How to build a universe

How to build a universe
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

June 6th 2016 at 3:33PM

Many major gaming franchises have settings that have more depth and engaging characters than the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. James Batchelor asks leading writers and artists about the work that goes into establishing such compelling worlds – and catering to the avid fanbases that follow them

Fans can be as familiar with fictional worlds as they are with the real one. Most people can tell their Vulcans from their Klingons, chant at least one spell from Hogwarts, or warn you to let the Wookie win. 

Similarly, more and more consumers are able to describe a Krogan, differentiate the races of the Covenant, or tell you which kingdom takes Rupees. Settings with extensive lore and recognisable races spark the imagination of players, prompting story arc speculation, fan fiction, cosplay and more.

But how do these worlds take shape? At one point, all of them were nothing but scribblings in a notepad – and often grouped into that risky little cluster known as new IP. Start-ups and indies are often advised to think beyond their current project to the next two or three – what if you want to build all of them within the same universe? Where do you start?

If players walk in and everything is different, they’re overwhelmed. But if there are touchstones that they’re familiar with, that’s going to be more accessible. Start with the familiar and go from there.

David Gaider (pictured), the lead writer behind BioWare’s Dragon Age series, says that the most important thing for devs to remember is that they don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

“It’s key to have certain aspects that only exist in that world, but without overwhelming it with too many distinctive things – otherwise it becomes just a mish-mash to the eyes of a new player,” he says. 

“If they walk in and everything is different, they’re overwhelmed. But if there are touchstones that they’re familiar with, alongside certain things that stand out, that’s going to be more accessible. Start with the familiar and go from there.”

Frank O’Connor, franchise development director at 343 Industries, agrees: “It’s hard to succeed initially without some central spark that resonates with players.

"In the case of Halo, the ingredients were beyond familiar – deadly alien alliance, ancient mystery and plucky human military – but the sum was definitely greater than the parts. 

"The first Halo dropped you directly into that world, literally in the middle of combat, and that instant immersion helped cement the feel of the universe for fans.”

Certainly, Bungie accomplished this with Halo and, now, Destiny. Having handed the reins of the former to 343, the studio is hard at work on its ten-year plans for a universe with ‘as much depth as Star Wars’.

Feature article image

That’s not to say devs should repurpose everything that’s come before. Jonathan Jacques-Belletête (pictured), Eidos Montreal’s executive art director for the Deus Ex series, says a unique blend of styles can make your world stand out. 

However, this can be challenging to accomplish, as the team discovered when trying to blend cyberpunk with the Renaissance.

“When you work so hard at finding something that’s never been attempted or mixed together, you realise there are no references to give your artists,” he says. 

“There are references for the two variables you’re trying to clash together, but the actual mix itself does not exist – that’s the whole idea of doing something that’s never been done before.

“We had tons of references from the Renaissance – fashion, architecture and so on – and the same thing for cyberpunk, and we had to find a way to clash those two things together in a way that would work. [Deus Ex hero] Adam Jensen literally took two and a half years to make – he went through many extremely bad designs.”

Mary DeMarle, executive narrative director at Eidos Montreal, says it’s also crucial to obey your own rules: “If you really want people to buy into your world, it has to have its own consistency. You can’t just throw things in that might contradict what’s come before or make no sense to fans. But as you’re building bigger and bigger, it gets harder to be consistent.”


Drawing on real-life influences can be invaluable. While Halo and Deus Ex are obviously set in our world – albeit alternate future versions of it – Gaider built Thedas around his research into medieval Europe, modelling fantasy nations on the UK, France and more. Reality can make fiction more absorbing, but it has to stem from everything you design.

“Fans believe it and appreciate it, and you can’t brute force that into a single element like cinematics or combat dialogue,” says O’Connor.

You should never underestimate how important it is to fill out the backstory. The more you know about your characters or a city, the more real they will become.

Research, then, is the first step to creating a world. Jacques-Belletête says the Deus Ex team spent months reading up on as much as possible – even the art team.

“I fill notebooks when I’m doing early world building – and it’s not even drawing,” he says. “Because I know that once we find a good idea and have something solid that hasn’t been done before, making it happen visually is almost the easier, more fun part.”

DeMarle adds: “We did a lot of reading into where science is taking us and what’s happening in various fields of technology. We also had a technical consultant who checked our science and gave us more ideas. So, for us, the best way to create a unique vision of the future is to start with what we know and what we see happening.

“You can get lost in research, so be careful about that, but the more you can ground it, the better and stronger it will be. That said, you can’t hang on to any idea too tightly, because once you start executing it, it changes and you have to let it go to suit what works.”

Ensuring your world is visually plausible is also key. Players need to believe that your creations could exist, says Jacques-Belletête.

“We were really picky about how everything mechanical is thought out and designed on Deus Ex,” he explains. “If you look at anything around you – a phone, a keyboard or mouse – it’s been manufactured and looks a certain way, with assembly lines in certain places, different materials and so on.

“In the games industry, this is becoming a lot better understood. Since Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a lot of games are starting to master this. Back in 2007, this is something that a lot of concept artists did not understand very well. There are exceptions: the Metal Gear Solid series, and a lot of Japanese creators in general, have always done amazing industrial designs – you can see it in animé, and so on.”


