Cities of gold

Meet the man who wants to help vir­tual cities feel like real places

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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

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