Having trouble designing that boss lair? Take a look at our dungeon design tips!
On the surface, it looks like it would be pretty simple to design a decent dungeon. After all, most of the rest of the parts of games are comparatively simple to design; towns really just need enough space to walk around and enough people to converse with to be interesting. Houses and castles are basically the same; as long as you only add in what’s truly needed without an annoying amount of fluff and excess walking, you’re probably all right.
But “dungeons” (however this looks for your game) are a little different. Their existence serves merely as a barrier to something greater, whether it’s a rescue mission, treasure or getting to the bad guy. In and of themselves, they are only a container to a mission; what you put into them is basically the only thing that makes them interesting.
As such, you want them to be more than a scenic stroll through the park or a random battle grind! So we’ve done a little research to bring you a list of tips and thoughts that will hopefully help you craft an engaging, interesting, intuitive adventure.
We don’t want to annoy our players, after all. 🙂
Consider what the dungeon is for
Take a moment and really think about what this area of gameplay represents. Is it just a barrier to a boss fight? Is it just a “spacer” to keep areas of plot from falling too close together? What is its function? It’s an important span of gameplay, so it’s good to make it worth the player’s time to be there. We don’t want them to get there, get bored and try to brute-force through it quickly so they can be on their way.
What makes the player want to explore this dungeon?
Maybe more to the point, what is the mystery? What makes the player pause and go “huh, maybe I should look at this a little closer?” If the plot forces them to, they probably will solve the puzzle just as a matter of progression through the game, but is there a way to make the struggle to get through more interesting in and of itself? Can each element tell a greater story?
It’s one thing to have a locked door…and you probably will at some point, whether literally or figuratively…but can it impart a sense of foreboding or at least foreshadowing? Will the player’s attention be piqued more by a simple locked door…a common obstacle…or the locked door that has a mysterious fog leaking around its cracks? Or puddles of blood nearby? Details draw the player in, bringing speculation and a desire to see what the rest of the story is.
Does the dungeon itself have a story?
It may be that the dungeon you’re exploring is situated in the ruins of an ancient civilization, or some other location that contributes a natural history. You should definitely work with that and give the player plenty of information that expands on that history to make it a story-rich, rewarding place to explore.
But maybe it doesn’t have anything you can work with…or at least, nothing so obvious. But if you’re doing a pretty good job designing, it’s possible that there’s something about the dungeon that is unique enough to leverage anyway, since every dungeon should already have unique aspects.
What does this look like in practice?
It doesn’t have to be overt. A few statues might depict an ancient historical event that is relevant to the plot but must be studied to understand it thoroughly enough to aid in puzzle-solving later.
If the player doesn’t know what happened in an area where the population suddenly disappeared, inspecting fallen soldiers’ bodies might yield clues about a dangerous situation and how to properly deal with it.
Investigating a lab might reveal information about secret experiments that were conducted there, and the data becomes useful in the boss fight.
While not RPGs, the Metroid Prime series handles this concept in an interesting way, giving the player the option to dive into local lore and computer records to expand on their knowledge of what’s going on, or bypassing it entirely just to get to the next fight.
It won’t work for every dungeon, but can you pique the player’s curiosity just a little for later events in your main plot somehow? Hint at the greater picture?
Are there rewards to be had?
More than just the current quest, what are the rewards for going the extra mile to explore? Treasure is always good…if your story is plot-heavy, what about information? A link to something that can give your player extra skills? A piece of a puzzle that spans the whole game, and which only the most diligent of players will solve? Give the players plenty of things to find, and they’ll hang around to find them…as long as it’s worthwhile to do so.
Is your dungeon awe-inspiring?
If your party ends up in an area where such a thing is appropriate, consider taking the time to take your dungeon design to the next level with some fancy tiles and grand scales to simulate the feel of ancient architecture. It’s not a blank canvas and there are lots of resources available online to add a little something extra. Purposeful is good, even necessary, but the dungeon can also be beautiful and scenic, like sightseeing but with deadly monsters roaming around. 🙂
Or maybe you don’t need the monsters.
There are lots of ways to make the dungeon difficult besides grinding. There are puzzles, of course…whether it’s a simple switch puzzle or something more mysterious.
Anyone remember the barrel puzzle from Super Mario RPG? As part of a puzzle sequence toward the end of the game, the player encounters a room where the requirement is to count the number of barrels in a stack before the time runs out.
Ah, the player thinks, I’ll count them before the game starts and I’ll know the right answer beforehand.
Nope. The game fades out the screen, changes the number of barrels on the sly, and lets the player, thinking they’re quite clever, offer the wrong number of barrels a couple of times before they’ve realized they’ve been duped.
Not hard because it’s hard, hard because you stayed a step ahead of the player.
Mazes aren’t (necessarily) good dungeon design.
Use with care. There’s a fine line between challenging and annoying with mazes. Can you find anything more interesting than the exit? Or does the player traverse endless paths only to be disappointed at every dead end? Test this carefully with users to make sure it isn’t just a bore.
It isn’t specifically necessary for all dungeon-like places to be random, either. Normal building structures can still work. Predictability will, in a sense, help the player keep aware of where they’re at and how to get back easily to places they’ve been before.
Probably this is obvious, but maybe not to everyone. It’s intuitive with elemental dungeons…the theme is the element at hand. Fire dungeons have lava. Ice dungeons have, well, ice. What if your dungeon has no obvious theme, though? What if it’s abstract? (For instance, psychological horror.) Is there anything you can use to tie graphics, puzzles and battles together in a way that makes sense?
Do your minor enemies match the area? (In an attic “dungeon,” for example, it would make sense to have creepy toys that can attack you.)
Do the puzzles fit the surroundings? (“Dungeons” in sewers and aqueducts might have obvious water-flow puzzles that can change how the player progresses.)
Do the bosses match not only your story but the current area? (A giant tree-dwelling creature living in a massive tree-dungeon makes sense.)
If your surroundings seem a little bland, try changing the theme of the area and see if that helps. Shifting the theme may create new opportunities where none existed before.
Do you really need this area?
If nothing happens in an area but walking…well, you’re just walking. Holding down a button/key for extended periods of time (with nothing to break it up but battles) usually isn’t all that entertaining. If there isn’t something important in the area that you’re in…or at the very least, some sort of transition to an area that IS important…perhaps you’re better off without it. Sometimes less really is more.
Can you easily distinguish one dungeon from the next? Do you catch yourself using the same graphics, puzzles and layouts time and time again? Take a moment and analyze how original each dungeon seems from the next. If you get bored and predictable at the design stage, your player is probably bored in the playing stage.
Anyone got a map?
I personally feel like this is just common courtesy, but including a map is definitely a gesture of goodwill toward the player when the dungeons are very long or confusing.
This one is more complicated. Have you considered creating effects in your dungeon that transform the way the dungeon is played?
What about gravity? If your player is capable of changing the dungeon’s gravity, how will that change the gameplay? What new styles of puzzles can you create?
What about water levels? It’s one thing to raise and lower them, creating simple accessibility, but what if the water pressure causes segments of the map to turn?
What transformative properties might take the player by surprise?