A major factor when building a new universe seems to be the lore: fictional histories, religions and often thousands of years of make-believe politics that take place before the player even starts the game. While it can be fun for writers to get carried away with creating this, it’s vital to ensure it is still accessible.

“You don’t want to assault the player with bizarre names,” warns Gaider. “The beginning of Dragon Age Inquisition went through many iterations to avoid bombarding you with what has happened: the Chantry, the Divine, the Tevinter – even the Grey Wardens came up at one point. All players would have heard was a load of names and not fully understood what’s going on.

Feature article image

“You have to almost drip-feed your lore, and try to avoid requiring the player to know these things. Just tell them what they need to know to complete their next task. They don’t need to know the background – that can be going on, and you can make investigation into it optional.”

O’Connor adds that devs can be guilty of implying that backstory and extended fiction, such as spin-off novels and comics, are necessary to enjoy the story.

“They’re absolutely not,” he admits. “We have a core mission to ensure that the story you get in each game episode makes sense, is compelling, and builds upon what has come before. The other stuff is extra and, for a lot of our fans, helps cement their understanding of the universe. We’re guilty of stretching that, and sometimes need to pull back.”

Gaider stresses that backstory is still needed – even if you cut it from the final game: “If the developer or the writer has only created the part of the world players directly interact with, that becomes readily apparent. When a writer knows way more than the player ever sees, there’s a sense that there is lot more happening in the world. I think it’s important that this exists, so I don’t think it’s possible to develop too much.

DeMarle (picturedconcurs: “Never underestimate how important it is to fill out the backstory. You can’t just throw in an idea without thinking about it because that will cause you problems later on. The more you know about your characters or a city, the more real they will become.”

Your lore doesn’t have to be set in stone from your first title, either. DeMarle observes that history is written by the winners and can differ depending on when your game is set.

Matt Firor, director of The Elder Scrolls Online, said his team was still able to be creative with a fictional history that was first established in the 1990s.

“We are not lacking for lore in The Elder Scrolls,” he says. “It was an interesting challenge for us though, as we are set before the other games. We couldn’t use much of the existing books and characters, because in our game they haven’t happened yet. So, we had to write much of our own lore books – but we could do fun things like allude to things that would happen in the future.” 

Great stories and characters are the foundation of any world – game or otherwise.

Feature article image


Presenting the 1,000-page history of your universe to players can be tricky, but there is a perfect channel to convey this: your characters.

“Locations don’t have to matter so much if the characters performing in them stick around in your mind,” stresses Bethesda’s Matt Firor. “Great stories and characters are the foundation of any world – game or otherwise.”

Former BioWare writer David Gaider talks us through the studio’s process: “When we sit down and design a character, we’re not trying to make them unique in every possible way. We’re trying to work out how they connect the player to the story.

“It’s hard to make players care about saving the world because it’s a big, vague concept. ‘Go save a million people’ – fine, but why would I care about that? You need to make the player care about a member of that group.”

A prime example of this is Mass Effect’s Tali, gamers’ best insight into the Quarian race. Through her plight, we become involved in their fate.

Gaider adds: “Having characters that represent and embody the larger conflicts at work is what’s going to make the player care – because you don’t care about conflicts, political concepts and nations. You care about people.” 

Look everywhere apart from within the industry – and maybe even movies. We stealth reference way too much and that’s a problem. 


All of this, of course, depends on the type of game you’re making – as ZeniMax Online discovered when making its MMO take on a pre-established RPG series.

Elder Scrolls is known for its gritty realism and being more down-to-earth than other fantasy IPs, and we – of course – stayed true to that,” says Firor (pictured). “However, as we are a multiplayer game, we had to design our characters, animations, and world environment with the understanding that we couldn’t control how many figures would be on screen at once.”

DeMarle adds: “If it’s a story-driven game, then the narrative needs to come first – or at least simultaneously. We can’t create all these levels and then figure out what the story is. We have to define the themes we want to explore, the setting, the characters – how can we reflect these in the game’s environments?”

Gaider warns that, while you may be proud of your new world, it’s important not to take it too seriously.

“When you’re being introduced to a new world, you’re having all these new names and concepts thrown at you, but there’s no charm,” he says. 

“In some of the new IP I’ve played recently, all these efforts are made to make the player learn about the world but not to make them like it.”

Jacques-Belletête stresses that devs should search far and wide for inspiration when creating their own universe – not just in other games. 

“Look everywhere apart from within the industry – and maybe even movies,” he says. “I find that we stealth reference way too much and I think that’s a problem. Things don’t stand out for the right reasons, or don’t stand out at all.

“Go and look at stuff that, at first, doesn’t even appear to be related to what you want to do. Go see crazy shit: underground art exhibitions, modern art stuff. That’s when you’re going to start having ideas that you never would have had.”

O’Connor concludes that, while it’s vital for you to define as much of your world as possible, it’s even more important to still leave room for the players’ imaginations.

“We’ve come a long way from Space Invaders, where players filled in elements that technology couldn’t support, but offering the player the opportunity to commit their ideas into your story is a fantastic way to engage,” he says. “As our worlds look more real, that challenge – ironically – gets harder and harder. Don’t hold their hand, just light the way.”

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Develop. Watch out for the full interviews with our experts all this week.