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Worldbuilding Weekly (Last Update: 4/23)


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#1 Kaempfer

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Posted 14 April 2008 - 06:06 AM

(There once was a topic with this name, long ago. It's now archived and lost to us, and I have no idea what's in it, but I really liked the name and so I thought I'd bring it back, albeit in a potentially unrelated format! Also I am going to try to do this weekly, but I might update it faster than that and then not at all for awhile, so imagine it as being about as scheduled as the Map Design topics are! Lastly, these topics are meant to generate discussion rather than act as "guides" or something like that.)

The Critical Element 4/13

Every game needs a world. Even games that take place entirely in one room need a world; some backdrop against which the events are set. Even games set on Earth have to create their own world; not from scratch like some do, but there has to be some critical difference between our world and the game's that let the events unfold in-game. Maybe it has a seedy underworld of crime or a nether-dimension of spooky beasts, or maybe some enemy power won some critical battle. At any rate, there is some great change that enables all changes to follow it. Sometimes the game covers the change, sometimes the change comes before the game's story picks up, or sometimes the change is never even directly mentioned, but it's always there (with the possible exception of non-fiction, which is a pretty rare thing to see in games).

This change is what makes the world interesting, or more interesting than our own. People who are interested in certain aspects of history often want to relive that history in different ways; this (for me, anyways) is because you know how the actual events played out, and so you start looking at what if? scenarios. It provides a big draw for people, and without it the game threatens to become very boring.

While some games use our own as a template, perhaps a greater number use entirely fictional worlds (albeit grounded in the rules of ours) as their backdrop. In these worlds, the creator often forgets to provide any actual draw; sure there are orcs and goblins and magic, so they have a critical change from our world, but they aren't that much different then worlds that have been created long before they were. What sets them apart? Sometimes (often) it is actually nothing, or small changes that are more subtle to the end-user than the creator intended them to be.

Without a critical change from our world, a created world tends to lose a lot of meaning and acts solely as a stage for the story to play out on. And, although people sometimes comment about how nice the set design is, worthwhile stories always outlast their theatres.

The world isn't just terrain, of course. The people and living cities that crop up on the surface or underground (or even in the air!) are just as important as the rocks and trees. Nobody remembers FF6's intro because there was a cave and then you fought some Leafers once you got to the world map (OK, some people do), people remember it because of Tritoch, who presented the player with an immediately critical change from its predecessors. Espers? Magical beings that have an incredible indirect effect (and, as the game progresses, a direct one) on everything in the world? Sounds like a good change (and a damn good hook for the story) to me.

Series' tend to be set on the same (or very similar) worlds, and then it is up to the events that unfold to refine the world they take place on. The Mana games are a good example of this; they all have the Mana Tree and most have Mana Sprites, but how/who/why they/can use them changes. But in one-off games, the critical change offers an immediate hook into the world. In novels, this isn't as important, because they have their stories to do the legwork for them (and to rope readers in). But in video games (especially RPGs), the story is sometimes very slow to start (as the creator attempts to keep the greater plot a secret) and so this immediately immersion into the world (rather than the plot) is sometimes crucial for people to be interested in getting to the bit in your story they actually care about.

I have my critical change plotted out; it all has to do with one of the moons of my world and how it effects every element of the planet below (including the story)! What do you guys use? If it's a secret (or something), feel free to try to brainstorm a new one. I'd like to see what everyone is planning to "rope" the player in with. And, if you don't have one yet, maybe you can use this as a good opportunity to bounce idea around and come up with one! I prefer to play in a world that offers me something past "it's like our world, but with magic!", so if you have any good ideas you're dying to share, now'd be a good time.

Location, Location, Location 4/23

A lot of people seem to add locations to their world maps willy-nilly as they progress through their storylines. While this can be alright for extremely linear games with little user-determined exploration, it tends to end up being a major hindrance as the game world develops. While it can be extremely convenient to have the starting town next to a forest which is next to a mountain which is next to an ancient temple which is next to a quaint town (and so on, you get the picture), if there is no real reason other than the storyline's need, that location tends to fall by the wayside later one.

