Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Lousy Choices and Linear Dungeons

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 17, 2012

A year or so ago this illustration of FPS level design “evolution” over the last twenty years made the rounds, and struck a little bit of a nerve.  Yes, many folks agreed – particularly the old-school gamers who remember gaming from the last century – it’s gotten awfully simplistic.

But the maps don’t tell the whole story. The linearity was a little exaggerated, and the map complexity of the old Doom level (E1M5?) hid some inherent linearity of the design that only becomes apparent in gameplay, when you grab the appropriate keys in linear order to allow you access to the rest of the level. But it was an amusing way to make a point.

I’ve been thinking about this a little bit lately with respect to RPGs. In particular, the linear dungeons of Skyrim come to mind (since that’s the RPG I’m playing right now), which are extremely linear.

The comparison becomes pretty stark when you realize the Elder Scrolls games were directly inspired by Ultima Underworld, way back in the early 1990′s.  The dungeons of The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall could get insane in their procedurally-generated three-dimensional complexity.  To illustrate some differences in dungeon design in CRPGs over the last couple of decades:

Ultima Underworld (1992)

The Elder Scrolls:  Daggerfall (1996)

Dragon Age: Origins (2009)

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (2011)

I don’t know if I’d really call this a trend. But since Skyrim seems to have been one of the best-selling RPGs of all time, it’s worth noting (as I’m sure many publishers will follow suit).

I was reading on a blog that this is sort of the 4E Dungeons & Dragons (pen-and-paper)  style of dungeon as well – more of a linear arrangement of set-piece encounters. Having not really paid attention to the Fourth Edition adventures and supplements, this is only hearsay, but that seemed to be the “official” trend towards the end of 3.5′s run, too.

RPG level design is a funky thing – particularly with good ol’ traditional dungeons. The linear dungeons of Skyrim are awfully convenient, and in all honesty may be a trifle more “realistic” (does that ever matter?) than the sprawling dungeon complexes of many classic games. It’s easy to avoid getting lost in them – the map screen is usually only necessary to see if you missed a corner or closet somewhere where there may be some additional loot.

But they do rub me the wrong way a little. I like my big, sprawling dungeon complexes. And I do like to harp on having choices.  However, a choice between a door on the left or a door on the right – or whether you take the left or right branch in a corridor – is a lousy choice. Without some kind of knowledge about the difference between the two (or more) choices, it’s really no choice at all.

This wasn’t such a problem in the open-ended play of pen-and-paper games. Players could make choices blindly, but they could also use spells and skills to scout out the differences. Were there far more tracks going up and down the left-hand passage? Were there voices behind the south door when the thief listened to it? How about using “Wizard Eye” to check out exactly what’s happening down the hallway?  But in CRPGs, those options are rarely represented, and aside from saving and reloading, there’s often not much of a way to gain any background on which to make that kind of choice. In general I support the idea of removing those kinds of uninteresting choices in the name of “streamlining.”

The difference with some (not all, and not even “most”)  of the mid-to-late classic old-school RPGs was that the levels were not simply maps of isolated encounters.  They weren’t all actually linear designs separated by keys, nor were they just sprawling random encounters arranged randomly. Good level design had all the pieces of the level come together to tell a bigger story or form a larger puzzle. Maybe I’m just looking through +2 Goggles of Rose Tint,  but I seem to recall some levels of certain games (I’m specifically thinking Eye of the Beholder and Ultima Underworld series, but there were no doubt others) where this felt like it was the case.  While the first time you were presented with the choice of going left, right, or straight may have felt pretty meaningless, they all tied together somewhat both narratively (is that a word?) and mechanically.

But my memory is hazy and I may be applying coolness and wishful thinking where there really isn’t much there. If that’s the case… well, there should be!

I don’t hate linear dungeons, but I do think they are not the ultimate answer to the problem.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 18 Comments to Read



  • jzoeller said,

    I have been playing a lot of Skyrim recently also, and that was one of the first things I noticed about the dungeons. The best part is how they designed them so once you get to the end of the dungeon there is almost always a “back door” that takes you to the entrance so you don’t have to backtrack to get out of the dungeon.

