I wrote the following snippet on worldbuilding in answer to a question from Alexander Zacherl at Fairytale Distillery – at Talespinners we’re helping them out with their game The Exiled. It’s specifically targeting creating gameworlds for multiple players, and was written in a hurry, skipping over vast swathes of stuff, but I thought it might be of interest!
Alex: How do you approach creating massive game worlds from scratch – what is the process?
Ian: The trick with inventing worlds is to leave lots of room for different stories to flourish. Stories come from drama, and drama comes from conflict. So, once we’ve established basic mood and themes, we’ll pull together what we think are the central conflicts of a world, conflicts that will generate both gameplay and drama. This could be nation against nation, or people against a harsh world, or citizens against a corrupt regime, or a mix of many different types of struggle. Paradise is a boring place – you won’t find many stories to tell there.
For an ongoing world, it’s critical that these central conflicts can’t be easily solved – because if you fix them then the world becomes a lot duller. Instead, we’re creating a background canvas on which we’ll tell stories. So we introduce all sorts of pressures and demands.
Once that’s done, we widen out to try to create space for different play styles; ensuring there’s a good variety of character types that different players will identify with or enjoy playing. Some of this will come from gameplay and mechanics – character classes, for example. But it also applies to races, subcultures, nations, roles within society – what one player will think is a cool background might be terrible for another.
We’ll typically put together a world map early on, as it lets us look at conflicts and pressures caused by geography, and gives us an idea of the problems faced by different nations or races due to where they live. And we’ll spend a lot of time looking at the history and politics and outlook of each culture; we’ll give them language, religion, customs, speech patterns, and, critically, we’ll start to name things on the map and to generate interesting places to visit.
Then we’ll go into history. No world comes into existence in a moment. We’ll look at layers and layers of the past. Who lived in this land before the current inhabitants? What happened to them? Did they leave evidence? What about before them? Where did the current inhabitants come from – did they invade or something? Were there wars between their ancestors? We’ll bury references to that history deep into the bones of our world – in names, in lore, in phrases, in iconography and symbols, and in half-remembered stories and myths. We’ll construct historical timelines, some fictitious or heavily bent by propaganda, some accurate.
While doing this, we’ll write all of it down in a way that the people of the world will understand, for general consumption by players. And we’ll keep a second version – ‘the Truth’ – with a lot more detail. This is the World Bible, and plot writers and game creators will work with when creating stories set in the world.
That’s a very quick skim over some of our process. I should point out that this doesn’t just come from us – there is a lot of back and forth between the writers, the game design team and the art department, as the look of the world and what you can do in it is critical. Ideas will come from everyone involved.
As the world develops, we find that it will come alive. There’ll come a point where, if someone asks us a question, it won’t seem that we’re making up the answer. It’ll be more like we’re stepping into the world to have a quick look…
One of the most rewarding things about being a games writer is that you can see your worlds brought to life. You can step into something which was once in your head.