How to Design a City for a Game

Designing a city for a game is a complex and creative process that is very important for the game environment design in general. Unlike real-world city planning, the main purpose of game city design is to provide players not only a visually stunning game experience and functionality but storytelling too. So, if you want to enhance your gameplay, narrative progression, and overall player enjoyment, just make an unforgettable city game design.

Stylized character in a vibrant block-style game cityscape urban design for sandbox games Guide To Crafting Video Game Cities

Fundamentals of Game City Planning

Whether you’re creating a mysterious medieval town or Cyberpunk modern city game design, planning still will be a foundational aspect of success. The most important step in this process is the first one: setting the theme and genre of the city. It will help designers to establish the visual, narrative, and atmospheric elements.

City Builders

In this case, the name speaks for itself. This genre of games focuses exactly on constructing and managing cities. Players can build and develop various aspects of a city’s infrastructure, economy, and more.

RTS Strategy

Usually, Real-Time Strategy games aren’t about making cities at all. But sometimes they incorporate city-building elements, where players manage resources, construct buildings, and create units to strategize and compete against opponents.

Survival

Similar to RTS Strategy games, city-building mechanics aren’t popular in survival games. But some of them include elements of a city or base building as part of surviving and thriving in a hostile environment.

Isometric manor building, process of creating and fundamentals of game city planning, GIF

While working with any gaming genre or making city games, game developers should always take into account 2 things: establishing scale and proportions and researching the implementation of real-world urban planning into game development. Talking about the first aspect, all designers should clearly define the size and boundaries of the game city. The scope of the city should match the game narrative and the technical capabilities of the game engine. After that, the scale should be determined by defining the sizes of buildings, streets, and open spaces.

Insights from real-world urban design principles can enhance the city layout, zoning, transportation systems, and architectural styles. In general, understanding how cities in the real world are planned and organized provides a solid foundation for creating a virtual city.

Building Creation for 2D Сity Building Games

As with any other style, building the best 2D video game cities involves designing structures that fit the game’s visual style and impact gameplay mechanics. If you want to make an outstanding 2D game city, here is a small step-by-step guide from our team: 

  • Create building templates

The first step usually is defining the visual style but we’ve already mentioned it before. Now, develop a set of building templates that adhere to the established visual style. These templates can include variations for residential, commercial, industrial, and special buildings. 

  • Building upgrades and variations

After considering size and scale, implement a system for building upgrades or variations to reflect progression in the game. This could involve evolving a residential building from a small house to a high-rise apartment or upgrading a commercial building to a shopping mall.

  • Incorporate gameplay functionality

Don’t forget to consider the gameplay functions of each building type. For example, residential buildings house virtual citizens, commercial buildings generate income, and industrial buildings contribute to resource production.

If you still don’t know how to create an outstanding 2D city-building game, our game art production studio will help you and answer all your questions ;)

Colorful 2D village park and garden scene isometric city-building games with high quality details Designing Towns with Computer Games

Building Creation for 3D Сity Building Games

Compared to 2D city game design, 3D city-building games involve a more dynamic approach because of leverage three-dimensional space. If you want to create realistic 3D cities in urban gaming, here are some of our tips:

  • Conceptualize building designs

After defining the artistic style, develop concept art for various building types, including residential, commercial, industrial, and landmarks. Consider architectural diversity, cultural influences, and thematic elements that align with the game’s setting.

  • Modeling and texturing

Create 3D models of buildings using modeling software such as Blender, Maya, or 3ds Max. All details such as windows, doors, and architectural features are very important so pay a lot of attention to them. Don’t forget to apply textures to add surface detail!

  • Animation for dynamic elements

Some 3D game city designs incorporate animations for dynamic elements within and around buildings. This could include activities like people moving in and out of structures, rotating signs for commercial buildings, or machinery operating in industrial zones.

