Will We Ever Get To Play “One City Block”?

By Jim Rossignol on October 31st, 2012 at 3:00 pm.

Following on from my article on the importance of keeping our eye on the future, I’ve started writing what will no doubt be an irregular column on the future of games. I wanted to start with looking at the future of some aspects of game design, and particularly – in the context of the previous column – looking at the kinds of things that have been hoped for or predicted in the past, and have not yet come to be.

Let’s start with Warren Spector’s “One City Block RPG” idea. What is it, and will we ever see it? Fullbright’s Steve Gaynor and a number of devs from Arkane contribute to the discussion that follows, and try to explain the persistent appeal of the One City Block idea as an ideal in game design.

Warren Spector, the designer who led the original Deus Ex project, has said on a number of occasions that he’d ideally like to make an RPG/immersive sim that took place entirely within one city block: “My ultimate dream is for someone to be foolish enough to give me the money to make what I call the One Block Role-Playing Game, where we simulate one building, one city block perfectly.” Recently he raised the idea when talking to The Guardian newspaper in the UK, when he said “I really want deep worlds that you can interact with. My ideal game would be one city block – some day I’m going to make that.”

It’s a fascinating idea: the notion that if an environment was detailed enough, with comparable interactions to a real city block, with all its people, mantelpieces, and cockroaches, then it could sustain an entire game at quite a high level. It’s also something that fires the imagination: what would the plot be? What other constraints would such a game place on the designers? Would there be a single bullet in a revolver in a drawer somewhere, which would signal the end of the game when it was fired? So many questions.

One day, perhaps, Spector will get to make that hyper-detailed microworld for us, but he’s just as likely to be beaten to it. Plenty of designers are gunning for similar notions, and it seems like teams like Arkane have come pretty close already.

“Arx Fatalis was this type of game,” argues Dishonored co-lead Raphael Colantonio. “It’s the reason Arkane Studios was born and we love creating that kind of experience.”

You can certainly see those influences in their work. Most recently, Dishnored might not have simulated city blocks in as much details as Spector was talking about, but the designers still clearly habouring similar ambitions. The other Dishonored lead, Harvey Smith, who worked with Spector on Deus Ex, has long been familiar with the idea: “I remember talking to Warren about the one-city-block RPG; it’s the kind of interconnected, deep game design idea that we all love. It’s a clever constraint, like the Twilight Zone episode where everything takes place in one room, and as much as anything, it’s a great creative exercise.”

Colantonio echoes the idea that this kind of constraint could make for thrilling creative space: “I would do anything to work on a game like Ultima Underworld set in a modern mall, blocked off and sealed up after a cataclysm. That’s about the size of a city block, and it would allow us to make everything super detailed, with rival clans and factional alliances. Exciting!”

When you see designers talking about the concept like this, it becomes clear that One City Block is perhaps no-longer simply Warren Spector’s dream game, but more a sort of guiding design principle: a notion of how games could and should be that is informing the future direction of both big studios like Arkane, and smaller, although no less ambitious, indie projects.

Although it’s not operating with quite this sort of breadth of vision, it’s hard not to see The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home – an NPC-free immersive sim set in a single house – as a nod towards the One Block ideal. I put this to Fullbright’s Steve Gaynor: “It’s weird, people have (rightly!) brought up the One City Block idea in relation to Gone Home, and it totally fits– we’re deeply simulating one single location, a manor home, and allowing the player to mine every drawer, cabinet, and secret panel for meaning. But honestly we’d never made the connection to the One City Block game until someone else reminded us of it after seeing our announcement video!”

It’s easy to see what Gaynor and chums are doing as perhaps one aspect of what the One City Block idea is intended to achieve: a range of believable interactions with mundane objects being at the heart of its systems.

Gaynor is the first to concede that Gone Home is only a fragment of what Spector’s dream would likely have to encompass: “I doubt we’re doing what Warren Spector is imagining. When he says “One Block Role-Playing Game,” it implies a lot more: simulating the people who live and work there, allowing the player to buy equipment and improve their character’s skills and attributes. So I don’t know if someone will get to exactly where he describes… but maybe close. “

Meticulously modelling something on a very close-in, narrow focus, seems crucial to the idea, and it’s one that designers other than Spector have wanted to take further, as Smith recollects: “I also remember Doug Church talking about an even tighter version, based on an old comedy sketch: the Cheese Shop game, where everything occurs in one store. The basic idea of accounting for myriad interactions and player choices and weaving them into a narrative is appealing.”

And the idea of dragging the focus right down to the objects in individual spaces does seem enormously appealing to developers, particularly those with an interest in level design. Dishonored’s lead level designer Christophe Carrier is a strong advocate of the One City Block philosophy: “I would love to do a game like this!” he says. “Tight and dense with consequences. Huge open-worlds give you the feeling that you’re part of something epic and bring out the explorer in all of us, but the tighter the space, the more detail is possible, so as a game designer you can really hammer the feeling that you’re in a world where little things matter and that you leave traces of your influence everywhere.”

Carrier believes that the attraction of One City Block idea is based on interaction. This game design ideal makes everything in the world – not just the things that are part of the core game (such as the guns and enemies in your typical FPS – important to the player experience: “As far as I remember, environmental interactivity has always been one of the things I crave to see in first person games but it’s hard to pull off. I want a game to let me stop at any given floor while taking an elevator, I want to break things that look breakable or be able to use the bathrooms or turn the AC on, even if there’s no gameplay implications whatsoever. That’s always been my drive when working on games like Arx Fatalis, Bioshock 2 and Dishonored.”

Gaynor echoes this sentiment: “Experientially, too many games are much too broad and shallow. They only let the player touch the surface of things (usually as they sprint past them firing an SMG wildly.) When I play a game I always have the desire to inhabit its gameworld, treat it as a real place, find out about who lives there and what makes things tick. Focusing entirely on one house inhabited by multiple generations of one family allows us to deeply explore a very small, personal history, to dig deeper below the surface than most games allow.”

