What is “World Design”?

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I’m teaching a college course, “Advanced Seminar in Game Design: World Design” for Champlain College’s 2021 Fall semester. It’s a class for seniors to propose and execute on a single solo project for their portfolio, loosely based on the course theme. This document was my definition of “World Design”, with many examples.

Overview

The theme of this class is “World Design”, a subset of Game Design. The goal of this document is to explain what that means!

“World Design” is nebulously defined. Some companies have “World Designer” as a job title, but they don’t necessarily describe the same job. I’ve seen it used to describe traditional mission or level design work, designing vast non-linear spaces in open world games, and even the design of systems or UI related to the game world. So we will use a very broad definition in this class.

If Game Design is…

… The act of making choices about how players perceive or interact with a game, with the goal of creating a specific experience for the player(s).

Then World Design is…

…The act of making choices about how players will perceive, interact with, or experience the world of a game, with a particular focus on navigation, traversal, pacing, and narrative.

On most game teams, every design discipline makes world design decisions, and so does every environment artist. World design is a verb, not (just) a job title.

The following section has many examples of “world design” decisions: decisions that affect how the player perceives or interacts with a game, split by discipline.

Foundational/High-Level World Design

The most important world design decisions, the ones that help define the entire game and its genre, are usually made at the creative direction level during pre-production. Some examples, not exhaustive:

  • How does the player travel/move around the world?
    • Ex: Select levels from a menu
    • Ex: Select levels from a world map
    • Ex: Physically move an avatar through a contiguous game world
  • How are the environments rendered to the player?:
    • Ex: Text descriptions
    • Ex: Still images
    • Ex: 2D
    • Ex: 3D
  • What viewpoints does the player use to see the world?:
    • Ex: 3rd person
    • Ex: 1st person
    • Ex: Top-down
    • Ex: Sidescrolling
    • Ex: Text descriptions
  • If the world is composed of contiguous areas, how should they be structured?:
    • Ex: Hub and spoke (IE, Ocarina of Time or Super Mario 64)
    • Ex: Linear progression through space
    • Ex: Densely interconnected spaces (IE, Dark Souls, Metroid)
    • Ex: Free movement through an open world
  • How does the player progress through the world?:
    • Ex: Linear level progression
    • Ex: Lock and key model (Metroid, Zelda)
    • Ex: Skill-gated: players can go anywhere but they must overcome challenges
    • Ex: Plot-gated: Areas are blocked until the plot reaches certain points
    • Ex: No Gating: players can freely go anywhere from the beginning (IE, Minecraft)
  • How does the player know where to go?
    • Ex: Linear progression through space
    • Ex: Map
    • Ex: Objective markers (waypoints) over the destinations
    • Ex: Objective markers (waypoints) that show you the path to take to reach a destination
    • Ex: Golden breadcrumb trail (Fable)
    • Ex: player can place waypoints themselves
    • Ex: Strong environment visual language + landmarks (IE, Breath of the Wild)
    • Ex: Given directions by NPCs/Text Clues

Level Design as World Design

Level and mission designers are making many world design decisions every day, usually at a more close-up, case-by-case scale. Examples of things they decide and work with:

  • Bespoke level design:
    • What specific obstacles and challenges does the player encounter in a given location?
    • What are the player sightlines?
    • What are the lines of approach to the objective?
    • Are the navigational elements (waypoints/landmarks/location clues) present and working for this space?
    • Specific placements of walls, obstructions, bottlenecks, and doors
    • Specific placements of gameplay elements
    • If the game features enemy combatants or NPCs, which ones are present, how do they act, and where are they placed?

Some level designers may also work at a more macro-level, defining rules, conventions, or tools for the other level designers to us:

  • Level design systems and conventions:
    • How wide should gaps be (platforming)?
    • Best practices for landmark design + placement
    • How are waypoints placed and controlled?
    • How do players know where the edge of the playable space is?
    • Visual language:
      • How do players distinguish interactable vs non-interactable objects?
      • How do players know where they can use their specific environment-dependent verbs, like “climb” or “dig”?
      • How do players distinguish objectives at sight?
      • How do players know when there is a secret or discoverable nearby?

