This has got to be my favourite Game Design Conundrum! How to create the most immersive fantasy settlements in a TBS!
Why? Because on the level most TBS games work, settlements are central to communicating the culture of the fictive world to the audience. Therefore they become the primary inspiration of the audience to start imagining the details, fill in the gaps in the story framework that the game provides. Done well, descriptions of the places where people decide to live their lives, can make or break a game.
From a TBS game design perspective, I think the primary challenges are as follows:
1. You can’t show it all, you have to tell as well.
in a TBS you usually can't create the whole city visually, with enough detail that it will actually feel autonomous, and if you do, it will usually lack personality, besides what it gets from its location. Therefore you will have to rely on text, pictures and abstractions (points/titles/categories) to create the personality of the city. In my experience what works best is to not use points to describe, simply because word, sounds and images are more evocative and help your imagination along. It’s more difficult/expensive obviously, although it can be done on multiple levels. The more emergent the text is however, the more it feeds your imagination and makes you feel that there is more to the city than a simply point based system camouflaged with a few words.
basic Example: So, the first step is instead of describing a city's size with integers 1 through 5, describe them as a list of texts
(1=[hamlet, collection of huts], 2=[village, small town], 3=[town, market town, county hub], 4=[city], 5=[capital])
Same for all other attributes you feel could help describe the city:
My dream has always been to go even further and script an emergent system to generate flavored descriptions based on game data, and these texts could then constantly reflect the city’s history and current status. This is something that was already done in a basic but powerful way on Commodore 64 (land of midnight).
"The [Small Hamlet] of [Touring] is situated on [the river smafok] near [the black forest]. It has been here [forever]. The population are [mainly Fishermen], with a [few Merchants] and [some Tradesmen]. etc. etc.
2. Camouflage the systemic description. Support the players own story telling
If you want to create immersion, you need the formal system you use to describe they city, its attributes, classes, tables, rules, algorithms, to be hidden, yet reflected in your descriptions, but in text and images that add flavor and still lets the player understand what he is dealing with, and not numbers and stats. Using numbers and stats breaks immersion and asks the player to start crunching numbers instead of spending his time “role playing” the city. The gamers will start min-maxing and discussing stats instead of telling stories. Doing it right takes a whole new layer on top of the basic stats layer, which is probably why most games leave it out. Unfortunately, this is exactly where you should not save on resources, unless immersion, story and role playing is secondary to your design.
3. Player attention and Communicating in ways that are easy to remember
In TBS games the player usually have many cities, or points of interest, you want him to spend time on. Therefore his attention is divided, and when presenting the location to him the first time, the description needs to be short and brimming with data that lets him tell it apart from other locations, as well as wet his appetite for learning more about the place. Therefore a short description that points out the special attributes and notable personalities or groups of people is a good start point. It should be possible to generate a short description like below, based on game data:
“Hadrum’s Point, is a bustling and dangerous harbor town, on the shores of the sea of shards. Towering over the town is a beautiful Lighthouse known far and wide. Hadrum’s Point is infamous as the home of the Powerful Cerulean Assassins guild. The ruler of the city is the Adventurous Count Smakodak, a famous rogue.”
This is IMO a pretty nice intro to a city. It is short and brimming with info generated based on game data, so it actually also tells the player something about the city’s opportunities (trade here, build a town guard, send the count on a quest, hire assassins, create boats here that sail further, etc. etc.). Coupled with a nice picture a la what we have seen in the journals, maybe with an “assassins guild” icon, and a picture of the ruler, it should be enough to give the player incentive to read the more detailed descriptions/stats on the town and start doing stuff to the town to see how it changes.
When it comes to creating a memorable city with more detail than just the introduction, think about what people in general are best at remembering. Personality comes from being able to differentiate, and from remembering history. images, colors, faces, memorable texts, sounds, and names that evoke images and fit into a context, are all easy to remember. Numbers, Names that mean nothing in particular, generic text, generic graphics, are all difficult for most people to remember and do not evoke history in any way, because you forget them. Easiest of all to remember is stuff that reminds you of real life!
Also finding something rare and valuable is of course also very important:
So let’s focus on the easy ones and come up with ideas to use those:
Images: Obviously if the graphics of the settlements are customizable enough, and differ enough based on location, culture, race, etc, then a picture of the settlement can be great. Especially if specific landmarks, buildings, etc. can be used.
Colors: Color palette is a general tool to strengthen recognition and thereby personality
Faces: This is a whole chapter by itself. People are made to recognize faces, because other people matter a whole lot in an evolutionary sense. Therefore adding important personalities with individual faces, is a very very good way of giving flavor and personality to a location. This also opens up a whole new area of location description, in the sense that it asks the question: what is really most interesting about a city, is it the buildings or the people that live in them, their culture, who they are and what they do? I would always say the latter, hence when describing a settlement, describe the most interesting people there, the organizations, and their personalities, goals etc. This I see as the most important way of giving a settlement personality. In the end a settlement is all about the people that live there.
Text: again, text is much more evocative than numbers, inspiration and interpretation is more important in text than in numbers. Instead of having a city with a defense of 2, I would rather see that my city “is surrounded by a rugged 10 foot wooden barricade, with guard towers at strategically important locations”. Why? Simply because it evokes a picture in my minds eye. And I now remember that I build the wooden barricade around the city called blabu. Going from Defense 1 to Defense 2 does not evoke anything in regards to story, it just adds to my stats.
Sounds & Music: Specific music, sounds that reflect the settlements size, location, culture, religion, again stimulates the most basic parts of the human brain in ways that numbers and text cannot. This is the reason why the best games have awesome sound. Inspiration: Heroes of might and magic series has awesome sound effects, esp. II and III. There are sound effects tied to every little location on screen, and depending on your view as a player, the overall audio experience is a mashup of all these. It works really well! Music: morrowind, oblivion, age of empires, neverwinter nights, guild wars (Jeremy soule!) is amazingly evocative music for creating moods.
Names: If you can make sure that names of locations fit the game context in some way, then you have come far. Instead of choosing random names from a list, let the names reflect the location, the area, the culture, as most actual city names actually do, although we tend to forget. It is of course more difficult in a game, since the player probably won’t know very much about this things, but it should be possible to create a library of city names or a name generator that uses game data to generate context dependant names.
Rare and valuable: Special abilities, and attributes are always cool: “oh this is the city with the assassins guild!” see the cool assassins guild badge it has!. Or, “wow, this one has the gold mine!” etc. etc. easy as pie, works a treat.
Real Life references: This is why borrowing from Real life cultures is a staple in fantasy and sci-fi. By e.g. introducing an oriental culture into a fantasy game, you automatically allow the player to use all his knowledge of the middle east, aswell as other oriental inspired stories, movies, games he has experienced, to interpret and build on the story seed you gave him. Using Cultural references allows you to say a lot without saying very much. Its free content!
The one thing that is central to all of these descriptors however, is the elusive context: To help the story telling of the player the descriptions need to be in context. They need to be consistent and reflect the true game world. Since Elementals focus is creating a very detailed game world, I think you are the exact game that might be able to pull this off for real.