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ptietz

Level Designers: Any tips on towns and resting places?

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Hi everyone, 

since I wasn't able to find a topic that's specifically related to level design, and since I will add a few more questions to my main issue, I'm afraid, this will have to serve as a catch-all topic for now. Sorry for that :/

So, when it comes to villages, townships, cities and resting places, I'm often baffled. I got two paradigmas in my head that just don't want to go together. First would be the "straight forward principle". Keeping distances short, placing only buildings that have distinct purposes, putting the spot on gameplay. Second would be the "immersion principle", making sure every NPC has its home, creating roads in a much more realistic way (rather than just reflecting the shortest distance between two points), maybe adding some spooky empty houses and so on.

Do you want an efficient town that allows you as a player to manage your stuff as quickly as possible so that you can get right back into the action as soon as the player decides to? Or do you want a town that invites players to stay and literally feel the rest, their characters experience? Of course it depends on the type of game you want to create but how would you find the right balance between the two?

Adding to the topic, it would be great to read some general thoughts on this as well. Such as "savegame spots vs. saving from the menu", "exposition dump frequency in such places, narrative phrases" or "player homes" (like those you find in Skyrim for example).

Thank you guys very much in advance.

Have a good one :)

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4 hours ago, ptietz said:

Do you want an efficient town that allows you as a player to manage your stuff as quickly as possible so that you can get right back into the action as soon as the player decides to? Or do you want a town that invites players to stay and literally feel the rest, their characters experience?

I think you can make a cozy village without bothering the player too much.

Off course, i would just make a bare village and concentrate on gameplay-elements first though, and add non-esential things later.

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It's a difficult thing to consider, so a good topic to bring up. 

I think the best way to feel about it, is think of it organically to the overall narrative of your game. Don't spoil what could be a charming village/town due to streamlining the players' impatience. Make a town that makes the most sense to you, and then from that, chisel away things that might be outlandishly annoying for players, ie, having one save point on the second floor of a tavern that's in the middle of town.

I would say another very important thing to consider, is rewarding exploration. If a player walks between two trees, past a hole in a fence and looks behind a rock, maybe there's something there. Even if it's dialogue driven (like a note) it's still rewarding. This kind of thing makes the player not mind if a village is bigger, more complex, and less streamlined. 

I think as gamers, we love to identify in other cultures, and a town/rest area is the best place to show the subtleties of your world.

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Organic town designs tend to lead to shorter paths to certain items.

Consider in the real world.  First property in general, there is a bulls-eye shape of property value. As long as the city is growing and not blighted, the property value generally will go up city-wide. The city center grows to astronomical value after many years, look at places like London or Tokyo or New York City to see just how valuable that central land can be.

Terrain and natural features also affect the value. Beachfront luxury resorts with sandy beaches have one kind of high value. The heavy industry docks have another kind of value. But a rocky beachfront that is neither tourist friendly nor commercially friendly will often be blighted low-value dumping grounds.  Cliff-side vistas, river-front or lake-front properties, hilltops, each have value.

When people travel the main roads, in the physical world there are critical items first. The first gas station will sell fuel to the people running low. The first motel will sell rooms to drowsy travelers. They can sell at a premium price while offering sub-par service because the travelers need the services urgently. 

Inside town there tends to be clusters and districts.  Entertainment districts, government districts, commercial districts, industrial districts, residential districts.  As cities grow there are multiple clusters with various benefits and services.  The cheaper industrial districts and cheaper commercial districts have bulk items of expected quality.  The expensive districts have boutiques and specialty stores that cater to the rich, and their appearance and clients reflect it.

Since we're mostly talking about shops, those tend to be in easily accessible patterns.  They're right along main roads because merchants need to move goods. There are the budget critical services when you enter town on the main roads, then a gap, then some mid-value services, then government services, and finally high value goods and services.

The low-value areas tend to be off in blighted areas or low property values. The hive of scum and villainy probably won't be next door to the police station, although you could place it next to some government buildings as a joke. 

You won't find the areas to explore with niches and hidey-holes inside the expensive city center, there are too many people and the land is too valuable; anything that was lying around would be picked up immediately, unless perhaps in your story it was dropped from a wealthy store patron or something.  Instead the explorable areas are on the fringes of town, out away near the forests or farm land where few people pass by and where it takes effort to pass through.

 

Those physical world aspects tend to be mirrored in games.

