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Improve Your RPG Maps: the sequel. We know you love sequels.
On last week’s episode* we discussed ways to improve your mapping skills on a technical level. This time around, we’re going to dive into our treasure chest of wisdom gleaned from popular opinion and internet forum threads to bring you a second list of design-related stuff we’re darn sure** you’re going to find helpful the next time you crack out your game editor to start setting up your next RPG map.
* Your time may vary. We might’ve used a time warp somewhere in there.
** We’re not totally darn sure but maybe sorta kinda.
Are you a detail person? No? Consider adding a few more!
Bland mapping seems to be a problem with a lot of amateur RPG maps. It isn’t that there’s anything really wrong with them…but there isn’t a lot that really resonates. Houses don’t look like anyone actually lives there. Maybe it’s a castle…but it doesn’t exactly exude wealth. A forest with only one kind of tree and not much else. If you don’t notice a lot of diversity in the levels of detail in your map, maybe take the time to plop down a few more things to give it a bit more eye-candy.
Let’s look at some maps that have a nice, full, defined look. You might recognize some of them already.
Don’t want to damage your existing maps? Consider dropping in Yanfly’s Doodads plugin or an overlay script.
Do you have a lot of life in your RPG maps?
So the levels of detail generally look okay…but do the maps look kind of still? Does the forest seem kind of dead and lifeless? Why not liven it up with a few small animations? Birds flying, smoke from chimneys, sparkles in the water…all nice details that can bring an extra spark of life to a dull map and it only takes a few minutes to add them.
Is there enough variance in nature scenes?
It goes without saying…(well, I hope!) that most things in nature aren’t made up of straight lines. For your nature areas, are all your lines as straight as if they were manmade, though?
Try varying up the lines a bit for a more natural look…and get more details as a free bonus. It takes practice, but the extra time spent will bring an extra “wow” factor to your nature scenes that will give players a reason to slow down and enjoy the scenery.
(Surely I’m not the only one who just stands around looking at stuff, anyway.)
Vary the size of elements
Many visual arts profit from a good contrast of large and small elements. This is, in my opinion, a problem that can be observed in the RPG Maker RTP. There isn’t much variation in the size of available elements…and as a result, there isn’t any way to give a grand sense of scale without a lot of manipulation.
Here are some maps that use larger elements for good contrast.
This helps a lot with the larger-than-life feel of fantasy games and if you’re making a modern game, a city street just wouldn’t be a city street without massive buildings that dwarf the characters. There are always restrictions to how much you can do, but keep balance and contrast in mind. A forest needs some trees that are much bigger than others. A castle might need an awe-inspiring entry. An ancient temple would benefit from massive statues.
Remove the hard edges and layer floor tiles effectively for greater realism
Earlier we discussed how nature scenes are seldom made up of straight lines and variance adds interest. This can be a bit complicated when you consider that the RTP doesn’t exactly have a ton of layered tiles automatically, but what if we could break up all those hard lines and edges in another way?
Let’s make a quick path through a meadow.
Well, it…kinda looks okay. Sorta. (Not really.) Look at those unnatural edges. Maybe we can soften them up a bit.
We’ll take some debris and overlay the hard edges, and use some of the transparent grass tiles as well. This breaks up the line and makes the whole effect seem more natural.
It only took a few extra minutes, but that definitely looks far more natural than the original. With a little time, we could make it a lot better.
Could your map use some lighting effects?
I love good lighting effects on maps. If there’s anything that sets a mood quickly, (after music, anyway) it’s that. If you don’t currently have a script/plugin that will handle this, why not try one? Even if you only implement lighting effects on your most dramatic maps, you might find that the aesthetic of that map is greatly improved.
Is the map comfortable to look at?
As a counterpoint to the above, it’s also a good idea to consider if the map is actually uncomfortable to look at. Keep in mind, your game is about the player having fun. If the map’s lighting/shadow/contrast is so high that you have to lean back from the screen just to take it in, there’s probably a good reason to tone it down just a bit and try again. Ranged lighting is another problem; there are a few games that give so little “light” to see the area around a character that it kinda hurts the eyes to pick out what’s around them. Usually this is intended to simulate lantern/candle light, but sometimes it’s just over the top.
Also, is your color scheme hard on the player’s eyes? (You may need a second pair of eyes and another computer for this one.) If you’re using your own hand-drawn tiles, especially with retro palettes, colors that look basically ok on your screen may look garish on another due to different hardware or color calibration. I’ve never calibrated my screen’s colors, but it’s dramatically different than another computer we have here (one is very yellow, one is very blue), and we use both screens for testing maps and tiles just to be sure.
Anyway, if your beta testers are squinting at the screen, make a note of that. 😉
Does the map have the right mood?
