Sucker Punch’s 2020 game Ghost of Tsushima sported one of the year’s most beautiful open-world environments. Inspired by the real island of Tsushima, the developers at Sucker Punch managed to take a rural feudal environment and craft a breathtaking world around it.
The virtual island of Tsushima is dotted with all kinds of landmarks to lead players on different exciting journeys. Inside Sucker Punch, there’s actually a taxonomy to creating those landmarks, which Sucker Punch Lead Systems Designer Parker Hamilton referred to in his GDC 2021 talk as “Weenies.”
“Weenies” is a nickname inherited from the Disney Imagineering team used to refer to tall visual landmarks that are centralized attractions, like EPCOT or the Disney Park’s Magic Castle. Sucker Punch’s use of different kinds of Weenies helps players navigate the complex, rural spaces of Tsushima, while also creating a sense of wonder and consistent rules that shape the feeling of the world.
Here I go a-wandering again
At the root of Ghost of Tsushima’s open world is the story of a wandering Samurai waging a one-man war against a Mongol occupation of the island. The key word here, said Hamilton was “wandering.” “We wanted to create a game where players could get lost exploring Feudal Japan.”
“Part of that is giving players the freedom to decide if they want to climb a mountain, reach a temple emerging from the treetops, or ride down a forest to catch a rogue Ronin.”
One key early decision was to not use some of the UI elements that other world open-world games rely on like minimaps. Without some of these more abstract features that wouldn’t feel diegetic to feudal Japan, the team had to answer key questions: “How do players know if something interesting’s nearby?” “How do they know how to get to locations they’re interested in reaching?” “How do I know where to go to progress my current mission?”
Hamilton said the solutions all came through the lens of being “organic and diegetic”—meaning they were meant to feel like elements of the game world.
The first tool Hamilton highlighted was visual diversity in the game’s three prefectures. Each prefecture has a mixture of distinct aesthetics with different color pallets and geography. He said that just by mixing up aesthetics, and trying to give each space as unique an identity as possible.
He highlighted the healing town of Akashima, a village in the low wetlands of Toyotama. It’s a swampy, rural town with key visuals like a giant bell and nearby temple. There was also a sense to make sure locations like Toyotama had a sense of history that seeped into the architecture. “What happened here in the past? What state is it in now? What happens after the player comes to the location?”
Those areas are then filled with the aforementioned Weenies, and just because typing “Weenies” over and over again is fun, he then went on to break down how Sucker Punch categorizes different types of Weenies, and what kind of attractions they can lead players to.
Sucker Punch divided “Weenies” into two sub-categories: “Flags” and “Breadcrumbs.” Flags are tall visual landmarks extending up ward, contrasting against the skyline. These include smoke signals, buildings, a red maple tree, or even a flock of birds.
These can pop out of trees, and be visible at a different relative range of distances depending on their respective priorities.
Hamilton also made note of the “Short Flag” weenie—a tall object that catches the eye, but is only visible in a short distance around it. He spoke somewhat negatively about these (though showed ones that made it into the game), saying that they often aren’t visible at a far distance. They seemed to be more useful for saying “hey, your instincts were right, there is something here.”
Breadcrumbs are ground-based landmarks like Tori Gates, which not only mark the entrance to the game’s hidden temple locations, but are spaced at intervals for players to pass through to act as a kind of soft countdown to the new content.
“Breadcrumbs are great because you can discover them even in a dense forest,” Hamilton said.
Weenies can be modified by particles—whether it’s smoke pellets, leaves, birds, or fireflies, they can be seen from afar, be visible at day or night, and change as players approach them. They can also be changed or modified based on content completion. Though not accessible to all players, sound effects can also be used to give landmarks identity as well.
In Ghost of Tsushima, Sucker Punch apparently had the rule that players must be drawn by something “Every 30 seconds or less” while traveling the game world. This metric helped the team adjust the density of landmarks, both to help solve areas where that 30 second interval was cut short, or made too long. “This doesn’t mean the players need to bump into something every 30 seconds, but instead can see something calling to them,” Hamilton said.
“This was the learn time limit from people’s patience with the world feeling empty. A lot of environment and VFX work goes into making sure players can see Weenies from a difference.”
Sometimes cutting that 30 second time shorter wasn’t about adding or removing game content, it might mean knocking down trees or bushes to make sure Weenies can actually fulfill their purpose of catching the player’s attention.
Here’s an example of how clearing out trees helped make the town of Komatsu more visible:
And here’s how campfire smoke that should be visible to the player was actually being obstructed by trees that were only serving an aesthetic purpose.
There’s a lot more to exploring Tsushima than visual landmarks, and for more details on designing those features, you can catch Hamilton’s talk on the GDC event platform or when it eventually lands on GDC Vault.