Juan Uys

Coursera - World Design for Video Games, week 1


I’ve started CalArts’ World Design for Video Games and here are my course notes for week 1.

Week 1: What(ever) works

This week was a bit hard-going, as the instructor’s accent is difficult to understand. The subtitles help to some degree, but often you’ll see phrases with “[INAUDIBLE]” interspersed throughout, or the grammar throws you off a bit. A lot of the videos are a bit philosophical (more questions than information), and a bit wishy washy. Only later did I realise they probably meant “these are questions to ask yourself when designing a game world” because all the instructor does is ask questions. See the conclusion at the end for more of my views on this week’s content.

Anyhoo, this week is a brief overview of game worlds and game design, and we examine environments and larger world-based concepts to see how games incorporate a macro-level view of how they progress.

What is a game world?

Reminder: the first few videos bounces from question to question instead of just giving solid information. The notes reflect this.

Think about under what properties and rules game worlds are structured. How is it defined? Fictional, historical, fantastical? Or just a realistic sports game? What are the game-play mechanics? Do you play the same in this world as you do in another? Compare it to real life. How do you get from A to B? Think about the spaces you inhabit. Where do you live and die? Where do NPCs die? Think about movement, and how you interact with the world. Repetition, and the time it takes to go places. Are you playing as a stranger in a strange land, or a seasoned local? (Not sure how this matters) Is your character accustomed to the traditions/laws of the world? (Not sure how this matters either - the player will always at least once be new to a game, and new to the world, so why does it matter if the character is strange/familiar to a world? Perhaps the NPCs can act differently towards you?)

Vertical spine

Again, a section full of questions rather than solid information.


I guess what he’s trying to say is that the world is designed around your story. Is where you start the game tied to the story? Is it part of your hero’s journey? Or do you just “have to be there” and the purpose reveals itself later? Is the entire world playable? Or is there a bigger world outside the playable areas? If there is, why does it matter? Does the event happening in unplayable area A affect the events in your playable area B? The playable/unplayable world together might be very large in scale.


What control will you have on this world? Can you make decisions? What will you encounter? How will you interact with the things that you encounter? And how does it affect the story?


Will your actions have an impact on the story? And if they do, on the world? How are you going to leave a mark on the world as a player? Are you going to change the minds of NPCs, or blow up the only city in the land? Will the world leave a mark on you in return?

Causes and consequences

This section clarifies on the “events” and “responses” from the previous section: These components are what cause consequences for your player/character in the game world. They are what drives your actions in the game. E.g. looking at the messiah trope: why would you want to save a world? It needs to make an impression on you first, and you have to love it first before you are compelled to save it. Or you could be placed in the game as a pariah, but still be expected to save the world. What is your motivation then? Perhaps to redeem yourself?

World influences story, and story influences world. Actions cause more consequences, generating more story, etc.

Making a game world

Where/how do you start? There’s no recipe.

  • follow what works, and take other games as inspiration (analog/digital, card/board/table-top games - they’re all designed to be part of a world)
  • what do you like? Realism, simulation? Escapism? Something entirely unique?
  • find inspiration in films, TV, novels. Would you want to step into those worlds? Why do you feel attracted to a world? Why would you want to have an impact on the world?
  • look at real physical places, natural landscapes, monuments. What do you like, and why do you like them? Why are they so attractive, appealing, grandiose?
  • follow your instincts


Pick a game you feel strongly about.

  • Describe your game. Why do you find the game compelling? (to answer this question, you can ask yourself: Why do you like to play in this world? Do you like being in that world? What is it you find appealing or fun about this world? Is it the visuals, the story, the characters, or something else?)
  • What defines your world? Tell your peers what makes your game world unique. (To define your world, use any of these prompts to craft your answer: Is your world constrained with boundaries (ie. with walls or fences) or does it infinitely expand? Does the game world resemble a real-life environment or is it completely constructed? If your world is completely unique what defines it? Think technology, culture, society, religion, etc… If it resembles reality, is it contemporary or historical?)
  • How does the environment of the game affect the game play?

My game is Contra

Describe your game. Why do you find the game compelling?

Contra was published by Konami and started as a coin-operated arcade game in 1987. A home version was later released for NES in 1988, and this is the version I played.

Contra is a run-and-gun game, where you can play alone or with a friend, and it takes place on the fictional “Galuga archipelago” set in 2633 AD where the evil Red Falcon Organization has a base in a plot to wipe out humanity. You play the role of one of 2 commandos from the Earth Marine Corp’s Contra unit (an elite group of soldiers specializing in guerrilla warfare), are sent to the island to destroy the enemy forces and uncover the true nature of the alien entity controlling them.

I find the game compelling because it is so hard to beat, unless of course you enter the Konami code (the first ever game cheat I learnt) which is “up up down down left right left right B A”, which gives you 30 lives instead of 3. Needless to say, I learnt of the Konami code much much later in life, but managed to beat Contra a few times as a wee lad.

Another reason I find it so compelling is because it’s one of the first multiplayer games I remember playing, which means I could play it with a mate. Also, I like how the game starts out in a jungle, then progresses through what seems to be man-made military bases, only to end up in an alien lair where you battle the final boss. Very insidious indeed!

Lastly, the game has a very cool story: marines, aliens, a remote island where you can run amok - what’s not to like? This was around the same time I was besotted with Rambo, Terminator, and Alien.

What defines your world? Tell your peers what makes your game world unique.

The entire game takes place on an island. In fact, when the game starts, the marines just drop out of the air. When the game ends, a military chopper picks you up and flies away as the island blows to pieces. The game initially resembles a real-life environment (the jungle, and then later the military base), and then takes a turn and throws you into a very scary alien lair with slimy creatures running around. I like this juxtaposition, which felt unique and fresh in the late 80s.

How does the environment of the game affect the game play?

You can only run left-to-right, or bottom-towards-up, so the feeling of progress is very strong. More-so, the feeling of “you can’t turn back” is gut-wrenching. I remember feeling genuinely freaked out when first playing this game. You can shoot at pill box sensors or flying item capsules to unleash new weapons. You can jump up to or drop down to different platforms to dodge enemy bullets (or you can lie down). Some doors are impassable unless you spend some time firing bullets at them. All-in-all, make sure you’re firing a lot of bullets, and make sure you don’t get killed, and you’ll make progress.

Apart from this, this is quite an old game, limited by the technology of the time, so there aren’t that many involved interactions with the environment.


A bunch of questions were asked, but is it an exhaustive list? Does it cover all the dimensions of a game world? I’ve certainly thought more about game worlds, but don’t know if I really learnt anything new. If the notes above doesn’t make sense or doesn’t seem coherent, it’s because it’s tricky to summarise a philosophical discussion and extract valuable information from it. There was no structure to frame concepts with and relate them to one another, and what would have helped here is putting bulleted items on the videos the put some context around the instructor’s many questions.

Hell, even the first 2 pages of the game worlds chapter of Fundamentals of Game Design alone has more information that you can act on when designing a game. That said, there are 3 weeks left, so things might pick up.

And again: the peer feedback on the assignment was very short and completely worthless.

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