On a recent playthrough of a certain game, we observed an instance where a town was in a bad situation. They were surrounded by danger, but the town map itself gave absolutely no cues that anything was wrong. No dramatic music, no lighting changes/tints, only one NPC panicking. Everything was, well, kinda normal.
That loud noise? Shattering of suspension of disbelief.
I know we’re not going for absolute perfection here…in fact, it isn’t even possible…but sometimes even a game company can just be lazy. We can learn from this; is your map prepared in such a way to handle these events when they occur? The player may not be cued in to the exact problem right away…but is it clear when sometimes big and dramatic happens? Do the NPCs react correctly to the gravity of the situation? Would the game benefit from screen tinting, alternate music and other effects to enhance the experience?
Let’s consider a whole body of maps for a moment…a “dungeon” if you will. We discussed diversity of rooms before, but if you’re crafting an area where this is a bit more difficult…for instance, a desert…do you have enough landmarks to assist the player in finding their way around? Being lost in an area is only a virtue if it’s part of the puzzle of finding their way forward…otherwise, it’s only an annoying inconvenience.
If your player can’t tell that they’ve traversed this ground before, it may make it frustrating to get back to important areas (like to save, if you have proper save points.) Why not add some oddball objects here and there to give them points of reference?
(Turn left at the cow skull to find your way back to the entrance.)
Like all things, blandness in maps should be purposeful. I’ll offer an extreme example: the tundra areas in A Very Long Rope to the Top of the Sky. It’s bland. Real bland. You walk out into the snow and it’s bare for miles and miles. No matter which way you go, it’s just map after map after map of whiteness. And that’s the point…to get anywhere out there, you have to have a specific set of instructions…or really good dumb luck. What few landmarks are out there serve to orient the player toward treasure or exits.
If it’s frustrating to get around when it shouldn’t be, consider quickly adding something to give the player a way to get their bearings.
A Unique Look for Every Location
Picture this. Your epic RPG of world-spanning proportions places your party on the literal opposite side of the planet. The party steps down off their mobile transport of your choice and heads for the nearest town. They walk in the town gates to discover…
…this town looks just like the one they left on the other side of the world. Same tilesets, same people, same everything.
Well, that’s a little odd, but the party writes it off and heads out for the next dungeon. There, they discover…
…exactly the same-looking dungeon that they last left on the other side of the world.
Not very likely, huh? And more to the point, it’s kinda boring!
If you find yourself reusing the same tiles from your tilesets over and over again, why not take a look around at the free offerings online? At the very least, your game will have a bit more visual interest through variety.
Consistency with Objects
In a game somewhere, there is a crate.
Through the course of the whole game up to a point, the crate does nothing. You can’t interact with it, you can’t push it, and you can’t get anything out of it. It just sits there, being a crate.
Then, suddenly, there’s a puzzle that requires you to push a crate around. Now, there are no other pushable crates, and the pushable crate is visually identical to the other crates.
How will the player know that the crate is pushable unless you up and tell them? And should you have to tell them explicitly?
And for that matter, if this one can be pushed, why not the others?
That’s admittedly an extreme example, but it’s worth asking if your various game elements are internally consistent in a way that the player can predict what it is that you’re actually asking them to do, even if the details are unclear.
Another example. Let’s say you have a path with some pebble tiles on it. Can the player walk on the large pebble tiles, or not? Can these tiles at one time be impassable and another time, passable?
I know, this sounds obvious, but believe it or not, we observed the exact opposite in a commercial game. Keeping behavior consistent will help the player out a lot.
Do building interiors and exteriors roughly match?
Well, that’s a big interior for such a small exterior. Warp in the fabric of space? Mirrors? Careful packing? How do they do it? 🙂
It’s probably not worth making sure that the exteriors and interiors match tile for tile, but little houses should probably be little inside and bigger houses probably should be bigger.
And when you have a very small house…
Keep small maps centered in the window (RPG Maker)
These last two tips on our list come from Yanfly’s website. To keep maps from being awkwardly positioned within the game view, RPG Maker automatically centers maps that are smaller than the window itself. So, it isn’t necessary to make a map as wide as the game window for it to work properly, plus it will look better as a result. There’s only one consideration to keep in mind when you do this…
Make sure there’s space for text boxes
If your maps are too small vertically, you can run into an issue where all the action is covered up by text boxes.
To remedy this, just add some blank space on the bottom of the maps so the camera can pan down naturally.
Voila! Now text doesn’t cover up the action and the player can tell clearly what’s going on.
Are your maps looking a little more professional yet? Not every tip will work for every game, but hopefully, there’s something here that will help you. (If not, the line for your 100% refund forms over there. 🙂 )
What tips and techniques do you use to make your maps better?