Improve RPG Maps – The Dev’s Guide to Epic Maps

 

You want to improve your RPG maps?   Want to go from “meh, it’s all right” to “wow?”  Sure ya do.  This guide is a collection of our personal thoughts, plus additions from observant people across the intarwebs, to generally improve your players’ experiences with your game. Not everything applies to every map, but hopefully this list will be of benefit the next time you start designing.


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“It’s taking forever to get to the next area.”

“Where’s the exit? I can’t figure out how to get outta this town.”

“Why am I even here? There’s nothing in this room.”

That moment when you realize the game designer really had no idea what they were doing when they designed the giant mazelike dungeon with nothing in it but random battles.

Yup.

I know you guys want to put your best into your work, and considering maps are the primary way a player interacts with your game, it makes sense to spend a bit of extra time making sure that the experience is as smooth as possible.

What’s this map really for, anyway?  Give the player a reason to hang around.

There’s always a place to stash a small secret.  Especially if your village’s occupants just leave their barrels sitting around all over the place.

No map should be boring or purposeless. It’s granted that some maps are going to be transitional; after all, it’s likely that you’ll have several maps of forests or similar to traverse between towns if you’re making a standard fantasy game.

But what if each map can be made just a little bit special or meaningful somehow? Even if the reward is only a small item pickup, it adds to the overall worth of the area.

If the player knows there’s a good chance they’ll find something of value, whether it’s a helpful item, a piece of armor, or even an interesting bit of information, they’ll spend much more time exploring each map and it will be much more enjoyable. It goes from a simple journey from place to place to a constant treasure hunt to see just what goodies you might have left behind.

Reward the player for diligence.

Personally, I find it disappointing to find a room chock full of furniture items and pots that look as if at least one of them should hold something…only to find that every single one has absolutely nothing. I wasted all that time.

Small additions add a lot of value to otherwise lifeless maps, and that’s helpful because…

“Walking is not gameplay.”

I heard the quote once, but I can’t seem to find the source for it now. It’s a valuable bit of information.

Simply walking across a map is boring. Like, um, this.

Really, map?  I know we’re walking through space and all in some weird cyber trip or whatever, but really?

I mean, there are probably some battles to be had, and maybe somewhere in there is a save point, but what reason does the player have to hang around other than being forced to? What could hook their interest about the current environment? Try to convey something about your world on each map…

What can you tell a player about an important NPC just through the details of a map?

Can you leave hints about optional side quests in the forest?

The whole excursion can be more than “how fast can we get through this set of maps to get to the next point of interest?” The current map can be the next point of interest.

Scattering tiny bits of information is a good way to expand on your world, too. I don’t know of any players who mind having the opportunity to stop and smell the roses…given the reason to do so.

There’s also the possibility of reusability. Does the player get an item that increases accessibility later in the game, giving them a reason to return here later, even if only for a valuable piece of treasure?

If the player gets climbing gear, perhaps add several cliffs in earlier maps? Consider designing with that in mind.

Are the maps too big?

This probably isn’t as big a deal when you’re roaming the wilderness, as there’s some expectation of sprawling size, but with smaller maps like houses, there seems to be a tendency toward making large rooms with bland decor. Yet old-school RPGs seldom did this, because the scale of the rooms doesn’t quite align with the character sizes.

Let’s take a look at the difference it can make with a sample modern bedroom.

It’s pretty big.  See all that empty floorspace?  I mean, it works and all, but can we make it better?

There we go.  There’s still floorspace, the player can still move around, but the room looks much less boxy with an inset wall that separates the bed area from the games and books, and just the few pieces of furniture fill the space much more realistically.

As I mentioned before, walking isn’t gameplay, so forcing a player to walk further “just because” really makes no sense unless it’s part of the plot (ie, crossing a desert). Consider tightening up rooms to more realistic proportions…it’ll be easier to make it look well-decorated, too.  Consider moving away from perfect square rooms and putting more angles in your buildings if it works.  As long as the players and NPCs can move freely, it’s big enough. On that note…

Is there enough room for NPCs to stay out of the way?

Some people save the world.  Other people block doors in pubs.

Ever had an NPC walk smack into a one-tile-wide doorway and decide to park there for no other reason than their random walk led them there? And you’re standing there waiting for them to move their butts out of the way? Watch that little guy keep walking into the doorway instead of turning around.

Yeah, you feel good about yourself, obstructing progress like that, don’tcha Mr. NPC?

In RPG Maker, at least, there’s a way to put an end to behavior like that. Consider dropping in Yanfly’s Region Restrict plugin and draw areas where the NPC isn’t allowed to go. That’ll keep the little guys outta the player’s way. And while we’re on the subject of barricades, intentional or otherwise…

Is everything that stops a player actually worth stopping them?

Not that stupid “push the mushroom block” puzzle again.

Does each map difficulty actually challenge the player according to the skills the game teaches, or just annoy them with an unnecessary barricade?

This is a problem that I’ve observed more in much older games…some of the old Zelda games, for instance. It tends to be problematic in puzzle-heavy dungeons where you may get a little bit lost about the next step and have to go back and forth to find your way again. And every time, there’s a mini-puzzle or other obstruction sitting smack in the way. The doors lock, you gotta do it all over again.

It leaves one wondering “why do I have to do this?” after a while. Strictly my opinion, but once you beat it and prove you know how, that ought to be enough.

Is it necessary to make a player walk down a long hallway that eventually loops back for no reason?

Is there a point in the tiny block puzzle when the player has other actionable skills…for instance, the ability to climb over it?

Why is this boss fight really here if it isn’t blocking access to something or someone important?

