Cities of gold
Meet the man who wants to help virtual cities feel like real places
Meet the geographer on a mission to bring urban renewal into virtual spaces
What makes a great videogame city? It’s a question developers and players obsess over, and one that geographer, urban planner and game designer Konstantinos Dimopoulos has positioned himself to answer as a consultant ‘game urbanist’, an expert in the form and function of cities who wants to help virtual ones feel like real places.
Think of the Shanghai in Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, which despite being the setting for a corridor shooter manages to conjure a sense of a rapidly growing metropolis, taking place in backstreets, building sites and informal markets. “If you think about it, they don’t show you much of it, but they imply tonnes,” says Dimopoulos, who is based in Athens and is currently working remotely on Frogwares’ forthcoming The Sinking City, a game set in a open, Lovecraft-inspired world. “Obviously, basing it on a real city, things are easier, but having the mastery and understanding to pick what to show, that they did brilliantly.” Or think GTAIV’s Liberty City. “There is something used in cartography called simplification, and it decides how much detail enters the map depending on the map’s scale,” he tells us. “Instead of drawing five buildings, you draw two, and the GTA team did this for New York, simplifying everything in a very cartographic way to a point where they could manage the work it demanded.”
One thing that Dimopoulos stresses is that developers should think about cities as geographers, rather than architects. “A city is not a sum of walls, roads and infrastructure,” he says. “It’s everything that’s happening in it, everything that constantly shapes and devolves it. It’s never static, whereas architecture sort of is.” A city is therefore the way its inhabitants dress, whether it’s flat or hilly, the kind of sky it lies under and what its roads are made of. It’s also sounds, of crowds and traffic. Dimopoulos points towards a classic book by urban planner Kevin Lynch, The Image Of The City, which identifies the ways we perceive and understand our urban spaces: the routes we take through them, the boundaries within them, their intersections and their landmarks.
Being memorable, landmarks both aid navigation and give players a sense of position in a place, whether it’s fully realised or not. “You can easily play with them,” Dimopoulos says. “The City 17 tower is visible from everywhere, and landmarks can imply things. If there’s a bridge in the background, its mere existence instantly implies a big city. It saves a lot of creative work instantly.” Being so vast, much of the craft of designing videogame cities is about the practicalities of creating them. Anyone can envisage a vast endeavour like Liberty City, but it also takes a vast team to build it, from its infrastructure of roads to its buildings, pedestrians and soundscapes. “It really does feel like New York, but it’s something that requires a triple-A studio,” he says.
For most other games the fallback is a city that feels too small or too empty. “A usual mistake is explaining to us that a city is a huge and sprawling place, and then here’s the one butcher’s shop.” Or there’s the example of a capital city in an MMO, populated by 100 NPCs. While Dimopoulos admires many aspects of
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s Prague, he feels it’s a little too small, being focused into just a few self-contained districts. “Even adding a few useless buildings in between would help things,” he says, indicating the potential of procedurally generating simple building forms.
Often, he says, these generated buildings can be blocked off from player access or depicted in the middle distance. But when they’re within players’ reach, it’s a common concern they’ll invite frustration that they’re not accessible. Dimopoulos, however, believes this isn’t a problem, reasoning that no one expects to enter each house on a real-world street. And, he says, it’s possible to imply a wider city beyond the fake doors with working buzzers that go unanswered, or police that tell you to move along.
Making sense is
key to Dimopoulos’ vision. He says cities should be fully imagined, pointing towards Dishonored’s Dunwall, where an economy based on whale oil gives a foundation for the entire game. Or they can be more fantastical. “For a game I was working on there was this idea of buildings that had AI systems that moved them around according to where they were needed, what their occupants wanted, and their value. We had all the problems: how were they going to move? Is there any control to their movements? But by solving one problem, you get all sorts of new ideas.”
Or the imagination can be in the details, taken from research of real cities. “Maybe it’s common to see little Buddhas wrapped in foil with incense burning next to them. You can so easily take and modify these things for your city and they give so much character. This creates human life, a simulacrum of it.”
“A usual mistake is explaining that a city is a huge and sprawling place, and then here’s the one butcher’s shop”
Dimopoulos got into game development through a blog he started in the mid-’00s