Home Sweet Home: Exploring the Design of Hub Worlds

When Disneyland opened in Anaheim, CA on July 17, 1955, it captured the imagination of the world. This was the world’s first theme park; alongside the stories and visual details of each of the themed lands, it introduced many new innovations in industrial engineering and crowd flow control. The Hub-and-Spoke layout is one of those innovations that’s still utilized in many themed entertainment experiences today. Upon entering the park and traveling down the main walkway, guests find themselves in the middle of what is essentially a giant wheel; looking around, they can see the various worlds that branch out from the hub in which they stand.

This layout not only made it easier to understand how to reach any location in the park, but also tied each of the worlds together to a singular point, making them feel more connected. Beyond theme parks, many video games attempt to replicate that feeling by tying different levels or courses together with hub worlds. Princess Peach’s Castle from Super Mario 64 is probably the most well-known instance, but here, I’m going to take a look at a few of my favorite hub worlds from various other games and try to answer this question: What elements can be used to create interesting and compelling hub worlds?


The Nexus (The Talos Principle)

The Talos Principle, a 2014 puzzle game by Croteam, features a massive hub known as the Nexus. This snowy area is home to several squat, industrial buildings containing the entrances to the various Lands of the game where players solve puzzles and progress through the story. Standing in the middle of the Nexus, however, is the mysterious and foreboding Tower. The narrator of the game forbids the player from entering the Tower, but adventurous players may disregard the warnings and try to enter.

The mysterious Tower standing in the middle of The Talos Principle‘s hub world. (Source)

The best part of this hub world is the great deal of mystery built right into the structure of the area. From the minute you emerge into the snowy fields of the Nexus, your eyes are immediately drawn to the Tower. The narrator’s warnings about the Tower only seem to make players more interested in exploring it. Of course, once you do try to explore it, you won’t get far. Special items earned through the puzzles of the game help you make progress up the Tower; those puzzles, however, can be extremely difficult. This makes progress slow, which only helps to build the mystery and tension.

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The Tower stretches ominously upwards. What lies at the top? (Source)

The Tower is especially fascinating because players never have to enter it to beat the game. All of the mysteries and puzzles inside are completely optional, but secret endings await those who brave the climb. The Nexus presents players with a mystery to be solved. Because the Tower is always on the player’s mind while they traverse the Nexus, they can’t help but wonder what’s at the top. This constant sense of intrigue helps to make the Nexus an incredibly interesting world to explore.


Class Halls (World of Warcraft: Legion)

The Legion expansion for World of Warcraft was highly praised for the many new features it brought to the nearly 15 year-old game. One addition that fans loved was class halls. In World of Warcraft (or WoW for short), one of players’ first decisions is on their character’s class. Their class (like Mage or Warrior) shapes their gameplay for the entirety of their experience, so it’s an important decision. However, until Legion, classes only changed how characters played.

Class halls are introduced as your character’s “home base” early in the story line of the Legion expansion pack. Each class had a unique hall that matched that class’s visual style and lore. From the class hall, players could plan attacks on nearby demon settlements, upgrade their weapons, recruit troops, and improve the utilities of the hall. They could also see other players of the same class, creating a community of players with a shared experience.

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The Halls of Valor, a Valhalla-inspired complex designed for Warrior characters. (Source)
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The Trueshot Lodge, a collection of mountaintop cabins where Hunters tell stories of their greatest victories. (Source)

Instead of being a static hub like many games have, the class halls in Legion transform as your character progresses through the expansion. Extra buildings are added, new NPCs wander in to trade items, and you can bring back souvenirs from your journeys to display around the area. These changes made the world feel alive; even more than that, it made you feel like your character had an impact on the world.


Skate Park (Sprint Vector)

Sprint Vector, a VR racing game by developer Survios, has unique mechanics that set it apart from any other VR game available today. Players race around bright, bombastic courses by swinging their arms and pressing various buttons to jump, use power ups, and drift. All of these mechanics could be very overwhelming if not for the inclusion of the Skate Park.