Planning the placement of cities and geographical locations beforehand can really increase their potency. I don't mean you should plan their locations based on socio-economical factors extrapolated from fictional census data or anything, I just mean you shouldn't always have cities separated by precisely two wilderness locations. Placing cities you know you'll use (or need) later is a good way to get your brain working at create problems for the player (or the player character) to solve. Detours are usually fun, if handled right, and offer a great time for insight into the story. I always use FF6 for examples, so here is another one: Look at the phantom forest section. It was entirely superfluous to the main story, and yet it was forced upon the player. It did, however, provide a sincere break from the usual gameplay and some really incredible locales; who doesn't remember exactly what the train looks like? It also added a significant chunk of character development for Cyan and Shadow (if you still had him).

The entire post-Ultros section was, in essence, one big detour. In an effort to get a few miles downstream the party ended up scattered across the world, and they ended up getting a large number of extra characters to join them and tonnes of backstory was filled. I'm sort of getting off topic here, so let me clarify why I brought this up in the first place: The common scheme of city-forest-city-forest-city-forest is a weak one, and you have to put though into adding each and every area. How many times did you visit that dinky little cave between Figaro and South Figaro? It was only a couple maps long, yet it played a pivotal part in the story.

If you place destinations in inconvenient places, you force yourself to come up with interesting solutions. Players appreciate this. I don't like walking through a simple forest and having something happen that forces me to go on some ridiculously circuitous route, but if the destination is far away then I expect an adventure along the way. Like, say, a haunted pirate ship or a frigging castle that sinks into the sand.

The more thought you put into the placement of your locations, the more easily you can later add unplanned side-dungeons and interesting tie-ins to your game's world. Every location should be able to play against it's neighbours. Secret tunnels and clever doubling back can make old locations fun again. If there is one thing I hate in RPGs, it is when a city is completely cut off from the world in terms of gameplay; you set out on a journey from your village and literally never need to return.

I'm sort of rambling now. I am brain tired! To reiterate what I said: Always put thought into you locations, paying special notice to how they interact with their neighbours and how they can be used to make the whole world feel like a cohesive entity instead of a straight line of barely related places.

One trick I use is to incorporate political posturing into the process for each location's placement, because if one nation is at war with another the possibilities for conflict (and therefore resolution, which is the point of any game) increase immensely. Do you guys have any tricks to make your game's locations feel like they are tied together, or are you alright just laying them out in a line and hope the player never reminisces about that port town you blew through an hour ago without so much as seeing a boat?

#2 jsnnoa

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Posted 14 April 2008 - 06:33 AM

Good topic!

I guess you can say that my game is all about the world. I was planning on doing something similar to Bioshock with journals that could be found to give backstory to the world, but when testing it the results just weren't the same. So instead of providing a lot of information about it, I decided to go the opposite and make it a mystery. You will be able to find small clues in the areas you visit to see how things where used in diffrent ways.

I should also add that my world is very empty, with nothing else living on it besides you, a single other creature, and grass and trees and the like. So yea, mine is more about the mystery of why it is the way it is and such.

#3 Xathia Vastar

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Posted 14 April 2008 - 01:56 PM

This was a nice read.
I'm currenlty working on a game where you play one of the key characters to build the "world" that the majority of the game would take place in. It sort of has the concept of Terranigma. Future games would focus on this world, which is always ever-changing.
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#4 thecatamites

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Posted 14 April 2008 - 02:36 PM

I definitely agree about worlds needing critical changes, but I just wish the changes people make would be a little more imaginative... It's so disheartening to see so many designers sticking to the whole 'generic fantasy world' setting. Where are the worlds made entirely out of sugar and blood, the cities residing on the spines of a massive nine-dimensional potted cactus plant, the universes inhabited solely by microscopic clockwork ants fighting a terrible war against tiny eight-limbed eyeball monkeys? How come fantasy's gotten so damn unfantastical?

#5 RPGer

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Posted 14 April 2008 - 03:07 PM

I definitely agree about worlds needing critical changes, but I just wish the changes people make would be a little more imaginative... It's so disheartening to see so many designers sticking to the whole 'generic fantasy world' setting. Where are the worlds made entirely out of sugar and blood, the cities residing on the spines of a massive nine-dimensional potted cactus plant, the universes inhabited solely by microscopic clockwork ants fighting a terrible war against tiny eight-limbed eyeball monkeys? How come fantasy's gotten so damn unfantastical?