    I do have to give them props though, as the 70 or so dungeons I have completed so far, each one feels pretty unique.

  • Shahin said,

    I don’t really agree with your conclusions. You’re comparing fairly niche old games to games specifically engineered to have the widest possible appeal.

    Of course Call of Duty and Skyrim won’t have complicated level design since that would not appeal to players that want to progress without paying attention to the environment.

    Why not use the city hubs of Deus Ex: Human Revolutions and the vaults of Fallout: New Vegas as examples of modern FPS and RPG level design respectively? Suddenly things don’t look quite so simple anymore.

    It’s a question of design goals based on target markets, not “evolution”.

  • Shahin said,

    Examples of what I’m talking about:

    Deus Ex map: http://www.gamebanshee.com/deusexhumanrevolution/walkthrough/images/lowerhengshakuaigandistrict.png

    New Vegas map:
    http://images3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20110623171923/fallout/images/4/42/North_sewers_exit_captions.png

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    What that Dragon Age map doesn’t show is that Origins dungeons tended to be PAINFULLY linear via one-way-locked-doors… so that you took ten hours snaking your way through a dungeon but then could take a shortcut back to the beginning when you were done or desperately needed to get out for some air.

    It was full of huge dungeons that looked like they would include lots of choices but mostly didn’t. Instead you were funneled along the road to killin’ more stuff. (There were sections with real choices, but they’re less fresh in my mind because they were less ANNOYING.)

    Now, the vague pro of this choice is that unless they’re under external pressure to choose only one path, almost every player is going to try and explore every nook and cranny for things to kill and steal, to get more XP. And if they’re going to do that, you MAY AS WELL put them on a straightforward path so they don’t fret about missing any opportunities.

  • Picador said,

    What jzoeller said. Skyrim’s dungeons are a lot more linear than, say, Oblivion’s (the closest point of comparison). While it’s true that we lose some of the sense of free-form exploration, it’s also true that this linearity allows the level designers to make each dungeon into a fine-tuned, unique experience for the player. Compared to the cookie-cutter dungeons of Oblivion, the dungeons of Skyrim are much more interesting to explore.

    So I have to disagree with Shahin about Skyrim being aimed at “players that want to progress without paying attention to the environment”: in fact, Skyrim’s dungeons do a terrific job of making players “pay attention to the environment” by highlighting interesting features. Linearity is a key part of this design strategy, unfortunately: if a player can approach a room from two different directions, it’s sometimes impossible to guide their attention to the feature you’re trying to highlight. A dramatic vista or other set piece often only works from a specific angle of approach. A battle can be made either trivial or impossible depending on how the player is introduced, geometrically, to a collection of foes.

    I think that Skyrim generally does a good job of balancing freeform, sandbox outdoor exploration with unique, dramatic, carefully orchestrated single-serving dungeon-crawling experiences. But I agree that it would be nice to see just a few more indoor environments that present the same feeling of freedom and chaos that the game provides in its outdoor environments.

  • McTeddy said,

    Skyrim felt like going to Disney world. You travel across the over world in order to get to each of the rides. You may get some interesting random events… or neat little chats with townspeople… but it was all a waste of time before the next real mission.

    Then you enter the thrill rides of perfectly lined up monsters. The sights were beautiful, the scripted events were well done, battles well balanced. You feel the train car climbing up the track as they reveal the big quest-y plot twist… and suddenly you are speeding towards the ground as the Evil Wizard revives and you are forced to slay him once more!

    “YAAAY! That was fine” I cried out… “Now let’s get on the teacups… I mean slay that Dragon that has ZERO relation to any of the other quests I’ve done.”

    It was around this point that I said **** it and went back to playing Dark Souls. Skyrim was a fantastic theme park… but FOR ME… that doesn’t make a satisfying game.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That is a really fascinating analogy, McTeddy. I’ve found myself a couple of times thinking to myself, “You know what would be awesome? If someone made an RPG like this!”

