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How Realistic In-Game Cities are Made

Do you remember your very first video games? They probably featured two dimensional backgrounds, distant horizons or scrolling panels that players could explore in a straight line. Journalist Erwan Cario called this the "decor city", a space which provided some context for the player to imagine their adventure. The world we saw on screen wasn’t complex, but our mind filled in the gaps. Moving forward to the 1980s and 1990s, video game cities became more contemporary. Fun fact – they were often modeled after large American cities and usually featured dangerous environments. Today, we enjoy immersive, expansive 3D universes featuring all types of scenery and narratives. Here’s how this evolution was made possible.


To understand the development of cities in games, we first need to know about the types of cities you can find in games. If the ‘décor city’ is a place which provided you the visual and spatial context for your adventure, then the ‘stage city’ is a place where you recharge and restock before setting off again. Unlike the ‘décor city’, a ‘stage city’ can look elaborate but is usually explored very little. There is also the concept of a "simulated city" where a player can control their urban environment as a city builder, like in the Anno series.

And today, we’re seeing the emergence of the "platform city” – a playground that can be manipulated and navigated at will. For example, you can jump from roof to roof in Assassin’s Creed without the constraints of a ground-bound travel path, or even escape from the police in GTA in a large variety of ways. Open worlds are becoming more sophisticated than ever – you can choose to follow the main story or simply take a stroll, experiencing the world with no pre-set linear sequence. For ‘platform cities’ in particular, developers face the challenge of designing virtual environments to create the illusion that the game world continues to exist even after the player logs off.


Where then do developers actually begin? At Ubisoft, any “realistic” video game project goes through phases of detailed documentation, research, and often even exploratory trips. For the upcoming Watch Dogs Legion, Senior Tech Director Cyril Masquilliere met up with experts in London (where the game takes place). The team consulted an architectural firm, finding out more about the city’s structure (e.g. pipeline networks) and even local animal species. The architects created a mental image of London for the developers who weren’t physically there, and the game’s editorial team assembled ‘worldbuilding toolkit’ from their learnings. This toolkit is a set of information explaining different systems that constitute the game world at a macro level, including details about the natural environment, territorial conflicts, local mythologies, economic development, political powers and sociological segmentation. This allows developers to recreate a complementary city in a smaller scale and little by little, build a living video game world.

You may be surprised to find that these research practices are relatively new. This could be because findings from one type of city are difficult to generalize - the histories of the cities around the world are beautifully varied and complex. In Europe and the Middle East, for example, city centers are historically built densely with a large number of windy roads. In China, on the other hand, streets tend to be gridded and very straight, built with significant influence from the military and principles of Feng Shui. There is so much to understand for every new city to feature in a game, so production studios are increasingly working with sociologists, historians and urban planners to for realistic art direction.

And yes, these professionals are beginning to join the video game industry as well! It’s a much more logical choice than you may expect. After all, level design is all about space management, topology, and how it affects the player. This is something that urban planners, architects, geographers could find quite familiar, with their experience in space management. Both groups understand that a city is never finished because it’s constantly evolving – there are always new works or renovations somewhere. And that a city is defined not only by the powerful institutions and personalities who govern it, but also by the everyday person on the street. The experience and skills of these urban professionals can make a game city very plausible and rewarding to explore.

Norton Museum of Art – ®Forster & Partners


That being said, game cities and real life cities are far from the same thing. In a game, spaces are always built for the sake of gameplay and the narrative – meaning that we don’t want absolute realism, we just want the illusion of realism. Say you’re playing as an undercover agent in an urban environment. You’ll need objects to hide behind should things get nasty – so level designers take care to place old vehicles, concrete blocks, or even street intersections for you to shimmy behind. Maybe you’ll even be able to perch on steel beams or rooftops to avoid your enemies or take them down stealthily. These features certainly defy real world logic, but they make the game interactive and immersive for a player trying to complete a specific objective. In this case, immersiveness doesn’t mean copying the city to a T – it means placing whatever feels right to a player on a mission.

How about travelling between locations or creating an illusion of size? We’re all no stranger to tedious trips between real-world cities, commuting long and mundane distances or perhaps waiting in line at immigration checkpoints for hours. No player would want to relive these experiences, so cities have to become a ‘condensed’ version of what they are in real life. This means creating distances that are optimal and logical rather than technically accurate, and offering faster and more convenient travel that again defies real-world logic.


Procedural generation of spaces has become an indispensable practice in game development as worlds get larger, more realistic and more complex. It’s the process of creating spaces by algorithms – setting certain rules that can create varied large areas based on repeating these rules. Senior Tech Director Cyril Masquilliere emphasizes that generating areas repeatedly is not the same as generating them automatically – human input is still vital to set predefined criteria for and control these procedurally generated spaces. Designers set variables for everything from the width of roads and frequency of traffic to the soiling of walls and distribution of elements. Artists need to place or move around some elements (such as certain buildings) with care so as to make the composition as interesting as possible. In short, rather than digging trenches from scratch, artists now have an exoskeleton to work with.

After all this is done, testers come in to hunt for even the slightest incongruities or anything that looks out of place. They also make sure that all spaces are compatible with the devices that players will experience the game on. When the players finally get to play the game, it’s always rewarding to see them comparing in-game locations to real world ones.

Credits: Gamespot


It’s clear that the boundaries between game worlds and real locations are getting finer and finer. So can video games also potentially influence real-world locations? Philippe Gargov, geographer and founder of Urban Pop-up (an urban blog), believes that the ergonomics of cities can be improved with influence from video game design. Game developers have a deep understanding of how 3D spaces work, and this understanding has the potential to be applied in real architecture. It’s possible to create a virtual space and invite participants to give feedback before a real space is built. Philippe sees more game developers moving into urban design fields to assist in the fields of social psychology and interactive design.

Diagram of Virtual Singapore, credit: Govtech

In fact, we’re already starting to see examples of this in recent years, with the most famous example being Pokémon GO. Released in summer 2016, this game has motivated many to rediscover their neighbourhood and maybe even the history of their city. Anthropologist Olivier Wathelet even believes that video games could become a laboratory for cities, because certain games may have the ability to test urban use with millions of virtual citizens. In the project ‘Virtual Singapore’, for example, urban development authorities are already building a massive, interactive 3D virtual world of the entire city. This helps planners visualize how the city will evolve as the population grows and plan land area sustainably. It even has the potential to allow public security to simulate disasters and major events to better plan emergency responses. While Virtual Singapore is not a video game, it gives us valuable insight into the potential of similar game worlds and the value of the city building expertise of developers.

Video games have always brought people together, and now they’re giving people new ways to influence their environment. We’re heading fast towards a future of better and more efficient cities, whether in our game worlds or in real life. And all is well as long as you don't forget to look left, right and left again before crossing the road!

This article is an adaptation of the Ubisoft Stories piece “Virtual Cities, Challenges of Reality”.


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