The Importance of Architecture in Video Games and Virtual Worlds

architecture in video games‘Architecture’ is the art of designing buildings, or the style of a building with regard to a specific period, place, or culture.

In his famous treatise, De architectura, the famous Roman Architect Vitruvius defined a good building as one that is durable, useful and beautiful (firmitas, utilitas, venustas).  2,000 years later, in the realm of video games and virtual worlds, these same principles are as applicable as ever.   Vitruvius broke it down like this:

“All these must be built with due reference to durability, convenience, and beauty. Durability will be assured when foundations are carried down to the solid ground and materials wisely and liberally selected; convenience, when the arrangement of the apartments is faultless and presents no hindrance to use, and when each class of building is assigned to its suitable and appropriate exposure; and beauty, when the appearance of the work is pleasing and in good taste, and when its members are in due proportion according to correct principles of symmetry. “

If I may be so bold as to translate these words of wisdom to video games as such:

Durability will be assured when poly count and mesh topology are carried out wisely and appropriate shaders are selected; convenience, when the arrangement of the levels is faultless and presents no hindrance to player navigation, and when each level is assigned to its suitable and appropriate user experience; and beauty, when the appearance of the work is pleasing and in good taste, and looks bad ass.

I managed to digress (and perhaps even insult) before I’ve even started, but the point is – architecture matters.

 

Unfortunately, both the real and virtual worlds alike are chock full of buildings, but there is a tremendous deficit of ‘Architecture.’  Real estate developers want buildings that will make money, game developers want buildings that look sexy, yet architecture can be so much more.
 
The truth is, we abuse architecture.  In my past life, designing ‘real’ buildings, I witnessed project after project where architecture was treated either as a means of expressing ego, or as a complete afterthought.  Very little care was taken to understand what the building really *means,* how it will transit through time, or how (and why) the building fits or distracts from the surrounding context.  They felt like so many ego-driven awards quests, or copy-cat attempts to hack whichever flavor of the day happens to be winning the most awards.  The architecture was rarely given the attention and care it deserves.

Halo 4 via g4tv

One might think in a virtual environment where anything is possible, that the architecture of these ephemeral environments might reach new heights. That it might break free from the bonds of physical and budgetary limitations and become something so much greater.  Architecture can finally be free to become wholly narrative, full of meaning, instigate a powerful user experience, and convey a deep connection to the game plot and player perception.  Occasionally it gets there, but rarely.  In fact, it’s usually worse.  This pervasive phenomenon of architecture that permeates nearly every frame of gameplay, deeply impacting player experience, is at best a background support mechanism. Beyond multi-million dollar triple-A budgets, game architecture is largely a knee-jerk regurgitation of some of the worst habits and vestiges of real world design practice, littered with cliche and after-thought design gimmicks.

 

If you can paint a sexy art concept, or produce photorealistic environments, you’re on a fast path to a successful career in game development.  Read any game postmortem, and you’ll consistently find that product almost always trumps process, and each release is treated as a kind of dice-roll shot at becoming a best selling sensation.  Rarely is there the kind of careful thinking and iterative design method toward a deeper, more powerful (and meaningful) player experience.  Maybe it’s because developers largely assume most players won’t catch or care about architectural subtleties?  Patrons of real architecture aren’t given much more credit.  But I give them more credit than that, and believe there is definitely room for more architecture in video games.

 

La Maison de Verre Photo by La Maison de Verre, Thames and Hudson, 2007

 

Now, you may have nailed the era of your game.  You might even include some talking points in your launch press about your game’s architecture, having spent a lot of time thinking about the design style or concept art of your game.  You may have the most impressive and carefully crafted castles in a medieval games, or maybe a killer space station in your futuristic sci-fi game, or historically accurate and well textured bunkers in your war game.  You may have even thought about the architecture, and worked very hard to create breath-taking, mind-boggling realistic buildings.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve created architecture.  Buildings aren’t always architecture.

 

 architecture in video games
Christopher Alexander calls it “the quality without a name.”  It’s that sensation architecture can convey when everything is just right.  The most lucid experiences of this quality I can recall was while exploring the Maison de Verre in Paris, or while visiting the Bernard Schwartz House, by Frank Lloyd Wright, in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.  I also felt this quality while visiting the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.  These are moments when you realize just how fundamental and profound architecture can be, and how deeply connected they are to human experience.

 

Louis Kahn said,
“A great building must begin with the immeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end must be unmeasured.”
I believe most game designers set off with the intentions of creating a compelling architectural experience.  But then, as Kahn says, it must go through the measurable.  Form has to face function, and the concept will likely be handed off to other team members to fold it all together.  By the time it reaches first playable, or nears the end of construction documentation, it may very well have had the life sucked out of it.

 

Architecture can tell a story, evoke emotion and shape player experience more effectively than any other aspect of your game.  You can have the best characters, storyline, and UI graphics, but without an equally considerate approach to architecture, your player experience will always fall short of its fullest potential.

 

Architecture can be an aspect of your game you leverage to help choreograph the way a player understands and moves through the game. Frank Lloyd Wright was a master of juxtaposing low, dark spaces with brighter, taller spaces to great effect.  Rather than entering into a massive, heroic foyer at the entry of a building, a visitor to a Wright design is often contained in a darker,  compressed entry space.  However, as they gradually enter the building, light begins to stream in, the ceiling rises up, and the space unfolds before them, evoking a far more regal and grandiose experience than if the entire space had been tall and heroic to begin with.  The contrast between the two accentuates and defines them.

