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    regi
  Wed Aug 17, 2011 1:25 am
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Workshop: Dungeon Design


Introduction

Welcome to the Dungeon workshop! Today, we will be discussing procedures and guidelines for dungeon design, and what makes a dungeon creative and fun. Let us begin by defining them.




What is a dungeon?

A dungeon is a collection of challenges meant to obstruct the player and reward him/her upon its successful completion. In contrast to towns full of friendly NPCs, dungeons contain dangerous critters, traps, and puzzles. Also known as level design (usually in non-RPGs such as platformers), dungeons are designed to test players in at least one of the following:
timing; reflexes; button-mashing; patience; endurance; memory; brainpower; finesse; agility; and/or luck.

While many are, not all dungeons need be dark, grim, and nasty. They are simply where towns are not. Indeed, using this definition, most non-RPG games consist solely of dungeons. Let's check out a simple, well-known example:

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This platformer, Super Mario Bros 3, is one of many games with level after level of dungeon. Every single level has challenges, enemies, and other obstacles to overcome.

If you wish, read (or skim) through this excellent article which discusses quite in-depth how the level design teaches players the rules of the game.




What makes a dungeon fun?

To craft a successful dungeon, one must consider the following:

- Learning Curve: start off with simple tasks designed to teach the player the ropes. Only then can you build up the difficulty. If the very first room plunges the player into a complicated puzzle, chances are s/he will become frustrated and quit. In addition, don't throw everything at the player at once. Introduce each concept individually and gradually combine them.
- Consistency: every challenge MUST follow the same rules. If a certain colored block is pushable, all of those damned blocks better be pushable. Changing the rules mid-game may confuse and upset players.
- Interactivity: brain-teasers and riddles are cool, but a dungeon full of 'em gets boring. Avoid situations in which all the player does is sit and think! Much like cutscenes, the player can get restless. Make sure they have tons to DO!
- Rewards: no player wants to dodge hundreds of razor-sharp blades for nothing. Challenges require an incentive! Place a treasure chest just out of reach or offer bonus experience for taking the harder route. Indeed, rewards are what make the world dungeon go round.
- Gimmick: to set dungeons apart from each other, level designers generally include one or more unique features. It is generally something that adds to gameplay, but is not always necessary. Popular examples include the use of tools in Legend of Zelda and the ability to change time in Braid). This ties into the next and last feature:
- Creativity: It's my opinion that every single puzzle is a variation of a different puzzle in the world. Implementing the same mazes, the same block puzzles, etc. will become boring and mundane. Thus, fun dungeons require some spicing up. We'll take a look more in-depth on this later.

Let's go back to our Mario example.
How is the learning curve? The game starts off very simply, with one enemy (the Goomba) and no other challenges. The player learns that jumping on the Goomba will always consistently kill it, but getting hit from the side will kill you. There is tons of interactivity-- Mario can jump around, hit blocks, and interact with whatever he chooses. The player learns that hitting a "? block" will reward him with a Mushroom: thus, finding future "? blocks" serves as an incentive to keep playing. The level's gimmicks are its unique powerups (Mushrooms, Fire Flowers, Tanooki Suit) and battle system. Ultimately, the platformer is quite a creative game (at least, in its time, when item blocks and jumping on enemies were relatively new).




Basic Puzzle Elements

Every dungeon needs its puzzles. Here are some of the most basic ones:

- Maze: the player must find his/her way through a labyrinth with winding tunnels and lots of dead-ends.
- Pushing Blocks: the player must manipulate a block through a maze. Generally, it can be pushed (and sometimes pulled) one tile.
- Sliding Blocks: the player must manipulate a block through a maze. Unlike pushing blocks, these will continue to move forward until they hit a wall or obstacle.
- Ice Puzzle: similar to sliding blocks, the player must slide across an icy floor.
- Button-mashing: a simple concept that can be worked into any minigame, the player must press a single key as many times as possible.
- Alternate Buttons: similar to button-mashing, the player must hit 2 or more buttons in a certain order as quickly as possible (left right left right, WASDWASD, etc).
- Reflexive Buttons: designed to test the player's reflexes, the player must press a number of buttons as they appear on screen.
- Timing: the player must cross a bridge or corridor while dodging obstacles that appear linearly.
- Speed Run: the player must navigate a room as fast as possible, either to leave before the door closes or s/he is killed (spiked ceiling, wall of flames, etc).
- Dodge Run: the player must jump or dodge obstacles while moving in a constant direction. Often, the player does not have to control the forward movement, but simply dodge to the side.
- Switch Puzzle: the player must activate a combination of switches to open doors or proceed through the dungeon.
- Enemies: the player is locked in a room with monsters and much slay them all before s/he can proceed.
- Memory Game: the player must remember certain cards, etc. and match them correctly. Luck is sometimes involved.