    Yes, I do consider Skyrim an RPG (“RPG Lite!”), and yes, I’ve had a lot of fun playing it. But yeah, it is a little bit like riding the Log Flume at the amusement park a couple months after going on a whitewater rafting trip. Sure, it is still fun, but it’s definitely missing something.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I think there are some unfair comparisons going on, and your Goggles of Rose Tint are indeed using up some charges there Rampant.

    It goes back to what I was talking about yesterday about a lot of old RPGs wasting the player’s time. Maybe on those long summers and days inbetween PnP sessions we wanted some time wasted, but I think you are ascribing a lot more intelligent design to things like dungeons than were actually present.

    The Daggerfall map for instance – all dungeons (except the first) were randomly generated, as were the maps. Procedurally generated content. It was complex because the programmers wanted it to be complex, but they didn’t fine tune the order of left-right turn choices to form some kind of narrative magic.

    And old RPG maps could easily be expansive and complex – it wasn’t hard to do. They were working off the old D&D adventure building method – lay out rooms and tunnels however you like and roll some random encounters. All they needed to do was make sure a few special encounters were in place that had to be and the rest could all be filler. Look at these maps from Curse of the Azure Bonds (Gold Box). Look at all the rooms and hallways – most of those were empty, or had a random hobgoblin fight, or maybe a great description written in a paper Journal that came with the game. The fact is, a single designer could create an entire dungeon in a day. And many of the floors, walls and ceilings were the same texture, repeated endlessly, all laid out in a rigid square-grid world.

    You mentioned the meaningful details and clues a PnP party could get to make a decision based off the environment. Well modern RPGs and level design are allowing that to happen. We can see the shaft of light pointing at the correct door, we can see moss rubbed off the path leading in the correct direction, we can visually see all the clues that tell us what types of monsters are likely nearby, even hear the directional echo through a tunnel with Surround Sound or headphones.

    Modern levels are smaller and more contained because they are carefully crafted and designed experiences and storytelling devices. I did the math on Skyrim – each level designer spent 2 years making 16 dungeons. That’s over a month and half of man hours per dungeon, and that is AFTER all the art assets have been created. Is it a theme park ride? Sure. Every vista and image you see walking through a doorway or into a cavern has been engineered for maximum wonder and awe. Each clue designed to be delivered to you in a special way.

    Some people may feel the “theme park” design feels fake to them, or somehow diminishes the joy. But it keeps you from wasting your time with things that are NOT fun, by trying to make sure you are always doing something meaningful and enjoyable. Complaining about old dungeon design versus new is arguing for quantity over quality – like preferring a dozen Twinkies to one slice of great home-baked chocolate cake.

    And realism does come into it. The modern school of level design (and I should know – I went to school for it) is to consciously create a mood and tone, direct the player’s eye and attention, create a sense of a real place, and tell a story. Why would a dungeon have 50 rooms? Or twelve dead-ends? Or a half dozen grand halls? Or deadly traps and pits to drop people FURTHER into the dungeon? If you ask me, the old dungeons were more of a theme park ride than anything the new dungeons serve up, because they are inherently fake, designed not for any real use, but simply for exploration, a maze to keep a player occupied and for them to grind through the same way you had to grind levels. Time wasters.

    And one final note – the old dungeons were often few in number. Some old games only had 10-15 of them in the entire game. So they were designed to be huge and hard to navigate because their main purpose was to expand gameplay time as much as possible by keeping the player from progressing too quickly. And new dungeons like those in Skyrim, though straight-forward and occasionally short, are all hand-crafted for your enjoyment, and there are HUNDREDS of them. As most people can attest, they all feel very unique as well. I certainly was still discovering new things, traps, and gameplay elements in dungeons even over 100 hours into the game.

    I’ll take hand-crafted dungeons designed using principles of aesthetics and storytelling any day over large dungeons drawn complex as possible on graph paper and filled in with encounters from a random roll.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    @LateWhiteRabbit: You forgot to mention that the Daggerfall dungeon had a good chance to be simply unfinishable, too.