 

My favorite philosopher, Alan Watts, often talked about a similar phenomenon with music and dance:
“In music, the point of the composition is not to get to the end of the composition. If that were so the best composers would be the ones that got to the end the fastest. And there would be composers who only wrote finales. People would go to the concert just to hear one crashing chord. Cause that’s the end. Same as dancing. You don’t aim at a particular spot in the room where you should arrive. The whole point of dancing is the dance.”
By balancing and contrasting different types of spaces, architecture can unfold, and choreograph the player experience to produce a much more powerful emotional impact and reaction to gameplay.

 

The use of light in architecture can be used in a similar way, to draw attention to an important piece or the next area the player should move to.  A space that is well lit with lots of windows and skylights can feel uplifting and contrast (or balance) your darker scenes.  Transitioning between the two can enhance the qualities of each.  Even if you want your game to feel damp, dark and scary, those sensations can be more apparent and defined when occasionally contrasted by spaces full of natural light.
architecture in video game design

 

The use of hierarchy in architecture is also an important and incredibly useful tool in game design.  An architectural experience where all design elements carry the same visual weight isn’t as meaningful or organized as when some elements are differentiated through scale, color, texture, shape, etc.  By contrasting rhythm with hierarchy, the player can enhance the game’s wayfinding strategy by making it easier for the player to ‘read’ a building to help remember their relative position in space and to understand where important elements of gameplay can be found.

 

 

The way architecture interfaces with the ground and sky are also important and useful connections to consider.  The wall surface of a building rarely dives straight into the terrain without any transition the way most video games portray.  There is almost always a concrete foundation or otherwise solid plinth upon which the building stands.  Accentuating this base plinth can be a way of conveying a kind of strength, timelessness or sense of being firmly grounded (useful when you want a building to look fortified or indestructible).  In contrast, a building with a weak foundation can feel temporary, fleeting, or weak.

 

The use of materials, beyond understanding the technical aspect of shaders and texture, is also a key player in architectural design.  Materials can do so much more than simply helping to achieve realism.  Soft and warm materials have a completely different emotional impact than hard and desaturated materials.  Using the psychological impact of different surface textures and colors can shape a player’s experience and attract or propel them to or from various gameplay elements.

urban design in video games

Urban design, and the way building exteriors work together to shape outdoor space, can also play a role in the design of your game.  A courtyard surrounded by 4 story buildings feels well defined and enclosed, even though it’s an outdoor space.  Placing a monument or statue at the end of a visual axis can help orient the player, and make it easier to remember where the player is located in relation to the rest of the level.  Famous urban design thinker Kevin Lynch defined many of these elements in his book, “The Image of the City.

 

These are just a few of the many aspects of architecture that can be used to design more effective video games and virtual worlds, but it barely scratches the surface.  Dr. Francis Ching’s “Form, Space and Order” should be required reading for any game or level designer.  I revisit this text time after time, and find it to be a perfect refresher and a source of inspiration.  I also recommend going to your local bookstore and thumbing through the architecture books before setting off to design a game or level.  It isn’t about copying what you see, but about opening your mind to a wider range of style opportunities and sources of inspiration.  Try it sometime, and I guarantee you’ll be thoroughly inspired and excited to approach your game with fresh ideas.  Surfing online isn’t the same.  Go the bookstore!  Trust me on this one.

Kengo Kuma & Associates via arcspace.com

Finally, I can’t help but to reinforce the idea that architecture in video games and virtual matters by suggesting that it will almost certainly, someday (if it isn’t already), become something even greater than physical architecture – most certainly deserving the most careful consideration, care and attention in design development.  Virtual architecture holds the potential to evoke an even deeper connection to Alexander’s “quality without a name;” becoming almost transcendental.

After all, when you consider some of its many advantages over bricks and mortar, you might even sense a kind of apathy toward physical buildings.

Video game architecture can be perpetually dynamic, potentially shifting shape around realtime inputs and conditions.  It can be laced with interactive features, bringing the architecture to life in ways no physical building could ever achieve.

It can theoretically exist eternally.  Game environments are propagated throughout the world, on millions of individual computers.  A hypothetical hard drive containing entire combined worlds of Everquest, WoW, every Call of Duty and every Halo game can be held in the palm of your hand.  500 years from now, there’s a good chance you’ll still be able to play an old copy of Skyrim, but what will be left of the physical city artifact that exists today?  They’ll be ruins at best.
 
Video game architecture can reach tens (hundreds?) of millions of people, connecting them from geographically disparate locations all over the world, in realtime.  Imagine if World of Warcraft, or Call of Duty were a building, or more likely an entire city.  It would have to be designed to support 11 million people, who are all required to travel to one location to experience it.  Even if it were possible, it would consume a staggering amount of energy

 

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and Constantinople via Wired.co.uk

By comparison, physical buildings are expensive, rigid, resistant to change, and geographically specific.

The point I’m trying to make is, not only does architecture matter in video games, deserving of careful consideration and design intent, but it arguable matters as much (or eventually more) than physical architecture on numerous counts.   At the very least, virtual environments deserve to be more than an afterthought.  It can, and should, become a game’s focal point – maybe even it’s raison d’être – celebrated as a core attraction rather than a mere support mechanism.

 

Kieran Martin via suckerPUNCH

I have no doubt the architecture of video games can achieve Alexander’s quality without a name.  I’m certainly not a hardcore, legacy gamer, but I’ve played lots of games and visited lots of virtual world builds and while I’ve felt immersed, maybe even embodied or deeply connected to a virtual environment, I have yet to experience this quality in virtual form, nor have I created it. Yet it will always remain a kind of illusive vision-quest that I will constantly strive to achieve in each and every virtual world or game design project I have the good fortune of being involved with.

Casanova + Hernandez architects via arcspace.com

I realize this post is disjointed and meandering, but someday I’ll circle back and tidy it up. =) I just wanted to share a few of these concepts I’ve been pondering and hear more about what you think about virtual architecture.  What’s the most profound architectural experience you’ve had in a video game?