3D model of a cyberpunk skater girl with futuristic city props and neon signs in a game environment

Our 3D game art outsourcing studio is ready to help you with your outstanding 3D city-building game idea! Just contact us anytime and we’ll make a memorable title together ;)

Infrastructure and Layout

Do you want to make a good city plan? Then think deeply about infrastructure and layout! A well-designed virtual city should have realistic road networks, efficient transportation systems, thoughtful zoning, and district planning, as well as notable landmarks and points of interest. Let’s look at every component in detail:

Road Networks and Transportation Systems

Transportation infrastructure in game cities is very important. Turn on your imagination and include such road types as residential streets, avenues, and highways, each with varying capacities and speeds. After that, implement traffic management systems, including traffic lights, roundabouts, and one-way streets.

One of the main goals of the city-building games is to fill them with people. So, include various modes of public transportation, such as buses, subways, or trams, to provide efficient mobility options for virtual citizens.

Isometric view of a detailed city layout for a simulation game with urban structures and transportation Making a Game of City Planning

Zoning and District Planning

City zoning and district planning are very crucial in game development. Designate areas for residential, commercial, and industrial purposes, each with its characteristics and requirements. Maybe, you can also create mixed-use zones that combine residential and commercial elements, promoting diversity within neighborhoods. Don’t forget about landscaping and green spaces in game cities! By introducing special zones like parks, recreational areas, or cultural districts, you can improve the city’s aesthetics. 

Landmarks and Points of Interest

Firstly, include iconic structures and landmarks because they define the city’s skyline and serve as navigational aids for players. If your game has a storytelling part, integrate cultural and historical points of interest. Also, you should allow players to build and customize landmarks. This opportunity will add a layer of personalization to the city and its various locations.

Game Map with cities and trains, economic strategy What a city building game taught me about aesthetic values in city planning

Environment Design and Atmosphere

Usually, city game design is just a part of game environment design. But in this case, the environment is a city or town plus several small details, so designers should pay a lot of attention to it. 

The first idea of how you can enhance the environment design is to integrate diverse weather effects such as rain, snow, fog, or storms. Dynamic weather not only adds visual interest but also affects gameplay a lot, influencing visibility and traffic. Don’t be shy: show the impact of weather on the environment, for instance, wet surfaces after rain or accumulating snow on rooftops. For creating realistic cities in gaming, this is the best decision. 

What about implementing smooth transitions between day and night cycles? Players will enjoy gradual shifts in lighting and sky colors! Also, because of the day-night cycle, there are some functional features such as changes in traffic patterns, citizen behavior, or the availability of certain activities. This is the best idea for enhancing city management!

Also, add interesting details to buildings, streets, and landmarks. Small visual elements, such as street furniture, graffiti, or unique architectural features, will improve the ambiance of the city.

Also, add interesting details to buildings, streets, and landmarks. Small visual elements, such as street furniture, graffiti, or unique architectural features, will improve the ambiance of the city.

Population Dynamics and NPC Behavior

Without NPCs, creating cities will have no sense. Population dynamics and non-player characters are essential elements to make the virtual world more realistic. Of course, such instruments as Unity or Unreal Engine can help you with that but the main thing is still an idea. So, while working on your game, you should pay a lot of attention to the NPCs and characters.

Start with establishing a system for population growth, migration, and decline based on factors such as housing availability, job opportunities, and overall city satisfaction. Then, create a diverse virtual population with varying demographics, including age groups, occupations, and cultural backgrounds. This diversity adds richness to the city and influences NPC behavior.

Second: develop algorithms that simulate the basic needs of virtual citizens, such as housing, employment, and access to services. These algorithms guide NPC behavior in seeking out these necessities. You can also implement algorithms for social interactions among NPCs, including friendships, family ties, and community engagement.

What Designers of Video Game Cities Understand About Real Cities

Economy and Resources

We’ve already mentioned something about the importance of economy before but it’s time to dive deeply into this topic of city game design

Every game has its key resources. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s energy but each resource plays a significant role in different aspects of city development. Some of them may be limited, requiring careful management, while others might be abundant, allowing for strategic expansion.