  • HappyDD said,

    The randomly generated dungeons always started to feel like what my cousin called (maybe other old DnD guys use this phrase too) “monster apartments”. Through door #1 there are some goblins, whom we murder, then go next door to kill the rats, next door there is a troll, and so on. All of whom are living next to each other with no real reason to be doing so. I guess the random generation could give you giant maps, but at the cost of what was (to me) silliness run amok.

    While Skyrim’s dungeons are linear (with convenient loop-backs to the start), I personally enjoy that I am entering a cave populated by necromancers that contains their belongings, their creations, and sometimes a snippet of info on why they are there. Also, backtracking out of them is boring, so I really dig the loop-backs that are built into almost all the dungeons I’ve seen so far.

  • MalcolmM said,

    I just finished Fallout NV. The levels are often complex, unrealistic, and due to the lack of variety, very boring.

    I don’t mind simple, linear maps, I much prefer them to the Fallout NV maps. I’m much more interested in how much variety there is in the map locations, I want maps full of interesting and varied locations. In other words, quality instead of quantity.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @HappyDD – Yep, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t have a problem with that kind of stuff getting “optimized out.” To a degree. I do enjoy a small to moderate amount of grinding, TBH.

    That’s what I meant by saying that most of the classic games didn’t really have intriguing level design. But some did. Ultima Underworld was one of the two examples I mentioned. There were only eight dungeon levels in that entire game. I haven’t really played through the game in well over a decade. But I do remember that eight-level dungeon really coming alive for me in several ways. It was cluttered, sometimes confusing, but taken as a whole it was really pretty dang cool.

  • Shahin said,

    Skyrim is just one game, and as Rampant Coyote pointed out, barely an RPG. It doesn’t singlehandedly dictate what “modern RPG level design” is. Above I gave two examples of recent, high-profile RPGs with much more complex level design.

    I don’t get this obsession gamers have of constantly labeling completely different designs as being “outdated” or an “evolution”.

    The “rollercoaster-ride” dungeons in Skyrim are designed to create a different experience for the player compared to, say, “Fallout New Vegas: Dead Money”.

    One guides the player forward and shows “cool” things along the way, without really demanding anything from him. Even the (non-lethal) traps are just a thrill along the ride.

    On the other hand, “Dead Money” forces the player to pay attention to both where he’s going, what kind of dangers might be present, alternative routes that might be safer. Risk vs. reward. Choices and consequences.

    It’s different design goals, not “evolution”. Just because one of them has broader appeal doesn’t mean it creates the same experience.

    I find the dungeons in Skyrim to be excruciatingly predictable and boring but I acknowledge that lots of players like that sort of experience and it would be nice if they could simply accept that some prefer a different experience instead of trying to push their preferences as more “modern”.

  • Anon said,

    Bethesda improved on a lot of things in Skyrim – world design less generic, quest design a bit more creative, NPC behavior a bit more realistic than the predecessors (note that I wrote “a bit”).
    They also have a setting that is slightly more dramatic thanks to the civil war going on. This at least makes up for some careful observations you can make as an aspiring quest designer! (What will have to change after you have won the civil war for one side? How does the game behave after you defeated the big foozle? There are some major oversights in this game!)

    But apart from the technical problems they did dumb the game system down a bit (there are myriads of posts now documenting this) and they certainly “linearized” the dungeons.
    But how much better were the dungeons in Morrowind and Oblivion? My personal opinion is this: The dungeon design in all three games suck ASS with one exception: Black Reach in Skyrim, which at least to me felt a tiny bit like the underworld in Ultima V: Vast and expansive, some underworld “wonders” to see and several connections to the overworld. For me it was easily(!) the best dungeon.
    Yes, the dungeons in Skyrim look much more realistic with the tiny spots of light illuminating ferns and mushrooms, treasure chests hidden under foliage and there is often some fluff flying around (dust, earth coming down etc.). They all seem to be individually constructed and of course some elements repeat but the atmosphere is great in many of them.

    But yes, they are putting the player on rails. It’s impossible to get lost in the game, even if you wanted to. You always get the same three different enemy types (the humans look different though) in their respective settings (natural dungeon, draugr burial chamber, dwemer city). I remember Oblivion also have basically three different dungeon types.
    However, how many games do you know that have as many dungeons? True, some are simple (and look realistic), but honestly, where do I have to look for such an amount of content? So, perhaps quantity conquers quality this time?

