Area building: DOs and DON'Ts

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Brick
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Area building: DOs and DON'Ts

Post by Brick » Fri Apr 16, 2004 12:03 pm

I've travelled many PW servers, both CoPaP and... not CoPaP. From the icy mountains of ALFA, to the Drizzt-infested plains of Neversummer, to the dry deserts of Avlis. I've seen good areas. I've seen average areas. And I have seen bad areas.

So I've begun compiling a mantra useful to the persistant world area builder. You may disagree with some of the things on my list. You may admire me for thinking exactly like you do. Either way, I invite other toolset-manipulators to post some of their strategies for building areas (and I invite everyone to not start arguments about anything posted here). With that said, here is Brick's List of Area Building DOs and DON'Ts.



DO

Rotate your placeables! Even if there's only one of them! There is probably an angle at which that boulder looks best. And if you ever produced an area for a PW or a module, you should know this- forests of identical looking trees suck. Mix 'em up a little bit, and rotate them at all kinds of odd angles.

Tweak the lighting in you area, both in Area Properties and on the individual tiles. This makes a HUGE difference. Make the coat closet in a house dark and gloomy! Make the kitchen painfully well lit! Make the corner of the living room with the fireplace orange tinged! Nobody will see an area with well done lighting and think "That's some cool lighting!" They'll see the area and think "This is one good looking area." And don't forget source lighting. Source lighting is your best friend in the whole wide world.

Put in sounds and music. Aural ambience is an excellent way to just make an area more aesthetically pleasing.

Put in placeables. Placeables offer you alot more freedom than tile groups do. And in many cases, PCs can interact with them. They add variety to an area and can completely change its feel. These placeables are a two edged blade, though- check the "DON'T" section.



DON'T

Put in grossly exaggerated terrain features- unless you absolutely have to. Walking around a 5x5 tile lake is a huge pain in the ass. So is walking around an eight tile long fence. If you're rebuilding the Great Wall of China in your PW, and there NEEDS to be an obstacle that is ridiculously obnoxious, by all means put it in. But if you're putting a terrain feature in an area just for the hell of it- you know, to make it look pretty- make that terrain feature easy to get around.

Make your areas huge. If you want a journey to take a long time, make a bunch of small areas. You'll reduce load times and won't have to resort to grossly overexaggerated terrain features. And it's much easier to "fill up" an area without getting repetetive.

Make those goddamn "Pyramid Hills." Come on, make 'em at least a little bit organic looking. A three-tiered hill that sprawls out acrost the map, and isn't perfectly symmetrical, is prettier than a 7 tier monstrosity that looks like it was built by the Aztecs 100% of the time.

Put in too many sounds, music that doesn't fit, or make your sound effects too loud. And PLEASE remember to change the playing times on placeable sounds!

Put in placeables that don't fit in with an area. Snowy pine trees and the desert tileset are probably not a good combination. And as cool as those "Skull Pole" placeables are, maybe it's best if they aren't on every other town member's front porch.

More to come.
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PlasmaJohn
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Re: Area building: DOs and DON'Ts

Post by PlasmaJohn » Sat Apr 17, 2004 12:55 pm

Brick wrote:
DON'T

...

Make your areas huge. If you want a journey to take a long time, make a bunch of small areas. You'll reduce load times and won't have to resort to grossly overexaggerated terrain features. And it's much easier to "fill up" an area without getting repetetive.
...

Put in too many sounds, music that doesn't fit, or make your sound effects too loud. And PLEASE remember to change the playing times on placeable sounds!
DO

Balance and Moderation. Both of these suffer at the extremes, if you chain together many 2x2 areas to simulate "long", you're going to drive your players batshit, particularly those with mediocre systems (<1GHz).

While sound enhances the atmosphere and provides an extra dimension of foreshadowing, it can also hurt those that don't know enough to use something other than the Miles Audio library.

Placeables must also be handled carefully. They stress the pathfinding algorithms. Not only do you need to ensure that you don't have too many, you must also be aware that placing them across a tile seam is anathema.

