Juan Uys

Coursera - World Design for Video Games, week 2


I’ve started CalArts’ World Design for Video Games and here are my course notes for week 2.

Week 2: Do Your Research

The aim for the week is: where do you start when designing a world? Where do you look for creative inspiration? This week we will be exploring ideas and presentation techniques for a game’s environment and world design. We’re encouraged to draw inspiration from other art practices, artists, video games or even your everyday surroundings.

Do Your Research

Don’t create from the void

Look at books, paintings, films, art movements, your own backyard. Video games are a synthesis of of multiple practices (visual art, music, architecture, storytelling, cinema, literature, theatre, comic books, etc)

E.g. here’s Fumito Ueda (previously an artist) drawing inspiration from Giorgo de Chirico for Ico:


de Chirico

And then almost all indies are drawing inspiration from retro games. Because, hey - it’s easier and quicker to create pixel art, OK? :-)

You can also draw inspiration from not just things you see and hear, e.g. look at sports, dance to learn more about the way people move. Or the way things feel - textures, consistency. How can you translate this into a video game? Look at the mundane, then look at what catches your attention in your surroundings.

Finding inspiration

We come to an optional discussion prompt.

I’m recording my answer here for posterity. The question:

Where do you find inspiration? In the space below share some of your tips and tricks for visual research here—not just where you search, but how. This advice will come in handy for completing this week’s assignment.

I make a note of the “how”, and try my best:

(wow, 11 learners have submitted a response. Out of how many thousands?)

I find inspiration

  • in the way that my kids see the world. E.g. what you might think is quite a boring house (e.g. a relative’s) is suddenly a maze to get lost in
  • in books that one would not normally think of buying, like anthologies of art or comics. I would normally just buy, say, one type of comic, but an anthology will show me self-published alternative postmodern comics which are wildly different, and sometimes better
  • in Wikipedia hyperlinks - I can endlessly click and follow links and learn interesting stuff. E.g. once I did a study of the colour blue, and came up with some good stuff! I could go on, but have the feeling no-one’s going to read this…

I reply to myself:

So, I guess my “how” is by

  • playing with my kids
  • looking in unusual places
  • following cookie crumbs

Or I might sometimes flip a few Thinkpak cards and see where they take me. (Oh, and I also carry around with me in my backpack a good sized coin, and a few dice, just in case fate has to guide me. Yes, I’ve read Diceman).

(As you do!)

Aesthetics & Gameplay

We look at some examples where aesthetics and gameplay are intertwined. E.g. Limbo: the black and white minimal world is creepy in the way that everything looks the same but then BAM you bump into a giant hairy spider leg you didn’t know was there, and it kills you. Or Mirror’s Edge, where the world is quite cleanly designed, but you have colour-coded objects in the world you can interact with as you do your parkour runs.

Will a game world made of wool allow you to unravel it? Or a world made of paper allow you to tear away at it?


In a section called “clockworks” the instructor briefly touches on “inner mechanics of the world” in a 1 minute video.

Like in the previous week, the instructor waffles on with a bunch of questions, so I’ll just repeat those questions here.

  • is it you against the world, or the world against you?
  • is it going to be political?
  • factions, armies, and which side are you on?
  • if it’s a brand new world, untouched, are you going to break it?
  • etc

Then he mentions a game called Proteus where the islands are procedurally generated and different every time, but some landmarks are still the same so you can find your way.

Again, just a bunch of questions and an odd example. No real discussion, no real information.

Welcome to your world


Yes, a section called “questions”. We all know where this is going…

We’ll soon be tasked with creating our own world, so I guess it’s question time.

  • where is your world located?
  • what composes it, physically? (water, space, desert?)
  • why does it look this way?
  • why is it extremely bright, or dark and broody?
  • what about its inhabitants? (fauna, flora, other characters)
  • is everything against you, and do you just have to hack & slash your way through a hostile world?
  • what lies at the core of the world’s existence?
  • does the game story fit into a broader context?
  • or is it just WYSIWYG - the story of the game is the story of the world (Putting more emphasis on myth is more work for the designer, but might mean a more engaging world.)
  • is your world ever evolving? Expanding?
  • is your world really what it seems? (Are you on the back of a giant turtle? E.g. Two colossal titans known as the Bionis and the Mechonis serve as the setting for Xenoblade Chronicles)

There’s a strong sense of polymorphism in video games. Anything can become something else.

Back to the rulebook

Questions again, repeated here for your pleasure:

  • Think about what drives the player in your game, or in any game. What can a player do here?
  • His impact must be felt in various degrees in the world, like opening doors, activating mechanisms. What kind of contraption actually is he going to be able to manipulate, activate, change?
  • Is it going to be just visual cues, sounds, opening a chest, looting something and getting a joyful, playful music when you discover something?
  • If your role in this world is defined by a set of events shared by others, then if you are the only remedy to the world’s demise, how are you going to fill that?
  • How is the world going to make you feel and understand that you are the final cure?
  • Are you going to save it and feel that you are really meaningful upon that world? If you’re respecting the myth, the legend, will a player be forced to play accordingly to that myth?
  • Will they have the choice to deviate in some ways?
  • If the story has multiple branches, and if somehow you managed to keep the same ending, how is everything going to get back on track?
  • Is it also something you can define? Is it going to be multiple endings?
  • And if so, then will you want to play the game again in order to get a different ending to understand the story through a different point of view?

Subsequent sections (i.e. two more 1-minute videos) say to “make the world yours” (even if you’re borrowing an idea from somewhere), and “shuffle your ideas” which boils down to

  • bring all your ideas together
  • break them up into pieces
  • find connections
  • don’t edit too soon

Etc. I think we’ll have better luck getting an ideation/brainstorming book from the library here.


I made a note of this week’s assignment in a separate post.


I think I’ve learnt that I prefer books to videos for subjects that are not an exact science. With books I can go over sections repeatedly, make notes, digest, and then take my notes to others and start a discussion. With a video, the instructor might ramble on and lose me. Especially if they ask a lot of rhetorical questions - I really want to stop and think of answers, or backtrack and ask what they meant.

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