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Building a fascinating game world that deserves players’ emotional investment is probably one of the biggest challenges in game development, and indeed fiction in general. It’s not just about creating a bunch of characters and placing them into a generic setting, it’s about telling a story that relates to people.

Game worlds don’t have to be massive nor extremely fleshed out to pique players’ interest. They need to be coherent and detailed while complementing other design choices to make things feel alive.

Memorable Worlds in Gaming

Over the years, gamers have had the chance to dive into many different game worlds. Some of the most memorable and influential include:

  • Warcraft’s Azeroth
  • Final Fantasy’s Gaia
  • Fallout’s post-nuclear Earth
  • The Elder Scroll’s Nirn
  • Zelda’s Hyrule
  • GTA IV’s Liberty City
  • Bioshock's Rapture

Although these titles span several different genres, they all feature absorbing game worlds that enhance the gaming experience. But how exactly did they do it, and why is worldbuilding so pivotal to success? We turned to game developers for the answers—here’s what they had to say.

Game Developers On Worldbuilding

“A Game World Creates the Context for the Stories of Your Characters.”

Your characters’ actions and decisions only make sense within the context of your story. And no story can stand on its own without a strong foundation. If you want players to connect with your protagonists and care about their fate, you need to think of your game world as your primary storytelling medium.

“A game world creates the context for the stories of your characters. Sometimes I like to think of my world like an extra character of the story, and I try to intertwine its own evolution arc with the characters' one. I feel that if the world and the characters work well together, the story almost starts to build itself. Almost…”

–Marco Di Timoteo, Creative Director at Studio Evil

When developers spend enough time fleshing out their world and characters, the story almost falls into place naturally. Once the puzzle comes together, key events don’t feel forced or rushed, and you’re much more likely to keep players interested.

That said, game worlds don’t exist just to reflect stories. It’s even better if you can find creative ways to use the environment itself as a storytelling vehicle. A game with little-to-no dialogue, for example, can benefit from the introduction of visual and auditory cues as well as lore-infused interactable objects. That’s precisely what the developers at Lantern Studio did when designing LUNA The Shadow Dust:

“Since our game doesn't have any words or dialogue, the environment (visual and music) played a big part in storytelling. We designed a lot of places (e.g., library, gallery, great hall) which allows wall paintings and books to tell the lore of the world in a visual way.”

–Beidi Guo, Lantern Studio

“If You’d Like the Players to Believe In the World You Created, the Details Matter.”

Contrary to popular belief, game worlds aren’t judged so much on their size but rather on their coherence and attention to detail. You can have a vast sandbox MMORPG that feels completely empty, and on the other hand, a small indie game world that feels vibrant and full of life.

“If you'd like the players to believe in the world you created, the details matter. Details from the style of the architecture to the color and texture of any props, characters’ clothes, etc., all need to fit the world and its referenced era.”

–Beidi Guo, Lantern Studio

Developers can create immersive worlds in all types of games. But small details matter whether you encourage players to make navigational choices (e.g., Dark Souls) or whether you’re leading them towards a more linear path (e.g., Final Fantasy, Hitman, Uncharted).

Balance is key. Developers need to ensure that every object they add to their game serves a purpose. Depending on the size and scope of the game, spending too much time perfecting details can negatively affect other development areas.

“My biggest challenge is finding the right balance in world-building so that I have a world that is detailed enough to help me make a better game, but not too much that is actually slowing me down because I have to keep everything coherent every time I decide to change a tiny bit of the whole structure.”

–Marco Di Timoteo, Creative Director at Studio Evil

"The Game World Can Be Really Different From Ours, but it Needs to Reflect Our Reality"

Gamers might love fantasy adventures that take place in fictional realms or distant planets populated by otherworldly beings, but they’re still very much human. For players to dedicate enough time to make it to the end, the gameplay must evoke some sort of emotional response—whatever that might be.

The game world can be really different from ours, but it needs to, at some level, reflect our reality. It can go against our common sense to play as a surprise factor, make things feel exotic, or it can be similar to our world so that we can fully immerse ourselves in the environment and get on with the adventure.”

—Beidi Guo, Lantern Studio

Now, that’s a real challenge for developers. How do you create a world that’s confidently distinguishable from our own reality yet somehow still clearly reflective of it? Many people pick up games as a form of escapism, which means that fantastical—or even absurd—elements are most of the time more than welcome.

The solution lies in crafting stories fueled by human emotion while also giving players enough freedom to be something else.

“A great game world is one that lets a person's imagination roam freely, allowing the player to think a bit differently than they usually would.”

–Lisa Evans, Wabisabi Games

If you want to create a game world that players will care about, you must ensure it’s a detailed and coherent vehicle for your narrative. Creating an environment that players will never forget requires the inclusion of a human element deep into the story. Within the ruleset of your world, you should try to challenge players with exciting possibilities while also encouraging novel ways of thinking and problem-solving.

What game worlds have stood out to you throughout the years? Share your favorites in the comments section, below.

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