Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Making Epic 3D Dungeons, Part 2 – Applying the Lessons

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 21, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, in Making Epic 3D Dungeons, I talked about the evolution of the classic “dungeon” paradigm from dice-and-paper gaming through the development of computer RPGs, and how its fared through the pseudo-3D and finally fully 3D presentation.

There are a couple of additional resources I want to recommend:

Brenda Brathwaite article on RPG Level Design – sort of a grab-bag of good ideas…

Raph Koster on Zone Design for Virtual Spaces – much of it is geared towards social multiplayer environments, but he makes some generally useful points overall, and can help expand one’s thinking when designing these environments

I feel a little weird talking about something I really don’t feel qualified to comment on… but since when has that stopped me before? Working on Frayed Knights, we’ve had an opportunity as indie game developers to learn more about it… the hard way. We’re still learning. We’ve violated these lessons as we’ve gone, out of ignorance, forgetfulness, or (especially on my own efforts) out of lack of skill to implement them as well as we should have.  And I also suspect that the many of the things that work for Frayed Knights wouldn’t work for another game, even another RPG.  And as we keep learning, we may find we’re totally wrong about some of these things.

But with all these caveats in place, here are the kinds of lessons we’ve learned about making 3D dungeons for this kind of RPG:

Artistic Considerations

Use the Vertical: I mentioned this in the last article. Having a uniform spacing from floor to ceiling is not only a waste of modern 3D technology, and it gets pretty boring.  And if a game is about exploration, you need the environment to be visually interesting and worth the exploration.

Don’t Be Square: Also along the same lines as using the vertical… plain rectangular rooms are also boring (while, granted, a staple of old-school dungeons).  They will always have their place, but should be used sparingly.  L-shaped rooms or similar constructs are more interesting. Replacing some of the 90-degree corners with other angles is also more interesting. Adding some vertical elements is also more interesting.

The Devil Is In the Details: My “real” level designers are not themselves seasoned AAA level design vets, but they do know more than I do about texturing levels, and constantly correct me for being such a n00b with my efforts. I’m always fighting to limit textures and download size issues, but they want levels that look awesome. Apparently, it’s not enough to just slap down generic wall and floor textures and call it good. Comparing results, I think they are right. A good level has details – both in models and textures. If you look at the walls in the later-gen pseudo-3D RPGs (the ones made for VGA, especially), the wall art was very interesting. They had trim, cracks, niches, grates, moss, pillars, icons, supports, and so forth built into the texture.  These details helped make those worlds come alive even in tiny resolutions. The same thing applies in 3D – doors need frames, walls need decor, transitions shouldn’t be abrupt without reason, and so forth.

Mix It Up and Make It Distinct:  Locations should be visually distinctive. Unless you really are making a maze, the player shouldn’t have to look to hard to get his or her bearings.  Here’s where it may be a good idea to take a page from the old text adventures: remember how (almost) every room had a unique title and text description? Try and think of every location in a 3D dungeon as if you writing a text-adventure description of the room as well (something I am considering taking somewhat more literally as I’m working on the game). Each location  should (generally) have  a purpose and something that makes it stand out.

Provide Contrast: Light to dark, narrow to wide, shallow to deep, cluttered to clean, dull to vivid – anybody who has played Oblivion or Fallout 3 knows how impressive it is to contrast different kinds of areas. Having the player navigate between contrasting areas helps make exploration exciting.

Break Up the Big: A big, open area can be cool (especially provided as a contrast) , but having nothing between you and the horizon-line (or the far wall of a Big Room) is lame. Pillars, towers, terraces, whatever – having “stuff” visually to break up the bigger spaces not only makes it interesting, but makes the bigger spaces seem even bigger.

Keep It Real:  In real life, form follows function. You get things like pillars, load-bearing walls, and arches supporting larger structures. We’re used to it. We may not notice it. But if it’s missing (in a game), it bugs us on some subconscious level.  Sometimes this is desired, especially in a fantasy game. But it shouldn’t be done in ignorance. Of course, I’m pretty ignorant myself, so I violate this guideline a lot… but I try.

Gameplay Considerations

Cue Theme Music: Dungeons should have one or more  “signature” locations that have a major, specific theme or feature  or something  stand out more than most. Something that really calls attention to it.  These locations should either be at central nodes, or significant end-nodes. These help define the dungeon (“it’s the one with the…<feature name> room”), anchor it in the player’s mind,  helps the player navigate the level, and provides strong visual rewards for exploration.  For examples in the Frayed Knights pilot, there was the meditation chamber (with the toilet-shaped fountain), the torture / prison room, and the altar room with the statue of the fat, happy version of Pokmor Xang.

