Juan Uys

Coursera - World Design for Video Games, week 4


I’ve started CalArts’ World Design for Video Games and here are my course notes for week 4, the final week.

Week 4: A whole world

Bring your game world to life. Define the look, ambience and atmosphere of your world, learning specifically how to convey a mood for a unique and engaging game environment. We revisit the assignment from Week 2 to pull from the inspirations and models, then we build on the volumetric model from Week 3 and add details, and define the light, the colour palette and the overall visual context of the game space.

Inside the snow globe

What lives there?

This 3 minute video talks about NPCs (even though not a lot of games have them), and basically asks questions around interactions (direct or indirect), what you might get from an NPC (quests, better loot), what the conversations look like and how it affects the story, whether they are enemies or friends, if they depend on the world in some way (e.g. you might burn down a forest and the NPCs lose wood trade), are they creatures, monsters or animals, are they in the game just for decor, etc.

Anchoring the world down

I didn’t quite understand the video, so I asked on the forums, and the course assistant, Elliot, replied:

To me, anchoring in this case refers to what makes your world feel like a location that exists outside of the game, as opposed to just a vessel for the game. It’s the things that makes it feel like this world was not just built for the player character to go do their quest. For many games, it’s about making your world look lived-in: signs that people/animals/creatures live here and interact with the world.

Legend of Zelda games are really good at this. In Breath of the Wild for example, you find enemies making food and keeping watch at campsites. You can even take food and items from their camps and use their cooking pot (you’ll probably have to kill them first though).

instructor pic 1

At the stables, you’ll find people doing activities – cooking, tending for horses, chopping wood. You may find axes, pot lids, stacks of firewood, and even a diary accidentally left on a table by someone.

instructor pic 2

People’s homes will contain evidence that somebody lives there–beds, posters, food strewn about. NPCs are, for the most part, living their lives with very little regard to Link’s quest.

Even outside of people’s lives – trees grow, sometimes bearing fruit. Animals run around in the woods. Weeds are all over the place in undeveloped areas. Ruins are sparse, covered in ash. Abandoned buildings are covered in moss.

instructor pic 3

instructor pic 4

While traveling through this world, the player gets the sense that people are continuing to try to live their lives, their ancestors having survived a horrible tragedy. You understand the impact of the calamity that occurred a hundred years ago, and how it affects the world to this day. You see the places where people learn to thrive–and the places where few dare to go near. These are the details that makes it feel like this world exists outside of Link’s quest–people travel, shop, farm, and try to survive, and at the same time Link tries to stop Ganon. In this sense, they do not exist for gameplay’s sake–they simply exist.

These little details can anchor a world, making it ultimately feel like a well rounded place. Plenty of games do this to great success–can you think of any others?

Let is shine

An atmosphere

This was followed by another 1 minute video on creating atmosphere, which included a bunch of questions and a few examples of how you can incorporate a bit of atmosphere, whether it’s spooky, magical, etc.

Lighting is key

This was followed by a 3 minute video on lighting. Lighting can be part of the world, and also the gameplay (e.g. a flashlight, or as part of a puzzle). You can use lights in the game engine, or paint the light (and look at the history of visual arts of inspiration here). Lights can be very simple - just a few shadows and spotlights. Look at theatre lighting too, how scenes and characters and important objects are lit. There’s mention of day/night cycles. You can have particles, fireworks, explosions, guns - all sources of light. You can change your game’s aesthetic by going low-key and lo-fi.

In the shadows

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when designing your world’s lighting:

  • Is the light only aesthetic or will it serve some type of function?
  • Does the world have a day/night cycle?
  • Is it a very dark world with scarce sources of light? What are those sources? Is light accessed by a tool or simple fixture?
  • Does light have any impact on story or gameplay?

What is “atmosphere”? It’s a word that refers to multiple elements, and one that keeps returning in this class. Let’s define those elements here:

  • from Ancient Greek ἀτμός (atmos), meaning ‘vapour’, and σφαῖρα (sphaira), meaning ‘ball’ or ‘sphere’
  • atmosphere is the envelope of gas surrounding our planet.
  • It is responsible for how we perceive light and its diffusion.
  • It is the sum of colours, textures, and shapes we see through light.
  • It defines a state of ambiance and drives a set of emotions, mood, and feelings.

Clearly, atmosphere is one of the most empirical and complex aspects of a game to define. It is also the most memorable aspect. This is because setting a specific light or atmosphere can dramatically influence the tone of your game because every other visual element will draw from it.

If your game takes place in a gothic castle then light could be scarce, shining through a layer of dense mist. On the other hand, if your game takes place in a temple on a bright, sunny mountain top underneath a clear blue sky, the tone differs dramatically. Remember that although a game’s atmosphere isn’t solely dependent on lighting, light should bind all the visual intentions together.

Light can be functional as well as atmospheric. Lighting is not an option in video game world design; it is a mandatory component. The further you can define the specific qualities and functions of your lighting, the stronger your world will be.

Colour your world

In addition to setting mood and ambiance, colour can be used to guide players through a game world by helping them understand their surroundings and identify areas of interaction.

Colour can be a signifier. Red and blue, for example, are universal signs of antagonism. One is “hot” the other is “cold.” This pairing is visible in political parties as well as sports teams. They are used in strategy games or battles to identify two factions, armies, or teams. See Age of Empire, Halo, or Red vs Blue by Rooster Teeth for examples of how colour signifiers play out within video games specifically.

I won’t elaborate too much on colours to create atmosphere/mood (e.g. blue icy, red hellish, etc).

Colour can be used as a Classification System, e.g. good weapons in Assassin’s Creed Origins are gold, and enchanted weapons are purple. (Well, not the weapons themselves, but their icons.)

Colour can be used in the Environment to attract attention to interactable objects.


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


The week basically fleshes out the previous weeks, and talks more about the look, ambience and atmosphere of your world, and how to convey a mood. It’s by no means complete, and I urge you to read books or Gamasutra articles on the subject.

My review for this 4 week course is maybe 2 or 3 out of five. I would have liked if more information was presented, maybe in bulleted form, and then the questions are posed afterwards to give some colour to the information.

Also, to review Coursera as a whole: I think Coursera works well for subjects with factual information, like programming and machine learning. The facts are stated, and you learn them. No discussion. Coursera doesn’t seem to work well for an arts-related course where the material is so subjective and needs discourse. I get the feeling a lot of folks just rush though the weeks and it is certainly evident that they’re doing so as almost all the forum posts are “plz review my work” (the platform ensures someone reviews your work eventually). It seems very self-serving. That, and the fact that the vast majority of feedback I get on assignments are just a single character to get past the form validation.

Bless the course assistants who provide thoughtful answers to questions. That is the saving grace. I’ve tried initiating conversations with other students in the forums, but no cigar.

Well, there are 2 courses left: Character Design, and GDD. We’ve come this far, and might as well complete the lot.

Copyright © 2002-2024 Juan Uys, (source code for this website). Updates via RSS, Mastodon or newsletter 💌.