A visual look at World Design

Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu
5 min readOct 2, 2023

A how-to blog

Part 1 — The Soup

World design is hard. It takes imagination, boldness, restraint, creativity, and many other things.

At times most of us do it instinctively because we have the capacity to dream and make connections. We also love to look at maps and us ourselves: what if?

For the most part, it differs from Level Design through the fact that to a certain extent, we divorce ourselves from the burden of gameplay. I say to a certain extent because we don’t do it 100%. Instead of being crushed under the burdens of metrics, 3cs, and already established content we instead strive for new stuff and thrive when, sitting at the center of the universe can dictate what works and what doesn’t.

The trick however is to stay consistent within a set of rules and parameters.

At the moment of inception, there is a moment, a spark I would say that drives the entire experience. I call it an experience because I perceive it as such. Unlike level design, divorced from the concept of what works and what does not I can immerse myself in the dream, and then dream hard.

There is no right or wrong to do work design but there are some things that can be extrapolated.

I like to design from the top down, and then from the down up.

The inception point is more often than not an idea. The idea does not have to be great, in fact, it can’t be or it shouldn’t be. It should be flawed enough to spark a conversation and raise questions. Questions like:

  • Is it really?
  • When was that?
  • Why are these people like these?
  • How can they live like this?

And so on.

In games, the idea comes from above (game direction) and then it becomes context. The context acts as a form of control. All ideas springing from here circle back to this idea and form a feedback loop. The point is to stay in the loop.

At this stage, the idea is distilled into several criteria built on the simple act of asking questions.

The simplest the questions the more flavourful the answers. Stick with the big 4 if you can.

The next step is to use the context to answer these questions.

Where?
Who?

All the answers circle back into the Context.

The soup

I usually call it the soup because it's a jumbled mess of visual tropes, narrative details, map markers, ideas of biomes, and any other ideas I might want to explore.

Again, this is not about need, it’s all about want. What do you want to explore?

Part 2 — Ideation

In general, everything that comes out of the soup translates into a recipe. This recipe is controlled. It is context. It is the law.

The entire part of the Soup part is to establish the law. In Part 2 it needs to be established and enforced.

We break the world we made into chucks.

Each Chuck needs to establish its own idea. It needs to act as the offspring of the contest.

In general, there are a few simple steps that need to be applied to the design process. There may be more but here are mine:

  1. Get an idea
  2. Simplify it
  3. Frame it in the context
  4. Define Pathways of Movement — Make a map. Draw Paths
  5. Make it black and white. — Block it out
  6. Add Flavor — Define systems and gimmicks that work with your context.
  7. Repeat

After every step circle back to the idea and enhance it.

Think about the recipe a book of answers to the big 4 questions

The simple answers are generally the best

Loop everything back into the recipe and in conjunction with each step generate more ideas.

Run your idea through this pipeline 20–30 times. You will get so many ideas you will not know what to do with all of them.

But they will establish the context, and you can simplify.

You might even have a 2D map, a 3D map, or maybe even a set of systems you might be ready to implement by now.

In traditional game development language, each step might correspond to a level of quality that you might target.

  • Simplification — Research, Extrapolation
  • Framing — Ideation, Conversation, Interrogation
  • Pathways of movement — Map Making, Framing Details,
  • Black And White — Block it out, make a 3D map with cubes, play it, experiment with bare-bones systems
  • Flavor — Set Dressing, Art Pass, Make it pretty

Often all the steps will collapse into one another and the loop starts again.

Ideally, you want to be methodical and accurate.

Part 3 — Keep Iterating

Cool stuff only comes out after a lot of time spent in the loop, searching for ideas, researching, and data mining stuff for details. Dissecting a painting for deep obscure details that might indicate a critical detail that might lead to a set of systems or tropes that could enrich your game.

Everything is connected and all ideas lead to a better-designed world world.

Just make sure to document all of it. In the end, is all about telling a compelling world story with clearly identifiable components.

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Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu

As a level designer I am not a creator, I am a facilitator. Senior Open World Designer. #Leveldesign #Open World #Design @notimetoulose.