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Thread: Designing interesting mission layouts?

  1. #1
    Registered: Jul 2014
    Location: Constantine's Mansion

    Designing interesting mission layouts?

    I've started work on a mission which may or may not be ready for the Anniversary Contest, but there's one aspect of mission design I'd really like to improve at.

    There are plenty of tutorials and things to copy with regard to individual architectural elements and building interesting rooms or structures in Dromed, but how do you plan out interesting level layouts to connect it all?

    Take the FM Endless Rain as an example: there are countless clever routes between rooftops, ground and underground; lots of tight hidden pathways and miniature loops for the player to follow; loads of verticality and great use of the space available. Stinkykitty, DarkMax or Melan's work also exhibit these qualities, as does the OM Assassins to a lesser extent.

    This works incredibly well, and I wonder how it was all put together. A top-down 2D plan works fine for many FMs, I'm sure, but it doesn't for such complex use of 3D space when you're building a winding cityscape or a labyrinthine crypt in the classic T1 style. So a question for the experts here: How do you design interesting, Thiefy level layouts?

  2. #2
    Registered: Apr 2011
    Location: Montpellier, France
    I see my levels not as rooms and corridors but as loops layered on top of each other, with each of them looping on other loops, themselves looping on a big loop. Basically, an abstract 2D representation of the type of levels I make would be several circles overlapping, with one thicker than the others. Endless Rain looks complex, but the main path is just a big circle with some other circles above and below. It's difficult putting my workflow into words, Goldwell can vouch for that, but I can give you little pointers to make interesting spaces.

    Every main area in your mission should have a minimum of two entrances. I usually use three myself for the biggest areas since it's more interesting and stays clear enough so it doesn't confuse the player too much. It's interesting to have different types of entrances in one given area (Rope Arrow spot, vent, roof access, window, balcony, etc), rather than just eye-level doorways. Doorways should be used for the main, obvious path.

    Verticality is great, especially in Thief with Rope Arrows. However, there's one pitfall you have to be mindful of: having vast, very tall vertical spaces is fine, but having too many layers within a given space can quickly become very confusing and annoying. As a rule of thumb, I try not to go above three vertical layers in any given space. I very rarely if ever go above that. If you take a look at the streets and rooftops of Endless Rain, you'll see that I usually use two or three layers. I don't think I ever used more than three for this mission.

    Finding good connections between loops mostly happens by accident in my case. I'm a very stream of consciousness-type level designer and like to go with my instinct. I almost never work with a drawn layout, and if I do, the map usually strays off pretty quickly anyway. I very often create new connections after an area is done and I feel like this or that spot could be great if it was open.

    I approach navigation in the 3D space as the secondary major gameplay element in Thief (with stealth, of course), and as such I make sure to create spaces that are fun to navigate in and also require a bit of work from the player so they find the better, less patrolled/lit routes so they don't have to use the obvious brute force way. There are two things I'm pretty mindful of when working on this aspect:
    — No route should be absolutely, 100% better than the others. Each of them should require some sort of challenge (Rope Arrow, parkour, avoiding an easier to avoid AI than the brute force path, finding a hidden area, etc).
    — Alternative routes should not feel artificial nor conveniently placed. They should feel logical and coherent with the rest of the level. See Deus Ex: Human Revolution for examples of the contrary, for both bullet points actually.

    That's all I can think of for now.

  3. #3
    Registered: Oct 2012
    Location: Minnesota
    If you've ever done a speed-run in any of the OMs, most of them can be done within a few minutes, but this certainly doesn't make them any less fun, because players will try to explore every nook and cranny of the level anyways, so making it tedious to get to the main objective to slow the player down will only frustrate them. AIs make better barriers than locked doors, since the player can outwit an Ai in more ways than a locked door. Also, using AIs as barriers can have a stronger impact on a playing style. Look at Bafford's throne room. A guard is right in front of the doorway. I can easily run by him, grab the scepter, and run out, but if I'm ghosting, I won't want to do that. Also, try and make it so the AI can go almost anywhere the player can go. There will be plenty exceptions to this of course, like with window ledges and beams and so on, but then you should have AIs with projectiles around as well.

    Like Skacky said, looping is key. A level that is centralized has more potential for player choice than a long, linear one. The Lost City seems linear, but if I use a speed potion, I can jump right to the tower with the talisman right at the beginning. I think that's brilliant. But I'm still going to explore the rest of the level because I want loot and because it's fun to thwart AIs.

    It's hard to pinpoint exactly the way I build. Sometimes I draw out a crude top-down map of a few areas to get an idea of where I'm going, but when I start building I tend to branch out wherever seems intuitive.

  4. #4
    Registered: Apr 2016
    I'd recommend watching this video as well. Several really good points regarding stealth level design (both in the architectural aspect and in the gameplay aspect) are made here.

  5. #5
    Registered: Jul 2014
    Location: Constantine's Mansion
    Wow, some fantastic advice here. Thanks all.

    I'd noticed the loops, but what you say about loops layered within bigger loops is really interesting. The tips on maximum layers and routes through each area are also something I'll keep in mind.

    @StinkyKitty Really good point about using AI as 'soft barriers', since we all know how much people hate excessive keyhunts and suchlike. Also, about using projectile AIs correctly... and building things that make special items like speed and slowfall potions potentially useful for navigating and saving time.

    I see you both build on the fly, with only rough basic maps and your imagination. I always figured Dromed was a crude, slow tool for prototyping spaces in though, so I started doing 3D sketches and working from those. Don't know if other people find this useful as well, but I guess everyone finds a way that works best for them over time.

    Seen that video, marbleman, but might watch it again. It's definitely good for pure level design and gameplay analysis, with some great pointers to follow.

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