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Article - 'How to Make Good Maps' by Rast

An item about Game Design posted on Jan 14, 2004


Rast describes his method for creating high quality maps.


This week, I shall take a break from intricate technical tutorials and share something useful with you all. This article concerns how to make maps that don't suck.

Maps are one of the cornerstones of any RPG. Except for battles and maybe a cutscene or two, the entire game takes place on maps of various types, making good map design one of the highest priorities in any well-made RPG. The design method I present here was developed over the course of making my various RM2K games, and I call it 'Progressive Detailing'. As you can infer from the name, it is a method that involved adding finer and finer levels of detail by making multiple passes over the maps.

This method is designed to be used at an area-level. I.e. you make the whole town, the whole dungeon, the whole castle, the whole whatever. You can use it on individual maps but it won't work as well.

Step 1 - Predesign

On a sheet of paper or in a text file, answer some basic questions about your area. Why is it here? What is its history? Why is the party coming here? Are there any NPCs here? Why are they here? What do they do? What do they live on? What's their history? Are there any enemies here? Why are they here? What do they eat other than PCs?

It might seem a little pointless now, especially if the area you're creating is just a mountain or something, but if you give your areas a history it will show up in the later steps, and your areas will come alive in a way that areas that were created on the fly just can't measure up to.

Step 2 - Sketch

Take a piece of paper and sketch out your area, keeping the above in mind. It doesn't need to be anything fancy, just the basics: walls, buildings, major terrain features, etc. Jot down anything you feel is necessary on your sketch. You'll use this sketch as a guide to create your actual map.

The reason for this is to get a feel for what your finished area will be like. If you don't like the way a sketch is going, you can throw it away and start over much more easily than you can throw a half-finished map away.

This is possibly the most important step - take all the time (and paper!) you need to get a sketch you like. When you think you have a good idea of what your area will actually look like, proceed on to step 3.

Step 3 - Create Chipset(s) (if necessary)

On the same piece of paper as your sketch, make a list of what special chips your map will need. This list should be as comprehensive as you can make it - once you fill up a chipset it's very difficult to go back and change it. On this list, put down everything you can think of. Some good examples are statues, building types, shelves, chairs, tables (for indoor maps), caves, bushes, etc, etc.

Once you're down with that, open up your graphics editor and begin assembling your chipset. Do the terrain chips first, as these will largely be the same between various maps. After that, start putting on the chips you listed a moment ago, in order of how important they are.

If you run out of room (and you probably will), here's some cheap tricks I've come up with over the years to squeeze the most space out of every chipset...

- a) You'll almost always run out of space on the upper chip before you run out of space on the lower chip. However, many upper chips take up all the space on the chip (in other words, there's no transparent pixels on the chip). You can move these chips to the lower chip to free up some space on your upper chip. Remember how to put your object back together, and nobody will ever be the wiser.
- b) You can put upper chips into chara and then place them as events on your map if there's no room for them in the chip. Beware - overreliance on this can lag your game down.
- c) You can use unused terrain chips as 3x3 lower chips. Just put a 3x3 block of chips into the terrain chip, and you'll be able to place them on your maps and they'll look right, as long as they're not touching another chip of this type. Applications for this are limited but when you can do it it's quite useful (such as some tables, paintings, etc).

Save your chipset after you've arranged it to your liking. If you're using something more advanced than Paint or IDraw (such as Photo/Paintshop), I suggest you also save your chip in your editor's native format so you can edit it later if you need to without losing quality from the color reduction.

Import your chipset into RM2K/2K3, and set it up in the Database. When you're done with that, proceed on to...

Step 4 - Create Skeleton

Create your maps in RM2K/2K3, putting just the basics on them. Put on your buildings, rooms, hallways, passages, whatever, but don't detail them at all. String it all together with teleports as necessary, zoom it out, make sure everything is where it needs to be, using the selection tool (or just erasing things and remaking them) to move things around and make sure everything is where it needs to be. When you're done with this step, your area should be recognizable as what it will be, but completely bare.

Step 5 - Add important details

If you have anything story/game related on your map, put it in where it needs to go, fleshing it out to your liking.

Step 6 - Add course details

Go back over your area, adding in all the big things, such as windows, carpets, trees, bushes, tables, beds, etc, etc.

Step 7 - Add fine details

Go back over your area again, adding in all the small things, such as patches of rough ground, puddles, things on tables, pictures on walls, the pans hanging on the wall, small stones and bushes, cracks, ivy on walls, etc.

Step 8 - Add very fine details

This is more of a check for steps 6 and 7. Go back through your area again, scrutinizing every little bit of it. If you see anything that looks even just a little off, add in any detail or change whatever you need in order to fix it.

Step 9 - Add custom widgets

If your game is using anything custom (such as openable doors, visible monsters, or the like), go back and add it in here.

In conclusion.. I still suck at conclusions. Anyway, I hope you find my method useful.