I want there to be more, whether I make them or you do.
Think of your favorite gameworlds as I thought of Ultima and Wing Commander: What do they have in common? In my case, on the surface it seems as though the medieval fantasy world of Ultima has little in common with the futuristic-yet-modern-feeling world of Wing Commander, and to be sure, the best games in these series didn't come out of a formulaic process. But I do think these and all other successful, original gameworlds share a certain structure in common, and here I'm going to illustrate its triangular shape.
I think anything that qualifies as a successful, original gameworld can be expressed in exactly three dimensions. Two dimensions is too few, and four is generally too many for a gameworld intended to be enjoyed by a large number of people. When I say dimensions, I mean specific overarching traits -- these are not genre statements like "science fiction", but are broad-stroke characteristic statements, such as "on a space station at the beginning of the 21st century." In other words, each of these dimensions must be a valid, reasonable answer to the question, "what are the essential properties of this gameworld?" Moreover, the gameworld must make good on each of these dimensions, by developing it in an artful way and to a sufficient degree, to the point where the author could, if he so chose, answer any player's questions about how the world works. The version of the gameworld that we experience as players ought to be the tip of the iceberg.
Let's walk through some examples of what I'm talking about, starting with the game series I already mentioned.
Ultima -- Ultima's world of Britannia has the following dimensions:
- Set in a medieval low-fantasy world based on the European dark ages
- Teleportation-style travel is possible between this world and ours, as well as within this world
- The world is governed by a strict and ancient moral code
Now let's have a look at Wing Commander before moving on to more modern examples so I stop sounding so dated.
Wing Commander -- The world of Wing Commander is:
- Set in the Milky Way galaxy in the relative near future when spaceflight is common
- About a war between humankind and a race of cat creatures (not as embarrassing as it sounds)
- The war is waged by pilots whose personal lives intertwine with their battles
Gameworlds can change form over time, though the evolution process is dangerous. Later Wing Commander games attempted to replace the second trait about humans fighting cats, by introducing a new antagonist faction. These attempts were not very successful, so deeply ingrained were the Kilrathi in the world design. The same thing happened to Star Wars when they expected you to care about the Trade Federation in Episode I. It's not Star Wars, because Star Wars is essentially about a rebellion versus an empire, and the world loses something important when that dimension is replaced by some other dimension.
Once in a while you get a truly inspired gameworld out of a shooter. The go-to example is:
BioShock -- Its world of Rapture is:
- A fallen underwater city
- A place where genetic mutation is done purposely and has druglike properties
- Set around 1960 in the not-too-distant past
Now let's speedrun through a few others:
- Distant future setting beyond the reaches of the known galaxy
- War between humankind and a fanatical high-tech alien collective
- Mysterious ring-worlds that are ancient weapons
- Post-apocalyptic America in the near future
- The culture of the world was "locked" in the not-too-distant past in an ironic way
- Morality is subjective in a society without law
- Distant future beyond the reaches of the known galaxy
- War between humankind, a fanatical high-tech alien collective, and a voracious alien hive
- The war is waged by soldiers whose personal lives intertwine with their battles
- Post-nuclear-meltdown Chernobyl set in the near future
- Radiation has created horrific mutants and strange anomalies
- Opportunists and others with little to lose explore the region for its riches
Super Mario Bros. --
- Surreal and whimsical world where human characters don't fit in
- Comedy-violent interactions in which no one ever really gets hurt
- Lots of anthropomorphic inanimate objects, such as clouds with eyes
Demon's Souls --
- Dark gothic medieval setting following a societal collapse
- Ancient gods and legendary warriors are reborn with newfound powers
- A prevailing sense of purgatory in which there is no release for the dead
* * *This type of deconstruction is tougher for certain gameworlds, sometimes because they have so much going on in them. The world of EverQuest was a hodgepodge of every fantasy trope. It worked great for a while, but EverQuest started losing people when it started expecting people to care about the fiction -- none of the EverQuest spin-off games were particularly successful because the world lacked cohesion. Kingdom Hearts scored a lot of points by featuring recognizable Disney and Final Fantasy characters, but again, the world itself was difficult to describe. The world depended on its audience's preestablished familiarity with its supporting cast of characters, like a videogame version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Most gameworlds are bland. Typically they have only one or two dimensions. Ninja Gaiden is one of my favorite Xbox games but the world of the game makes no sense -- it's a modern or near-future world filled with ninjas and demons and ancient lore, and that's pretty much it. Being a relatively open-ended game that encouraged some degree of exploration, it could have benefited from a more well-defined world, such as the Legacy of Kain series' ancient and troubled land of Nosgoth. (But then, Ninja Gaiden is so good as an action game that this barely even matters.)
There are also those games that seem to have memorable gameworlds, when they only have memorable characters. God of War. Tomb Raider. The Legend of Zelda. These gameworlds defy the kind of deconstruction I've explained here by lacking a sufficient number of specific, defining traits. It's because their real defining trait is their protagonist character -- which, as with Wing Commander's ensemble cast of pilots, can count as one of the gameworld's three dimensions. But if you remove the character from these games, the world loses any distinction. You can't have a Tomb Raider without Lara Croft. You can't have a Zelda game without Link. And you can't have a Half-Life game with a wise-cracking protagonist rather than a silent one -- then you'd have Duke Nukem. As for my earlier examples, with the possible exceptions of Halo and Super Mario, those are worlds that are arguably defined by their own characteristics, rather than by the characteristics of their protagonists. The upcoming Halo: Reach has practically proven already that Halo is bigger than Master Chief. And the world of Super Mario Bros. is so iconic at this point that it can even withstand not having Mario in the spotlight, as we saw in last year's Bowser's Inside Story.
The point being: Unique gameworlds must be created intentionally, as a cornerstone of game projects that merit such an effort, in the service of game experiences in which the world itself is intended to be a major attraction.
I'm not advocating for all new games to try and create bold new worlds. If exploring and interacting with environments and their inhabitants are not integral parts of the game experience, then the game experience likely does not need to take place in some sort of unique world. A unique world may even be somewhat of a distraction, as in Zeno Clash, an awesome and inspired game whose world design is so out there that I feel as though it might have pushed away some players who really would have liked bashing in bird brains, which is really what the game boils down to. A more-traditional fighting game such as Super Street Fighter IV invests heavily in its characters and backstory, but not in the world itself -- the characters may be memorable but the backdrop matters less. A modern military shooter like Battlefield: Bad Company 2 likewise invests in its characters because the world itself is the modern world, and the game benefits from bringing players the familiarities of that world, from the weapons to the destructible environments. But certain game genres do benefit from or arguably require original gameworlds, and their creators bear the responsibility of crafting these worlds with the same care and attention as they put into their graphics and game systems.
What I've described here is not a formula, it's the form of the result. It's creatively bankrupt to attempt to create a gameworld by deriving or mixing and matching three different properties. But do think that one way to gauge a potentially promising world design is to identify its three primary dimensions, and then to make sure that each of these dimensions is fully explored in the context of the world and its stories. This thought process and the associated writing work has been useful to me at least, in my own attempts at outlining various gameworlds I'd want to build or be in.