Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 11, 2010
UPDATE: Part 2 of this series, dealing with practical considerations for level design, can be found here:
I grew up playing D&D, sometimes using the classic modules from TSR, often penned by Gary Gygax himself, or other writers like Allen Hammack, Ken Rolston (known to modern CRPG players as the lead designer for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), and Lawrence Schick. The modules had these really neat maps in light blue ink. The light blue ink made them difficult to copy by many of the copy machines of the era, so that was copy protection circa 1983.
In 1988, I attended a lecture by Tracy Hickman, author of a lot of … well, juvenile fantasy literature back in a time when such a thing hardly existed. He was also the author of the classic D&D module, Ravenloft. The lecture was specifically about adventure creation, and he spoke a few minutes about maps. He commented on how, if you tried to create a 3D model of one of the castles from these classic D&D modules, it would come out very “dumpy” and un-castle-like. That was part of his thinking when he designed the castle in Ravenloft. He tried to make it more realistic. He also discovered how terribly the third dimension tripped up pencil-and-paper gamers. They’d be convinced that some awful teleport trap had happened, when in reality they’d just made a mapping error.
The early first-person-perspective Computer RPGs worked well translating the old 2D graph-paper maps. These games offered four directional views in a tile-based world. They really couldn’t show curves or any walls oriented in anything but the four cardinal directions, but they got the job done okay.
And of course, the top-down or isometric view CRPGs worked fine with these kinds of maps, although again everything worked best at nice 90 degree angles without very many exceptions. The descendants of these latter games still stick to the nice 2D, rectilinear maps pretty well, though they often offer more interesting wall and floor shapes and height changes.
But Ultima Underworld was the game that started screwing everything up.
For the most part, it stuck with safe 90-degree angles and so forth too, but it added the vertical element to its maps. And underground rivers. And occasionally broke out of the rectilinear world to give us 45-degree corridors. Our worlds and perspective would be forever changed.
Yeah, Doom didn’t help much, either. But it came a little later. Ultima Underworld was ahead of its time in many ways. But still – those maps bore enough resemblance to the old 2D maps of the classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons era that I was in familiar territory.
So anyway, fast forward to today. Making 3D maps for a first-person perspective game. Tracy Hickman was 100% correct. What I think of as an awesome, classic, “old-school” map – like one of the above examples – comes out awfully , squat, boring, and – yes, dumpy – if translated directly into full-on 3D. Oh, and they also turn out pretty maze-like, too. And about 2/3rds of their actual size relative to what should be your “proper” eyepoint. I’m sure there are some things that can be done to make it more interesting and visually appealing (Kevin did wonders for the Temple of Pokmor Xang, which began life as a 2D graph-paper map with very few elevation-change cues). But apparently the direct translation of my vision of a “good map” runs counter to that of visually appealing and functional 3D map design.
And to make matters even more complicated, the needs of an RPG run counter to the principles of good FPS map design, too. As Brian, my another map-maker for Frayed Knights (and another family member roped into helping on my insane projects) has discovered. In an FPS, particularly competitive multiplayer levels, very circular map design is called for, with lots of “choke points” where paths converge on each other. You want very few if any “dead ends.” On the contrary, in an RPG, exploration is the goal, and finding all those end-nodes and discovering what surprises they hold is the whole point. He’s still fighting a few habits on that.
Anyway, it’s not like this is totally uncharted territory. There are plenty of books (I own one) and articles out there on level design. It’s not like there was anything sacred about those old-school Gygaxian maps even back in the day. But there’s one thing to understand what’s right and what’s wrong, and what should be done when making a 3D RPG map, and something else entirely to build the thing so that it neither looks nor plays shoddy.
On my end, there’s a lot of learning I still have to do. And a lot of habits to break. And a lot of skills I still have to develop. These maps take a lot of time and effort to create.
I do miss the old 2D maps sometimes, and get just a little jealous of those indie RPG developers who still get to work in the somewhat more flat, tile-based realm. There’s a lot to be said – and a lot more that can be done – within that simpler framework. But it’s also very fun (if a lot of work) to embrace the third dimension, learn to love the vertical, and do the kinds of things that Tracy Hickman could only dream (and write) of in 1988.
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