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Map Design

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Hey creative ones,

Sorry for the somewhat vague question, but... I'd like to ask some things about designing maps for a horror/puzzle/exploration game. So far the focus in our little team has always been on programming an engine that creates "good looking" results, and doing 3D work to show it. But at some point, we'll have to start making actual game-content. In the first place, that would mean making compelling environment the players walks through. The magical trick is to make maps that suit the game. If your stealth & sniping game does not have sneaky routes and hiding spots, it will suck. If your bar-fight game has no pool tables and glass windows to throw your opponents through, it will suck. And in our case, we'll need maps that:
- Have a certain overall athmosphere (dark, claustrofobic, or building up to a climax)
- Are suitable for puzzles and exploration. At the start, there are a lot of area's you can't access yet, as it requires item or event X to happen first.
- With the lack of action, the environment needs to challenge you. You want to explore it, though it scares you as well
- Support the interaction with monsters (wether that is combat or running/hiding)
- ...

No matter how good the graphics are, if the maps don't follow these rules, the game will either be too simple, boring, inconsistent, not challenging, or not scary at all. Those who played Zelda, Metroid or (the older) Resident Evil games know what I mean. The design is really well done. So now I wonder what kind of rules and skills it requires. I know how to design a single room, eventually with the help of concept-artists who draw it. But the difficulty is to design a whole bunch of maps - a complete game "section"/"area" - that fits together like a puzzle.

I think it's best to invite an experienced person to our team whenever we do another reqruitment round. But first, I'd like to know how this skill/function is called in the first place. And maybe you guys have some interesting reads or tips about the subject?

Cheers,
Rick

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You should take a look at the Ocean House Hotel level in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodline.

The level was genuinely creepy and very well done. It takes place in a long abandoned hotel which happens to be haunted. The level designers took a lot of cues out of horror films. So as you are progressing through the level, you will first see items move on their own. Or a brief glimpse at a ghostly figure.

But as you go further, you are forced to venture into the dark basement and start the generator which awakens the spirits in the hotel. So things get even worse. You start seeing ghosts reenacting their deaths. Ethereal flames from where a fire once destroyed part of hotel. You have objects being thrown at you.

It was one of the most amazing levels I have ever played in any game.

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Never heard of the game, but that sounds it's worth a try. Thanks for the tip!

Though the problem is not really coming up with levels or scary events. Don't want to copy them too much from other games/movies, and we have a pretty big list of ideas. It's more about making the map-layout itself. Imagine you have a piece of paper and a pencil. Now draw a Zelda, Metroid (or another exploration game with a big open world) map on it... Where to make a corner or door, how to keep the environments varying enough, yet in a certain style to make a consistent whole? How to make the lay-out "difficult"=suitable for puzzling & exploration? How to... and so on.

So far I usually make a list that contains a couple of ideas, visual-things, rooms or events that I really want. I'll start drawing a room (top-view) on a paper, then all the other connected rooms/corridors/.../ are improvised on the fly. It works, but it's very hard to test if the environment will actually work with the rules I mentioned in the first post. It's trail and error, but that takes a lot of time of course... Therefore I was wondering if there are tips, golden rules, or papers from game-designers that explain how they came up with their worlds.

Greets,
Rick

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If this is a horror game, keep one thing in mind -- your point of view on the room designs will be ruined simply due to you knowing what exactly happens in the rooms.

You know all the layouts, events and what goes where. The best way to test if a room or map is good, let someone who isn't designing it play a prototype. A person who is new to the game will get lost instantly (unless there is a map of some sort) and will show all the reactions a player will while playing your game.

Designing something entertaining is trully hard, as the creator and player have different views. That said, there is no shame in copying that which works for others -- scray shaped trees bumping against windows, shadows playing tricks on you... It is all there and it worked. And a plyer will not dwell on how much you copied that one movie (unless the game will be horrible enough to allow for such thoughts), he'lll be rather focused on not crapping his pants.

Imagine each room as an empty cube, and have each cube have at least 1 or 2 scary events. Now connect the cubes and take a look at how they arrange. Make adjustments according to the intensity of the scare -- you don't want to keep the player constantly tense, so having a few areas that are defined as "safe" will keep the player in the right mood.

I believe that it is anticipation of danger that works best. Simply having rooms that act as catalysts for the next one will increase tension, and thus pleasure from playing (as in, one room is a long corridor, on the end of it a door is left opened. A faint light pulses from within the next chamber, making shadows dance in a macabre pattern. As the player nears, the light dies and there is complete silence, not even the player's footsteps can be heard. You can add an air-sucking voice on the verge of hearing, akin to a bothered spirit stalking it's prey) .

Once you have that, dressing the rooms in clutter according to the central scare points shouldn't be difficult. Everything depends on your theme, though. A mansion will have different entertainment value from a WWII bunker. And a funpark after midnight will play differently than an old oil ship, stranded at sea.

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>> your point of view on the room designs will be ruined simply due to you knowing what exactly happens in the rooms
Very true! When I made the first movie for the project, it was best to take distance and try to forget the sequence for about 3 weeks, then look again. It's hard to judge what's scary or not, plus as the designer quickly gets biased/blinded by his own ideas. Allowing yourself to step out helps.

Having "Beta-Testers" and prototypes is a must, yet difficult and (too)time consumung for a small hobby team like we are. So there must be direction and guidelines before just trying out random things. I'd like to ask around for an experienced person next time we do a reqruitment round, but... how is such a person/role called? When I say "Map-designer", I think about doing actual 2D/3D work instead of making floorplans on a more global level.



I like the cube idea. Simple and clear. And more important, easy to adjust. When I make maps, I dive into the small details too quickly. And once you have an idea printed in your head, it gets difficult throw things overboard. That's ok for relative small area's, but if you have to connect 100 rooms or more... It's about how the maps interleave with each other, not so much the precise content. Concept Artists will fine-tune that part.

Does anyone know papers/interviews? I really love to know how, for example, the Nintendo guys came up with the Zelda map. Did one person just draw the whole overview one day, and worked from there on hoping
it will work out, or do they have sophisticated methods for that?

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