World Building

A brief comparison:

One of the things that I see going around lately is the focus that junior and amateur level designers put into building block-outs and showcasing them around without any concern context context and/reference references to what the layout in question is grounded in.

This is where a significant difference between world design and classical level design arises:

  • Level Designers look at a picture and immediately appreciate the form and proceed towards generating a gameplay structure to support for it.
  • A world designer looks at the picture, identifies the locals and starts thinking bigger towards the context of the snapshot, the location, the historical context of it.

Here’s a concrete example:

We are presented with the following screenshot:

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Traditional Level Design

One way of interpreting is this by looking at it and stating:

  • This would serve as a cool PVP map for CS:GO
  • This would make an excellent HL2 map

And the proceed towards making a block-out and building a map around it. The visuals act as a wrapper around the gameplay ideas sprouting out of the initial screenshot.

World Building/Design

The other way is to think about the context:

  • Sure! It looks cool but let’s dig further
  • This is from Rothenburg ob der Tauber — a town in Germany

Here’s an excerpt from the wikipedia article:

“In October 1631, during the Thirty Years’ War, the Catholic Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, wanted to quarter his 40,000 troops in Protestant Lutheran Rothenburg. Rather than allow entrance, the town defended itself and intended to withstand a siege. However, Tilly’s troops quickly defeated Rothenburg, losing only 300 soldiers. A popular legend called the Meistertrunk states that when General Tilly condemned the councilmen to death and was set to burn the city down, the councilmen tried to sway him with a large drink of 3 1/4 liters wine. Tilly proclaimed that if anyone could drink it all in one drink, he would spare the city. The mayor at the time, Georg Nusch, succeeded, and General Tilly kept his word. However, the story is almost certainly apocryphal. It does not appear in the chronicle of Sebastian Dehner, written about fifteen years after the facts, the earliest account. The Meistertrunk appears for the first time in the chronicle of Georg Heinrich Schaffert, more than a century later[2].

After the winter, they left the town poor and nearly empty, and in 1634 a bubonic plague outbreak killed many more townsfolk. Without any money or power, Rothenburg stopped growing, thus preserving its 17th-century state.”

This has the potential of being a good setup for a game happening during the 30 year war, we get some conflict going on, some characters and some clear outcomes and follow-up events.

So considering that the 30 Year War is a very important historical event the predates WW1 and WW2 in terms of scale and devastation during the pre-industrial era, we can definitely lean into the context and try to build the world details around these areas as well.

However the 30 Year war is a complex subject and has many many facets and avenues for exploring, so it’s a setting rich for picking when to comes to world building, a lot richer then the architecture of Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

Form follows function

To quote Alice Rawsthorn from here New Yorker: The Demise of ‘Form Follows Function’ York Times article in 2009:

<<“Not only is “form follows …” often quoted incorrectly, it is not even accurate: the original wording was “form ever follows function.” It is also routinely misattributed, mostly to 20th-century modernist grandees, like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, but was actually coined by the less famous American architect, Louis Sullivan.

Misused though Sullivan’s quote has been, his point, that the style of architecture should reflect its purpose, made sense at the time, and continued to do so for much of the last century, not just for buildings, but objects too. That was then. Thanks to digital technology, designers can squeeze so many functions into such tiny containers that there is more computing power in a basic cellphone (not a fancy model, like a BlackBerry or iPhone, just a cheap one) than at NASA’s headquarters when it began in 1958. That is why the appearance of most digital products bears no relation to what they do.>>

In all traditional level design endeavors form does in deed follow function. The gameplay drives the shape of the map and everything is grounded in that, thus the rule of the level designer is law and every alteration to that context would inevitably impact it.

However the concept of function isn’t necessarily a very well defined concept since it can adhere to many things:

  • The function that the player attributes to the space — Player centrism
  • The function that the inhabitants of the space subject the space too — World Centrism.
  • The design of an object might dictate a function but the users might use it for other things as well, thus opening the avenue for larger possibility spaces, player expression, systemic interactions, emergent gameplay.

So “Form-ever-Follows-Function” is a product of Modernism and art has come a long way since the induction of this approach, in fact we are in a Post-Post Modernity era.

Without making a big deal out of this I think it’s very important to state that with World Building we are moving away from the Modern roots of Form-ever-Follows Function statement. Instead of building levels specifically for “the player” as a central entity, conveying function to all things around him under the intention that the player will be at the center of it all, we are takin a more post-modern approach where:

  • The player avatar is a product of this environment
  • The world can exist outside of the player presence
  • The function attributed to the world feature relates more to how it’s inhabitants as a whole population group (including the player) choose to settle, develop and exist within this world.
  • The player is a participant but not a mover and shaker.
  • There will be player stories and memorable moments however they will sprout more from the systemic nature of the universe and the context of the world rather then them being custom tailored specifically for the player.

