How Hub Worlds Shape Video Game Design

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So a game hub is essentially a home. If the dungeons, levels, and quests are massive and deadly tasks that players take on, hubs are the sighs of relief. They’re the spaces that you feel safe in, where you can practice your skills, chat with other people, or find out new things about the game world. If platforming, dungeon crawling, or role-playing are active mechanics, then the hub is a place for passive actions.

This is one way to describe Orgrimmar and Stormwind from Blizzard’s now 16-year-old massively multiplayer game World of Warcraft. The cities serve as starting areas, and while they’re not where your character first appears in the world, they’re the first in-game space you’ll find populated with other players and NPCs alike. The cities branch out, offering players the ability to communicate, sell items to one another, plan events, and store and craft items, and in general they are spaces that players return to after their activities elsewhere in the game world. While not hubs from a level design perspective, they carry with them the spirit of a hub.

Aside from adventure games, platformers, and multiplayer games, hubs have been crucial to another genre: the dungeon crawler. Released last year, Hades is a great example. The game earned high praise for the way it handles player death and its replayability, but also for its characters. Based on Greek mythology, Hades uses its hub world to tell and develop the characters’ stories. But to do so, the characters’ story and dialog are mostly removed from the main game mechanics. Their story arcs and personalities are front and center for the player to experience, rather than shown through gameplay.

But while single-player hubs tend to be more story oriented, multiplayer games used to use their hubs as an armory of sorts. And when it comes to “hubs equal armories,” Destiny and Warframe live in both fame and infamy for their designs. While Warframe has created some open-world areas recently, there won’t be anything quite like the sleek and minimal hub level area that is the Orbiter. Unlike Hades’ almost expansive, lore-heavy hub, the Orbiter, the ship of the player characters, is almost like an interface in itself. It’s where the Tenno stock their weapons and equipment, travel through levels, and even train their canine companions. It’s also where players are able to purchase other warframes and weapons, making them not only areas to pause and calm down after gameplay, but also a marketplace of sorts. This is understandable, given that Warframe considers itself a free-to-play sort of economy. But what about Destiny 2?

Destiny 2 has gained some notoriety and controversy in that, while it’s a game being sold at retail price, there were still micro-transactions being carried out within the supposed “tower,” one of the hubs of the game. The tower within Destiny 2 works much like Orgrimmar and Stormwind City. However, the hub is closed off, having players jump from there to other levels within the game. But aside from the social aspect of the tower, there’s also a couple of vendors that require the player to purchase micro-transactions before they can sell wares. This brings an interesting distinction between single-player and multiplayer hubs.

Where one tries to expand the mechanic as a means to tell a story and develop a world around it, another seems more interested in the function of a hub level. Both Warframe and Destiny 2 design their hubs as a means for players to pause from the action, yes. But they also are marketplaces and shops for them to purchase gear and other items. And as multiplayer and single-player seem to stray further from each other, it seems like hubs will be implemented as a general design, rather than a specific mechanic, adding a division between a maximalist and a minimalist approach to said design.

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