Okay, now can we MAKE a dungeon?

Glad you asked! Now that you're acquainted with (or lazily scrolled past) all the concepts, let's discuss the design process.

There are two strategies for brainstorming fun and creative challenges, which I call Synergy and Embellishment. Let's take a look at the former of the two.


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    regi
  Wed Aug 17, 2011 1:25 am
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Design Process: Part 1
SYNERGY


The Concept

The Synergy method is a process in which fun and creative challenges are constructed by merging two or more simpler challenges. It is an excellent way to turn a bland, overused puzzle into something innovative.




Let's get started!

It's time to get makkin'! Open up your preferred maker (I'll be using RMXP, but any engine is fine).
Let's start with one of the most overused and cliched puzzles of all time: b-boulder pushing :!:

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Here we have Arshes traversing a deadly plains dungeon full of arbitrarily placed tree stumps! His challenge: get the boulder in the hole. Luckily, Arshes minored in boulder-pushing back at the role-playing academy; with the player's brainpower, this is a cakewalk. Next!

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:ohdear: where did all these ghosts come from? Looks like this is our second challenge! It seems like they can pass through objects (I wonder if that'll be an important factor later?) so Arshes will just have to dodge them! No matter, the timing should be a cinch.

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Oho! Stumps and boulders and ghosts, oh my! But look, a chest! Alas, this journey was not in vain. In the final stages of the mini-dungeon, we have synergized both the boulder puzzle and the ghost-dodging challenge, or combined two lame puzzles into one greater one.




Let's step back and take a look at the small dungeon in its entirety.
Room 1: We are acquainted with the first puzzle, boulder-pushing, which tests the player's brainpower. It starts out with minor difficulty, nothing too extreme. Pushing the block is consistent: each push moves it one tile; there are no tricks to the puzzle. With a bunch of stumps to maneuver around, there is definitely interactivity. No reward in sight, but we'll get there. The gimmick? A basic cliche RTP map. Nothing creative yet.

Room 2: Here we find some ghosts! We're introduced to the next element, timing. Ghosts are dispersed and slow at first, but gradually get faster and closer together: learning curve. All ghosts consistently send the player back to the start, or battle the player (either is an appropriate punishment). Same interactivity level, still no reward, and still a basic gimmick, but we're getting somewhere.

Room 3: The synergy begins. In this map, we merge both brainpower and timing elements. Note that when combining challenges, always use different elements! A dungeon full of two reflex puzzles can get quite intensely tiring. Now that both puzzles have been introduced, we can ramp up the difficulty. Same rules apply for both boulders and ghosts; in fact, the ghosts' ability to move through objects consistently (and fortuitously) allows it to pass through our boulder without messing up the system! I would say interactivity has increased, now that the player has to worry about two things simultaneously: getting the boulder across, and dodging ghosts. And now we have a reward in sight! With these combined puzzles, I would rate this a fairly creative dungeon.




Check out some examples

Synergy is actually quite common in level design, though they are often quite simplistic. Take a look:


In a room within the Legend of Zelda: OoT's Fire Temple, a "flaming wall of death" chasing the player exercises both his finesse (maneuverability, avoiding lava, and killing enemies) and his agility (completing the room before the wall hurts him).

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In the mansion basement level of Super Paper Mario, Mario must navigate through a maze (using patience and memory) while being pursued by a spidery creature (again testing agility).

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In Wario-Ware: Touched!, a fast-paced mini-game requires the player to draw a path for a skier, utilizing both reflexes and finesse.

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Last but not least, one of my favorite inspirational RM puzzle games, HarryE's Sandcastles, epitomizes synergy, combining a maze through statues that can shoot, move, and change direction, block-pushing, and switch-toggling into the most epic puzzle I've ever seen. You're going to need brainpower, agility at times; a good memory helps; and lots and LOTS of patience, man.




