A hub world is a special level that you continually return to and has exits that lead to new game levels. In RPGs hub worlds are more than that, they're home for the player. Home is a powerful concept, everyone has strong feelings about where their home is and what it represents. Take a home from somebody or threaten to and you'll see how strong those emotions run.
Compared to other media, games are drawn out affairs with multiple hours of play. This is doubly true for RPGs. It's a rare game that can be 100% completed in a single sitting. Because of their length games are made with logical break points the player can stop and come back later.
In the early days of gaming, Space Invaders, Pac-Man etc, a gaming session would last a couple of minutes and the player would return hoping to survive for a longer period of time and gain better mastery over the controls. As games moved into homes we became accustomed to the idea of levels.
Levels work well for game designers and players alike. A single level is a nicely contained game session and works well with a computers limited memory as only the data for a single level needs to be loaded at once.
The basic level structure is shown below.
As games and computers advanced, levels became missions, zones, worlds, dungeons and so on. The way levels are accessed changed too. Levels were originally completed in a set sequence, you play level 1, once complete you may play level 2 and so on. But some games changed this up, maybe you could visit and try levels 1 to 3 and then access 4 and 5. (Mega Man is good early example of a non-linear approach to levels). Levels still had a set progression but the order was partially in the hands of the player.
Some games used a special level called the Hub World as shown above. A hub world is a special level, that's entirely safe, where the player can choose the next level to play. A number of levels are usually locked off and open up when an open level's completed.
Hubs Levels in History
Here are a few notable hub levels.
One of the first hub levels I know of is from James Pond 2 1991 (if you know of an earlier one I'd love to hear about it @HowToMakeAnRPG).
The hub level contains lots of doorways and each leads to a new level. Some doors are locked. There are hidden treasures dotted around but there's not much else going on.
In Mass Effect the Normandy spaceship acts as the hub. To travel between planets and complete missions you must use the ship. While you're on the ship you can interact with crew, queue up research and outfit your team. Here's the meeting room in the Normandy.
In Bastion you don't discover the hub until a little ways into the game. Then as you progress you invest in the buildings and unlock power-ups and shops.
I actually found the Bastion hub world a bit impersonal (I struggle to pin-point exactly why). I liked the gameplay mechanics of it.
Diablo had the town of Tristram
Diablo comes from rogue-like origins, a big deep dungeon with a town on top to sell loot.
Other games worth a look:
- ActRaiser does some very novel things with hub concept.
- Shadow Run : Dragonfall a solid implementation of the hub level
- Alpha Protocol has a few hub levels but they're integrated int the plot in a really nice way.
- Braid again it's nicely tied into the plot
Properties of a Hub Level
The hub world is a safe place for the player. It's connected deeply to our sense of home, of having a secret base. A place to practice, plan and get ready for the next adventure.
Hub worlds suit RPGs well. They break up play into nice discrete chunks.
When playing levels there's high tension, high skill requirements and danger. The hub room offers downtime. The player can look into game lore, find out more about her traveling companions, upgrade, rest up and get ready for the next adventure!
Getting the most from a Hub World
A hub world can be so much more than a novel way to select the next mission.
Make the player work for it
A captured enemy hideout, a resurrected golem from under a mountain, an airship abandoned in a lost city, a pocket dimension locked away by a puzzle. If the player isn't merely given the hub as a gift but as a reward for taking action then they'll care about it more.
Change over time
As the story progresses so should the hub. NPCs should talk about your last mission, comment on how the story is effecting them and the world. Progress through their own character arcs (if the player shows interest).
Let the player customize it
Cosmetic changes like naming it, decorating it, choosing it's colors, motto and laws.
Gameplay effecting changes; building a shop, repairing a weapon, hiring crew etc.
Attack It, Steal It, Threaten It
Want to get your player's heart racing? Let them grow attached to something then, threaten it and have them protect it!
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
Some missions should pull you away from the hub room for a prolonged period of time.
Give it secrets
Secret rooms, secret NPCs, hidden treasures. Lock and Key puzzles for the player to open as they progress in the game.
Make it part of the story
Include some aspect of it in missions. In Alpha Protocol, a spy RPG published by Sega, you capture a trains worth of weapons and you get the option of sending the weapons to back to your base or to an NPC.
Make it integral to the world, like the common rooms for the houses in Harry Potter.
Acknowledge Player Choices
If the player manages to save a stray cat put it in the hub room, saves a baker from a fire put some fresh pies in the hub room. The player should look forward to returning to the hub room as much as they enjoy playing the levels!
Can you have a hub level for an open world game?
Yes! Ultima Underworld 2 did this very well. You're trapped in a castle and need to find a way out through the dungeons. You can use a special item to teleport back to the castle and check in with everyone, then teleport back to the last place you were at in the dungeon.
Hopefully you have now have a few ideas about how to structure your game around a hub!