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Maps: Maps as Puzzles

"I personally object to episodic games where you play one screen of Space Invaders and one screen of Breakout and one screen of Galaxian and one screen of this and one of that. To me, that's not a game. It's just taking five bad games,  putting them together, and calling them one good game. I'm philosophically against that."
~Eugene Jarvis

The basic idea of a puzzle is that there is some obstacle in your way to something that you want, and you need to find a way to get through that obstacle. It can be a simple as a door where you need to find the button to press or the key. In fact, most well made games can be looked on as being one single puzzle; The Legend of Zelda is basically one large puzzle where you need to save Zelda, and to do that you need to find the eight triforce pieces to open the door to the last dungeon where she is held, and to do that it complicates matters a bit by making each triforce piece in a seperate dungeon, each itself having a lot of puzzles, and then it makes each dungeon location secret, but all somehow reachable through the overworld, which is the largest map and connects the others (and it's not only a way to get between the dungeons, but has puzzles itself). The bosses themselves are puzzles: the puzzle is finding out how to kill each one. How to find and enter each dungeon is also a puzzle. How to open certain doors in those dungeons are puzzles. How to get certain weapons are puzzles. It's a complex interweaving of metapuzzles and puzzles and subpuzzles and subsubpuzzles. 

What's more important, there is a feeling of integration among them. Learning some trick in one dungeon may help you in others, getting some item in one may make others easier. A collection of unrelated puzzles (such as the puzzles in the Resident Evil series) doesn't feel as fun, learning something in the process of solving one puzzle won't help you solve others, you'll never see that type of puzzle again, or refer back to it in any way. The puzzles (some block pushing, some painting clicking, some jewel switching, etc.) could have been in any order, and the player wouldn't have noticed, since each is a seperate game with seperate rules and seperate tokens.

It might even be said that the puzzle is the basic element of the game. A battle system would be nothing without battles that you need to win, and maps would be nothing without obstacles that you need to pass. Would it be fun if you could just walk to a certain spot unfettered, watch some story, walk to another spot unfettered, watch some more story, finally you walk to another spot unfettered, and then the credits start rolling and the game is over? It wouldn't even be a game, and the player would question why the walking was needed at all, and they weren't just warped from place to place.

Map puzzles have a long history. Some games, such as the Final Fantasy series, don't give their maps very many puzzles at all. You just need to find all the treasures and find the boss, simply by walking around. The only real puzzles are the battles.

But all maps have at least one puzzle - finding things (including ways to other maps). The more maze-like the map, the harder it is to find things. Distance itself is a puzzle (an obstacle) to goals. This means that I can coherently say that all maps are puzzles. Some are just better puzzles than others.

And this is the way you should think of map design. When you make a map, you're going to need to know what is in the map that the player wants, what do they need to do in the map. Then you're going to decide what obstacles you are going to place in their way.

A few things about map puzzles:

1) Puzzles should result from logical consequences of their worlds. They should make sense to where you are. If you are in a swamp, have the puzzles involve the nature of that swamp. If you are in a town, have the puzzles involve the nature of that town. Witness Majora's Mask: The town puzzles involve people and things which are found in a town, and the swamp puzzles involve things which are found in the swamp, etc.. Beyond that, all puzzles in that game are connected, because they are all based in the puzzle of doing things in a limited amount of time. This can be thought of as a 'puzzle theme' for the game, vs. the 'puzzle theme' for a particular map.

2) Puzzles should not be 'undead' (should not rely on saving and loading). That is, you shouldn't have to 'try everything', die a few times, until you 'stumble' upon the correct answer to the puzzle. The foolish thing to do would be to have three buttons, two kill you and one opens the door, with no way of telling which was which. You'd just need to save and try them randomly. That isn't a very fun puzzle.

3) Puzzles can have more than one solution. Many people who make puzzles give them one obscure solution, and no other way to solve it. If you want to get into a house, there is only one solution provided by the game designer, you find the key. But what about other entrances? Can't you bomb your way in? Can't you pick the lock? Can't you knock on the door? Or go down the chimney? Taking into account multiple possible solutions to puzzles is more time consuming, but usually results in the better puzzle. Just don't make the solutions too different in the level of work involved. Don't make a magic key hidden in a dungeon guarded by dragons when the player can just pick the lock on their first try. If you make multiple solutions to a puzzle, make them equally difficult to do.