When you enter the main road you see a cleric to remove poisons or infections or an inn to help those with 1 HP remaining. You may pay a premium for them, and later in the game you can probably avoid those services completely, but early on sometimes you'll be limping in to town with a purple cloud willing to pay anything before those last few HP drain away.

Continue down the main roads and you see a place do dump the junk you've collected in your travels, the low-value shops. Continue down the road to find higher value shops.  Then you get to either government buildings, or you get to high-value specialty shops.  You journey off the main road to find where people live, or the places with good deals on everyday items, or to find the areas for exploring and looting. 

The low value hive of scum and villainy for your rogue will not be on the main street next to the high-value shops, nor out among the residential districts, but out by the blighted areas.  It may be by the polluted rocky seaside where bodies are easily dumped and small boats can be hidden for a quick getaway through the muck, or through a city's back alleys and dirty sidestreets.  If you're looking for a rogue's poisons, this is the place.

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If you are trying to make an rpg, or something that plays like an rpg, immersion is your main focus. If you are just making an action/adventure game, you should focus on the gameplay and experience. The whole goal of an rpg is to immerse a player, thus the title "role-playing game". The purpose of an action/adventure title is to put you into a good story with good gameplay. At least, that's how I always see it. :)

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Always keep User Experience in mind when you're designing levels for a game. (Always keep it in mind when designing ANYTHING, even industrial control interfaces, but it is vitally important in games.)

What is the purpose of where the player is at any given time? How often are they coming back there? How important is getting around to different parts of the location? 

One of the things that can really take me out of a game are needlessly sprawling and under populated 'towns' in RPGs. Morrowind and Oblivion seemed rather bad for this in my mind, as I honestly don't really have any memories of exploring the capital city or Vivec, but of slogging through this overly large half ghost towns with next to nothing in it. Plus, load screens... so many load screens trying to get anywhere.

From a game design stand point, I like to approach towns as having distinct sections based on functionality. The first thing you should come to after getting into a town is the main market. A tightly clustered and busy place where as a user I can quickly look around, see the things I obviously am going to want, and quickly access them to buy the things I need to continue with my adventure and exploration. If you have lots of different kinds of shops, then ideally group them based on the probability of a user's desire to interact with them.

- Don't place the "Heavy armourer" shop on the far side of the market from the "Heavy Shield" vendor if your generic warrior class is going to be the only kind of player who shops there. 

- Don't place your 'thieves guild' entrance somewhere that takes a fifteen minute hike through a maze of alley ways to get to, tuck a little trap door to it around a corner a few seconds from the rest of the shops. [Sure, the quest entrance for it can be hidden behind some long puzzle thing that takes the player's time to gain access to, but once there have an NPC point out how they can enter or leave through the quick access hatch close to the main market.]

 

After you have your service section laid out, then you can move on to quest and flavour sections. Put main quests, like "The King's Throne Room" as a short and easy walk from the market if you are going to be back and forth between there a lot, while more 'one time' quest locations can be scattered deeper into the city from the main access/market place. 

You can still have additional shops and such in your flavour zones, but make them effective functional duplicates of those found in the main service market. If they are special in some way, then try to keep it to a limited mini-quest thing that the player will only occasionally desire to go to. - Bob The Generic Swordsmith might mention that Harold The Mystic Swordsmith was rumoured to have 'made something special', prompting the player to go check out the snazzy new sword for sale. But establish a design that makes it clear the player doesn't have to keep running around to all of the 'special' shops all the time, and should only need to go there for very specific instances. 

 

If you want a "Big Grand Cinematic Entrance" to the city, then lay your game out such that the player takes that route the first time they're going somewhere, but otherwise give handy time saving short cuts if all I'm doing is popping back to refill my mana potions.

 

Remember, a large part of modern player bases are adults in their late 20s and 30s, with jobs and families and often limited play time. If half my play session is consistently running around to just restock my character with stuff, well... I can get all the fun and excitement of shopping by getting up and going to a real store to buy things I need in real life... so please don't force such design decisions down our throats in a game. I would rather find titles from another developer from that point forward.

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You make the former, with the illusion of the latter.

Everything you can 'visit' has a function. Everything on the 'outskirt' (may be visible but not even accessible) hints as the fact everyone has a house, but is purposefully left out of main gameplay. 

Somewhat similar to Lut Golein in D2.

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Hey guys,

sorry for the late response.

Thank you all so much for your contributions! Your input helped, already!
And we even seem to have found some sort of consensus here.

Feel free to continue the discussion as I don't seem to be the only one interested :)

Best Regards,
ptietz

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