Gaynor has other thoughts too, saying that for them the focus on a single house is a practical constraint of being a small team. But I think what’s exciting about the idea is that it sort of maps out a future for unrealised games, by implying what iy is that both gamers and designers are interested in exploring. Sprawling landscapes are on thing, said the folks who contributed to this article, but it’s the things at our fingertips that games really need to get to grips with. And that’s not simply a technical challenge: not just about graphical fidelity, and physics complexity, it’s a design challenge. Game designers have to make these things fit and be fun, in their future games. And that’s a complex problem.

How that problem is approached, will define how the One City Block idea resurfaces in our future games.

It’s Smith who makes the most important final point about the One City Block idea. It comes down to to what extent it relied on one of two competing design philosophies: the one that relies most heavily on a script, or the one that relies most heavily on systems: “Whether it felt more like an emergent narrative in the sense of a game like FTL or (the tactical story in) XCOM, or more like an “insanely scripted” RPG is the question,” he states. “You could make a compelling experience either way, but obviously there’s a thrill and some feeling of elegance to game interactions when they arise from systems.”


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  1. magicwalnuts says:

    “Some day I’m going to make that,” but first I need to make Mickey Mouse platformers for Disney.

    • Arglebargle says:

      Spector loved Disney long before he loved the idea of the One Block….

    • karthink says:

      Someone’s got to give him money to make his one block game, no? Until then, Epic Mickeys it is.

      • LionsPhil says:

        I suspect he could probably mop up a pretty hefty pile of Kickstarted money off his name alone, before even getting a neat proof of concept along with it. (Enough to fund a serious team, though, maybe not.)

        But he wants to make a Mickey Mouse game, and is already being paid to make it.

        • hatseflats says:

          Oh god let him do a Kickstarter already that would be perfect!
          Warren Spector <3

          • belgand says:

            I’m not so sure these days. Particularly after his keynote at PAX a few years ago. Basically his argument is that gaming needs to be more mainstream and that this is an approach that has worked in film. I would counter that it has made film terrible and led to a succession of remakes, sequels, and lowest-common-denominator crap and as the games industry is already on a similar track it’s the absolute worst thing that could happen to it.

            I’ve been a huge Warren Spector fanboy since System Shock, but I’m not so certain that he still has it anymore. It’s something I’d like to see, but I’m wary that he’s now more Richard Garriott than Chris Roberts.

          • Arglebargle says:

            Spector has produced games far more recently than Garriot or Roberts. I suspect those two are the same anyway.

    • MacTheGeek says:

      Coming in 2015: Mickey Mouse, Iron Man, and Chewbacca, in “It’s a Small Block After All”.

  2. Jockie says:

    So, like JG Ballard’s High Rise in gaming form? That would A) probably work as a straight adaptation and B) be awesome.

    Edit : Not that I’m boiling down all the ideas and discussions in the article down to this, just the image that popped up in my head.

    Think Condemned style brutal melee as affluence devolves into decadence over a period of time.

    It also brings to mind a version of Bioshock where you live through the collapse of Rapture, if it was designed as an actual place to live, rather than as levels with an underwater city theme.

    • Rigonzo says:

      Yes oh yes. I want to play this right now. Even just to explore such a place would be amazing… High rise is one of those novels that evokes incredibly strong memories of place

    • Kadayi says:

      High Rise the RPG would be great. Even now that book still holds up as a great read.

  3. Chiron says:

    No mention of The Sims?

    • Arjent says:

      No mention of Dwarf Fortress? You’ve pretty much got the “one city block” covered there. Intricate detail down to excrutiatingly painful levels of what type of rock crusted cup someone has stashed in their oaken barrel that is carved with a picture of their grandmother from the year 116 by suchandsuch. Moods and interactions of people inhabiting poor/exquisite living conditions. All it needs is some eye candy.

      • Swanny says:

        DF is actually a very good example of this type of game.
        Unfortunately, it’s only accessible to masochists and antediluvians.

        • jezcentral says:

          How about Hitman: Blood Money’s “A New Life” level? The smaller the level the better, in that game.

          The joy of the Hitman games (for me, at any rate) was seeing the system laid out in front of you and trying to exploit it in all sorts of ways.

          • Dan Lowe says:

            But these micromanagement sims aren’t what he’s getting at, I don’t think, nor do they actually get to the level of detail one would expect out of the sort of virtual experience this will ultimately be (especially if we get adaptive AI that can scan an environment, understand relationships of the objects and actors and generate them instead of having a person or a team of people drudge over the mundane). I think it’ll be much closer to the idea of Shen Mue as others have mentioned, or what The Elder Scrolls has contributed in terms of mundane elements that add up to something more immersive as they multiply.

            But don’t get me wrong. We’re not there yet, and adding characters will be the major test. There are more people in most city blocks than in the whole of any modern Bethesda game, and those are just basic script-puppets and not truly intelligent characters.

            I think that the transition will be to a game world in which other players play other characters, but not with big bright user names floating over their heads or profiles and stat sheets, just people who show up or don’t and who you meet by being in the same place at the same time. Real world recognition depends on so many other factors. Perhaps not ideal for matchmaking or games in general, but for One City Block as for the world we live in, that’s how it goes. (I’ll eat my words in five years of course, when augmented reality gives people the option to identify themselves in space.)

            The MMO that finally just links a player to an avatar whose name is what they tell you and appearance is the only identifier is the one I’m dying to play. In fact, there’s a book by Daniel Quinn called The Newcomer’s Guide to the Afterlife does away with the idea of identity completely, where the only orientation in space is relative to things around you, but since people alter and produce the space around them in real time, it’s near impossible to rely on appearances you thought familiar or names, because the person could just tell you a different name. Which doesn’t guarantee that it’s their name at all, since they may not know or may have forgotten.

          • hpmons says:

            Dan Lowe: “The MMO that finally just links a player to an avatar whose name is what they tell you and appearance is the only identifier is the one I’m dying to play.”

            From what I remember, one nice aspect of Haven and Hearth was that if you met another player you hadnt met before, they would have a “???” above their heads, not their username. I think you either had to examine them for a while or they told you their username.

      • Consumatopia says:

        I think Dwarf Fortress actually serves as a counter-example.