This is not to say we are ditching “form-follow-function” entirely. In fact far from it. We are merely prioritizing the existence of the world before the existence of the player avatar, since player character becomes a product of the world.

This leads to a more systemic approach to map building, allowing the map itself to support systemic gameplay rather then being entirely custom crafted for it.


Context is very important. Perhaps it is more important then anything else. A map might play great and look absolutely fantastic but if it doesn’t fit the context of the game your are building then you might find it on the short list of cut features.

This is not a doomsday scenario, it’s something that happens. Why? Because game spaces need to fit together in a format and each facet of these spaces need to communicate to each other. This communication is established trough commonalities, and these commonalities are established by the Context.

The Context is what we call the framework of the world. It’s what defines the world direction:

  • What the world is?
  • How does it look?
  • What happens there?

In the last few years I have met many talented designers that have raged in despair complaining to me that they have lots and lots of ideas but they are so easily dismissed by leads and directors for no clear reasons.

I have been subjected to this my self and like any kind of dismissal it’s unpleasant, but the reason for the dismissal is not really caused by any kind of malicious intent, instead it’s caused (in my humble opinion) due to a failure to understand and visualize the world/game direction at designer level.

That’s why it’s so important to be able to understand what that Game Vision is and to try to filter, adjust and generate ideas based on what that Vision is, rather then generating awesome but Setting-Agnostic Suggestions.

This is harder then it might seem, since in many cases the Game Vision is either intangible or easily elusive. Sometimes both, especially in the early days.

That’s why I always suggest that inspire of that give your directors the benefit of the doubt and trust their judgement, they are the ones that are carrying the heavy load.

Handling the Game Vision is not an easy thing to do. It’s like trying to keep the genie in the bottle while it’s constantly changing form.

What this is not:

In this post I am not going to tell how to understand what the vision of the game you are working on is. That’s something you will have to do by yourself with your vision holders, since it’s a lot more about how much effort you put into understanding it rather then being told what it is.

What this is:

What I am going to do however is try to illustrate what the world building process could be, and how you can tap into it when you are looking for a solution to your level design problem.

Write this down!

Before we start please take a moment to note this down. I know! I know! I have said it many times before, but it’s worth repeating:

  • Ask Questions!
  • Ask many many questions!
  • Be annoying with your questions!
  • Make your map, locations, block-outs the result of asking many many many questions about where, when, how the thing your are building should be.
  • Build a tapestry of answers and identify where your map fits into it.

World Building


World building in video games is the process of identifying and articulating: How, Where, and When, your world exists and functions.

The first step is to always, and I can’t stress this enough, always do your homework.

You have to do it!

Research the setting and become familiar with it to the extreme. If you are building a historical game, research the period, the events, the people, the drama, and any possible particularities that might come out of it.

Our world is very rich in events and locations grounded in deep and awesome history that can be used as seeds in articulating your setting.

Macro to Micro

One of the things that I always say is build your world from macro to micro:

  • Big Data Chunks first
  • Break those chunk into smaller bits
  • Break those chunk into smaller bits.

Liner world design is not a bad way of doing world building, however it leads to a more linear focused experience that omits important factoids from your world, good for building stories, not so good for building consistent sandboxes.

We are talking about Sandboxes here so macro to micro is what we should focus on.

There are many ways of doing this however the process that I like to adhere to when trying to figure things out follows a pyramid like structure:

Chunk 1

Geography, Weather, Biomes, Map

This chunk determines what your world looks like, what the particularities of the weather are, what sort of biomes it might contain and it most definitely comes with an early draft of the map (very high level, since details at this point are less important).

Tone and Theme

It’s important to establish a tone and theme to your world pretty early on however since this might serve as a target for where your world is suppose to go.

Resources for this should be any kind of reference material:

  • Geographical features
  • Weather patterns
  • Climate
  • Types of biomes that might exist in the context of such a climate

The point of this initial step is to determine what the larger boundaries of your world context would be.


  • If you are building a Water World you don’t want to add things that stray too far from that context.

So exercising restraighten in terms of what we want to build is a key skill that needs to be trained.

Chunk 2

World population:

  • What sort of Flora Exists in such an environment?
  • What kind of fauna can we encounter here?
  • Are there any interesting relationships between geography, weather, climate and what kind of things leave there?
  • What about the people? How do they adapt to these conditions

Here’s an interesting way of looking into:

Living conditions adjust inhabitant behavior and influence their culture.

