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Thaumaturge

Designing the Overworld

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For my current project I intend to have an overworld, but find myself a little stuck for a design that fits my goals for it. In particular, I don't want this game to be a wide-open sandbox--I want to avoid both the issue of sandbox paralysis (what TVTropes calls the "quicksand box") and that of content creation on such a scale. On the other hand, I do want a degree of exploration and discovery--I want the player to be able to spot an interesting tower while travelling, and decide to visit it.

 

As mentioned, this is a overworld that I'm designing: the meat of the game is intended to be in the levels, with this overworld providing a sense of travel, an impression of a world outside the levels, and opportunities to discover new locations.

 

To these ends I've been thinking about having my overworld be composed of map locations: the player has a map, and can visit specific places in the area shown, rather than being able to trudge every centimetre of mountainside.

 

The problem then, is that of how to approach this.

 

I've thus far considered three options, each with their own advantages and problems:

 

  • Each map location corresponds to a small "level" that the player can explore freely, as with standard levels.

     

    On the postive side, this allows the player to discover secrets hidden around corners, or new vantages from which to spot potential locations to visit.

     

    On the negative side, the boundaries--wherever they lie--might damage immersion by confronting the player with the limits of the "level". I've considered having the boundaries automatically produce a prompt to the player offering to "travel", taking the player either to the map or to the next location in that direction, but am not sure that this completely solves the problem.
     

  • Each map location corresponds to a fixed-position, free-rotation "node" (as seen in some of the Myst games, as I recall): the player can look around and interact with objects, but movement is limited to moving from node to node. The graph of nodes would be sufficiently dense that one could move in most (reasonable) directions and end up at a new node. In essence this replaces discovery by exploring a small region with discovery according to which nodes the player chooses to visit.

    On the positive side, this allows for fully pre-rendered art (which has certain advantages over real-time 3D art), and can be relatively simple to set up.

    On the negative side, this is quite apparently artificial--but, funnily enough, I've think that I've found that it can be less immersion-breaking than coming up against an invisible wall, as in option (1) above. Perhaps more problematic, I'm somewhat concerned about the amount of content that so dense a graph calls for, even allowing for variations in density according to the density of interesting features in an area.

    (I've actually prototyped this idea; it seems to work well enough, but prompted me to notice the content-creation issue.)
     

  • This is essentially the same as number (2) above, but with a far less dense graph, and no free movement: the player would return to the map and click on a new node to travel to. This reduces the content-creation issue, but also reduces the element of exploration.

 

I'm currently somewhat leaning towards the third option--the second has the content issue, and the first has the "invisible boundaries" issue--but it pretty much cuts out the exploration element, which leaves me somewhat dissatisfied. That said, the levels should provide at least some exploration, and I could see some of them providing access to "hidden" map-locations...

 

So... What thoughts or advice do you have?

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Instead of a map, I personally would suggest a grid system - something that would feel natural to the world.  Squares or hexes are the two obvious choices, though a triangular grid is also possible, or some less regular structure like a giant figure 8.  So the player can then travel only in straight lines (I'm thinking along the lines aka roads of the grid, though you could do it across sides instead if it fit better with your game world concept, that would be more like the myst nodes or hexes of territory).  So the player can travel freely along the grid, except you can put obstacles/breaks to control their path a bit.  Plot events can remove obstacles or repair breaks, or transport the player to a different section of the grid.  And each step of travel corresponds to a location, with three types of location: plot-related, empty, and easter egg.

Edited by sunandshadow

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How do levels and map locations differ? Are the levels special map locations that have different gameplay?

 

Levels are more full of gameplay--there are buttons to press, secret doors to find, enemies to fight, ledges to climb, leaps to make, etc.--while map locations are more about location: where the player is in the world and what's around them. Map locations might have events--encountering a strange character, or perhaps an occasional ambush, etc.--but for the most part are about giving the player a world around them that's more than disconnected levels.

 

In short, levels are about exploration and adventure, while map locations are about travel and discovery: similar, but operating at different scales.