        Leave aside the interface. DF certainly models all the objects down to a fine (perhaps too fine) level of detail, but, other than pathfinding, DF’s modelling of agents leaves a great deal to be desired, at least from the point of view of the One City Block.

        Consider that you can’t “abdicate” in DF–you can’t resign from the position as leader, watch some dwarf take charge and go on to lead his fellow dwarves to build the fortress. This despite the fact that the world seems to contain other dwarven communities–therefore, story-wise, a dwarf should be capable of managing other dwarves. But most of the playthroughs of the game show dwarves reacting to unexpected events in comically unworkable ways–such that, most of the time, a fortress would quickly collapse without constant intervention and tinkering from the player.

        DF is not the way to make OCB–either you would have to redesign the agents so that they can deal with the complexity of DF’s simulation of the game world, or you would have to simplify that game world so that DF agents could deal with it, or the entire model of building a world through cellular automata-like structures is unsuitable for OCB–instead we should look toward a scaled up form of what happens in experiments like Facade or Prom Week.

  4. Tom De Roeck says:

    Sounds like an awesome future, to be honest.

  5. wccrawford says:

    I love the ideas that come to mind with the words, “One City Block RPG”. I’m totally going to steal that idea. Eventually.

  6. Ericston says:

    Reminds me of Aristotle’s Unity of Place. See also: Classical unities on Wikipedia. (Will we someday add a Games section to that article?)

    (And whenever someone mentions “creative exercise” I am somehow reminded of this Reddit comment.)

  7. Arglebargle says:

    I wonder what story the boundary elements would require. What stops you from leaving? Magickal walls put in place by the mad wizard? You are in an Alien ‘natural enviornment’ zoo? Dark City environs? Maybe you just head out of the block for your job, etc, and ‘time passes’?

    There is a general dislike for the invisible walls strictures, but this sort of thing would almost certainly require them, in some form.

    • RakeShark says:

      There will definitely be a “Grass is greener” yearning when players look out to the distance/next block over.

      The only thing I can think of that would work is height. Set the game up in a skyscraper, and you won’t have to worry about the minute detail and exploration outside the constructed playground, because player can learn and accept the idea that they can’t jump from building to building like Spiderman. That is, until they get to the lobby.

      • Arglebargle says:

        The skyscraper idea does pretty much focus it down to one place that you can’t leave, for some reason. A vertical block, as it were.

      • Chris D says:

        Assuming the main point is that you want a small, detailed environment and not necessarily a naturalistic setting there are a few possible settings.

        - A quarantined area during a plague outbreak
        - A persecuted society living in catacombs under a city
        -A small space station/space ship
        - Undersea science base
        - Antarctic science base
        - Desert island
        - (as Arglebargle suggested) skyscraper. Die hard the RPG?
        - Castle under siege

        You’re probably looking at a shortened timescale as well, hours or days rather than weeks months or years. That may have a knock on effect for how you’d want to handle levelling and experience, though the current system only really works for certain types of characters and stories – Yes if you want to be Luke Skywalker, less so for Han Solo, not at all for Obi Wan Kenobi.

        Edit: Oops, it was Rakeshark that first suggested skyscrapers. My bad.

        • Pindie says:

          You have mentioned quarantine and I immediately thought about Camus’ “Plague”.

          I think with limits to the size of map and number of characters it would actually be possible to make a 40+ hours RPG or adventure game based on an actual novel (public domain!). Very much like Apocalypse now was a loose adaptation of a novel.
          I think it would allow for a lot of non-linear exploration and the ambiguous message would leave an impression.

          Well, as long as it does not go the Apocalypse Now route of changing the setting. The novel itself is fictional already, we do not need yet another “modern middle east” game.

        • Arglebargle says:

          Oooh, some good ideas there. Some have been used prominently: Antarctic base is the setting for the various Thing stories/movies, underwater base for The Abyss, space stations for a gazillion different settings.

          • Chris D says:

            Yep, I totally stole most all of those, but I figure it’s ok so long as you do something interesting with it.

          • Arglebargle says:

            Very good calls on settings for a tight, bounded setting though, with reasonable reasons for the narrow focus.

          • Chris D says:

            You’re too kind. Thinking about it some more I guess the common factor between all those is that there’s some kind of hostile environment preventing you from leaving. Another way of looking at it might be too explore some more character based reasons.

            - You have a running man style exploding collar fitted that prevents you from leaving. Still kind of “You’ll die if you leave” but similar might be “You’ll be in breach of parole conditions” or “You’ll be grounded if you leave”. Probably still some kind of electronic tag in both those cases.

            - Alternatively on a more detectivey theme some kind of blackmail – “We’ll kill your family unless you stay put.” or even the Cluedo set up. “We know one of you is the killer. You have to stay here until we discover who.”

            - For more of a fantasy game. Maybe you’re an enchanted guardian statue, sworn to defend the village but you only remain animated within it’s boundary. Maybe you’re a ghost who has to haunt the estate where they died.

            - Similar but more SF, you’re an android. There’s no actual restriction but you have to return to a fixed point to recharge so you can only travel so far.

            - For a purely social restriction you could be a Samurai who’s sworn to defend his Lord’s family while he’s away. Alternatively, maybe your an Aristocrat and you’d rather die than suffer the embarassment of leaving the event of the year that everyone who’s everyone will be at.

            Yeah, you probably shouldn’t have encouraged me. Sorry about that.

          • Dances to Podcasts says:

            “Similar but more SF, you’re an android.”

            Extension cord. :)

          • MacTheGeek says:

            Perhaps you’re agoraphobic, and can’t step outside for more than a few seconds without being overwhelmed by panic. Even the courtyard in the center of the building is terrifying… which is a bit of a hindrance, because that’s where the unknown person who’s quietly killing your neighbors has left a vital clue.

          • DrazharLn says:

            For a more natural restriction, you could centre the game in a rural village, same kind of scope as a city block and a huge amount of nothing outside so the player can wander away without artificial restriction but not get anywhere.

            The ideal would be that your players don’t want to leave the world, so perhaps a well designed game won’t have to deal with these problems.

