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Building game worlds with creative lifehacks from the field of writing

Sometimes, especially with new releases, we need to build entire worlds from scratch. Lifehacks from writing can provide valuable insights. We share a practical creative algorithm for any project!

8 Min Read

The very idea of game design courses that promise to teach the art of creating game worlds has actually become a meme. Meanwhile, any experienced game designer (GD) knows that, in reality, this is not what game designers typically do. That said, there are times, especially with new releases, when you need to build entire worlds from scratch! This is where creative lifehacks from a separate field – writing – can provide valuable insights.

Hi! My name is Sophie Solomonova, and I’m a producer and co-author of the War Robots lore, as well as a published author. In this article, I will share a practical algorithm for crafting fictional worlds that can be applied to any project.


In literature, cinema, and games, the first crucial step is to answer a fundamental question: "Who?" In traditional media, this question typically revolves around choosing a central character, for instance, asking, "Who is our hero?" However, in the realm of games, an additional layer of complexity arises with the question, "Who is our player?"

While the player and character are often synonymous, this isn't always the case. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for example, the player is inextricably linked to Adam Jensen, controlling his actions and making decisions on his behalf. However, in Hearthstone, the player assumes the role of a World of Warcraft resident engaged in a board game within a tavern setting.


The answers to these two questions are largely influenced by gameplay mechanics and the project’s underlying concept. For example, a city-building simulator can't have an ordinary citizen as the player, just as a narrative-driven RPG can't have the player as a detached observer. Yet, discrepancies can still arise.

A case in point is War Robots, where, since its 2014 release, we’ve referred to players as “pilots”. When we introduced pilot characters back in 2019, a challenge emerged: a player can not be a singular pilot, as they command multiple robots simultaneously. Thus, our players evolved into “commanders”, leading squads of pilots (and since 2021, they even have their own spaceships).


The theme of spaceships seamlessly leads us to the second crucial question: "Where?" This question is multifaceted and can be addressed in various ways. Sometimes, the answer lies within the game's concept. Other times, it requires some separate exploration. The possibilities are endless, and are influenced by factors such as the popularity of settings in marketing creatives, the quest for a unique niche and USP through an unusual setting, and the capabilities of the art and FX teams.

The case of War Robots again presents an intriguing scenario. For five years, the game existed in a state of narrative limbo, with robots’ names referring to the history of Earth and maps featuring earthly locations like Springfield, Shenzhen, and Yamantau. Yet, we never went into the specifics of the game's setting. But when we introduced pilots, this question resurfaced, and we came to the conclusion that setting the game in a futuristic Earth was a risky proposition.


To explain that decision a bit more: since the game is popular in diverse regions, we needed to avoid biases towards certain countries or regions. Any bias could lead to player dissatisfaction or even regulatory issues (a particular concern in China). However, we couldn't ignore the existing earthly references in the game. So, ultimately, we transformed the War Robots universe into a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk Mars, where players take on the role of mercenary squad commanders, entangled in an endless proxy war waged by megacorporations for the resources of a lost Earth.


Once we have answers to those two fundamental questions, it’s time to deal with the most important one: "Why?". The answer to this one is the linchpin that ensures narrative cohesion, anchors the storyline, and creates the immersive hook. After all, a successful answer to this question is the factor that compels players to engage with the game’s narrative even if it’s only present in the form of videos on the game’s YouTube channel.

Let's take a different game, “Homescapes” as an example of this: the game starts with the player and Austin visit Austin’s parents, only to discover they're selling his childhood home. This, additionally backed with a touching and nostalgic opening cutscene, creates an emotional connection, causing the player to be invested in helping Austin prevent the sale. The plot of the early chapters is built around this central conflict.


Even if your game doesn't have a strong narrative hook, it's essential to establish a logical and coherent storyline. This will help your development team create content within a structured system, which also makes it easier for players to understand the game's world and ideas.

With all that said, when dealing with mobile games, it's best to keep the "why" simple and easy to grasp. While some Asian games can earn millions featuring stories about saving the world with the power of fashion or merging together girls and ships with wisdom cubes, they hardly ever enjoy the same success outside of the region. In other regions, just around 10% of players are interested in reading text or going deep into the game's lore.

Building a rich fictional world

Now that we have a foundation for our fictional world, it's time to add depth and texture. So, where to start?

One strategy is to draw inspiration from our own world. Let's face it, it's challenging to create something entirely new and unique – our brains are wired to build upon what we already know. Moreover, if a concept is too radical, it may be difficult for our audience to understand it. So, we can take the real world as our starting point, select a suitable time period, and modify as needed.

If you're writing about the future, you can use the present (or draw from a past era) to craft a unique blend of multiple periods. For example, imagine Ancient Greece in a futuristic setting: strong social hierarchy, relaxed moral code, and city-states – sounds like cyberpunk, doesn’t it?

Next, we can flesh out our world by answering questions about various aspects of life in the social, economic, and political spheres. Additionally, if it’s relevant for your case, you can also explore biology and physics in this new world and how the laws of nature there differ from conventional ones.

These questions can help you develop a rich, immersive world, whether you're writing fantasy with elves and dwarves or science fiction set in deep space.


  • What races inhabit your world? For instance, typical fantasy races might include dwarves, elves, humans, and so on.

  • How are they different from each other?

  • What is their relationship with each other?

Everyday life:

  • Which real historical period (or mixture) are you referencing?

  • How do people dress in your world?

  • How do they move around?

  • What do they eat?


  • What is the climate in the world (or region)?

  • Are there any significant differences between this world and the Earth in terms of physics (gravity, for example)?

  • What about biology?

  • Ecological differences?


  • What are the notable political entities/regimes?

  • What classes or social groups exist, and how do they interact?

  • What factions exist, and how do they interact with each other?

  • Are there any active or passive interstate conflicts (wars, trade blockades, and so on)?


  • What religion is practiced in the world/region (and which real-life religion is it most similar to)?

  • What are the morals and traditions of this world?

  • What are the moral standards in this world?

Let's again turn to the War Robots universe as an example. In our world, an endless proxy war rages on between powerful corporations, which replace the traditional fantasy race-factions found in some other games.

Our task was to craft a unique identity, appearance, and backstory for each corporation, addressing questions like lifestyle, fashion, robot design, ideology, and reasons for involvement in the arms race.

We created five distinct corporations, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. While they borrow inspiration from familiar factions from other universes, they still retain their individuality. (This approach is important, as players often feel more comfortable with familiar concepts, even as they simultaneously crave originality.)


To illustrate this point, our SpaceTech corporation is reminiscent of the classic Star Trek Federation, with a focus on technological advancement, rights, and freedoms. Their futuristic attire is simple yet stylish, meanwhile, their philosophy and logo pay homage to NASA and Tesla.


This level of development is sufficient for most games. However, if you're creating a narrative game, you'll need to go deeper. That means crafting a rich history, notable personalities–and even deities. Games like Dishonored, with its abundance of in-game books and lore, are great examples of this.

But if your setting is more of a general outline to support your game world, such extensive efforts aren't necessary. The key is to establish a solid foundation and set the stage for player fun.

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