Now that you've seen all these examples, come up with your own! Make something spectacular or simply share a creative idea.
In the meantime, stay tuned for Part 2: Embellishment!


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    regi
  Wed Aug 17, 2011 1:26 am
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Design Process: Part 2
EMBELLISHMENT


The Concept

The Embellishment method takes a plain, boring puzzle, or even dungeon, and adds a layer of creativity to create something excitingly innovative. It is very useful for coming up with gimmicks. In addition, you can synergize an embellished challenge with a different puzzles for even more fantastic gameplay!




Let's get started!

This time, we'll begin with a sketch-up of an entire dungeon. Here's the concept: Arshes is visiting his dear old mum in a faraway mountain town, but first he must pass through the Iceshiver Caverns.

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A typical dungeon would involve traversing a linear path, solving ice puzzles, fighting ice monsters, collecting Ice Orbs, and rescuing an icy princess along the way. However, Iceshiver Caverns is no typical dungeon. The dungeon exit is actually about 10 steps away from the entrance. If Arshes so desired, he could skip the rest of the caves and get to his mum in time for supper. In fact, that's just what he's going to do.

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"Wait a sec... :crazy: what is there where am I how did I end up in a swamp :?: "

Unfortunately for Arshes, Iceshiver Caverns is home to an icy princess, who has decided to kidnap him by using illusionist spells to lure him deep into her lair. Enter the gimmick: illusion spells that trick you into thinking you are in a different area. Now this dungeon is looking creative!

While I won't show screenshots, just think of the possibilities (we're not just limited to swamp maps here!) Ice sliding puzzles on lava; melting blocks of sand in your path; even a minigame where you swim through the freezing/disgusting water inside a creature's stomach (c'mon, that tileset hasn't been used in ages). Because following the nice path will just get you closer to the illusionist; the only way to escape is to go through what looks harmful to you. This embellishment of a simple ice dungeons turns it into something much more interesting.

And it isn't just limited to graphical changes. You can modify gravity in a platform game, alter pitch or do cool sound effects to BGM, or reverse the player's controls. Gameplay-wise, you have tons of options. Just take any existing puzzle and tweak it until it's unrecognizable: presto, new puzzle!




Check out some examples

Embellishment occurs often in level design. Keep in mind that gimmicks don't have to be restricted to a single dungeon; often, they are present throughout the entire game! Take a gander:

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Possibly one of my most favorite areas in LoZ: Twilight Princess, the Snowpeak Ruins is not a typical dungeon. Its creative storyline is what makes it so unique: instead of fighting through malevolent creatures guarding treasure chests, you are actually aided by the yetis living in the mansion. They give you the dungeon map, and point you to the location of a bedroom key. Unfortunately, your hostess's poor memory forces you to go to the wrong place several times. Luckily, your host serves pretty good soup.



Manipulating time in Braid allows for fantastic puzzles. You can not only rewind time to redo mistakes, but also create shadows of yourself, slow down an area, and much much more.

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Even though the protagonists of VVVVVV were born without knees, they managed to overcome their disability to jump with something even better: the ability to reverse gravity. And that isn't it. Once you accustom yourself to this new fashion of travel, get ready for even more dungeons full of unique gimmicks such as climbing a moving tower, traversing looping map mazes, and even rescuing a companion who follows behind (yes, neither of you are allowed to hit spikes during that minigame).



Last but not least, the most revolutionary FPS(es) you'll ever play: Portal (2). Take a regular old physics challenge and embellish it with some portal shootin' guns and get one of the most spectacular, extradimensional concepts of all time! The coolest thing about it is that all the physics still applies, as if nothing changed. Momentum is conserved, along with energy, velocity, and whatnot. Anything can go through portals, including turrets, lasers, and lights, as if they were right there in front of you. Synergize that baby with the newest releases: slidy goo, light-refracting cubes, and even a sick co-op mode and you have Portal 2.




And that's it! Just some basic methods and ideas to help you on your way. The rest of it will require some good, hard thinking on your part. Be patient with it; churning out something creative is harder said than done. But with these tools, and your brain, there's no doubt that when the time comes, you'll create something phenomenal.