    • InternetBatman says:

      A game that’s similar to this episode of the Twilight Zone (alien zoo pretty much), might work:

    • Wurstwaffel says:

      The first thing I thought of when reading your comment was a prison escape game. With the “one block” thing being the prison and maybe surrounding area. The ultimate goal would be reaching one of a number of escape scenarios, like flying off in a little airplane or hiding in the trunk of some car or something.

    • dee says:

      Nah, I don’t think so.

      - A military cordon
      - Flooding, where the block is the high point (you can’t swim because it’s toxic or lava or filled with bobbit worms or some bollocks)
      - waist high crates
      - “you have left the immersion zone, turn back”

    • Soon says:

      It could just have the map wrap around. No explanation. I think people would accept it as being the limit of the game if the content is compelling enough. It’d also be visually interesting.

      Or The Mist.

    • Strangerator says:

      Some of the suggestions for geographical boundaries miss the mark a little bit, because I think part of the idea of it being a “city block”, is for this game to contain (apparently) normal people leading (apparently) normal lives.

      Make the game run in real time, and set it on a Saturday. The protagonist is off from work and just planning on hanging around his block and not going anywhere. I think most people can identify with this general feeling… “I’m not going ANYWHERE today!” Maybe the protagonist never changes out of his/her sweatpants and this becomes a running joke that characters make as you interact with them.

      On your way down to get the newspaper, maybe you notice something a little off. You notice a strange headline or two as you read through the paper, most of which is perfectly non-gameplay related. Since the game plays in real time, by the time you’ve put in enough hours to get to evening, all thought of sleep has left your character’s mind, as it becomes increasingly apparent that you are on to something. Maybe incorporate the drinking of coffee/tea as stat boosters once midnight rolls around.

      Come to think of it, I’m sort of describing The Last Express, though I’ve never actually played it. Anyway, this would be an interesting type of game to play. Making it real time would impart some feeling of urgency, but in reality you’d have plenty of time to explore. Have very few “scheduled events”, where certain things would happen at certain times, but also leave ample clues to be able to anticipate when those events will occur.

    • pilouuuu says:

      Truman Show The Game. Or it could be something like Lost which for some strange supernatural reason people can’t leave the place. Make it part of the plot and it’ll be even better.

    • scatterbrainless says:

      Well, taking inspiration from Hurricane Sandy, why not an uban apartment block during a storm? You’re trapped, forced to get to know your neighbours (otherwise separated by metropolitan anonymity), deal with crises, not to mention the scary guy down the hall who never comes out and the rumours of the top floor that it’s impossible to get to…

    • BoZo says:

      Crippling social anxiety?

  8. Bhazor says:

    I’d say the reason it’ll never happen is the lack of combat. Unless you’re going into impossible space Shin Megami Nocturne style then the number of entities is too small. Theres just not many things to fight in your average apartment building and if theres no combat then really it’s just an adventure game.

    Now a Last Express style non linear adventure set in an apartment building that is something I can see happening and that could result in an amazing game rather than just an interesting one.

    • Naum says:

      Lack of combat is certainly a problem, seeing how important it is for the vast majority of current and past games. There’s obviously something about fighting that makes it more fit for gaming than other forms of interaction, though I can’t really say what it is.

      That said, I’d hope that some day people find a way to make non-violent social interactions just as interesting as combat and establish them as a viable alternative. In that case, the One Block idea could indeed bring us some very good games.

    • Eddy9000 says:

      Why does a game need combat? I was thinking more of a ‘manhattan murder mystery’ style game set in an apartment block. Not every game is a combat game y’know!

      • Chris D says:

        It doesn’t but combat is easy to model while talking to people is quite hard to do well. Going down a non combat route is going to make things harder, but all power to anyone who wants to try.

        • MacTheGeek says:

          I had the same idea, as hinted at in my earlier comment.

          Yes, shooting people is easier than talking to them… but if the OCB concept is designed to push the envelope of what’s possible in gaming, then a combat-based game seems like kind of a cop-out.

    • pilouuuu says:

      Well, Portal 2 hardly had any combat. And your character was trapped in a training facility. And it was brilliant. Just make it smaller and more detailed.

      I have no problem with violence in games as long as it is optional, which Dishonored recently showed is possible.

      • Tracer-Bullet says:

        I think the argument is about the resources required to model full conversations. Portal is the same as Halo in the sense that the primary way you interact with the universe is through mechanical systems. If you take away those systems and replace them with characters and dialogue based interactions, you’re faced with a much more difficult task. Fleshing out realistic, believable and compelling interactions completely from scratch while still maintaining player agency is a really tall order.

        For all the positive praise I can give Portal for its story and characters, its hard to ignore the fact that there are really only two other characters and your role in the story development is relegated entirely to clicking on stuff.

  9. Nordom says:

    Well, we had the “three-or-four-passenger-car-block” of The Last Express. And yes, it took an enormous effort to create a world -even that small- with that level of detail.

    • Cooper says:

      I immediately thought of the Last Express too.

      How come more games haven’t tried that level of intimate detail since I don’t know. Because the sense of place that game manages to create after spending so long in those cramped corridors and rooms, eaveasdropping on snippets of laregly inane conversations is far and beyond the sense of place something even like Dishonoured manages.

  10. DickSocrates says:

    Shenmue 1 was already kind of what One City Block sounds like. Not quite simulation, but the area was modelled with astounding attention to detail, and practically every NPC could be followed home to their door in the evening once the shop they ran closed in the evening, though you couldn’t go in their house. Customers would arrive at restaurants, eat and then leave. GTA only has the appearance of realism, exmaine it closer and you see the people walking only ever walk (in a random pattern with no destination), the people eating only ever eat.

    So I would love to see another game like that. Take a small area and put as much detail into it as possible. But something interesting would have to happen, it would have to have a story for me to care. A simple sim of normal people being alive is about the dullest idea imaginable. Go and watch Eastenders for an example of what it would be like.

    • Oozo says:

      “Deadly Premonition” also attempted to model a very small town, with most of the residents following their own routines. You can then go to their houses, peek into windows and obsevere them while they’re watching TV, for example. (And yes, it is about as creepy as it sounds.)

      As with everything that game did, it’s a bit wonky, but that does not really distract from the fact that, despite of all the wonkiness, the game actually succeeded in creating a place that is very, very memorable.

