How collaborating with a game urbanist helped us improve our project
"A Place for the Unwilling"(by @AlPixelGames) is a narrative sandbox about the last days of a dying city. Read more about the game here.
This update is written by Konstantinos Dimopoulos (@gnomeslair), who recently collaborated with us on "A Place for the Unwilling"
Hello there! I am Konstantinos Dimopoulos, and I am very decisively hijacking the Alpixel Games dev blog to briefly talk to you about cities. Cities, you see, are great. They are incredibly exciting too, and very very nice! Obviously, I’m not saying this solely as a game urbanist. I am saying it as a human being, a city dweller, a geographer, and an aging gamer who loves exploring digital urban environments. Also, if you don’t know what a game urbanist is please do check out my Game Cities site.
So, as you probably only now discovered, we game urbanists not only care about games, world building, and design, but also tend to apply some real life urban planning, city geography, and design experience to virtual cities. We want to help games feel more believable; more immersive in a spatial kind of way. Find ways to make the utterly exotic feel real.
So what was there for me to quickly fix in the City that will be the star of A Place For The Unwilling?
Admittedly, judging from the couple of maps I originally saw, not much. The City, zoomed out, and in its early, still sketchy stages seemed to make quite a bit of sense, and feel more or less right. Exciting, even.
Then I got to play a short early slice of an early version, and it was instantly obvious that A Place For The Unwilling did do a lot of things right. Its City, even in the partial and unfinished state I spent an hour with, was beautiful, atmospheric, clever, and very unique. Also, despite not having anything particularly wrong about it, there were certain elements that could be tweaked, improved upon, and above all discussed with the creative team building it.
A Skype session was hence quickly set-up, and over another hour or so quite a few subjects were touched upon.
My first suggestion was an obvious one, yet one that is too often needed. Instead of having in-game characters referring to "The Theater" or "The Bookstore" —which they did— they should instead have to refer to "the theater where that new play has premiered", or "the oldest and weirdest bookstore in town". A Place for the Unwilling is after all meant to be taking place in a major city, a big metropolis apparently, and having only one place to buy books or see plays in such a vast formation simply wouldn’t make sense. By just altering a few lines of dialogue, this problem could not only be fixed, but a much bigger and way more interesting place could be conjured in the players’ minds.
Then, I couldn’t help but feel that the streets were a tad too wide. They had to be made narrower overall, and also diversified according to the district they were in or their role in the place’s wider transportation network. They would thus have to get ranked, and it seemed to me that the simpler option would be to go for three types of roads: local, collector, and main. These would all have different functions, and quite obviously (very visibly too) vary in width.
The streets could also be adapted to the styles and idiosyncrasies of the various districts of the city, and implement local, unique characteristics to both help players orient themselves within the urban fabric, and emphasize the uniqueness of each sub-area.
Different types of public lighting could for example be used to emphasize such sorts of variations between the parts of the city. Posh areas might have to be equipped with fancy electrical lights, other places could still be using ageing gas technology, riotous corners might come with broken light-bulbs, or maybe nobody ever cared to install a lighting system in the poorest quarters. Maybe the destitute places of the gleaming City are only illuminated by the meager candles and ancient oil lamps burning inside houses.
Public utilities aside, and on a purely aesthetic level, the game’s too angular street corners had to be rounded, and even more urban furniture would have to be added. Also, I simply had to point out to the team that roads do not always have to be perpendicular to each other, and that many of the game’s blocks were far too wide. The continuity of buildings should have been broken up more often with alleys, small parks, and other sorts of urban open space.
To make things more vibrant, and actually more realistic, street ads, more signs bearing brands, names of shops, and a greater varied of land uses would have to be added. Not only will such elements enhance the sense of civic vibrancy, but they’ll also help create the illusion of a working economy, and visually spice things up. Increasing the frequency of little touches such as shadows passing by and doing things behind windows, or house lights going on or off, could would also be a solid step in that direction.
Things in the Unwilling city should generally feel slightly livelier overall too. I know it might be too early to implement everything, but forcing purpose upon the shadows roaming the streets, and adding a few more of them shouldn’t be too taxing. Even little vignettes involving shadows —say 12 of them waiting in a line outside a shop, or two running into each other— could be employed, provided each one is shown sparingly. The addition of a few more even stationary, but preferably both stationery and moving, vehicles could further and swiftly improve the city’s overall sense of life and activity too.
Finally, I believe I also mentioned, and we briefly discussed ways of making the city feel alive, and dynamic itself. Feel like a place that changes as time passes, and a place with history that keeps evolving. My ideas involved everything from buildings under construction to the odd shop having to close down.