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Designer's Notebook: The Role of Architecture in Videogames
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Designer's Notebook: The Role of Architecture in Videogames

October 9, 2002 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

The Primary Function of Architecture in Games

The primary function of architecture in games is to support the gameplay. Buildings in games are not analogous to buildings in the real world, because most of the time their real-world functions are either irrelevant -- the real-world activity that the building serves isn't meaningful in the game -- or purely metaphorical. Rather, buildings in games are analogous to movie sets: incomplete, false fronts whose function is to support the narrative of the movie. Movie sets create context and support suspension of disbelief. They also diverge from the real world for narrative purposes. Consider New York as seen in a movie by Woody Allen, who loves the place, versus New York as seen in Taxi Driver. Sets are part of the story; they can make a place seem more (or less) beautiful, dangerous, tacky, etc. than it really is.
Gameplay (in non-social games) consists of challenges and actions taken to overcome them; architecture supports the gameplay by helping to define the challenges. There are four major ways in which this happens: constraint, concealment, obstacles or tests of skill, and exploration.

Constraint: In board games like chess and checkers, there are no boundaries except for the edge of the board. The challenge of the game is created by the rather arbitrary rules governing how the pieces may move. In representational games, we want units to move the way they would in real life, not according to some artificial rule; but most of the time we don't want them moving anywhere they like. Architecture establishes boundaries that limit the freedom of movement of avatars or units. It also establishes constraints on the influence of weapons. As a general rule, projectiles do not pass through walls (no matter how flimsy) nor do explosions knock them down, nor fires burn through them.

Concealment: Few computer games are games of perfect information, in which the player knows everything there is to know about the state of the game. Architecture is used to hide valuable (and sometimes dangerous) objects from the player; it's also used to conceal the players from one another, or from their enemies.

Obstacles and tests of skill: Chasms to jump across, cliffs to climb, trapdoors to avoid -- all these are part of the peculiar landscape architecture of computer games. Some of them can be surmounted by observation and logic, others by hand-eye coordination.

Exploration: Not quite the same as overcoming obstacles, exploration challenges the player to understand the shape of the space he's moving through, to know what leads to where. Mazes are of course one of the oldest examples of such a challenge. If the game doesn't give the player a map, he may have to rely on his memory to learn his way around. In recent years we have started making better use of subtle clues: sunlight coming through a window means that we're near the outside; a differently-shaded patch of wall indicates a secret door.

Persistent worlds like Everquest use buildings for a variety of social functions as well, of course, but as those are largely obvious and symbolic, I won't address them here.

Some time ago I came across the website of Canadian game designer Peter Lok ( Included on his site was a sketch of a long ventilation shaft leading from the roof of a building straight down into an equipment room on the ground floor. The sketch included the following notation:

Shutters that open and close. Must jump down when open and fan is on. When closed you plummet and shutters are electrified. Have 2 sets of fan/shutter. Must land on ledge above fan. Blades will kill you.
Equipment room with ducts and access doors to labs.

Considered as real-world architecture, this is isn't very sensible. The fans must blow out rather than in (that's why you don't plummet if you jump in while they're on). You might need two fans in order to move a given volume of air, but why would you need two sets of shutters? And why in the world are the shutters electrified? Above all, the remainder of the building is undefined. Like a movie set, it's just a false front, a container for the ventilation shaft and the equipment room below.

As game design, however, it's perfectly functional, though not entirely obvious to the inexperienced gamer. It supplies constraint (the player starts on the roof and must go down the ventilation shaft to get to the equipment room); an obstacle challenge (the fan blades and electrified shutters which, reading between the lines, we can tell must go on and off at intervals); and an exploration challenge (the player doesn't know what's at the bottom of the shaft until she gets there).

Here's another example of how game design diverges from reasonable architecture. Notice the strange and wasteful design of this building complex from Quake. This building is designed to be explored, not used.

Figure 1. A map of a building in Quake.

Or consider this oddly-shaped valley from the Militia level in Counter-Strike. The building at the end is fairly rational, but the shape of the valley itself is optimized to create combat challenges through constraint and concealment. It's designed with lots of things to hide behind, allowing small numbers of snipers to cover the whole valley -- in both directions.

Figure 2. The Militia map in Counter-Strike.

All these things are examples of the environment supporting the gameplay, even if they're rather peculiar in real-world terms.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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