Can you take a game seriously that has microscopic clockwork ants fighting a terrible war against tiny eight-limbed eyeball monkeys? I sure couldn`t.

"it's like our world, but with magic!"

This pretty much. But you asked for something more so... I guess it`s pretty much our world, but with magic and with monsters that come out at night. How`s that? =P
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#6 thecatamites

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Posted 14 April 2008 - 03:20 PM

Can you take a game seriously that has microscopic clockwork ants fighting a terrible war against tiny eight-limbed eyeball monkeys? I sure couldn`t.


Actually, I could, as long as it was done right and it wasn't just some shitty 'lol random' Mister Big T-ish game... And good or bad, at least it'd be more interesting than the generic fantasy world. Maybe it's just me, but that whole thing feels really stale and boring, which sucks because I think the whole point of using a made-up game setting is so it would create a sense of wonder and excitement for the player. I can't remember the last time I got excited about the world used in an RPG game, because it's like the same goblin-infested setting is just being recycled with minute changes over and over again... Or occasionally, it's 'generic cyberpunk setting' instead, which is only slightly better.

#7 InvaderZim

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Posted 14 April 2008 - 03:23 PM

@thecatamites:

The reason I would say is because most people try for 'epic' stories, and almost always those are 'serious' games, so you can't have any of that in it to really be taken seriously, can you?

On-Topic:
This is one of my todo things far down on the list. And while I may never get to it, fleshing out the world in itself will make it more interesting, even if the setting isn't totally original. I mean, you can have plenty of interesting things happen in a boring world :fogetsmile: but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to make the world itself interesting as well

#8 Shinan

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Posted 14 April 2008 - 03:47 PM

@thecatamites:

The reason I would say is because most people try for 'epic' stories, and almost always those are 'serious' games, so you can't have any of that in it to really be taken seriously, can you?

I will probably take things off topic majorly but actually you can. I think that too many people see "weird" as "non-serious". This isn't true at all. You can easily take weird and put it in a fairly regular story, making changes to fit the weirdness. I mean the image of clockwork ants and eight-limbed eyeball monkeys is actually pretty scary. I can see how the clicking ants are coming en masse with a bunch of slimy eyeball monkeys scurrying around on a microscopic battlefield. It's the stuff of nightmares. Not the stuff of comedy.

You will of course have to have some kind of anchor into the real world or else the weird becomes way too alien to really wrap you head around. Probably have microscopic human beings, at least for some time while you learn the rules of the alien world. In the end since it's a war it probably isn't even that hard to make it pretty darn epic.

While talking about taking stuff seriously. What I can't take seriously is an elf and a dwarf bickering in a tavern. That's an instant facepalm and a bit of groaning. I can totally buy clockwork ants serving beer in a bar while two eyeball monkeys discuss the meaning of life telepathically.



On the topic. I'm a big fan of "It's like our world, but with magic!". As long as you put some thought into just how much our world would change if there actually was magic. Looking at Harry Potter I can see how magic would completely replace technology. And inventions would be in spells and magical items rather than scientific ones. Of course magic would be another science in a world with magic. Probably having schools making Engineers and Magicians side-by-side.

The other route is making magic hidden and making the world exactly like our world but with magic. And usually it works too. As long as the underground magical world has gone through the necessary changes (Harry Potter as an example again. Neverwhere too).


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#9 Kaempfer

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Posted 14 April 2008 - 05:21 PM

@off-topic: That whole discussion isn't actually off-topic, is it? I mean, that's sort of the point of this thread, to be honest!

Shinan brought up a good point about an elf and a dwarf bickering in a tavern. At one point in the world of fantasy, it was a clever thing to do; you have a very human situation but with fantasy elements plugged in. But, unfortunately, it's degraded into a pretty cliche thing to see. I am not a big opponent of cliches, personally, but if they are added just for expectation's sake then they start to get pretty useless. If you have an elf and a dwarf in your party and they are constantly arguing because that is what you thing elves and dwarves do, you need to try harder.

