Dragon Quest Builders (DQB) is an action role-playing game set in a voxel-based world just like Minecraft, Terraria, and countless other titles. But unlike most of them, DQB focuses on building rules, formal systems, and imposing limits on what the player can be by introducing a prevalent linear narrative where the player will always assume the role of The Builder.
This is in a stark contrast to other voxel games, such as Minecraft, which focus on giving the player the freedom to build and imagine themselves as anything they so desire. These games are so different primarily because DQB is designed around ludus, while others design for paidia.
In his book Man, Play and Games, Roger Caillios defines paidia and ludus as two opposite ends of a spectrum. Paidia being akin to childhood play, where rules are improvised and activities occur spontaneously. Ludus is the inverse of paidia, wherethere exists a defined ruleset and activities have instructions and limitations. By understanding exactly how DQB is designed around its voxel world, hopefully, we as game designers can learn how to meaningfully implement such worlds into other genres.
The most prevalent aspect of Dragon Quest Builders is the strong focus on narrative. Opening with a strong narrative hook attempts to captivate the player’s attention and make them invested in the fate of this world. That focus on narrative continues on through tutorial as the god of Alefgard revitalizes the player and overtly teaches them the basics. The game even jokes about the monotony of this by having the player start snoring. This self-awareness is part of DQB’s charm and sets a tone for the rest of the narrative arc.
Now compare this opening to that of Minecraft. Minecraft’s new player is given no dialog nor direction and is spawned directly in the world. The main difference here is that the player of DQB is extremely limited by the tutorial area and thus will have a set goal cemented in their mind by the time they escape. They will also have a vision of the physical state of Alefgard and how it relates to the overall story.
Such a tutorial is similar to that of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and is quite common for role-playing games. By setting the story early, DQB can then explain the rules of their more formal systems around this narrative. This is extremely important because it helps to maintain a player’s suspension of disbelief.
Another key design decision is to not have a procedurally generated environment. Practically all voxel based worlds are procedurally generated, but in DQB’s case, it makes far more sense to not have one. By having a set world shape and size, it allows the level designers to build for a certain playstyle while keeping in theme with the narrative.
For example, in the first chapter, there are four distinct islands for the player to explore. Within each one are custom built structures with nonplayer characters that will advance progression through the game. These structures lead to more rewarding exploration for players in their first playthrough, but at a cost to overall replayability.
In a procedurally generated world, it would be far harder to keep the architecture consistent with the changing landscape whilst still providing a linear progression. This is because a designer could never be certain what location a player would discover first. I’m sure such a system could be made, but as we have seen with games that attempt to pull this off, such as the Metroidvania Chasm by Bit Kid, they are too often over time and budget while producing a less interesting world. That is why for a role-playing game, regardless of the fact that it may be voxel-based, a custom built story-driven world is essential.
Similarly, the location of the player’s base is preset by the designers. It is the first thing a player finds after the tutorial and it serves as the engine to progress the story. A player’s base is 32 square, and only buildings within this location will count toward the city’s overall score. By rewarding the player for building in a predefined area and tying story into the construction within this area, the designers can safely assume the player will build there.
Such a small build area could seem like a poor feature, especially when compared to other building management solutions like those of Terraria, in which the player can place houses anywhere. Although this area is fairly small, the limitations that this imposes opens a plethora of new design opportunities both for the players and the game designers. Limitations force the player to be creative in their placement of buildings in order to fit within the boundaries of the simulation. This turns space into a valuable resource.
Players can of course still build anything they please, but for buildings to mean anything toward the progression of the city’s score they must meet certain criteria. Buildings must be enclosed, two blocks high, and contain a door and a light source. There are also blueprints in which every block must be in an exact position for credit to be awarded. This leads to interesting decisions for the player trying to manage their space resource and maximize their base’s score.
Game designers benefit by being able to design boss fights specifically for this area. For example, during one boss fight, the entire area around the base is replaced with a racetrack. The player must then drive around while enemies attempt to damage the base. Such an interesting setup would be meaningless without the assumption that everything important to the player exists within that boundary.
In conclusion, Dragon Quest Builders strays away from the cookie-cutter voxel game, but Square Enix does so with good design and sound reasoning. They have introduced a narrative, something that is often unseen in voxel-based worlds, but essential for a role-playing game. Procedural content generation has been stripped out in favor of a custom world that serves the narrative. They constrain the building process to force the player to conform to a set of rules, and they use assumptions derived from those rules to create unique experiences.
All of these major changes serve to shift the balance of a voxel world away from the free spontaneous play of paidia to a directed rule-driven experience far more akin to ludus-centric simulation. Overall this results in Dragon Quest Builders becoming a unique experience that I haven't seen in any other game with voxels. Hopefully, we can learn from Dragon Quest Builders and see how voxels don't have to only be associated with paidia type play.