 

I suppose that another way of looking at it would be that levels are about moment-to-moment gameplay--"I'll jump to that ledge, solve the puzzle, battle the monster, then open the door..."--while map locations are about a more relaxed, contemplative type of gameplay--"I'm in the middle of a mountain range, on my way to a city on the other side; there's a cairn here, but no items of interest. Look at the view from up here! Oh, hey, there's a tower tucked away in that valley over there--let's head over there and see what's in it...".

 

 

Instead of a map, I personally would suggest a grid system - something that would feel natural to the world.  Squares or hexes are the two obvious choices, though a triangular grid is also possible, or some less regular structure like a giant figure 8.  So the player can then travel only in straight lines (I'm thinking along the lines aka roads of the grid, though you could do it across sides instead if it fit better with your game world concept).  So the player can travel freely along the grid, except you can put obstacles/breaks to control their path a bit.  Plot events can remove obstacles or repair breaks, or transport the player to a different section of the grid.  And each step of travel corresponds to a location, with three types of location: plot-related, empty, and easter egg.

Hmm... I feel that I'm missing something--how does that differ from the second and third options that I described above, other than having a more regular arrangement? The grid tiles would seem to be a different way of describing the nodes of those systems, with the connections between nodes being the roads of your description...

 

(For the sake of clarity, in the second option that I described above the player can move from node to node without going through the map screen.)

Edited by Thaumaturge

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Instead of a map, I personally would suggest a grid system - something that would feel natural to the world.  Squares or hexes are the two obvious choices, though a triangular grid is also possible, or some less regular structure like a giant figure 8.  So the player can then travel only in straight lines (I'm thinking along the lines aka roads of the grid, though you could do it across sides instead if it fit better with your game world concept).  So the player can travel freely along the grid, except you can put obstacles/breaks to control their path a bit.  Plot events can remove obstacles or repair breaks, or transport the player to a different section of the grid.  And each step of travel corresponds to a location, with three types of location: plot-related, empty, and easter egg.

Hmm... I feel that I'm missing something--how does that differ from the second and third options that I described above, other than having a more regular arrangement? The grid tiles would seem to be a different way of describing the nodes of those systems, with the connections between nodes being the roads of your description...

 

(For the sake of clarity, in the second option that I described above the player can move from node to node without going through the map screen.)

 

Hmm, well maybe it's not technically that different, but I feel like maps as anything that actually transports you instead of a visual aid that helps you orient yourself feel immersion breaking and artificial, and definitely have no sense of travel or exploration.  So I was thinking about the Pokemon 3rd and 4th gen games and Mario3/Mario world and games like Zelda 2... all games where, even though where you go is directed pretty linearly by the game, they still have the feeling that you are traveling and exploring.  And I was thinking that integrating the map-shape into more of a natural-feeling overworld would be ideal.  And wouldn't it be cool to adventure around in a weird world where everything is in a triangular or hexagonal grid, maybe because it grew like a crystal or because it was built by insects or aliens who aren't as hung-up on squares the way we humans are...  I was trying to think of a way to make there be a "traveling node/road/tunnel" between any two "permanent/pre-built" nodes because that's what would create the feel of travel and discovery IMHO.

 

My vagueness is probably what's making this confusing but I don't know enough about your setting to suggest something more specific.

Edited by sunandshadow

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I would choose the first option and make the map locations like normal levels. That way the player only has to learn 2 interfaces (levels and the world map) instead of 3. I don't think running into the edge of the level would ruin immersion for anyone, at least as long as you make it reasonably clear where the edge is. For example, if there's a gate or a path leading out of the area, but not if it's just an open plain and going too far in any direction leads the player back to the map.

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I fear that I didn't describe my option two well enough, and should perhaps have used a term other than "map location". :/ While option three does indeed use the map for travelling--the player clicks on icons on the map to travel to those locations--option two uses the map as you describe: primarily as a means of determining one's position in the world. Actual travel is done (at the moment) in the "world-view", by looking in the desired direction and pressing "w", which produces a brief travelling segue that depicts a slightly impressionistic representation of moving from one point to the next (procedurally generated from data in the origin and destination nodes), before depositing the player in the new node.