As for people not being able to take the repeated cited example of clockwork ants seriously, that is more a problem on your end then on the game designer's. If you play his (or her!) game and it is silly and no fun, then you can start deriding it without worry. If you refuse to play a game because the setting isn't comfortable enough for you (I don't mean pass it over in favour of things you like more, I mean completely ignore it) then you could be missing out on a lot of great stuff.

I think one facet of the critical change is its ability to make people bond with your game immediately. If you bombard the player with critical changes right off the bat then they're going to suffer from "too much of a good thing" syndrome and the changes will be devalued, sort of like when a story has too many twists or unexpected events (like characters dying or something). This means that the critical change has to be a potent one, but it helps if it is grounded in something the player is familiar with. I will use FF6 as an example again: FF6 had swords and magic and castles and forests, but it also had trains and magic-powered suits of armour and a whole bunch of other steampunk elements. It had a familiar fantasy base, but then it added it's own contrasting technological aspect and somehow made everything seem very cohesive. It even gave a new spin on the way magic worked.

FF6 worked because it balanced its new features against ones we were comfortable with. Games that take place entirely inside of some insane world where nothing makes sense are usually relegated to "cult" status (which isn't always a bad thing) or they are fun for a little while and then the world starts to get on your nerves.

Chrono Trigger is another good example. Again, there were swords and magic and conventional RPG staples, but added into the mix were high technology and time travel, and it all worked because it balanced itself out. In FF7, the roles were reversed between technology and swordplay. In FF8, they were just sort of added because "hey, it worked in other games!".

My final point for this post is about cliches (as the topic is unavoidable). They are not a bad thing so long as they are not added for cliche's sake. If you add a guy with a giant sword just because you thought that was the norm, you're doing a bad thing. If you add robots to your fantasy game just because your favourite console RPGs have them and offer no explanation, you're doing a bad thing. If you mesh those elements into your game world, though, you are doing a good thing! You probably won't earn high marks for originality, but it will feel natural to the player and he won't immediately scoff at you.

#10 slainAngel

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Posted 18 April 2008 - 11:37 AM

CLockwork ants bring back memories :) First game I ever made was about an ant called 'Tim' defending his tribe against the invading machine horrors. Many references to "The eerie click-click-click-tap-tap-tap of six feet hitting the stone in perfect rhythm" (Yes, its melodramatic. I was young and inexperienced) One of the major allies was a discarded ragdoll posessed by the spirit of the homeowners' daughter, an alien (and therefore scary) worldview for her ant minions.

Anyway ... back on topic
At the moment, I'm working on about 3 projects at once. I tried thinking about each of them in terms of their critical changes from the real world, but found that it seems to me that's not the important bit. I'd say the new/different things make a world interesting, but its the familiar things that let the reader/player empathise with it.

For example, at the moment I'm writing urban legends for an SF world. Yes, kidnapping people as hosts for a sentient tattoo is bizarre and alien. But the paranoid stoner who sits at the end of the bar warning you about these things is a character you can recognise.
Actually ... another thought: If something in your world is a big change from reality, its alien to the player. But whether it seems realistic from a character's point of view is a more interesting question. How do you convey which of your changes are normal and everyday within the world where they occur? If magic is an everyday thing to your characters, but storms are a cause of real fear, do you want the player to buy in to this wordview? How do you do it?

Hmm ... my current projects and their 'critical differences'. How important would you expect these differences to be in defining the world?

Legacy of Dracula
* Vampires don't exist
* Some people think they do
* If you get shot or stabbed, you're probably going to die
(hmm ... difference?)

Toyland
* Astronauts, zombies, ninja pirates, wizards, dragons and nurses all act like regular people
* Buildings are provided by "the maker", and the city is rebuilt or reorganised on a daily basis
* There exist creatures called mixes, who have heads/bodies/legs from different lego sets. They're scary because nobody understands them
(lots of difference. What's the main one?)

Whispersmith
* The world is ruled by rumours and politics
* There's a shadowy cabal known as the 'whispers' manipulating world events
* Anybody will commit suicide if you say enough bad things about them
(hmm ... its a little harder to pin down this one)

Terra
* Far future. Mankind has colonised planets in 330 systems, and earth has been swallowed by a black hole
* 95% of everyone is Roman Catholic, and the Inquisition is a force to be reckoned with
(2 differences: Which is biggest?)

