Great work Gabe!
Incredible job, love the breakdown and can't wait to see what you make next!
We’ve talked with the game developer and urban planner Konstantinos Dimopoulos and got some recommendations on how to build logical and interesting video game cities.
I am Konstantinos Dimopoulos, I am based in Athens, Greece, and I am an engineer with a PhD (and MSc) in urban planning and city geography. I have been working in the game industry for over ten years now, and in a variety of roles ranging from journalist and QA, to game designer and writer.
In 2014 I decided to attempt and combine urbanism and game design into a more or less new field, and started systematically exploring and working on game urbanism, which, happily, I have managed to turn into my day job.
Articles, talks, lectures, and hopefully a book aside, I have worked on the cities of several TBA and still under NDA projects, but can freely admit to helping Frogwares during the pre-production of the forthcoming The Sinking City, collaborating with award winning IF author Robb Sherwin on Cyberganked, designing the levels of Droidscape: Basilica by the now defunct Kyttaro Games, consulting on the wondrous city of A Place For the Unwilling, and getting involved in several other mostly indie projects including an extremely exciting city building sim I’m not sure I can say much about yet.
What makes a good city for a game?
It is believable, coherent, and thus essentially realistic cities that can really be immersive, and it is exactly this sort of spatial immersion that when coupled with a fertile imagination is crucial to a successful imaginary city. Even the most exotic of fantasy or sci-fi environments have to follow the rules of their world, make urbanistic sense in their context, provide with new gameplay and storytelling opportunities, and imply much more than what can be described and rendered.
Suspension of disbelief or, even better, the construction of a secondary world as Tolkien would have it is what can make the illusion of a game city magical.
Of course, both GTA V and Witcher 3 come with impressive, rich, beautiful cities. Not that those couldn’t be improved –no artificial city can ever be perfect, let alone one burdened by technical and time constraints– or that things couldn’t be done in slightly different, possibly better ways, but it is not every studio that can spend tens of millions on crafting vast urban environments.
I do honestly believe that even a small team can create amazing cities with a very sensible amount of assets. Besides, having to overcome constraints does often lead to exciting, elegant, and quite frankly unexpected solutions.
As for the elements that make a city great, I would start with a coherent structure, a fleshed out history, considerations for the place’s geography and its environs, dynamism, topography, meticulously thought out urban functions, and an overall plan. I would also suggest trying to approach the construction of urban environments with the mindset of an urban planner and not that of an architect. Not that architecture can be ignored, but it’s wiser to know where the central, say, pyramid will be, and what it will be surrounded by before going on to design the thing.
But even planning and architecture will not cover everything. An intriguing game city is much more than its facades and roads. It is the humans living in and using it. The animals too. It is everything that happens within it. Everything that shapes and is shaped by it. A city is a huge, complex, dynamic stage for human life, activity, and drama. It is the local fashion, economy, rumours, hills, monuments, soundscapes, sky, traffic, buildings, power structures, ways people get access to drinking water, religion, and a myriad other things.
Making cities believable
If I had to pick the single most important aspect a designer has to absolutely give some thought to when creating a living, breathing game city, that would have to be urban functions.
Those functions are the reasons cities exist, and they sit at the absolute core of urbanism and city geography. They are what cities do and have to do. Cities, you see, are built to facilitate and support said functions, and in turn evolve as those functions themselves evolve.
To give you an example, the most important modern urban functions are commerce, production, consumption, human reproduction, transportation, culture, ideology, the circulation of capital, and housing. Reproduction itself includes further functions that an urban area has to provide such as health services, shelter, entertainment, schools, and access to food and water.
Functions do of course change, and dialectically evolve throughout history. Religion for example would be at the absolute center of a holy city, shelter via walls would be important during the medieval era, and a modern metropolis, an essentially new urban formation type, has variety itself as a new function.
Admittedly, essential as the detailing of functions can be, it is usually not enough to provide a city with its own distinct character, its unique blend of people, politics, architecture, and culture. An imagined history can help a lot with these aspects, especially when applied to a place in layers, as can the generally accepted good practices of urban planning and design.
The first approach would have to be the standard game and level design one involving mini maps, in-game GPS guides, big arrows, subtly lighting the right path, mini-maps, having NPCs provide with directions, giving players a character to follow, etc.
Then there are also the –definitely more subtle than a big red arrow– methods urbanists, and city planners use to help actual humans navigate actual cities. From the very obvious and widely used street signs, road names, and numbered buildings, to ranked road networks, public “you are here” maps, and networks of pedestrian only streets. Helping people find their ways is a very important real life concern, that can effortlessly be applied to virtual cities.
