RPG Design Flaws: Giant Maps

As a member of the verge-rpg.com community since 1997, I’ve seen over 15 years of failed RPGs, and very, very rough demos. I intend on cataloging a list of RPG antipatterns to try and build up a set of good design principles.

The most common flaw I’ve seen, by far, is to make giant areas.

Be it because they’re using defaults in map editors (I’ve seen a few use 100×100 as the standard) or because of the common mistake that bigger is better, large areas seem to be the first, and perhaps the most critical, failing of a nascent RPG.

Big Zones Are Visually Boring

One of the two big draws in an RPG for me is Exploration. In fact, it’s my favorite part. And I love the occasional large area to explore… but any single zone of exploration that is enormous quickly gets tedious to explore.

Simply put: large, empty areas are boring, and I’ve seen hundreds of amateur RPGs that have this “feature”.

When designing a game, I find a useful guide to be to think in terms of single screens. Every distinct screen of game should have something new and interesting on it. Zelda is particularly inspirational here: each screen of Zelda had something specific and interesting to discover and explore.

Big Zones are Mentally Tedious

Even if you manage to make every screen of an area unique, you can still screw it up by putting too much stuff to explore, or too repetitive of a thing to explore.

There is a certain type of player who wants to do see everything and play with everything, and if you present too much, they’ll get bored with repetition in a single area. It’s far better to present a small, tightly curated set of “extras” so as to not overload this player archetype.

Big Zones Are Too Much Work For You

Another common plight with novice RPG creators is underestimating how much time map assets will take to create. We tend to think about time to create the tile art itself, or to script the map events together, but for some reason there seems to be this passive idea that the map assembly itself is trivially quick, as if to spring fully formed from Zeus’s head.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Even after a decade of experience, if I have the tile art already fully completed it takes me a minimum of half a day to make a small zone.

Let’s say that a screen’s worth of tiles is 20×15 tiles in size. A six-screen zone (which is a small zone) is 40×45 in size. That’s 1800 tiles you have to lay down per layer.

There are flood fills and auto-tiling tools, but it’s still a lot of area to cover for you as the map creator. My maps often have upwards of 7 layers because I’m fond of fringe effects and translucencies, so regardless of how many affordances your tool chain has, it’s still a lot of work.

Now, let’s consider the same effort with a 100×100 map. First off, that’s a 33 screen zone, which is large. For comparison, the entire enormous overworld area of Zelda 1 was 128 screens… so our single 100×100 map is over a quarter the size of this mega-area. Now, we’re talking about laying down 10000 tiles per layer of work here. And if you’re talking about my 7-layer monster-maps, there’s 70000 tiles of possibility to cover.

This… is a lot of work for asset creation. A beautifully made map this size could easily take an experienced asset creator a week. And if you were to make a game with 20 such areas this size, you’re talking 20 weeks of map creation. Which is a lot of time when you consider that many first-time RPG makers simply overlook this entire part of the process.

Go small!

Keeping your zones small keeps your workload low, keeps your player’s engagement high, and keeps your own engagement in the creation of the game high. After all, you’re going to make a complete area quicker, and you’re going to feel good about it sooner, which feeds into a desire to make more… which becomes a virtuous cycle that leads to a completed game.

So, that’s it. Go try making a map today, and keep it small! Some of my proudest creations have been game maps, and it’s really an art that’s not very well explored.

2 thoughts on “RPG Design Flaws: Giant Maps”

  1. Good post!

    The every “screen” having an interesting feature seems a good rule of thumb to me. It reminds me of a similar idea mention by Value in regards to Half Life … though I can’t the reference now.

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