 

 

I don't know enough about your setting to suggest something more specific.

Ah, a good point. It's a high-fantasy setting: adventurers, sorcerer's towers, and so on. The player might travel through grass plains, dense forests, mountain passes, etc. I'm being perhaps a little vague there, but I doubt that the details are terribly important at this stage (although I could well be rather mistaken)--and, quite frankly, I haven't yet set a very great deal.

 

I like your idea, but I don't think that it would fit terribly well; it's probably better suited to a world such as you describe in your post: something alien and insect-like, in which the strange arrangement of the grid could add to the sense of otherness.

 

 

I would choose the first option and make the map locations like normal levels. That way the player only has to learn 2 interfaces (levels and the world map) instead of 3.

That's a good point. To some degree option two deals with that by using a very similar interface (I use the usual "forward" key for advancing to another node, for example), but I have been a little concerned about conveying the fact that there are two different control mechanisms. :/

 

 

I don't think running into the edge of the level would ruin immersion for anyone, at least as long as you make it reasonably clear where the edge is. For example, if there's a gate or a path leading out of the area, but not if it's just an open plain and going too far in any direction leads the player back to the map.

Ah, but that's a problem: while the levels are likely to lend themselves to such affordances, these nodes are more likely than not to be in the open--hence my concern about the edges affecting immersion. :/

Edited by Thaumaturge

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This is essentially the same as number (2) above, but with a far less dense graph, and no free movement: the player would return to the map and click on a new node to travel to. This reduces the content-creation issue, but also reduces the element of exploration.

Take this. The reasons are quite simple:

1. Reduced content generation ! That is an incredible important goal for hobby/indie devs. If you have too much content, the quality of it will decrease. Therefor less is often more.

2. Don't make two games in one. If your game plays in the levels, a simple,functional, still fancy looking , map is everything you need. You can increase the quality by some pretty visuals, animations, sound/music, accessible UI, still the underlying game mechanism of this part of the game are primitive.

3. This kind of level<->map traveling has been used in other, successful games like Dragon Age 1, no need to re-invent a side aspect of the game.

 

One designer pit is, to design a single feature isolated, without the major context of the whole game. This often lead to making single aspects interesting (aka complex) which will, once all pieces of the game a plugged together, to a too complex game experience. Believe me, I'm an expert in making stuff too complex unsure.png

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Are you thinking of a "Lords of Midnight"-style overworld?  That has the "hey, strange tall thing in the distance, I should go check it out!" feel to it.

 

But it's on a grid, which I do think is important.  (In a slightly paradoxical way, important to the immersion.)  Not that it be on a grid, but that the topological space of the nodes is predictable by the player.  If it is, I'll feel like I'm exploring a world.  But if there's an arbitrary possibility space for which things in the background might be nodes, it becomes more of a puzzle where the answer is just "guess what the designer was thinking".  (Or if they're highlighted, neither puzzle nor exploration.  That's ok too, but it doesn't feel like *I'm* discovering things.)

 

If the organization of space seems to exist *outside* the whims of the designer, then I can momentarily forget that a designer exists.  This goes even if there are unrealistic restrictions on my movement, like "you can only move in cardinal directions" or "you can't cross water" or "you can't ever step off a road", even if these are functionally equivalent to the designer choosing my possible routes.  I can accept those as conditions on a play world, like I can accept "the floor is lava".  The resolution to the immersion paradox is that when there are knowable rules binding both me *and* the designer in identical ways, I no longer have to guess what the designer thinks should be possible.

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I like the map with nodes to explore and prompt at the edges to "travel in that direction", or simply return to main map. Baldur's Gate style, no one has ever complained about. And, for the sake of immersion issue, BG has been one of the most immersive rpg I ever played.

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