      Ah. Wonderful game.

    • yhancik says:

      Or Coronation Street http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-04-11-peter-molyneux-why-i-quit-microsoft-and-why-my-new-game-will-change-the-world
      “If I was sat opposite you before Coronation Street came out and I said, right, we’re going to make a television programme, it’s going to be the most successful television programme in the UK consistently for 40 years, it’s going to be the number one or number two most-watched television programme, it’s going to be on every single day of the week, your first question would be, that must be a hell of a story.
      I would say to you, well, actually, there’s no real story at all. It’s the story of a street.”

    • MrNash says:

      I was thinking the exact same thing. The neighborhood around where Ryo lived was incredibly lifelike for its time. I used to love just wandering around, talking to the locals. It was even more enjoyable when he got that job at the docks because then I could make some cash to go shopping for snacks and random knick knacks, not to mention wander off to the arcade to play Hang On.

      It’s like I was playing the life of some young man living in Japan in the 80s. I totally stopped caring about the whole”avenge your father” thing, and got totally immersed in just the day to day routine. So, I totally agree that the One City Block thing has already been experimented with.

      However, looking at how tough a time Shenmue had turning a profit may be part of why publishers are apprehensive about backing such a game now. Nonetheless, I’d love to see more games that take this idea and expand upon it.

      • hypercrisis says:

        The interesting thing about Shenmue, is that Sega never expected it to turn a proit. They made the most expensive game at the time, simply or the sake of making it. Nothing Sega made in the Dreamcast era really made them any money, thats why a lot of stuff on the console is so utterly barmy.

    • YusMat00 says:

      Add me to the Shenmue chorus. The level of detail in that game (and its sequel) is truly astounding. I don’t think there’s another so called open world game today that that commands a similar attention to detail. In Shenmue 2 the player is free to explore virtually every building and every room in one part of the game (although not every room has something worth seeing). There were so many things in that game that were hidden and not promoted for the player to discover (like duck racing).

      I recall reading somewhere an interview with Yu Suzuki about how he made his programmer spend unwholesome amounts of time making something that was barely on screen for a second. He also talked about his design plans for Shenmue 3 (haha… *sigh*). I don’t think I can post it here, but he mentions designing a game that “expands inwards” rather than outwards. He then gives examples like deeper dialogue between the main characters and how minute questions that seem to be trivial (like drinking coffee or tea) are actually part of how the game constantly psychologically profiles the player, and every question and response affects the relationship between the player and NPC. That’s not the best example, but I get what he’s saying.

      I think his idea is the same as Warren Spectors– to have high level of intricate detail in a small space that is only discovered by playing extensively over time, maybe not impressive at first glance and big discoveries or new places don’t define progress, but the player will slowly uncover the immeasurable depth.

  11. krisanto says:

    1st game that came to mind is Hotel Dusk. Though it is an adventure game, and not an RPG.

    I actually have an idea for a game similar to this. I was thinking about a game inspired by Groundhog Day and Source Code. A realtime 24-hour cycle, with all events scripted. After the end of the cycle, the day repeats.

    • Strangerator says:

      I really like this idea! Just be sure to include a “wait until” button.

      I think this would mesh well with the city block RPG. It would also be a way to turn a sort of normal protagonist into a hero. Observing a hostage situation, you think “if only I had a gun and was so good I could take out the criminal without hitting the hostage..” Then you could practice, which could boil down to just hitting a button somewhere to avoid tedium. You could simulate weeks of practice… Now you’re the fastest draw on the block, able to shoot the wings off a fly’s back.

      You could have ever-expanding info sheets on every resident of the block. It would fill in more personal info as you talked to them in different situations over the course of many days. Knowing more about people would open up more dialogue options, and this I think would be the biggest challenge for programming.

      EDIT: And of course, Bill Murray must be the protagonist

    • Soon says:

      There’s certainly some interactive fiction that plays with the idea of pre-supposed knowledge gained from prior plays. I wouldn’t be surprised if some come close to the one block thing too – I had one in the making but didn’t get much further than NPCs that wander and satiate their own desires.

    • CronoDAS says:

      Yes, yes! This is what I was thinking of, too. And you can click on anything in the building and Kyle Hyde will comment on it, no matter how irrelevant it is to the game’s main plot.

  12. Raiyan 1.0 says:

    Heheh, Rossingol starting his new favorite column with an article on terrain? Who would’ve known? ;)

  13. Prokroustis says:

    Why not even a room? 12 angry men rpg would be something.

    • Chris D says:

      While it might be possible to make a really good 12 angry men game I think what you’d end up with would look far more like a text adventure than an RPG. At the moment we’re still not really good enough at pulling off personal interactions in games.

      On the more general “Why not just a room?” point I think the problem you’d have to solve would be “What is the player actually going to be doing during the game?” Not necessarily impossible but certainly a lot harder than if you’ve got even a little more space to play with.

  14. enobayram says:

    Good, good, the industry is converging towards some serious social AI…

  15. somnolentsurfer says:

    At some undefined future point, I’m going to download Gamemaker or some such, and learn how to use virtual worlds to tell stories. And they’ll all be in locations like this. It gives us the opportunity to do away with a whole load of the bullshit that we accept without question in most games: doors that lead nowhere, knee-high fences that can’t be stepped over, capital cities of huge empires that contain on six houses and single shop.

    There’ve been examples of games that basically do this already. Day of the Tentacle would be one. It was a major part of why, before release, Dragon Age 2 seemed so interesting to me. Origins was great in a lot of ways, but you’re still essentially walking down corridors. The prospect of a Bioware world small enough to not be filled with gaps seemed an exciting one. Maybe one day they’ll deliver.

    • InternetBatman says:

      Bioware has been focusing less and less on NPCs since Baldur’s Gate, to their great loss. I don’t know if they have the type of writing talent or time required to deliver detail that finite. So I don’t know if they ever could have delivered on the promise of DAII. Obsidian might be able to do it judging by the level of NPC interaction in AP and or the breadth of unique characters in NV.