Theives Without Borders
* 2 guys robbed a jewellery store and are on the run
* Most people are jerks, except to people they like
* "normal" people will keep on doing a job they hate rather than risk change
(Hmm ... where's the critical change?)
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#11 PTizzle

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Posted 19 April 2008 - 05:58 AM

I definitely agree about worlds needing critical changes, but I just wish the changes people make would be a little more imaginative... It's so disheartening to see so many designers sticking to the whole 'generic fantasy world' setting. Where are the worlds made entirely out of sugar and blood, the cities residing on the spines of a massive nine-dimensional potted cactus plant, the universes inhabited solely by microscopic clockwork ants fighting a terrible war against tiny eight-limbed eyeball monkeys? How come fantasy's gotten so damn unfantastical?




I agree with this. While the developer should do what they're most comfortable with, I can't help but wish for more fantastic worlds. RPG worlds have become pretty predictable for quite a while, and any twists and turns the developer throws in on the formula are well-regarded in my eyes.

Even something like Spira was a nice departure - pretty standard formula from a glance, but they mixed it up by throwing the whole religion thing in, which I appreciated. It really turned the world in a direction different from other FF games and I thought that was very cool. That's just an example.

#12 Kaempfer

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Posted 24 April 2008 - 04:34 AM

I updated the main post! Scroll down to the next bolded title for my kind-of-late second entry (which cover themes in no particular order).

#13 oc_gunslinger

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Posted 08 July 2009 - 05:37 PM

Because I have yet to really start scripting the story (I know the details, I know the characters, I just haven't started writing complete scenes, etc.) the locations in my game are sort of the star at this point.  I take into consideration three aspects of a city before I start mapping it: economy, politics and religion.  My game focuses heavily on those three aspect of the world, so before I start working on a town I think how important those three things are.

For example, I have the first major city you come to is important in the political setting of the game and an economic powerhouse.  There are religious statues here and there, but only as decoration in parks/lobbies.  Instead, the town is filled with crates for import/export and tonnes of flags.

I also try to associate a national colour to important locations, so if a smaller settlement is a colony of a bigger entity, they'll be flying the same flag.

My game is unique in the sense that it doesn't have a world map at all.  The world is 100% traversal through full maps.  At no point are you transported to an overworld.  Instead, you travel from place to place via foot and later by ships and airships as routes become available to you.  Obviously, there are some parts cut out and fast traveling via special save points is available, but overall if it exists in the world you can walk through it, which I think gives the world another level of depth.
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#14 Evangel

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Posted 08 July 2009 - 06:31 PM

I don't see how a world of ants and eyeball monkeys are any crazier than your typical fantasy fare.  It's just down the road from a world of short people who live underground, giant lizards, and horse people.  The latter just happens to be completely unoriginal.
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#15 Chaos Emerl

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Posted 08 July 2009 - 06:41 PM

I honestly prefer games where the "world" is very concentrated.

I don't like it when a world has hundreds of cities but they're all the same, or they're all very tiny.  When was the last time you saw a real town that only had 2 houses, a shop, and an inn?

I prefer fewer towns, but larger, more developed ones.

And as for locations, I dislike overworld systems in general.


I get that shrinking the world is supposed to give you a sense of how large it is, but it doesn't do that.  All it does exactly what it sounds like.  Shrink the world.  It makes things about your world less interesting.  I would prefer a game where you don't travel on an overworld, you either travel on foot on actual maps from one town to another (assuming these maps are interesting and actually have things on them, instead of just being miles of grass or a long path), or even just the screen fades to black and an implied journey occurs.  

I've been toying with the idea of cutting out the overworld from my game, and just showing a short "travel cutscene" between towns and other locations.  And there might be the odd ambush here and there, as well.  I think that would result in player paying less attention to the journey and more attention to the destination.

Not that the journey can't be interesting, but trying to force the journey to be interesting by making the player walk aimlessly through an oversized map and "discover" things just doesn't do it for me.