Does the interruption fit the overall style of gameplay or just slow the player down a bit so they don’t breeze through the area?

It’s worth considering what you want the game to actually teach the player to do. Just slowing down the rate at which the player experiences the game, I think, is not really enough. The player needs to feel as if the reasons for slowing down are important.

It makes sense to place barricades in front of the dungeon’s treasure…that’s proper pacing within the dungeon’s gameplay. It’s one of the goals, perhaps even a story-based goal. It doesn’t make sense, however, to place a non-goal object in the player’s way when it doesn’t call upon the skillset that the game is already using.

On a similar note, it’s worth asking if any mazes you’re including have a real purpose, and a good payoff for having to be bothered with the tediousness of walking through a maze. It’s all about the reward system. 🙂

Obstacles in main walking paths

Crystals and statues and rocks, oh my. And nearly every one in the way for no reason.

This is a personal grievance, I’ll admit. It’s a tiny one. But I really, really dislike when a game puts stuff right in the middle of a common path and forces me to go around it repeatedly. Especially if it’s an area I have to visit a lot. I recently played a game that featured a poorly lit, cavernous dungeon with numerous small rocks scattered throughout. You could barely see them, and at least in a couple of rooms, there were places where you had to wind around them. I kept running into them over and over…each time I stopped, it was jarring and annoying.

It’s fine to have rocks, of course…but maybe not right in the middle of the path. It’s another case of considering player comfort…if it stops them for no reason, it breaks immersion and, well, isn’t gameplay.

Make sure that doors that should be obvious, ARE obvious

Interesting desert?  Maybe.  Where to go next?  No idea.

In another game I played recently, I arrived in a city with paths branching off to each side. In the center of the area was a tiled square. To the north, a big, obvious path made with the same tiles. To the east, the same. To the west, the edge of the tile, grassed-in areas and foliage with only a small area to pass between.

There is a door to the west…one that isn’t hinted at or easy to see. Yet there were important plot points in the area to the right.

It’s supposed to be a city; while total consistency isn’t expected, a large chunk of town hidden past the edge of brush is kinda…not. For whatever reason, I tried it anyway and discovered the door there, but I can see how many players might easy move on without ever having realized there was something there.

This wasn’t a small secret treasure room…several main plot events took place on the obscured map. I can see some massive frustration happening because of that. It’s worth considering if doors to necessary areas are clear enough.

While we’re on the subject of town design…

Keeping important things close to the entrance

This is merely player convenience, but consider potentially placing the inn/shop/save points (or your equivalents) closest to the area where a player may be grinding for levels. That way, when they visit your town maps, they don’t have to run to the far side just to get necessary supplies. It’s something that will wear on the player if done wrong. But we want the player to be happy. 🙂

And on the subject of player convenience…

Consider providing easy ways for players to return from long walks/boss battles

Even if it’s just a shortcut that loops around to the beginning of the area. The player will thank you for not making them walk back through areas they’ve already beaten.

As you can see, a great deal of these notes are just a matter of seeing if you’re being courteous to the player while still maintaining a sense of challenge. Are the elements of your game truly rewarding or just a hindrance to gameplay? It might be a hard balance to strike, but if you get it right, it will only increase enjoyment of your game.

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.

Just a little bit of extra work makes this Victorian living room seem much fuller and richer.

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?

Well, it’s a river, anyway.

Not perfect, but an improvement.

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.

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. If you can get hold of some bigger tiles, it’ll add some nice variety to your maps.

Doesn’t really make much sense if your transportation is only a tiny bit bigger than the people who are going to ride in it.  Gets kinda crowded. 

A big, detailed statue draws attention to areas of importance.

And, well, skull throne.  I mean, what else needs to be said.  It’s an attention-grabber.  Whoever sits there is gonna be a pain in the you-know-what to deal with.

A wide variety of trees gives a lot more realism and variety than the same stubby tree looped repeatedly.

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 forest.

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?

If there’s anything that sets a mood quickly, (after music, anyway) it’s lighting. 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.  Especially if you’ve got some nice stained glass going on.

Before lighting…

improve rpg maps

After lighting.

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.

What. 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?

Good Landmarks

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. 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 the time to see what else is out there? There are a ton of indie-created tilesets out there and there’s bound to be something that will fit the look and feel of your game.

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 game by a big developer.

Keeping behavior consistent will help the player out a lot.

Do building interiors and exteriors roughly match?

Smol house

Big inside.

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.

And finally…are your tilesets just bland and predictable?

A lot of people send messages to KR saying something to the effect of “I don’t like RTP.  I need something that looks different, can you make this for me?”  And it’s true…thousands of people are just using the default assets and churning out work that looks, well, identical to everything else.

It’s expected…after all, it’s what the default assets are there for!  It’s designed so you can just jump in and start creating.

The problem is, it also makes your game far less memorable.  You blend into the crowd.  This work that you’re pouring hours of your life into looks just like everyone else’s.

You can piece together tilesets from free online sources, that’s true…I’ve done it, it works.  But even with excellent efforts, the pieces usually don’t blend together 100%.

I’ve got nothing against it.  I did it for my own first game.  But you know a lot of those assets are “very familiar.”  Everyone has access to them, so everyone uses them.

Why not invest in a few new tilesets to make your game stand out? 

There are a lot of creators making good quality tilesets.  Just a quick look around sites like itch.io shows pixel artists with excellent skill levels.  If you buy a tileset from them, you’ll not only get something great for your game, you’ll also support indie artists who probably need your help in these uncertain times.

We’d also be very happy if you took a look through our collection.


 

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