The Yakut People
Lost tribes in Patagonia

This leads to a lot of variety based on geographic and weather/climate patterns.

The Yakuts live in North Eastern side of the Russian Federation:

The Selk’nam People live in the south of Patagonia

Different types of conditions lead to different types of cultural developments that will be perceived as exotic.

Chunk 3

Culture, Religion, Social Structure, Politics

So it’s very important to think about how various patterns and shift in temperature, altimetry, climate, vegetation, so far and fort can influence the development of the people living in your setting.

  • What are their habits?
  • What about their religion?
  • What is their social structure?

The more thought you put into this the more flavor you can get out of it. This will help later when trying to define what sort of narrative would fit with this setting.

Chunk 4

Social Fabric

Obvious it helps if you can figure out how their social fabric is structured:

  • What resources do they have available?
  • What kind organization and politics are they driving?
  • Are there other factions involved? Aim for Drama?
  • How are these factions relating to each other?
  • How is this relationships dictated by their culture?
  • Culture shock? How did the Germanic People see and react to the Roman attempts to conquer them?

Chunk 5

Society/Civilization/Tech Scales

Obviously it’s very important to try to define the level of technology a certain culture might have:

  • Are we talking about Paleolithic Hunter Gatherers, Druids, Roaming Hordes, Feudal Lords, Wealthy Industrialists, Lower Class Dock Workers?
  • Try to define for how long this culture has existed, how did they cope? How did they survive? Do they have allies and enemies?
  • Etc.
Types of Societies and Types of Civilizations

World Bible

Try to condense all this information in a world bible or a one pager. Something easy to reference that encompasses all the relevant information's that you need to understand your world.

Video Game Development

The Map

  • Build your map and define all critical bits.
  • Think about the size of world.

In terms of actual game development this is defined by two factors:

  • Manpower — How many people do you have in your team?
  • Technology — Can your engine support your ambitions?

You are slave to both so make sure you have enough people and the best available tech to support your ambitions, otherwise you will go into downscaling mode real fast, and trust me when I tell you that’s a very painful place to be.

Location, Location, Location

Think about the Locals where that you might visit in the context of your world.

Try to take a moment and visit the other Blogs I wrote covering these subjects:

A good exercise is to try to visualize early if your world building would lead to interesting locals and memorable places. You don’t want to be blind sided later on by discovering that your world building didn’t lead to interesting places for the player to see and explore.

Landmarks, Points of Interest

Articulate these places into Landmarks and Points of interest. The players will move between these places based on how attractive they will seem.

We call this magnetism. The more interesting a location is, the more it will attract the player. What you want is have a balance between these locations facilitating travel between them.

Define the Roads between them. How do you get from point A to point B? How long does it take to reach A to B?

A general rule of thumb is to try to have a 30sec time buffer between important moments in the game. If the locations can 30sec away from each other, when traveling with the fastest available option: car, horse, carriage, foot, that’s fine. Having longer distances will imply you will need to add some interesting things along the way.

Side Shows and Detours

Thing about sideshows, detours and encounters in order to break up the pace.

The entire process indicates that the star of the show should be the World. The player is a participant in it, he can disrupt it, engage with it and live in it, but his is not the center of the attention.

The world can live on without the present of the player. That’s the illusion you need to sell.

The Player

The player is a trickster. His job is to explore it and mess around with its systems in order to master it.

Gameplay opportunities/features are thus born out of these considerations.

Lean into the systemic nature of the game to empower the player to engage with the world. What systems are born from the setting? How would the player interact with them? What sort of chain reaction can this cause?

World as a Theme Park

Look at the world a Theme Park that would allow the player to:

  • Explore and Discover
  • Observe and Plan
  • Interact and Execute Plan

The Master Plan

Make sure your Master Plan is well defined and organized to track all the various types of information defined by the above investigation.

Start Blocking out the world, placing major landmarks, judging distances, and playtesting to make it feel right.
Don’t be afraid to add placeholders and annotations for things that don’t exist yet. Everything is open for negotiations.

Mafia 3 Berlin Blockout
Division 2 — Washington DC.

Don’t be afraid to get it wrong. It’s more important to realize why you got it wrong. Why doesn’t it work? What should you do next?

Make sure to document everything and plan your missions, quests and encounters based on all the info you have available.

Build the Game

With this you build your game.

Closing notes!

This might seem like a simplistic approach, and it probably is. The realities of game development are in most cases a lot more complex then this, but I hope this can give you a glimpse into what world design is and who you handle it in as part of Video Game Development.



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Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu

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.