Sandbox Design as World Design

“Sandbox” design, also sometimes called gameplay design, deals with players’ second-to-second gameplay loops and decision making, and the actions (verbs) available to players. The sandbox gameplay has an enormous but often indirect impact on how players experience and feel about the world they inhabit, and the spaces they play in. Some examples:

  • How fast does the avatar move?
    • Movement speed directly impacts how players perceive distances in the game, and what density of content is needed
  • What traversal mechanics does the player have, and how do they work?:
    • Ex: Running
    • Ex: Swimming
    • Ex: Climbing
    • Ex: Jumping
    • Ex: Gliding
    • Ex: Flying
    • Ex: Driving
  • At what range do players engage with challenges/obstacles?
  • How does the player control the camera?
  • What environmental factors impact sandbox gameplay?:
    • Ex: Walls
    • Ex: Pits
    • Ex: Objects on the ground
    • Ex: Abilities that deform terrain
    • Ex: Water/Fire/Electricity that interact with gameplay actions or each other
  • How often does the player need to look up? Down? Far away?

Progression Design as World Design

Progression design is an unusual one – at Bungie we have a team called the “Player Journey” team. They’re comprised of activity (level) designers, quest designers, and system designers, and they pay attention to the overall experience of playing through a big set of content, like a campaign.

  • When are gameplay elements being introduced?
  • When are players learning how to overcome certain types of challenges?
  • What does the difficulty progression look like over hours?
  • Is the player still encountered novel new things/experiences as they explore?
  • How does the player progress through the different regions of the game world?
  • How does the player’s mindset changes as they progress through the game, or through different routes through the game?
  • Does the game feature backtracking, and if so, is it well-paced and a good experience?
  • Is the environment recontextualized as you progress?:
    • Ex: By narrative
    • Ex: By getting a new tool that makes you look at an older area differently
    • Ex: By changes to the environment

Systems Design as World Design

“Systems Design” is a broad category: it typically deals with game loops that occur over minutes or hours, as opposed to “sandbox” design that deals with second-to-second game loops. In some companies the two are combined under the same job title. Game systems can deeply affect how players perceive and interact with the game world, especially in non-action genres.

  • What, if any, parts of the environment is the player incentivized to pay attention to?
    • Ex: Crafting materials on the ground
    • Ex: Environmental bonuses
    • Ex: Gameplay elements in the world that interact with systems (IE, Tall Grass in Pokemon can trigger battles)
  • What systems interact with navigation and traversal?
    • Ex: Unlockable teleportation points
    • Ex: Horse-breeding for faster overland travel
    • Ex: Purchasable maps
    • Ex: Upgrade maps for more detail (IE, Hollow Knight)
    • Ex: Systems that allow alterations to the environment (IE, building a road in Minecraft)
  • What does the player care about finding, earning, or achieving in the world?
    • Ex: Currencies
    • Ex: Crafting materials
    • Ex: Gear
    • Ex: New sandbox abilities
    • Ex: Collectibles
  • Are there are systems that give players agency over an environment?
    • Ex: Construction systems (IE, Minecraft)
    • Ex: Farming systems
    • Ex: Tower defense w/ defensive placements
    • Ex: Terrain Deformation/Terraforming
    • Ex: Cutting down trees
  • Are there systems that change the state of the environment or game world?:
    • Ex: Weather or day/night cycles
    • Ex: Seasonal shifts
    • Ex: Changes to gameplay challenges over time, like new enemies
    • Ex: New goals or objectives added to environments based on systems

Environment Art as World Design

This since is a design class I will only briefly cover this area. Environment art, and overall art style, obviously have an immense impact on how players experience a world. It strongly defines the aesthetic, feel, tone, of environments, and helps give game environments a sense of place. A tiny list of examples of world design-impacting questions tackled by Environment Art:

  • Visibility of gameplay elements
  • Landmark design
  • How do the aesthetic and tone affect the player mindset?
  • Are environments memorable?
  • Are environments novel?
  • Does the environment make sense and belong in the greater context of the game world?
  • Does the environment evoke an emotional response?
  • Visual language
    • (Already described above in the Level Design area)

Narrative as World Design

Narrative design can matter immensely when crafting a game world. Some examples of world design-affecting narrative decisions:

  • How is narrative integrated into the environment?
  • Does each environment tell a story and/or feel like it has a past?
  • Are there character in the game world that make us more invested in it?
  • Are there character arcs or worldbuilding lore that we can find or progress by interacting with or navigating through the world?
  • Do events in the story recontextualize details in the environment?
    • Ex: finding out the true nature of the ruins in Horizon: Zero Dawn makes you look at them differently