Landmarks Are Signposts
If a play tester is getting lost then it may be due to the map architecture or colour scheme being too similar. Bold unique details or colours can make a big difference with helping players build up a mental picture quicker in their head for navigation.
A landmark does not need to be something ginormous or even visually impressive, but it does need to be something visually unique with regards to the rest of the map. A way to see if this approach is working is trying to describe every location to a friend using 5 words or less. For example, the lake of lava, the giant waterfall, the blue tile room etc. If a location cannot be easily described with something unique then it is unlikely to be memorable or a good sign.
Once every location in a map has an unique architectural feature or colour style, the player is much more likely to be able to move around the map quickly and spend more time exploring instead of wondering where they have been already.
Materials Have Weight
When a game location is built using materials like wood or stone they will come with preconceptions about their weight. Building materials often look and feel better when they are a certain shape relative to their weight. The player is unconsciously expecting them to be a certain look relative to their surroundings.
For example a giant undamaged stone pillar should look like it can support its own weight and stand upright. The thickness, angle and shape are often derived from the material used and if the pillar has odd proportions then the presence is diminished. The same could be said for a stone wall between rooms that is too thin for the material used and the structural weight looks wrong.
Regardless of how much a game may want to surprise a player with unbelievable structures and scale, the weight of real world materials has a great impact on the players impression of a scene and how believable it looks.
This should be a mantra muttered every morning before breakfast! I cannot stress this enough that most tasks associated with game design rarely work first time, they are often tweaked, updated or changed over time. Architecture will often have more detail added, existing routes moved around and even silhouettes manipulated once the lighting is done! Always allow extra time for this by learning to build architecture over time in layers.
Not everything in a map has to be unique, interactive objects especially should be visually consistent. A classic use of prefabs is where an object (button/door) needs to be easily recognizable by the player for its functions and pop out from its surroundings as something important.
Some projects like jam or speed creation events do not have the luxury of endless time and prefabs can be used to fill in details quickly. If there is enough time left after gameplay and lighting has been completed then the prefabs can easily be replaced with better unique detail.
Embrace Vertical Designs
When walking down the street most people will be looking forward and rarely will they be looking up at the top of buildings or down at their feet. People look forward because of their eye position and do not notice the details in their peripheral vision. This is why many games take advantage of this by hiding objects above or below player height.
The trick to vertical designs is to find the right gradient angle, the right balance by which a player will be willing to look up or down to notice details and consider it a relevant path to explore. The first type of vertical design is varied floor heights that have obvious connections via steps or moveable objects. These types of designs create better spaces for exploration and encounters while challenging the player to be spatially aware.
The second type of vertical design are generally isolated or areas high above the players movement/vision height and not obvious how they are reachable. These ledges, routes or secret places should be reusable spaces and offer the player an alternative viewpoint, a chance to enjoy the previous location but this time from a height advantage.
A classic mistake that anyone new to level design makes is create a single floor height room with very little Z axis interaction. The best way to think about vertical design is like a Celtic knot, where floors weave up and down, over and under and create the surprise of an interconnected location to explore and take advantage of!
*Note: This article is published in accordance with Creative Commons Guidelines
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