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Open spaces vs multiple authored paths

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I'm looking for a discussion about exploration. I'm fiddling with ideas for an small "open world" JRPG.


I was playing Dragon Quest 3 and encountered the following scenario: you are in Romaly (the castle) and you are basically told to go north to Kanave (not shown). To the west there is a small shrine, and to the east there is a bridge and another, more roundabout path that leads to Kanave. In my playthrough I went directly north, along the red vector, and only changed directions as I approached the mountains. I could only see what is in the red box. Later, on a whim while grinding, I returned to this area and explored east and west. Probably some NPC would have told me to go there eventually.


After playing this scene I got to thinking, wouldn't it have been more interesting to drop a mountain or a lake right in the middle of that red "critical path". This would force the player to go either left or right around the obstacle, which would mean some players would encounter the shrine and some would encounter the bridge/forest path to the west. Even if there was a bridge across the lake or a pass through the mountain, if they were offset from that red line there's a chance the player would go around rather than through.




While working on the graphics for my own little project, I had this scene in mind and designed the following area to prototype this design concept:




The idea here is that there is no critical path. The player must choose to go left or right around the mountain. The box at the end of the arrows represents what the players can see as they travel. I've very carefully placed the village inside the green square so that the player who goes left will see it, and similarly with the cave in the blue square. The player has been told to go "north" to the town at the top of the map, and everything between is kind of optional... the town in the green square, the cave and tower in the blue square, these represent optional objectives. There will probably also be NPCs dropping hints about these places.


This is an example of a ludic device that I first encountered in a twitter thread summarizing a design talk given by the Breath of the Wild people at CEDEC (link below). They talked about how BotW uses objects like boulders, hills, and mountains to break up the game's critical paths so that every player will have different stories to tell about how they got from point A (Romaly) to point B (Kanave). They would place large attractive things far away, giving you a choice about how to get there, and the break up straight line paths along the way to create more varied experiences. For them this was the essence of the "exploration" that they wanted BotW to be about. You set your own goals, and then the game complicates things by adding obstacles.

But there's kind of a contradiction here that I can't quite shake... In the first example, DQ3, the player has freedom to go wherever they want. They can go straight, or follow either coast, or walk into the forest and then head west, or whatever! In some sense, this is "exploration" and the problem (if there is a problem) is that I didn't _want_ to explore. I just wanted to go north to Kanave by what I thought would be the shortest path.


On the other hand, in my example the player is forced down one of two paths... they don't really have much freedom "explore". If DQ3 had placed a lake in the centre of the critical path, I would have wandered around it to the left and seen the small shrine, and I would have thought "oh cool what's this" and maybe gone to check it out... but I would be following a very constrained, very designed path!


Which do you think? Is a big open field with things strewn about more conducive to a sense of "exploration" or do you prefer the more authored paths?


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Posted (edited)

My preference is having a mesh of the two, where there is some set path, but not a narrow, winding roadway.

However, that is in a general sense; it ultimately does depend on the game I'm making. Some RPG types don't go well with open exploration, some do. Some require it, even, but even then, some players will not even bother.

Edited by PhoenixSoul

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Posted (edited)

I would say there should be different kinds of locations that should be treated differently really. These locations should really be tiered depending on how 'discoverable' you want the location should be. For example:


Most of the time towns, castles, and/or other major landmarks should always have clear paths between them, maybe even with explicit roads marked out on the map. These I will call "Tier 0" locations and should basically form the "backbone" of your world map. Most of the villages, outposts, and/or other minor landmarks should be placed with this backbone in mind. Tier 1 should be locations you want the player to find without any real effort and should be placed within view of the main backbone path or with an obvious path that starts within view of the main backbone path. Tier 2 should be harder to find but not too hard and might be placed in places that within view of, or with an obvious path that starts within view of, a Tier 1 location. And repeat for however many tiers you want with tier n being within view or with a path that starts within view of a tier n-1 location.


Then you have locations that I will call "Tier S" locations which should never be within view or have an obvious path within view of anything! The S for Secret you see. It never hurts to have a few scattered around you know! Maybe even some "Tier SS" (Super Secret) locations, or ones that are completely unmarked and the only way to find them is to actually walk on the tile. Or maybe even "Tier SSS" (Super Super Secret) locations that can only be entered if you know the exact right place and maybe hold the right item, or cast the right spell, or visit on during a waxing gibbous moon while wearing a maid dress and platform shoes! Hey why not?

Not that you should necessarily have such strict rules, it's only an example. :3





Edited by Kayzee

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Speaking as a player first and foremost, when it comes to world maps, it doesn't much matter. Try for a realistic aesthetic that has lots of area to travel (more than you're used to in basically any of the iconic JRPGs with world maps). Because using the standard scale for world maps, there's never much exploration, anyway. I actually dislike traditional world maps now. They are so redundant and awkward. I'd rather traverse a series of full wilderness maps to go from Town A to Town B. That provides actual exploration, visual stimulation. It fleshes out and gives character and texture to every area, and makes long distance travel seem like more of an adventure.



But when it comes down to it, focus more on your aesthetic, always trying to balance a good, believable look, with playability in those environments. Either extreme will be just that, an extreme. It should depend on the area/geography in question, vs a "mapping style" felt consistently throughout the entire game.



Mapping is very, very, very hard.

Edited by That One NPC

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