John

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Post by Themicles » Sat Apr 17, 2004 1:35 pm

You're taking his statement a little too far.
If you're using 2x2 areas for exterior landscape, you're nuts.
And I know Brick isn't crazy. He's my lead builder.
;)

Furthermore, he knows about placeables and tile seams.

Give him a little credit, and a little time to write up more. He did tell me he wasn't finished with this thread.

As for large areas...
Anything larger than 16x16 generally isn't necessary. There are some exceptions, especially with rectangular areas... but in general, players start to complain above 17 on average. Oh... and 32x32 is just suicide. Don't even bother with something that huge.

-Themicles

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Re: Area building: DOs and DON'Ts

Post by Themicles » Sat Apr 17, 2004 1:44 pm

PlasmaJohn wrote: While sound enhances the atmosphere and provides an extra dimension of foreshadowing, it can also hurt those that don't know enough to use something other than the Miles Audio library.
Being a sound freak, and having a multitude of computers to test on...

Sound plays a big role in First Person Shooters. In an RPG, its not near as necessary for the gameply, and is more for the ambience and immersion.
I design my areas with all the appropriate sounds. In a PW, if you are placing sounds that are necessary to be heard to be able to do something, then you're going too far. Save that for single player modules that have specific sound requirements written up in the documentation.

Placing a seagull sound in the ocean with a limited range, instead of having it blaring at full volume in every corner of the area, is NOT going to hurt a Miles user, much less, the user that uses no sound at all.
Besides using sound to foreshadow, there really is NO way for you to design a sound setup that only works for full surround, and hurts 2d sound users. The area will sound great in full surround, but the 2d sound user will still hear all the sounds, just not have as clear an image of where the sound came from. (ie. inability to distinguish between front and rear).
At this point, the only people not hearing all the sounds are those using full surround but don't have rear speakers plugged in, or those not using sound at all.

Ambient sound in an area is a necessary consideration, and final requirement for every area. Regardless of what sound driver a person uses. If someone relies on sound as the ONLY way to foreshadow, then they need to take a step back and re-examine their building practices.

In summation:
Sound is NECESSARY. But sound is NOT the only focus.

-Themicles

Brick
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Post by Brick » Sat Apr 17, 2004 3:18 pm

I've always seen the ideal size for an outdoor area as 12x12. Anything below 10x10 is too small (except in special circumstances), and anything above 14x14 is probably too big.
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Post by Thejester » Sat Apr 17, 2004 4:12 pm

Moonsea is set up on the semless area transition system so you can just walk off the edge of eny level we put on it and it will start you in the acording spot on the next level with out finding the blue bar. the only problem is every level you put on the system has to be the same size. so we experimented for a bit and found the best size for us was 16x16 for the whole server. All the towns and caves and crypts and what not are all back useing the blue bar so we can make them eny size.

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Post by PlasmaJohn » Sun Apr 18, 2004 1:19 pm

Themicles wrote:You're taking his statement a little too far.
If you're using 2x2 areas for exterior landscape, you're nuts.
And I know Brick isn't crazy. He's my lead builder.
;)

Furthermore, he knows about placeables and tile seams.

Give him a little credit, and a little time to write up more. He did tell me he wasn't finished with this thread.
:shock: Whoa, slow down, my post was intended to be an addendum to his excellent advice not to argue with him. I'm glad that Brick knows about tile seams, but not everybody else does. Or the fact that storing a large number of local vars on an object can cause problems, or ...

I'm advocating a balanced approach to design. Do use the features, but don't go overboard. Yes, 2x2 outdoor areas is silly, but that was kind of the point :oops:
Themicles wrote:Sound is NECESSARY. But sound is NOT the only focus.
I think we're in violent agreement :D

John

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Post by lafferty » Sun Apr 18, 2004 4:45 pm

DO:

Adjust the z-axis of placeables by minimal increments (e.g. 0.01) if you are covering an area with several flat placeables (dirt patches, carpets,...), This avoids the clipping errors occuring that can be highly annoying.
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Brick
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Post by Brick » Sun Apr 18, 2004 7:24 pm

DO

Devise a system for naming areas, doors, transitions- trust me on this one.