      • somnolentsurfer says:

        I think that’s the point though, isn’t it? It’s about developing within your means. I remember the first time I played WoW, being absolutely amazed by the freedom to go anywhere. But it just made going back to any other RPG, and finding an invisible wall preventing me from touching even the shallows at the edge of a lake, absolutely infuriating. Why is all this stuff there, if I can’t interact with it? I don’t care about finding all the microwaves in this one block and cooking meals that serve no narrative purpose. I do care about having the right signposting, so when the time comes to microwave the hamster, I’m not wandering round stuck for days.

  16. InternetBatman says:

    I think the game that’s probably come the closest to this was Majora’s Mask. The amount of scripting required in such an effort would mean a huge bunch of bugs and logical inconsistencies, so I think it will be years before we get something close. Tarant from Arcanum and Vault City from Fallout 2 had a breadth of unique characters, but they didn’t have a ton of interaction with each other.

    Also the Gothic games. Almost every NPC has their own schedule, does their own activities, interacts with each other, and has their own sleep schedule. Risen did it particularly well, and the game gets thin once the town has nothing new to offer.

  17. sinister agent says:

    Ooh, I wanted to do something much like this – an RPG that plays a bit like It Came From The Desert, but set on just one council estate. Course, I don’t have anywhere near enough technical skills to make it happen, so I’m glad someone who knows their stuff is thinking of something a bit like that.

    I bet it’d be an interesting challenge for an experienced team. There’s a lot of pressure for HUGE MASSIVE OMG WOW environments and not without reason, because those are brilliant when done well, but there’s a lot to be said for something smaller but more intricate and carefully crafted. Should lend itself better to detailed character writing, too.

    • pilouuuu says:

      It Came from the Desert! That was an interesting and very unique game.

      • sinister agent says:

        I only discovered it when abandonware was a thing (ie: pre-gog), but I’m glad I did. Unfortunately its UI and some technical aspects make it a bit of a pain to play today, but it’s still a fascinating thing, you’re quite right. Incredible considering its age. If you released it today with better controls, it would be praised as revolutionary.

      • Asurmen says:

        While any of the combat sections were a bit lame in terms of gameplay, everything in the game was nerve wracking and the aspect of having to be at certain places at certain times were unique for its day. I still find myself humming bits of the music till this day.

  18. JuJuCam says:

    My first impulse on hearing about this is that the player could be something like a building superintendent or janitor whose daily tasks amount to repairing issues around the building. From there the directions are as endless as your imagination allows – one could choose to diligently go about the task, ignoring distractions like interesting mysteries or interactions between various tenants (one may need to mediate a noise complaint for example). Or you could pursue any of a bunch of rabbit holes and have a satisfying story play out, but a given playthrough will only allow enough time in your busy schedule to accommodate a small percentage of the myriad opportunities for storytelling – with little to no fanfare a rabbit hole will simply become unavailable as tenants move out or resolve their problems in their own way.

    I’m imagining a scale over months or even years, and potentially over the course of a playthrough we can mark signs of gentrification or ghettofication of the block as it responds to decisions made by the player.

    I’m partially inspired by a recent viewing of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, and the interesting way in which various characters in the block were introduced but only one was notable to the main character, so that story occupied his direct attention even while he witnessed other dramas playing out that he didn’t care to intervene in. In fact, to take an entirely different angle, constricting the player character in a similar way may be an interesting way to frame the gameplay of such a game – he is limited to observation and indirect action by way of sending independent agents around the building. This would have a side effect of limiting the necessary fidelity of the simulation and thus decreasing developer costs.

  19. pupsikaso says:

    I don’t agree with much of this. What’s the point of being able to switch on the A/C if it does absolutely NOTHING in game terms? Now, if by switching the A/C I somehow upset the lady down the hall, who flips out on some poor HVAC contractor passing by, who then, being pissed off, accidentally drops a spanner or something which causes a short circuit and triggers a fire alarm THEN I’m all for it.

    If the the interaction is meaningless and has no cause OR effect, then I don’t want it in the game.

    • Eddy9000 says:

      I think there is a simple ‘ joy of interaction’ that makes games appealing though, I love how in the amanita games moving the mouse over or clicking on level detail will make things happen that aren’t integral to progression. I also think consumers by and large want this, look at all the YouTube vids of people playing in the skyrim world, freezing bears and rolling them down cliffs, shouting rabbits off mountains, hell, Garry’s mod is one of the best selling games on steam and it isn’t even a game, it’s a toy! Moving away from the stale ‘game’ idea that every interaction must be about progression, towards interaction being made a joy in itself would be wonderful imo.

    • Strangerator says:

      I disagree, I want to be able to throw a pencil across a room and watch it bounce off a wall. The more “pointless” actions available to a player, the better the simulation of the real world. If any action that is possible, is also always meaningful, it becomes difficult to accept that as a realistic world. When you’re talking about a realistic setting like a city block, this sort of believability becomes even more important.

    • pilouuuu says:

      I also hate the fact that everytime that you’re playing, if you have the chance to perform an action it is because there will be a gameplay result to it. E.G.: you know that you can open the door of that building in GTA because it is part of a mission, but if the door is just a texture, but it can’t be opened there’s nothing to be done there. Picking up a bottle and throwing it to people was fun in GTA.

      Some of the most funny experiences in GTA IV and in gaming for me was hitting someone and they make him follow me so that a cop would see he punch me, so that the cop would arrest the poor guy. Or causing a chaos with a explosing car. All those procedural stuff that is not scripted is what is great in gaming, even if it serves no purpose.

      It is great being able to do something in a game just for the sake of it or because it’s simply fun, even or maybe even more if you won’t advance in a quest or receive an achievement because of it.

      I’d love to be able to play something like Dwarf Fortress because it seems like the kind of game I’d enjoy.

    • The Random One says:

      Add me to the chorus of disagreers. Computer games are not chess, they are not a sterile system of rules. The trappings those specific systems of rules wear is as important to me as the rules themselves. If it’s not a multiplayer game I’m more interested in the trappings, and see the rules as just mediators between myself and them.