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A player soaring above the various obstacles and tracks of the Skate Park. (Source)

The Skate Park is the first area you find yourself in after completing the initial tutorials for Sprint Vector, as well as where you end up after each race. This open region has every kind of obstacle you can find in any of the race courses, giving players a valuable chance to practice tricky maneuvers without worrying about losing a race. Obstacles are set up in such a way that players can plot paths that chain multiple together, allowing them to further hone their skills for any situation they may face. On top of giving them a chance to practice the controls and mechanics, the Skate Park is simply a fun place for players to do what they do best: play.


Isle O’ Hags (Banjo-Tooie)

Banjo-Tooie, one of Rare’s finest collect-a-thon games, is well known for its colorful cast of characters, unique worlds, and fun gameplay. The Isle O’ Hags, Banjo-Tooie‘s massive hub world, is laid out with several connected, themed areas . Traversing just this hub world, players will run past Mayan temples, mine entrances, and ancient caves. Entrances to the game worlds are located in thematically-appropriate areas in the hub world. For example, the Quagmire, an area in the hub world, is filled with pollution and smog. The entrance to the game world ‘Grunty Industries’ lies here, and traveling to this world brings you to the factory that caused all of the pollution. The thematically-appropriate entrances to each of the game’s levels adds a sense of anticipation. Players get an early taste for what the level might hold.

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The entrance to WitchyWorld, a theme park that’s a bit lax on safety regulations. (Source)
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The gate leading to Grunty Industries, a smog-spewing factory that doesn’t seem to make anything but toxic waste. (Source)

Designing a Hub World

By examining these four games, I’ve found four elements that can be used by game designers to make compelling hub worlds. Those elements include:

  • Providing intriguing mysteries that invite players to explore the hub world fully
  • Changing and growing based on the player’s progress and choices throughout the story
  • Offering a fun place to play with and test out mechanics, controls, and obstacles
  • Creating anticipation to get players prepared and excited for the themes and gameplay to come

Using these elements as a diagnostics tool, we can examine other hub worlds. For example, let’s go back to Princess Peach’s Castle. This hub world, found in Super Mario 64, contains a large field surrounding a grand castle, as well as the castle interior. When players enter, they can find various paintings that transport them to different game worlds.

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Mystery

One of the first things players will find in the field surrounding Princess Peach’s Castle is a grate on a large slab of stone. These grates are also found in different game worlds, where players can unlock them to reveal cannons. The grate outside the castle, however, gives no information on how to unlock it. This gives players a mystery to solve. I know that when I played the game, I tried everything I could think of to get into the grate.

Sense of Progression

Power stars, the game’s most important collectible, are found in the various game worlds. Certain doors in the castle are locked until the player has a set number of power stars. Collecting that set number of stars reveals new locations for the player to explore. Every door also gets you closer to Bowser, the antagonist in the deepest part of the castle.

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Playground

The field surrounding Princess Peach’s Castle is large and open, giving players a chance to practice their jumps, slides, and other tricky maneuvers. It also contains a lake and a moat, so that players may practice swimming. There aren’t any enemies present in the field, so players have no pressure while practicing.

There are also several secret challenges within the castle that give players the opportunity to try out sliding, flying, and other gameplay elements that require specialized power-ups or situations. Players find these same challenges within the game worlds, but the risk of dying and having to restart is much greater outside the hub world.

Image result for mario 64 slide

Anticipation

Certain parts of the castle are built in such a way that they advertise the adventures to come. Tick Tock Clock is a world inside a giant clock. To enter this world, the player jumps into the face of a giant clock inside the castle hub world. Tiny Huge Island, on the other hand, features two paintings that look the same size on opposite ends of a hallway. As you approach one or the other, you realize that forced perspective is used to make the paintings look similar, when in reality there’s a huge difference in size. This reinforces the theme of the island, where you’re either huge or tiny compared to the island (based on which painting you enter).

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By observing those four elements listed above, we can see why Princess Peach’s Castle is such a famous hub world. It gives players a mystery to solve, expands to give players a sense of progression, allows for testing with gameplay elements, and provides anticipation for future adventures.

Conclusion

The four elements I describe don’t make up a comprehensive list, and as much fun as hub worlds can be, they don’t fit into every type of game. Any game that includes a linear storyline and a constantly changing setting could make including a hub world difficult or distracting. However, if you want players to be able to take a break and have an enjoyable experience between levels, missions, or experiences, a hub world with those four elements listed above could be a great way to go.

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