Show Goals Early: It’s good design to show where you want to go before you can actually get there. Maybe it’s up high where you can’t reach it, or blocked / locked, across an uncrossable stream or chasm, or simply off in the distance. This can (and often should) be done in stages – maybe you don’t see the final goal immediately, but you soon see the sub-goal to focus on to get there — like  a raised drawbridge that needs to be lowered. Showing it engages the players brain, and gets him trying to figure out how to get there. Failure to do this makes the level seem more pointless and maze-like… and frustrating.

Twisty Little Passages: The player shouldn’t be required to move very far in one direction without encountering a twist, bend, or – better – a decision. An option to click on something. A door to open. Or, if all else fails, a monster to encounter. Long & straight areas with nothing happening are to be avoided.

Click Anywhere!: Locations should be chock full o’ interactivity. This is fun for the player, and as a content creator it means more bang for the buck out of every location. I was inspired by watching my kids play Ron Gilbert’s Humongous Entertainment adventure games – Putt-Putt, Freddie Fish, Pajama Sam, etc. Exploration isn’t confined to movement from one location to another – it can also be had by just exploring the possibilities in one location.

It’s a Secret: Having some secrets or “goodies” that are hidden and only revealed through careful exploration and experimentation is a huge win for an RPG (or most other games). For one thing, it rewards exploration, giving the player access to something she realizes most players won’t ever see. Secondly – it really does make the world seem bigger, as it may create the perception that there’s a lot more to the world than is revealed in a straightforward playthrough.  A dozen secret areas may be a hundred or more in the players’ imaginations.

You Take the High Road, and I’ll Take the Low Road: A good level has choices for travel. In other words, should provide some non-linear exploration. Now, the decision about whether you turn right or left at a T-junction is about the most boring, pointless decisions one can make in a game. But you know what? It IS a decision. It “feels good.” It helps the player feel in control.  Of course, it’s better to make the choices more interesting… like giving them some clue in advance about the consequences of going left or right.

Mix Up Encounters, Too: Fight after fight after fight even gets boring in the action-RPGs, and can be worse in a turn-based RPG emphasizing exploration. Combat encounters should be mixed liberally with other activities – traps, puzzles, conversations, discoveries, whatever else the game provides.

(Don’t) Take the Long Way Home: Getting to the end-goal may a long, hard quest, but once the goal has been accomplished, getting back out again shouldn’t be a chore.  There should be shortcuts back out again. For a bigger dungeon, this may apply across multiple paths.

So … what thoughts or criticisms do you have? What have you always liked (or disliked) in certain games? What’s worked and what’s failed for you? Let me know!

Then maybe we won’t repeat the same mistakes…


Filed Under: Art, Design, Frayed Knights - Comments: 6 Comments to Read



  • Making Epic 3D Dungeons said,

    [...] Comments Making Epic 3D Dungeons, Part 2 – Applying the Lessons on Making Epic 3D DungeonsCalifer on Are Used Games the Publisher’s Enemy… Or Secret [...]

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    One thing I like when exploring is when the dead ends aren’t super-long, or at least make it obvious which way is the dead end. When I get to a fork in the dungeon, I want to explore the dead-end (even if it’s to discover a trap I should totally avoid), but if I walk down the corridor for a few minutes I’m going to think that perhaps this is the “real way” to go and the other way was the shortcut.

    I find this happens a lot on larger randomly generated map games, most recently Torchlight. I’m the type that loves finding all sorts of hidden secrets and goodies, so making it easier for me to get around the maze increases the fun. Nothing worse for me than having to walk through 5 minutes of dead space (or worse, respawning mook enemies) to get to that dead end I passed a while back.

  • Badger said,

    Lord, does the escheresque section of vertigo REALLY look like someone just threw up thirty gallons of pepto-bismol?

  • Noumenon said,

    Regarding detail, I’ve heard people praise Morrowind for not slowing down their engine putting a lot of detailed textures on walls and floors. Just put detail on things you want the player to spend time looking at?

  • Badger said,

    The engine we are using has some interesting foibles and freaks. It is amazingly fast for some things, and slow for others. It kind of constrains some of the architecture choices :)

  • Xenovore said,

    @Noumenon: Quote: “Just put detail on things you want the player to spend time looking at?”

    Absolutely. And also: The farther away things are, the less detail required.

    More detailed (i.e. higher resolution) textures do not slow rendering but they do consume more memory. More detailed geometry, however, does slow rendering.

    Thus, Morrowind’s lack of texture detail was due primarily to memory constraints of the XBox than anything else. (Textures were a little better on the PC, but not by much.)

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