      “Don’t buy the Unbearable Ennui trait, I’ve run the spreadsheet here and its XP increase while crying would not pay off until you reached level 35, and you can have a far more cost-effective increase if you…” Screw you. It’s my game. My character is sad so it makes sense for her to have the Unbearable Ennui trait.

    • P7uen says:

      You have to start somewhere.

      I have flushed toilets in Duke3D but the pig cops didn’t notice. Nowadays guards will notice you having blown out a candle (but not in Dishonoured :( ). We should encourage more interactivity (pointless or not) then we can start working on emergent situations like you describe.

      If their are 20 air con units in the game but only one has a shiny halo and that’s the one that triggers the situation you described, that’s not the idea people in this thread (including me) have of The Game Of The Future(tm)

  20. Takkik says:

    The concept already exist, you just need to play Dwarf Fortress, The Guild 2 or even The sims 1-3. Each of this game have a detailed world/level of different size, fully simulated & filled with independant NPCs doign their stuffs, and that generate procedural story for the player.

    And you can go back to Ultima 7, with a believed world that operate logicaly, if was just missing the simulation part & procedural gameplay, but the feel was good with lot of NPC following their agenda and giving the illusion of a living world.

  21. Naum says:

    On a smaller scale, this One Block thing has always been the agenda of Piranha Bytes — ignoring Gothic 3, which didn’t happen, and possibly Risen 2, which I didn’t play. It’s actually one of the main reasons why I like their RPGs: The world is usually pretty small, open and absolutely crowded with stuff to do, albeit in the usual game-y manner: talk, kill, collect. If they could ramp up the number of meaningful interactions with the world and the quality of their NPC simulation, there might be potential for another good game from them. (That said, their delivery has been pretty hit-or-miss during the last couple of years.)

    • InternetBatman says:

      The games also have amazingly different opportunities because of this. A good thief can get into places other characters probably won’t see, people react to thefts around them, and an explorer can cliff-dive into the ocean to get past the town guards and they’ll notice it. I think Gothic 2 was really the high point in this respect, but Risen was decent (although they should have limited its scope a bit more, and not put all the interesting loot behind plotwalls).

  22. lordcooper says:

    Anyone else think Introversion should take a pop at this? That Subversion tech could be pretty useful here.

    • immerc says:

      That’s what I thought of.

      I don’t find the idea of simulating an entire city block down to minute details, but I could easily get on board for every building in a sprawling city being an actual building with functional doors and windows.

      One of the most annoying things about Day Z is that the majority of the buildings are just painted boxes that *look* like houses, but don’t have working doors or windows.

      Now, imagine a Day Z like game set in a world where every single building had working, although possibly locked doors. Imagine every window can be raised and lowered or shattered, and they all have curtains or blinds that can be closed. Imagine every vehicle is a real vehicle with working doors and steering wheels, but some of them are out of gas or are otherwise broken. Imagine every light in the game could possibly be turned on or off.

      That would open up all kinds of emergent gameplay possibilities, like being able to make a message for other survivors in Day Z by turning on/off the lights in an office building like this:


  23. ukpanik says:

    Could you turn Chris Wares ‘Building Stories’ into a game?…..probably not.

  24. Maritz says:

    “But it’s the single most popular cheese in the world!”

    “Not round ‘ere sir”.

  25. yhancik says:

    Let’s not forget Façade, which focused solely on one kind of (inter-)NPC interaction within a single apartment.

  26. Carbonated Dan says:

    Synecdoche: One Block

  27. DrGonzo says:

    Someone already made this exact game years ago. Shenmue, but it was mind numbingly boring.

    Very popular though!

    • Ich Will says:

      Shenmue was ace!

      • DrGonzo says:

        Oh it was! I loved it at the time, but had another go at it and the second with an emulator recently, and it has not dated well at all.

        • Ich Will says:

          I was hoping Sleeping Dogs may have some Shenmue DNA in it, haven’t played it yet but it seems,from the reviews it may just have been the setting and not much else.

          Isn’t it a shame when beloved old games aren’t so good a few years on, though it can only really say good things about how games have got better I suppose!

  28. Turkey says:

    Most adventure games dealt with stuff like this but I think the Gabriel Knight series was especially good with small spaces that changed over time as a result of your interactions. Gabriel Knight 3 even had something similar to The Last Express where the NPC’s would move around the locations of the game depending on what time of day it was.

  29. SuperNashwanPower says:

    anyone see that article about the new Zealand physicist who says they have found evidence that the universe is a simulation?

    Would explain all the advertising.

  30. notenome says:

    I had a conversation about this with a friend that is a level design student. What we came up with was this:

    The world is a building, basically. How big it is depends on budget, so anywhere from a townhouse to a hotel. There would be no menu, you just click on the game and you’re playing, no save or loading. When the game loads, the player would be in a room inside set building. A short amount of time afterwards a bomb would go off. A big explosion and then fade to black. Then time would rewind quickly (like 5 seconds = 1 minute game time) and the player would be back in the room.

    The idea here is that the player would have a certain amount of time (about 5-10 minutes) before the bomb goes off again. That time would be used to explore the meticulously designed building. Then the bomb explodes and the player is returned to his starting position, everything resets (items, NPCs, everything goes back to the original state) with a quick rewind showing his past actions. The goal of the game would be to disarm the bomb, but that would require successive rewinds to figure everything out, since everything resets, the player has total freedom to be a dick/nice in order to obtain information. For example, by starring at a clock the player would know exactly when the bomb would go off. He would have to locate the bomb, figure out how to disarm it, etc. He could for example read a manual to learn the correct procedure, or maybe try to find who planted the bomb. When he finally manages to disarm the bomb, the game ends. Playtesting would have to be very important, as what the game would eventually boil down to (after exploration) would be an elaborate puzzle/checklist (with multiple solutions) that would have to be completed in quick order before the blast, for example: get a watch, get pliers, convince/steal gloves from janitor, get rope, stop elevator, climb air duct, use rope to climb down to elevator roof, wear gloves, cut blue wire, pull red wire- bomb disarmed, congrats you won.

    We called it Groundhogs S**t Day, and I figured it would be a grand way to the One City Block game. It would have to be an indie though, because there’s no way a publisher would fund something like it.

  31. Sinnorfin says:

    that pic, so Unreal .