4) Start easy, increase difficulty. Think of any Miyamoto game. He presents you with weak puzzles of a certain type, puzzles which are intended to let you get to know the way those types of puzzles are set up. Then he makes harder versions of those puzzles... the same puzzle elements, just requiring more complex thought and quicker reflexes. An example: Super Mario Bros. Remember that really hard jump in level 8-3? Would it have made sense to put the hardest jump in the game in level 1-1? No. You put the hard puzzles at the end, and the easy ones in the beginning, or risk eliminating the challenge of every latter puzzle. Puzzles near the end of the game should be a lot more difficult than the introductory ones, that's the way the mind likes things. If you put in puzzles which are easier than the ones it has already seen, it will feel disappointed: it likes things to get more interesting and more complex with time, not less.

Puzzles have two parts: the obsticle and the reward. The final reward is the successful completion of the game, and all other rewards should in some way take you closer to that final one (whether through opening up of new maps, getting new allies, or increasing in your abilities, all rewards in some way aid you). A puzzle which when successfully completed does not help you feels like a waste of time (a long corridor with a treasure at the end, fighting many monsters, reaching the treasure, opening it, and then finding one gold piece feels like a waste of time for this reason). The reward should match the puzzle difficulty, in a general way at least, otherwise the player feels cheated in some way, and doesn't learn 'the value of a puzzle' (similar to how if someone is always given money freely, or alternatively if no matter how much work they do they get the same amount of money, they don't learn 'the value of a dollar' (which would be better phrased 'the value of effort')).

I now go to the two main types of maps found in most RPGs.

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Maps: Safe Maps

Safe maps are maps which cannot kill you. They may have puzzles, but they don't have anything that you can 'fail irreversibly' on. The best examples of these are the average town map in most RPGs. They have 'stores' (places to trade the results of battle effort for rewards, usually in the form of an increase in abilities), they have 'townspeople' (places to learn more about the game's imaginary world and story, places to learn locations of things, places to get clues, etc.), they have 'inns' (places to trade the results of battle effort for a reduction of battle fatigue), they have diversions of all kinds, but they don't have anything that can end your quest, and they don't have anything which can seriously set you back in your quest. They feel safe.

When designing a safe map, you should have various goals in mind. Like all maps, you want them to add to the feeling of being in the game, but unlike other maps, you want them to be places to trade resources for other resources (trade rewards of puzzles for other rewards). The key is to make this fun. It's easy just to make stores and have them gold turn into equipment and weapons, but it isn't very interesting to the player, it's too expected. Why not have the choice between using the hard-earned gold for buying a new weapon, upgrading an old weapon, giving gold to someone to research new weapons, using gold to buy someone else a weapon to defend the town (and if you don't do this enough, the town won't be there next time you arrive), using gold to repair the park that was destroyed in your last battle, using gold to build a new road to make your trips easier, using gold to set up a reward for a contest to see who is the best fighter (finding a new ally and new clues in the process), etc., etc... ie., why have only one way to spend your gold? Why not make the choice of where to spend it important?

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Maps: Danger Maps

Danger maps are the other kind of maps, they can kill you. Overworld maps in most RPGs are usually mixed: they aren't entirely safe, but they aren't really that dangerous either, they just connect everything. Danger maps are where you put the most challenging puzzles, whatever the type of puzzle your game uses.

Danger map design should be focused on making them puzzle like, much more so than safe maps. It should be unclear which way you should go, they should try to trick and kill the player. Safe maps are on your side, danger maps are not. The danger map designer must be a dasdardly villain, while the safe map designer is a wise mentor. The only 'rules' that the villain has to follow is that 1) there should be some way to succeed (it can't be impossible to do well) and 2) the puzzles shouldn't defy the logic of the game. But other than that, anything goes. Be sneakey: make spikes come up from the floor (as long as there is some way to avoid them), make monsters lie in ambush under rocks (as long as there is either some way to defeat them or some way to counter their ambush), and make stairs collapse and doors lock behind the player (as long as there is some way to get out of the trap). When you design a danger map, you hate the player. If you hold back, the player will feel your weakness and take advantage of it (and feel that the game was too easy and pointless). The player, if he or she faces an inept danger map designer, or one who breaks the rules of villainy, will have no feeling of self-satisfaction upon their success.

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