instead focus on the core mechanics (jumping, hiding and shooting at strategic moments). However, customers buy the game for the (visual, audio) fantasy of its game world made apparent on the box at the retailer shop. Mechanics are experienced after the game has been bought. [Although some stores do have consoles on-site so that customers can try demos of AAA games in the shop].


Games have physical dimensions. Spatially, it can be 2D (side-scrollers), "2 and a half D" (god-view RTS), 3D (Tomb Raider) or 4D (which should actually be two different but related 3D worlds, like in some action-adventure games where the hero has a special sense/skill that lets the player see the world differently). The spatial dimension must serve the entertainment value of the game: Lemmings 3D was less successful than the original Lemmings in 2D. The scale encompasses the absolute and relative sizes of objects, people, terrain, etc. as well as their speed. It is sometimes needed to distort scales a little, particularly in a god-view world. Zoom-in and out when needed: houses or dungeons have to be zoomed-in to be explored in 2D-RPG for instance. Some games have natural boundaries (sport, driving or indoor/underground FPS) but sometimes the boundaries need to be disguised to keep the magic circle: mountains, water, deserts, etc. or forcing the player to return where the action is (flight simulators). Unless the game world can be represented as a sphere (cf Populous), a cube or such 3D shape.

Temporally, day and night can be meaningful (cf Baldur's Gate). Most games which use time as a significant element skip or fasten uninteresting periods when nothing happens (between missions or when all the Sims work for instance). Allowing soldiers to fight continuously permits the player to play continuously without a pause also. Anomalous time consists of giving an incredible amount of time for a task to be done, absolutely or relatively to other tasks in the game: building a house takes nearly as much time as gathering berries, or the Sims take 15 minutes of the game to go to the mailbox. Letting the player choose the speed of the game is a way to cope with too long or too boring periods of the game.

The environmental dimensions consists of the cultural context and the physical surroundings. The cultural context contains the overall background of the world (religion, politics, architecture, landscape, personal stories, etc.) The UI should may to the cultural context (ie tribal look for a game with tribes). The physical surroundings composed of visuals and sounds define what the game looks like and are influenced by the cultural context. The level of detail determines the realism of the world. Rule of thumb: include as much details as you can until it begins to harm the gameplay. The style consists of both the content (eg medieval city or a hospital) and the way to present the content, ie the drawing style (Impressionistic, black-and-white, etc.). Keep the style consistent throughout the game. Try to find original settings off the beaten tracks: everyone designs games set in muddy and feudal European Middle-Age while at the same time, Islamic culture was magnificent. Angkor Vat, Easter Island or Machu Picchu are other original settings. [How many world designers subscribe to National Geographic?] All is grist for the mill, but borrowing concepts from movies is a quick-and-dirty backdrop.

The emotional dimension in a single-player game comes from the storytelling and the gameplay. Multiplayer games also rely on relations between players. Until recently, games have been seen only as light entertainment ... [but that] doesn't mean that's all they can be. Emotions can come from stimulating challenges at the appropriate difficulty. Emotions range from a fulfillment of power, greed or ambition in Tycoon or god games. For suspense to work well, the player needs to feel vulnerable and unprepared. Love, jealousy and outrage can be felt by the player if he/she identifies with a character. Saving the universe may convey some emotions to kids but adults will laugh at it. Trying to be fun can restrict the field of emotions conveyed (sorrow, guilt, despair is far from fun). The potential for our medium to explore emotions and the human condition is much greater than the term fun game allows for, but publishers and current markets want fun.

Games sometimes let the player do things he/she can/should not do in real life. Hence the designer can define the game's own ethics and morality. They are actually part of the culture but need a particular attention. If the player has to kill people to win, then killing is not morally bad. [Koster would argue that players do not give any credit to morality, they only take into accounts the mechanics for the fun of it]. Violence happens everywhere, the only problem is how it is portrayed: chess pieces can be killed but it is very far from killing humanoid characters with realistic graphics.


  • Choose one film maker and one composer whose works could fit well together into creating an emotional tone for a RTS, a mature action game or a child (non-violent) adventure game.
  • Pick a game. Which actions are rewarded? Are they moral in real life?

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