Let’s Make Your Game Towns Feel Alive

One of the best things about playing a good RPG is walking into a new town. You enter through the front gate, see the unique architecture of the houses, wonder what kinds of new weapons and armor are for sale. You walk past a beggar who says “A coin for an old beggar?”  You feel charitable and give the beggar a coin. You enter the Inn to heal, and the innkeep says “Have a seat by the fire”. There’s a bard at the fire singing a song. You decide to rest here for the night. At this point you are completely immersed.

The next morning, you get out of your bed and go back to the main hall. You see the same bard playing the same song. The innkeep says “have a seat by the fire”. You walk back out onto the street and see the same beggar, who says “A coin for an old beggar?” The same people are standing in the same places, saying the same things. The immersion that the game worked so hard to build the night before is shattered. The town went from feeling alive to feeling dead.

This is something that, from a player perspective, seems so simple, but from a developer perspective, is quite difficult. After all, you don’t have the money to get voice actors to voice more than one line per character, and you only have enough time to animate a character doing one thing at a time.

The key thing to remember is that the world should feel like it would continue to exist if the player weren’t there

There are several tricks that game developers can use to make their towns look and feel alive.

Repetition is bad

Image courtesy of witcher.wikia.com

I’ve been playing a lot of The Witcher 3 lately. There are many things The Witcher does well. The combat is fluid, the story is engaging, and the side quests are fleshed out. Those make the world as a whole feel alive. However, when I ride through a small town, I notice the same dialog spouted over and over by the NPCs. For example, the very first village in White Orchard has a signpost at the end of the road. At the end of the road, there is always a child skipping, singing a song about the emperor. His father is always nearby, and he always chastises the child. Every. Single. Time.

This type of repetition takes the player out of the game. It reminds them that the world exists around the player, when the world should feel like it’s lived in outside of the player’s view. This is only one specific example in an otherwise well fleshed-out world, but it does have a relatively large impact.

The NPCs don’t need to say the same line over and over again. This is what led to the whole “I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow to the knee” thing in Skyrim. When a character exists in an area that the player visits many times, the character shouldn’t say the same line every time the player walks by. In fact, most of the time, the NPCs don’t need to say anything at all.

When walking down the street in real life, 95% of people will not talk to you

This doesn’t need to be different in a video game. When you walk into a town and everyone has something to say to you as soon as you’re in earshot, the world no longer exists outside of the character’s presence.

It’s all about the details

Image courtesy of reddead.wikia.com

This is something Red Dead Redemption handled really well. McFarlane’s ranch was full of people, and they all went about their business. If you ever walk around the town and truly look at the people, you’ll see that they all have their own lives to live. There is a man who stands at a chicken stand, pulling whole chickens out of a bucket, chops the heads and feet off, and sorts the parts into individual barrels. If you walk into a saloon, you won’t have the same people playing poker at the table every time. Sometimes you won’t even be able to play because there will be nobody there. The man who sells newspapers packs up and goes home as the sun goes down.

The characters are reactive too. Sometimes bandits will attack the town; some people take shelter in the buildings, and others run down the street only to be gunned down.

All of these little details combine to make the towns feel lively. This is what you should strive for when making towns in games. The more life-filled your towns are, the more players will enjoy spending time in them.

It doesn’t have to be as involved as Red Dead Redemption either. You don’t have to painstakingly craft animations for each character doing each action. For example, you can have a character sitting in one place, and the next time the player comes into the room, he can be sitting in another. You can recycle an animation of a man smoking a cigarette on a street corner into a woman smoking a cigarette against an alley wall. You don’t need to animate the characters walking from their home to work and back, you can simply move the character when the player isn’t nearby.

Everyone has their own lives

sonder – n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Not to get too philosophical, but everyone has a full life they are living. if your goal is to have a vivid, lively town or world, this still needs to be the case. For each NPC, think about the following:

  • What is their job?
  • What is their relationship status?
  • Are they poor or wealthy?
  • What would they do for fun?

You don’t need a detailed explanation for each of these questions, but when designing a character, these are things that should be thought of. If every character in your game is unique in some way, that makes for a memorable game with a memorable world.

Try to put in a bit of extra time and thought to flesh this out, and it will be rewarding.


What games do you feel like had great, lively towns? Disagree with anything I’ve said? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Thank you very much for reading,

Harrison N

One Comment

  1. I enjoyed your post, while reading it I had another thought pop in my head. Don’t treat the player like their special. If the world treats the player just like any other NPC, it will be harder to break the immersion. This may give the sense that the world doesn’t really care who you are, and life will go on once you leave the town.

    thanks for posting!

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