Building a Skyscraper City: What’s Special about Titan City’s Downtown
Hello, everyone. I’m here to let you in on some design secrets—without revealing any spoilers, of course!—behind the lore of City of Titans. Today, I’m going to tell you about developing one of Titan City’s districts: its Downtown. As always, any speculations about launch features are, as of now, only that: speculations. But these are our hopes.
We’ve all seen games or TV shows set in the generic “city,” where characters are surrounded by bland and characterless “tall buildings.” For Titan City, I wanted something better. Yes, the city is ultimately just a stage on which the player characters and their nonplayer supporting characters act out their adventures, but it’s more than just a series of terrain obstacles painted grey and speckled with windows.
A city needs character, too. As players move through the city, they should see interesting and quirky sites, things that make them wonder, “What’s going on over there?” or “What’s around that next corner?” Further, even within a fairly small area, they should see variety in the architecture. The city’s landmarks, like the named characters of a combat faction, should offer story hooks for players to investigate. This is doubly true in an MMO, where exploring the world can be part of the fun. Titan City should be as diverse, impressive, and intriguing as any real city.
When our original team of writers began divvying up the city’s districts (groups of neighborhoods that share a theme or motif), I pounced on Downtown. The whole concept of “the big city,” is fundamental to the superpowered adventure genre. After all, it’s “leap tall buildings at a single bound!” And there are few more iconic images in superhero comics than a hero perched on a skyscraper, surveying canyons of glass and light below him. I couldn’t wait to get a chance to create an entire district of skyscrapers of my own.
In previous MMO’s I’ve seen, the best-rendered contemporary high-rise districts have usually featured a series of glass and steel boxes (or other shapes). That can be fine, but real-life skyscrapers come in many more varieties. This is especially true of cities in the American Northeast, which had their skyscraper building booms before World War II. (It’s long been one of my pet peeves that most imaginary video game cities look like they could only have been built in postwar, snow-free California.) Since I knew Titan City would be located in Massachusetts, I wanted to make use of the diversity real Northeastern cities’ downtowns show to offer players some visual—and story!—variety. Accordingly, I decided I’d divide up Downtown’s neighborhoods roughly by style of architecture and thus the period in which they were built.
In my college years, I’d become a fan of TV shows like Batman: the Animated Series and of Max Fleischer’s 1940’s Superman theatrical cartoons, which in turn had led me into an interest in Art Deco architecture. For those who don’t know architecture well, that’s the style of the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and countless others built in the 1920’s through 1940’s. This is the same period that gave us the superhero, so I knew it would play a part in Titan City’s Downtown. Deco’s massed forms, streamlined curves, and interesting details, such as the bas-reliefs of heroic workers or mythic figures seen on so many Deco buildings also makes it interesting to look at, much moreso than a blank, grey wall.
Realism can play a role in game design, too, so long as it makes things fun. Of course, Titan City is a modern metropolis, so I knew I’d need to include some Modern and Postmodern buildings, too. What better place for a hero to fly past, pacing his own reflection in a curving surface of windows? I decided to give these dramatic, unadorned shapes of steel and glass their own neighborhood, too. I also knew by now that the city’s first mayor had been named Anthony Fitzgerald, so I gave players the opportunity to discover that bit of history and engage with the lore more directly by creating a “Fitzgerald Square” neighborhood of older buildings, complete with a statue of Fitzgerald himself. To provide variety in the “tone” of the district, I also included a less lively neighborhood, more like the downtowns of many cities in my youth, all deserted streets and sidewalks that roll up at night.
Skyscrapers are more than just places for mission doors and giant roadblocks to overland travel. They’re tall! That should offer more options for exploration or other kinds of gameplay. Thus, I created a network of skywalks connecting some of the buildings’ tops. This allows for enemies hiding in rooftop gardens, thieves rappelling down to enter offices, and aerial pirates swooping in from above. More excitingly, it lets PCs do things like rescue civilians being held over railings by villainous extortionists or navigate among colorful zeppelins in a zone event. Players should be encouraged to explore and enjoy the entire environment, not just an area’s ground floor.
Fun as this was for me as an architecture geek, a district is more than just buildings and neighborhoods and potential spawn points. Just as a faction of enemies has its named characters, so a district needs “landmarks,” unique buildings or other locations that offer special sights and special story potential. For instance, I knew that Titan City’s tallest building would be one of its Art Deco towers, but I also gave that building a backstory. More than seventy years ago, villains tried to destroy it with a fiendish, mad-science formula. Of course, this being a comic book story, you know that their scheme left seeds of adventure waiting to germinate in the present day and be investigated by players. A famous bank on Fitzgerald Square immediately suggested stories about bank robberies and leads for players to look into. A Puritan-era graveyard, created as an homage to those dotting the real urban Massachusetts, furnished a place for historical clue-finding and ghost-busting. Every time I created a landmark, even if it was just an oddly colored office building, my first thought was, “What adventures might a player find here?”
But there’s still more to do in developing a district. As I mentioned earlier, the city is a stage on which PCs and NPCs play out their electronic lives. Downtown would be nothing without plenty of superpowered characters and factions (not to mention ordinary people) thronging its streets. By the time work on districts began, writers had already developed at least half a dozen business-oriented factions, all of whom now had a place to put their offices. The tall buildings immediately suggested visits from the skygoing Aether Pirates, while even the staid Titan City Stock Exchange furnished a potential site for missions or zone events featuring villains interested in financial shenanigans. A mixed-use development that’s been under construction for years proved the perfect place for villains with sinister schemes to stop or control the building to lurk. And so on.
That, from a writer’s point of view, is Downtown, and, indeed, Titan City as a whole. It’s not just a stage set; it’s a dynamic environment offering players gameplay opportunities as well as a feast for the eyes. Whether you enjoy in-depth, instanced stories, pyrotechnical, outdoor theatrics and rooftops chases, or just discovering secret alleys and quirks of architecture, there’s something for you to discover in Downtown. We look forward to transforming my design suggestions into a game environment full of adventures.