What’s more, city planner Kevin Lynch, came up with certain tools we can use to make urban space legible, and thus easier to navigate. Lynch decided there are five crucial elements people focus on when moving in cities and using urban space –they are the same elements gamers can be provided with in order to create their own mental maps:
- Paths. Routes along which people move through the city like roads, highways, and railways.
- Edges. Boundaries and breaks in continuity. Again, these could be railways (if you are a pedestrian for example), city walls, waterfronts, etc.
- Districts. Areas characterized by common traits; internally coherent areas. This coherence could be aesthetic, architectural, or even by activity; say, the printers’ area or the multi-coloured Boca in Argentina.
- Nodes. Those are important, strategic even focus points that help orientation like squares, and junctions.
- Landmarks. Landmarks can be major or minor (even personal / player-centric), and should be divided in primary, secondary, and tertiary. Occasionally arranging landmarks across paths can also work.
Add scale, grade/slope, and sound to those elements, and you’ll have everything an easy to navigate city needs.
Of course, we must always keep in mind that sometimes actually getting to use a map can be a great game mechanic (as was brilliantly showcased by the Breath of the Wild), and that getting lost can occasionally be exhilarating. An overtly simple city plan could end up being dull, or even ineffective.
When designing for horror or weirdness for example, it’s all about the exciting dialectics of mystery versus orientation. The interplay of open spaces and enclosure. That sense we get when entering the medieval centre of a modern European city with its twisty labyrinths comfortably surviving next to gleaming skyscrapers.
Aesthetically speaking at least, a nice balance of order and chaos works wonderfully for cities too, as both the sense of a planner’s intelligence and forethought, and the elements of surprise make for good looking, intriguing places. Mixing things up usually works.
Pulse of a city
Kane and Lynch 2’s Shangai is indeed one of my favourite cities. Not only was the choice of locales showcased refreshingly unexpected, and its routes through back-alleys and informal markets carefully gated and planned, but this was a place that felt lived-in. It was dynamic, packed with detail, and though much was shown even more was implied in a city that felt under heavy construction.
As in Kane and Lynch 2, a vibrant sense of civic life is essential to any living city. Urban space is by definition and has always been vibrant, and that is exactly why dead places like Silent Hill feel instantly eery.
Street activity –and thus also the streets themselves– is an integral part of civic life, and one that players would expect to encounter in most types of games. If possible show people doing everyday stuff: butchering, praying, laughing, playing, looking at the sky, carrying things, going places. The power that such little vignettes have in evoking city life cannot be underestimated, though nothing can really substitute the purposeful movement of the crowds through the urban tissue.
The importance of graffiti, posters, signs, street art is also significant. Not only do these tell stories, but they’ve been around for quite a while, and can be safely considered as almost integral to the image of the city throughout history. From ancient Greek and Roman graffiti, and 19th century posters advertisements, to decaying street signs, and the cryptic messages in the hobo sign language of early 20th century, urban streets & walls should be intriguing.
Little uniquely local touches can work wonders in adding to the particular sense of place an urban center has. Such touches could range from a unique means of transportation like the gondola, thousands of little god religious statuettes to be found in every nook and cranny, a tendency for people to always wear something red on Sundays, an overabundance of street merchants, or even many small open street restaurants.
Dynamism is a characteristic historically inherent in the vast majority of cities. Cities have always been works in progress. Created by hugely complicated histories, they are the battlegrounds of classes and social groups, and the places of countless human interactions. This dynamism has to be reflected on the built environment too.
So… Mix old and new buildings, have your majestic central temple be under construction, remember the majority of buildings in New York don’t get to be 25 years old, that factories open, go bankrupt, and are reused as art spaces, and that even a square might radically change itself for a carnival or the Sunday market.
My favourite example of how to achieve a simple sense of civic dynamism comes from a board-game: Arkham Horror. This is obviously as rudimentary as this analog medium allows, but I always considered it a fine and elegant solution that worked both mechanically and atmospherically: As the in-game terror level rises shops and other places close down (by placing ‘closed’ tokens on their location), and allies flee Arkham (by discarding their respective cards).
As you say monuments — and also ruins; gated or not — definitely work, but history in actual cities is also eloquently chronicled in all sorts of architecture. Think of the many 20th century buildings evident in Blade Runner’s cyberpunk city, think of the old buildings in Deus Ex’s Prague, or how successfully Kowloon was showcased in Shadowrun: Hong Kong.
City 17 in particular has different tech-levels co-existing, buildings of various ages, regimes, and styles, decaying houses, alien constructs, and, importantly, everything placed in it feels as if it has been placed there to serve some personal or collective purpose. Either for residents past and present, or the occupiers.
Changes in architectural scale, material, and even road layouts can also differentiate between districts (or buildings) old, older and new, and of course we can always use in-game dialogue and road names to imply history.
Do check out these articles, which also talk about the difficulties of urban planning in games. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the section below.