    Did I play Skyrim for the dungeons? No, but they are part of the experience.
    Did I like dungeons in other games more? Yes, absolutely, but not always. I have seen shitty cerebral dungeons that were there only to torture the player.
    That may be fine with some people (I hear there are masochists, too) but I like to have fun while playing and don’t care for dungeons that contain a 25×25 maze of transporters that also rotate me with every step I take.

    Rather give me the simple dungeons of Skyrim (or better: a bit more realistic with more dead ends and passages that are narrower or wider, like in nature) and occasionally put something special into it.

    Of course: I do see several “construction areas” for Bethesda in the future but some of them should get a higher priority than the dungeon concept.
    A stable game engine and a more robust quest system for example would be much more rewarding, IMHO, and they really should think about making every fucking spoon in the game obtainable. There is so much stuff here that could be safely eliminated (= converted to decoration only) that half of their technical problems could be solved instantly.

  • Goat said,

    While @LateWhiteRabbit’s counter-argument is fantastic, I have to say, I’ve been thinking these same things a whole lot since Nov. 11. And what it comes down to is that I’m still playing Ancient Domains of Mystery 18(?) years after I first downloaded whatever godawful beta that was back in the day exactly because of the dungeon design; procedurally-generated, but with way more logic than Daggerflaw.

    (And ADOM, being a Roguelike, is pretty much the epitome of what LWR was talking about in re: Curse of the Azure Bonds vis-a-vis everything looking the same. Hell, it’s ASCII…)

    Now, I know I’m the vertical market, not the lowest common denominator, so yeah, what I think is probably totally irrelevant. And none of this stopped Skyrim from becoming one of my favorite games in the past decade (they made some procedural improvements I didn’t even notice needed improving, especially in the handling of magic), but man, how cool would it be to be wandering around Skyrim and stumble on the dungeon from Telengard…?

  • Craig Stern said,

    So, here’s what I don’t get:

    “However, a choice between a door on the left or a door on the right – or whether you take the left or right branch in a corridor – is a lousy choice. Without some kind of knowledge about the difference between the two (or more) choices, it’s really no choice at all.”

    But isn’t that exactly the kind of choice you get in big, sprawling dungeons? In a big dungeon, you’re constantly picking directions more-or-less arbitrarily and exploring. A linear dungeon cuts down on these “lousy” choices.

    NOTE: I’m not arguing that linear is better (I get a certain kind of enjoyment out of exploration and navigational challenges)–I just find the critique a touch inconsistent.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That’s because my point isn’t that big sprawling dungeons are inherently better – it seems I wasn’t clear on that. I’m saying that optimizing out some of those arbitrary non-choices is *one* approach to fixing the “problem,” but isn’t the only one.

    Not all of the “big dungeon” classic games were like that. Yes, prior to around 1990, that tended to be the case. My point is really that those of us who like the concept of big, sprawling dungeons *can* have our cake and eat it too… and there are a few examples out there of games that to my recollection did a pretty good job of it. And I don’t think the occasional “non-choice” of going left or right or whatnot is a terrible thing, but it shouldn’t be the bulk of a dungeon-exploring experience.

    Even in games with very identical tilesets, there were occasionally clues (often in the form of text messages of one kind or another) that would reveal more about the environment than the graphics could portray.

    Today, with much more advanced technology we can pack a lot more in there visually, audibly, and in terms of overall data. We have the memory and processing power. No corridor ever needs seem exactly like any others in an RPG (good for not getting lost), and good, careful, handmade design could also fix the problem.

    Likewise, a more organic, roguelike design could *track* the events of the game (insert obligatory Dwarf Fortress reference here) which could be revealed to the player in various ways. Like tracking who had come through the corridor recently. Or listening to what’s happening behind a door.

  • Craig Stern said,

    Interesting ideas in that last paragraph there; I’d like to see a game make use of that.

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