Overall, I just think more emphasis needs to be put on actual locations instead of the areas in between.  If you're going to make me walk across a long overworld, I at least want to feel some sense of reward when I find a town or something.  Instead it's just another town like all the others, with 2 houses, a shop and an inn.

what


#16 oc_gunslinger

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Posted 09 July 2009 - 04:14 AM

I would prefer a game where you don't travel on an overworld, you either travel on foot on actual maps from one town to another


My thoughts exactly, which is why I cut out the world maps.

I have a world map drawn for my own sense of direction/refrence, but it will never be used outside of my own planning.  I try to keep things interesting and engaging on the "tweening maps" by examing where they are in the world and what settlements are near by.  I approximate my location to a location similar geographically in the real world and then do some research to what kind of flora/fauna live there.

For example, early in the game you travel to a large kingdom that has had to shut down its mines due to infestation.  This has caused the kingdom to shift focus from mining to logging, so the connecting forest is thinner (more stumps, less trees) in the surrounding area, but once you travel further east, closer to a secluded village that houses a religious shrine, the forest becomes thicker and vegetation becomes more untamed.

I'm not doing this so that people will notice it.  If I do it properly, no one will.  That's the point.  I want people to just understand that, "Oh hey, the kingdom must cut down trees for lumber."  It doesn't really impact anything other than how immersed the player is in the world I am inviting them into.  If it was just generic kingdom that has monsters in a mine that you need to kill in order to progress to generic forest that you must travel through to get to generic shrine, I wouldn't want to play it either.  I hope that when people travel the world they see how the rest of the world effects everything around it.
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#17 RPGer

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Posted 09 July 2009 - 11:38 PM

Ok guys I get the overworld hate a little bit, but I don't get it when you guys say: "I don't like to travel overworlds but I don't mind traveling 50 other maps to get to the next town as long as there is stuff on them... just don't let them be overworlds...". Overworlds were never made to give you a sense of how big the world is. They were made so that you as a player don't need to push the right arrow key for 30 minutes to get to the next town. They were made to save the player time (which is why it's freaking stupid to decrease the hero's walk-speed on the worldmap).

I personally don't like traveling worldmaps either which is why I opted for the "pick where you want to go with a cursor" kind of worldmap.

Either that or my game doesn't need a worldmap (like when the whole game takes place in just one city or island)

In the end, I really don't think non-story related details are important enough to be thought about so much. Don't get me wrong, when creating a world it definitely needs some thinking like: What is this nations biggist form of income, what is the reason for this town being here and how is it doing economically but I think you may have taken it a step to far oc_gunslinger (my opinion, please don't let me be the one to disencourage you). I also don't care about there living 21 NPC's in a town with 3 houses of which one is an inn. I do care however about 20 of the 21 NPC's not having anything usefull or interesting to say.

Example of games with a big world that make no sense whatsoever:
Fallout 3: (I guess this one can be explained with the atomic bomb and all. Still though, locations feel very randomly scattered)
World of Warcraft: (Lakeshire: A small town next to a big pool of water populated by murlocs, close to a big fort populated by orcs and surrounded by cliffs populated by gnolls)
                              (Darkshrine: If you were to walk for five minutes in any direction, you would encounter either undead or scary wolf undead)
                              (I think aside from the major cities, almost every town in WoW is there for no other reason then putting in quest NPC's)
Assassins Creed: (Every cliff edge seems to have a small settlement or guards for no apparent reason)
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#18 oc_gunslinger

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Posted 10 July 2009 - 04:16 AM

I understand your points completely, which is why I've added a quick transport system (much like a point and click world map) that can be accessed through any save point in any of the main areas.

I guess I got tired of world maps.  I wanted to give the player a sense of immersion when traveling from location to location.  I find world map traveling disconnected from most games.  So, I opted to give a smaller scale journey from one place to another.  Instead of seeing a grand scope of the world that you trudge across, you actually get to see the country side of major cities that would otherwise be depicted as arbitrary trees and mountains on a world map.

To me, really creating a back story for every location is key to making that location worth visiting.  If I can't think of a reason why the player is traveling to/through a location then chances are I'm going to scrap it.

In the end, I think it actually compresses my game.  Rather than a huge spanning world map that the player finds themselves wandering around, they have these actual areas that they can explore personally instead of extrapolating from generic forests/mountain ranges placed on a map to herd the player to their next destination.
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