Put in tons of useless, aesthetic fluff. Like museums, temples, libraries, art galleries, rug shops... you get the picture. Be creative.

Stack placeables on top of each other. If you put four Boulder placeables together, and rotate them to perfection, you can make one huge boulder! This can be a tricky thing to do, but when it's done right it can have stunning results. Check out this module for some good examples of what I'm talking about. Of course it's necessary to be careful to not use too many placeables; they can cause heavy strain on some systems.

Look at other what other builders have done, in both single player modules and other PW's. Most of the top rated modules at NWVault are very cool looking, and it doesn't hurt to steal some of the tricks and techniques they use.

Give encounters spawn locations, and do it with care. Try to avoid making commoner encounters that spawn in a huge mob, even if their AI makes them wander around. Unless there's a pretty good IC explanation (like spiders dropping from the cieling), do NOT make monsters spawn on top of the PCs who trigger the encounter!

Make commoners with a wide array of appearances. Give them different heads, different hair colors, different skin tones, maybe even change up the occasional voiceset. And make lots of different clothing models for them.


DON'T

Use Shaft of Light and Magic Spark placeables as much as possible. When not used in the right circumstances, these look totally out of place. And "the right circumstances" do not pop up very often.
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Brick
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Post by Brick » Sat Apr 24, 2004 2:26 pm

Come on, anyone have anything to add? I'm looking at Red Golem and Aloro in particular.

DO


Try to match building interiors roughly to the shape and size of their exterior tilegroups. Of course it doesn't pay to be TOO anal. A 2x2 tilegroup should NOT necessarily equal a 2x2 interior area. But generally, 1x2 farmhouses shouldn't house 16x16 Castle Interior Areas. Use yer common sense.


DON'T

Leave tons of naked edges accessible by players in your areas. In areas that are supposed to have lots of terrain, try to stick the terrain near the edges- avoiding the "golf course effect" of walls that go on for miles and miles is always a good thing. Once again don't be too anal. There are situations where it's alright, and there are situations where the cure is worse than the disease. Just avoid naked edges when appropriate. Also note that making the edges of an area inaccessible makes searching for an AT a little less OOC.
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Post by Red Golem » Sat Apr 24, 2004 3:25 pm

Do: Keep scale and IC builder intent in mind

How big does it compare to real-life structures? For artificial indoor areas like dungeons, keep scale in mind. If you've got artificial indoor rooms the size of soccer fields, and straight hallways that you can run a 600 yard dash across, then you best see if you need to rescale things (unless you actually intended to build an olympic stadium or something).

What would the real architect have done? Think about how the original IC builders of the place would have built it, how much resources and workers they had available, their level of architectural sophistication, uses for the rooms, their beliefs, and sense of ergonomics that the builders would have had. Then think about the effects Does that 60x60 meter room really make sense? Does a 10 tile hallway (about the length of an American football field) actually make sense, or would they have made the rooms much closer?

Do: Multiple ways to and from destinations

Nonlinear routes: For most navigational areas, you can make things more interesting and less linear by having multiple ways to get to or from a destination. Cyclical routes that allow you a different path there and back allow for a more interesting gameplay experience. It allows you the choice of trudging back the same way you came, or taking a different route back. You can think of every fork in the road/tunnel as a non-combat encounter - a decision point.

Looking at Bioware's example: Take a look in the evolution of Bioware's area designs as they've learned from experience. You can see that most newer areas are not just long linear things, but are instead either loops or a central point with many different paths branching out. This keeps it so that the player does not have to spend so much time just walking that same old path again, and has choices in how one gets somewhere.

Quick exit: Also from the "boss" room is usually a quick way to get back out without having to trudge back through several dungeon levels after that final encounter.

Do: Consider the pacing of different types of encounters

Often builders think of encounters as just monsters. But that is only one type of encounter, and unfortunately often the only type of encounter that PCs get experience from. Other types of encounters include:

Navigational decision: a branch in the road/tunnel, a locked door, a maze, a road sign. It gives the player a sense of control in which direction to take.