  32. Dances to Podcasts says:

    Waiting for Godot Freeman.

  33. Kadayi says:

    Is it really that Spector was talking about creating a city block simulation? Or more about wanting to create an RPG experience that operates within a confined space with a limited number of players? I could envisage a lot of opportunities for exploring that kind of limited theater scenario with something like a hard sci-fi space exploration mission where in the only real participants are the crew (think Prometheus without the absurdity) and how the consequences of players actions in response to a crisis, as well as their relationship with others (and their relations with others) impact the evolving narrative. Certainly an interesting idea (what happens if your onboard doctor gets killed for instance?), but likely a pig to account for when it comes to dialogue. Although it would be possible to take a similish approach and operate through topics/moodlets Vs real conversation or just use written dialogue.

  34. wodin says:

    Judge Dredd RPG set in one of the massive tower blocks…taking inspiration from the film but not a FPS an RPG.

  35. ffordesoon says:

    I’ve had a similar “dream idea” for years – although I’ve read enough interviews with Warren Spector that I probably stole the OCB idea and mutated it into this one. I’m certainly not going to call dibs on the idea.

    Anyway, the idea is this: a game that takes thirty minutes or an hour to complete, but has sixty to eighty hours of content in it and a AAA budget. It’s got a time constraint rather than a space one, but it’s more or less based in the same philosophy.

    If I didn’t steal it from Spector, the idea must have come from Starfox 64. I played through that whole game, what, ten times? Because it took about ninety minutes to beat, but had oodles of alternate paths and rewards for the curious player. The best thing about it was its length. You couldn’t do everything in one playthrough, but it was short enough that you could get through it in an hour or so, which meant completing it again wasn’t a huge deal. And you were told a little story that worked surprisingly well for what it was. My idea is an attempt to take that philosophy to its logical conclusion.

    Few problems with the idea:

    1) I don’t know how you’d pace it properly without putting it on rails, but I absolutely wouldn’t want to put it on rails. I don’t know if the final game would be an immersive sim, but it would hew pretty closely to the immersive sim’s design philosophy. What I enjoy most as a player are games like Deus Ex and Thief, where you’re given an objective and are then allowed to accomplish it however you like. Starfox was a terrific game, but it didn’t do that.

    I suppose the easiest solution would be to build the narrative around a lackadaisical pace or give it a beginning, a bunch of endings, and a middle that’s as long or short as you want it to be, but I’m not sure either approach would actually solve the core problem. Mitigate it, maybe, but not solve it. A time limit might solve it, but the sense of urgency might overpower the willingness to experiment.

    Of course, there’s the argument that it’s not actually a problem, or at least not one that needs solving. But as I said, I don’t know if I agree with that argument or not.

    2) One of the key frustrations this idea is meant to address is the lack of good stories in games. It’s my belief that every story trends toward inanity as it goes on, and the length limit is a means of addressing that. As such, the game would have a strong core narrative that was also highly reactive. That’s tough enough, but it’s even tougher in a game that’s not a directed experience. How do you reconcile those two design pillars without having something like a time limit? Can you? Should you? Etc.

    Not to mention Erik Wolpaw’s point that it’s hard to come up with one good ending, let alone twenty or two hundred.

    3) This sounds hideously condescending, but I’m not sure how else to put it: are gamers ready for a game like that? I mean, what price would you charge? How would you sell it? You can’t lie by omission and say it’s got eighty hours of content in it, but if you say the game’s an hour long, the idiots who price out the length of the experience go, “One hour for [insert any amount of money above nine dollars here]!? Blasphemy!” Someone will say that’s a straw man argument, I’m sure, and I’m not going to deny that it kind of is, but I swear to God I’ve seen multiple people say that ten dollars is too much for a game that’s two hours long no matter what. It might be a straw man, but it’s not hyperbole.

    So do you sell it as very replayable and hope people buy it? Do you throw in an exploration mode with the main story turned off? Do you ignore those people? What do you do?

    Those are all in addition to the main problem: I’m really an armchair game designer. I know nothing about coding, very little about game production, etc. So I wouldn’t be the right person for the job anyway.

    Still, I thought it was worth noting. It’s an interesting thought experiment, if nothing else.

    EDIT: And yes, I am aware that an hour and ninety minutes are not the same length of time. Ladies and gentlemen, the perils of iPhone composition.

  36. mikmanner says:

    Metro 2033 could be this instead of a linear shooter.

  37. YusMat00 says:

    I wouldn’t say it had the most detailed of interactions, but another game that comes to mind is Harvest Moon 64. It really floored my young mind at the time I played it. Thinking back, it still does. I could interact in some fairly meaningful (or non-meaningful) way with just about every object, place or character. The town was tiny, but it was so ripe with interaction.

    There were no meaningless NPCs; everyone in the game had a name, a home, a schedule, things they liked, a birthday, and quirks. I could build friendships with anyone in town, and depending on who I befriend my other relationships might be affected. Again, the town was tiny, but I could enter every building, and every building had a purpose, be it a shop, home, or hospital. The player’s own home was especially impressive. After expanding my house, I could watch TV (there was several channels with changing programs, including a useful and accurate weather channel), check the calendar, go to sleep, use the bathroom, cook, etc. And how do I learn to cook? By getting recipes from people whom I’ve befriended, and using ingredients I gathered or farmed! Then I can give what I cooked back to someone who likes that dish (which may or may not be the person who gave me the recipe!).

    There was full calendar of meaningful seasons, packed full of small town festivals and events. I could get sick, get drunk, and get married. The whole game was billed as a farming sim, but it is truly so painstakingly more than that.

    I could go on and on about every level of interaction available at every turn, and I’ve heard in recent times the series has gone downhill, but what I would give to receive a modern, spiritual successor (not talking about a graphics update, but a new game that expands the interactive depth of its predecessor) of Harvest Moon (or Shenmue, which is similar on many levels). I’m aware everything I’ve mentioned has been somewhat surpassed by The Sims games, but the barbie materialism, spoken gibberish, the God angle, and the generally random, disposable, inconsequential nature of everything marked by stat bars and numbers is just too impersonal for me.

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