Not so often, but many game-developing companies implement trade routes that connect the city to external markets or neighboring cities. Trade can bring in additional resources, wealth, and growth opportunities.

As you can see, without an economy, players of any city-building game won’t make any progress. So you always need to think about how to improve it and make it more profitable. We advise encouraging economic specialization by zoning specific areas for industries or services. Specialized zones can boost efficiency and productivity in resource production or commercial activities.

One more piece of advice: the economy should influence infrastructure investments. For example, building a port can enhance trade opportunities, while investing in research and development may attract high-tech industries.

Quests and Storylines

A lot of game companies don’t even think about integrating quests and storylines into 2D or 3D city-building games. Their main argument is “City-building games are about different things”, but we don’t agree with them. It is so obvious that quests can enhance player engagement and gameplay experience in virtual cities of any game from pixel art indie projects to huge AAA titles.

We recommend creating quests that are tied to specific aspects of game city design, such as expanding certain zones and locations, implementing specific policies, or solving challenges and obstacles in designing game cities. After completing these quests, players can attract more citizens or trigger dynamic events that shape the city’s development.

We’ve already told about NPCs, but we haven’t mentioned unique NPCs who can serve as quest givers. Each NPC can have a distinct personality, background, and role in the city. With their help, players will go through a variety of quests, including building-related tasks, citizen satisfaction goals, or challenges tied to the city’s economy.

One more important thing: ensure that quest completion comes with meaningful rewards, such as unique buildings, aesthetic enhancements, or gameplay advantages. Players’ desire to play the game can be easily boosted with these features.

Isometric buildings for city building game construction process concept art

Challenges in City Game Design

Any game can’t be released without some challenges in the game development process, especially a city-building game. While working on such projects, we had to deal with these challenges and issues. Now, we want to share the experience of our team with you in a big hope that it’ll help you.

Balancing Aesthetics and Functionality

Striking the right balance between aesthetic appeal and functional design is a significant challenge. Whether the talk is about PC or mobile game UX design, city-building games need to be visually stunning while ensuring that the design supports gameplay mechanics and practical city management.

Technical Limitations and Optimization

For large-scale city simulations, addressing technical limitations is very important. For a lot of game companies, optimizing graphics, managing resource-intensive features, and ensuring smooth gameplay across various hardware configurations are ongoing challenges.

Designing games that can scale effectively with the size of the city and the complexity of gameplay is also very challenging. As cities expand, developers must optimize performance to prevent slowdowns and maintain a seamless gaming experience. At this step, a lot of game companies hire game prototype designers and teams to help them with this difficult step.

Player Engagement and Retention Challenges

Keeping players engaged over the long term poses a challenge. Developers need to offer a variety of content, challenges, and progression mechanics to maintain player engagement and gameplay experience in virtual cities.

FAQs:

CITY-BUILDING Game DESIGN questions

How important is realism in city design for games?

If creating an engaging player experience is significant for your game, then realism in city design for games is crucial. While some level of abstraction and stylization is often necessary for gameplay considerations, incorporating realistic elements adds authenticity and depth to the virtual world. Realistic city design enhances player immersion, allowing them to connect more deeply with the game environment and make strategic decisions feel more meaningful.

What tools or software are commonly used for game city design?

Game developers often use a variety of tools and software for game city design. Industry-standard tools like Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Maya are popular for 3D modeling and animation, allowing designers to create detailed cityscapes and realistic buildings. Unity and Unreal Engine are widely employed for game development, providing robust frameworks for creating interactive city environments. GIS (Geographic Information System) software, such as CityEngine, is utilized for realistic urban planning and procedural generation of cities.

How does city design impact the gameplay experience in open-world games?

The layout, architecture, and overall structure of a virtual city significantly influence how players navigate and interact with the game world. Well-designed cities provide a sense of realism, enhancing the player’s connection to the environment. The placement of key landmarks, streets, and districts affects the flow of exploration and quest progression. Dynamic city elements, such as crowds, traffic, and day-night cycles, also help to create a breathing world.