CTD: BUILDING WORLDS FROM SCRATCH
Connecting the Dots is a series of in-depth articles from the team at Vela Games, highlighting a variety of game development subjects that are important for our project, but often easy to get wrong. Brian Kaiser is a co-founder of Vela Games, and leads creative design for our first title.
I’ve been a storyteller my entire life. For as long as I can remember, all I’ve wanted to do was create interesting worlds and invite my friends to come explore them with me. While this obsession took many forms over the years, it really took hold once I began my career in game development. The challenges and rewards of building interactive worlds, places players can literally explore, went beyond anything I dared imagine as a child. Now that we’re deep into pre-production on our first project at Vela Games, I wanted to share some insight into our approach to worldbuilding, how we work as a team to visualize a new IP, and why it’s so important to think about gameplay and narrative from the first day.
SO WHERE DO YOU START?
I’ve always found that a great place to start is at the beginning. Sorry if that sounds obvious, but we’ve all played games where it feels like the narrative was tacked on at the last second as an afterthought—and that’s probably because it was. So when is the right time to consider the narrative context for your game? Let’s assume that you’ve identified an audience and you have a good sense of how they want to play. If you’re ready to start considering the gameplay experience you want to deliver to those players, then you’re ready to think about narrative.
Even if, as in our case, you are not building the traditional single-player, story-driven game, it’s never too early to start thinking about the look and feel of the world you want to create for players. In fact, the gameplay and the narrative will be much richer if you allow both to grow from the beginning, allowing each to influence the other as they evolve. I think of narrative and gameplay like a pair of dancers—when they work together you’re not seeing two separate entities, you’re experiencing the dance that they create together. And while the dance requires both performers, at Vela Games gameplay is the dancer who leads.
What makes this game’s world special?
What is the player’s role in this world?
Why is that role important?
Thinking about your players’ motivations and the high-level gameplay experience should help inspire a narrative context that will support and enhance that experience. It’s a great point of traction to break that infamous white page paralysis. Once I start to understand those initial ideas, I then ask myself three key questions: What makes this game’s world special? What is the player’s role in this world? Why is that role important? With answers to those questions, I can provide an initial, high-level direction that will help the team explore our new world.
ARTISTS AND ICEBERGS
So, we’ve established a feeling or tone, but now we want to know what this world and its characters actually look like. When it’s time to start visualizing your new IP, I have two pieces of advice: set the artists free, and build yourselves an iceberg. Let’s talk about the artists first.
The goal of high-level direction is to inspire, but never to set hard boundaries or limit artists’ creativity; it allows us to cancel out a lot of the noise by helping us agree on what we’re not making, and focusing us on the concepts we want to deliver. The possibility space should still be quite wide, and we want our artists to go wide initially. It will always be a team effort to refine the look and feel of the game, but we want artists at Vela to have total freedom to explore thoroughly and find all the interesting edges of an idea before any boundaries start to emerge.
Part of going wide means exploring in places that might not seem immediately relevant to the gameplay. This is what brings us to our twist on Iceberg Theory; when you’re establishing a new IP, you will wind up discovering a wealth of detail about your world that players may never even see—in other words, they only see the tip of the iceberg. However, if you want that part of the world that the player experiences to be impactful, to feel like a real place, to feel rich and suggest a much larger universe around the game, then you have to put in the work in advance to build the rest of the iceberg.
By pushing the team to explore creatively beyond the immediate needs of the gameplay, you will gather the context you need to provide a world that feels internally consistent to the players. Plus, you gift your future selves plenty of exciting space to expand into when players want more!
FINDING THE RIGHT FIT
Another challenge when working with narrative and worldbuilding is finding the right fit for the style of game you’re creating. Some games naturally require very little narrative support, while in others the experience is all about how you walk through the story. While I can’t go into details on Vela’s first project yet, I will say again that we are not making the standard single-player, story-driven game. Despite that, narrative consideration is still critical to the experience we want to deliver. No matter what the narrative balance is in your game, you have to provide the team with the right tools to deliver the story you want to tell. That can be far more complex than you might realize.
Consider which tool provides the highest impact for the player, while minimizing the effort the player has to make to absorb the narrative.
Consider Diablo III. If you break it down, D3 has close to a dozen different systems designed to deliver story to the player; sometimes it’s through a cutscene, other times it’s the standard text box with a portrait, and sometimes you’ll just run by a character and hear a snippet of VO with some flyover text. These are all distinct systems that have to be designed and implemented.
The advantage to having a broad set of tools is that it becomes like an artist’s palette. Just as a painter decides where to apply each color and exactly how much to use, a narrative designer should understand where the game’s story is told and how much storytelling is appropriate. The goal should always be High Impact/Low Effort narrative; for every narrative idea the designer wants to convey, they should consider which tool provides the highest impact for the player, while minimizing the effort the player has to make to absorb the narrative.
Taking control away from the player can allow for very high impact, but it can also distract from the gameplay experience. So yes, sometimes you just need a cutscene, but never underestimate the impact of thoughtful environmental storytelling and everything in between. The more variety the designer has in their toolkit, the more successfully they’re able to strike that High Impact/Low Effort balance.
NOW LET’S TALK ABOUT LOVE
No, seriously. There’s one other critical factor to consider in developing and delivering an original IP, and that’s love. After all, what we’re ultimately talking about is building an emotional bond with players. There’s an art to that, and it involves many areas that are subjective. The bottom line is this: if your team does not truly love and respect the world and characters you are creating, how can you ever expect players to? When a team discovers something special and they are genuinely excited to share it with the world, that feeling shines through in the work and it gives players permission to fall in love as well. That might sound romantic, but it doesn’t make it any less a real part of the process.
When we can deliver that world to our players and invite them to come explore it with us, we extend that unique feeling of ownership to them.
Also consider the importance of presenting your IP to your audience consistently. It’s so easy to lose your audience in a flood of character names, made-up locations, and fantastic concepts. Remember, we have an entire iceberg of context, but for players every single part of this world is new. To avoid overwhelming players, think back to your answers to those key questions; find a clear and exciting way to tell players why your world is special, what role players will have in your world, and why the players are important. It is critical to hit those points consistently, not just within the game, but in marketing, publishing, licensing, community interaction, etc. That consistency does not come for free, and in fact takes real discipline. It requires buy-in from the entire team. I can’t overstate how much easier it is to maintain that consistency with a team who feels true ownership and pride —and yes, love—in what they’re building. This is a concept I strive to foster here at Vela Games. That feeling of shared ownership in a world is so special, and when we can deliver that world to our players and invite them to come explore it with us, we extend that unique feeling of ownership to them. We discover a world that’s ours, where we can play and have adventures together. Ultimately, that’s the dream.
I hope this has given you some insight into how we build worlds at Vela Games, and our approach to ensuring a cohesive experience that blends exciting, innovative gameplay with a compelling narrative.
We’ll be sharing a lot more about our process over the coming months, with other members of our talented team going in-depth on development topics they’re passionate about, so check back regularly. We’re excited for all of you to continue with us on our journey!