Sensory Point of Interest: This might be something they'd stop to look/listen/smell/feel/taste. Everything in a normal museum for example would be this type of encounter. In a dungeon for example, it could be a patch of darkness, bloodstains on the ground, or even sending a text description to the PC of what they smell, feel as they move through the area. Outdoors, this could be a set of tracks, a hole in the ground, or strange looking formation of rockes or bushes. Anything that makes the PC stop and investigate, possibly foreshadowing or leading to another encounter of a different type. This can be easily done with a trigger. In a world/area that has a higher level of strangeness, then this can be used more creatively.

Traps and chests These keep the PCs on their toes, and make the rogue of some use after all.

Puzzle: This might be something more for single player campaigns and modules since puzzles lose their interest mostly after the first time and get to be a nuisance after the interest wears off. Or you might have the puzzle only be triggered the first time a character is there, and then afterwards give them the key to bypass the puzzle.

Non-combat NPCs: A stranger on the road with an interesting conversation, a prisoner in a dungeon with clues to a secret area, or a small animal in the woods that displays odd behavior, could all cause PCs to stop. More interestingly, they might present a moral/political/philisophical choice that the PC would need to make.

Ordering of encounters: Think about a party's path through the area and what order/type of encounters they would experience. If it is combat - combat - combat - combat - locked door - combat - treasure chest, then you've got the basic formula for a traditional hack and slash gameplay experience. For a more varied experience, see if you can have a noncombat encounter between combat encounters. Something like special NPC - combat - locked door - special NPC - combat - point of interest - trap - chest - combat - nav decision - puzzle - combat - odd portal, would be more likely to lend to a more interesting, less predictable, less repetitive gameplay experience.

Awarding XP for other types of encounters: If you give a dog a treat only for killing intruders, but never give the dog any treats anything else (like fetching your slippers rather than eating them), then you'll end up with a hack/slash dog. This is what many PWs do unintentionally - creating hack/slash players since except for fedex/farming quests, their XP might come only from killing things. If you want to encourage your players to explore, give some XP for each new area they discover. If you want to encourage your players to interact with NPCs, have conversations with NPCs lead to some XP (even nominal amounts might encourage it). Or if there's a DM on, use that XP wand to reward PCs who roleplay with each other, and make sure the PCs know the reward is for roleplay.
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Post by Aloro » Sat May 01, 2004 1:50 am

Brick wrote:Come on, anyone have anything to add? I'm looking at Red Golem and Aloro in particular.
Heh, sorry. I was out of the country while you were looking at me. :)

OK, I'll add more later... here are a few thoughts:

Do: keep directions consistent
If you enter an area heading a certain direction, you ought to come out facing the same direction, by and large. Thus if you pass through a doorway heading North, when you get to the next area you'll expect the door behind you to be in the South wall.

Do: vary encounters
Nobody wants to run though a dozen identical encounters. Mix them up, with different types of monsters as much as possible. It's also nice to mix up the types of damage done by monsters, instead of having everything in an area do e.g. slashing damage. Varying damage types renders items like a Greater Swordsman's Belt far less powerful. If you really NEED to have e.g. 10 skeleton encounters in your skeleton lair, try making several types of skeletons - give them different weapons and feats, vary the stats, etc. Variety adds a lot of spice.

Do: think ecologically
"Monsters" are (generally) sentient creatures too. Why are they there? What are they doing? What kinds of treasure would they realistically have, and why? Try to make sure that when you create areas full of monsters, there's some overall sense to the layout and a reason for everything to be there. Place furniture and items the residents would use, and make the areas feel "lived in". The classic (poor) example is "You enter a 10x10 room and see an orc guarding a chest." This suggests that the orc has literally nothing to do but sit around all day in an otherwise empty room guarding a chest, often full of items that are useless to him but very valuable to the PCs. Please, spare us. :)

Do: make areas as small as possible
Generally speaking, it's FAR preferable to have a small area that's very interesting as opposed to a large area that's largely boring. My rule of thumb is to make areas only as large as I absolutely need them to be. I'll keep resizing an area as I build it to remove wasted space. This needs to be balanced with pathing issues - you can't e.g. cover every square inch of the floor with placeables, or nobody will be able to get around in the area (and you'll get massive lag as a result of the pathfinding calculations). As in most things, seek out a medium - but broadly speaking, in area design smaller is always better.

Don't: use tedium as a design aid
One common approach to area design in video games is to make getting through an area tedious as a means of simulating the rigors of travel. Well, lots of polls have shown that players hate spending hours running through multiple empty or identical areas in order to get to the "good parts". Likewise, if you have to fight a ton of creatures getting into an area, it's nice if you don't have to fight the very same creatures on your way out; this can be accomplished either by having the respawn times long enough to allow the round trip, by creating a "shortcut" out, or by varying the encounters to each trip through will yield different results. The stock NWN encounter system isn't great for variety, so you might need to add some scripting to accomplish this latter goal.

- Aloro

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Post by Brick » Sat Jun 12, 2004 1:38 pm

DO

Keep in mind the frequency of monsters in an area and the areas around it. These affect the rate of experience gain just as much as XP settings do. A high monster-density is going to encourage powergaming, especially if the encounters can easily be triggered one at a time.

Give your cities and villages personalities, and stress those personalities. Don't just make people imagine what the docks district in your thriving metropolis is like- add the sounds, NPCs, lighting, and placeable decorations to prove it. A city is more than a place that has lots of stores. Don't make every single rural village full of cheery peasants who smile and say "Hi can I help you?" whenever approached. Maybe the people in Dullsville are a dreary and bored lot, jaded to the world. The isolated inhabitants of Boondockstown could be an angry cynical bunch who are suspicious or even hateful of outsiders.
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Post by teleri » Thu Aug 19, 2004 1:03 pm

I found through some trial and error and a lot of help from some local friends with wildly varying computerst that the load times for a zone that has nothing in it vary greatly by size which I will list below.

This list are from common zone sizes found in various modules and PW we had played in at the time. listed first is are area size, then slowest load time, followed by fastest load times.
  • 2x2, 2.2 sec, 0.8 sec
  • 2x3, 2.6 sec, 0.7 sec
  • 4x4, 3.2 sec, 1.0 sec
  • 4x6, 4.1 sec, 1.1 sec
  • 6x6, 4.3 sec, 1.3 sec
  • 8x8, 4.5 sec, 1.2 sec
  • 10x10, 5.0 sec, 1.4 sec
  • 10x16, 10.2 sec, 2.1 sec (odd shape found in th eNWN default mods)
  • 12x12, 9.1 sec, 1.8 sec
  • 16x16, 21.7 sec, 3.4 sec
  • 20x20, 34.8 sec, 5.2 sec
  • 24x24, 38.7 sec, 7.4 sec
  • 30x30, 48.2 sec, 9.3 sec
  • 40x40, 115.6 sec, 22.1 sec (for compairison purposes only)
The slow machine is a PIII 933 with 256 Meg RAM, and a GeForce 440 64 Megs RAM video Card.
The fast machine is a Athalon 3000+ with 2 Gigs RAM, and a ATI 9800 Pro 128 Meg RAM video card.

With this Data I experimented based on number of tiles in a zone by varying the x, y values to see if that changed the load times. Below is the changes based on a 10x10 or 100 tile zone.
  • 1x10, 4.2 sec, 1.1 sec
  • 2x5, 4.6 sec, 1.3 sec
  • 10x10, 5.0 sec, 1.4 sec
  • 5x2, 5.2 sec, 1.5 sec
  • 10x1, 5.5 sec, 1.5 sec
I noted the slight variations only which were repeatable multiple times and consistant over many different combinations of the various zone sizes.

Cheers,
teleri

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Post by janr » Sat Oct 02, 2004 12:30 pm

Very interesting and useful information here. Thanks all and I'm looking forward to reading more :)

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