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    regi
  Wed Aug 17, 2011 1:51 am
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Optional Assignment


Want to practice dungeon design without anything in mind? Pick one of the following themes, and submit an idea (or even better, a demo) utilizing the techniques discussed above!


1. Your hero has been swallowed by a gigantic creature! Create or layout an inside body dungeon.
2. Design a dungeon with an underwater theme, incorporating the challenge of breathing into your gimmick.
3. Modify a torch-lighting puzzle (using synergy, embellishment, or both) to a much more creative challenge!
4. Analyze any dungeon in any existing (and previously unmentioned) game, noting gimmicks and uses of synergy or embellishment.


Even if you're working on a different dungeon, don't be afraid to post your ideas for criticism! You can post brainstormed concepts, gimmicks, puzzles; show some screenshots or videos; or even upload a demo. Good luck-- and don't forget to have fun!


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    RavenTDA
  Wed Aug 17, 2011 12:23 pm
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Location: Germany
I really like what you did here. It really helps with ideas and such. If you do another installment, can you talk about fun-factor in puzzles? It's hard to tell what makes a puzzle or challenge in a dungeon FUN and not punishing/annoying.

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    regi
  Thu Aug 18, 2011 12:35 am
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Thanks! Maybe in the future I'll attempt to break down the fun-factor (I know this workshop focuses more on creativity, but that's just one part of fun!) As of now, I'd like to see what people come up from reading this.


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    RavenTDA
  Thu Aug 18, 2011 10:42 am
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Location: Germany
It helped me straighten some ideas out for the first dungeon on my game... Like... A LOT. I never really made puzzles and such before so I was kinda wadding in the dark, but this guide got things in order for me. But now that I've come up with an idea and jotted down the layout of it in the first section, I'm questioning how FUN is this.

I didn't make it yet, but what I came up with is inside a forest there's tree roots and branches blocking areas off so you can't walk through them. But when you cut one down, it grows in another area. Everything is pretty much on the same map (and visible) there's nothing worse than pulling a switch and wondering wtf it did. So yeah I guess it's like a switches puzzle sorta... but with roots and stuff and one character has a sword and the other can regrow the roots. Harder areas to solve can give you treasures and such or you can take the easier ways out. But idk how good that is. I guess it's alright for a first puzzle. ^^ I'm better at thinking of mini-games that need agility or accuracy at buttons.

So another question for you would be... what are the basics? There's switch, push/pull, maze, dodge.... etc. What are all of them? Sometimes having all the usual ideas laid out in front of you can help come up with some new ones, (especially with that mix and match technique with synergy) but i know I don't know all of them, I don't think.

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    Perihelion
  Sun Aug 21, 2011 1:50 pm
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Nice article! I found this helped crystallize some of my ideas. The only thing I think it's really missing is a discussion of basic puzzle elements, like switches, push blocks, sliding blocks, etc.

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    regi
  Sun Aug 21, 2011 7:20 pm
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@Raven: sounds like a cool puzzle! You could give the roots a time limit before they grow back, so the player has to figure out which order to cut them quickly.

As for all the basic puzzle elements, I can definitely compile a list. Check back in the first post in a couple of minutes. It's not exhaustive, so feel free to add some more I've forgotten.


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    glorious caesar
  Mon Aug 22, 2011 4:32 pm
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Warnings: 1
sweet article dude. you've inspired me to take some time and play around in rm2k. :o

http://rpgmaker.net/articles/3/
this is a classic and incredible dungeona rticle that imo everybody should be familiar with. he takes a lot of the ideas you talk about, like gimmicks and embellishment, but takes them a lot deeper.

http://rpgmaker.net/articles/154/
also i love this one. its by brickroad too and it's about TREASURE PLACEMENt which is really important in dungeon design but is often overlooked.


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    Ares
  Mon Aug 22, 2011 6:20 pm
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Whoops, I read this a while ago and completely forgot to respond!
I really like the workshop, it is well-written and very understandable. I am definitely going to keep some of this in mind if I ever start designing the dungeons in my game.

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    regi
  Sat Aug 27, 2011 5:22 am
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Thanks for the comments! and nice articles, noise. I think that first one is where I got the idea of 'gimmicks' from in the first place!

Here's a few more in-depth articles on aspects of a dungeon:
Gameplay Consistency
Risk and Reward
Dungeon Do's and Dont's (Miscellaneous Tips)


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    Petros
  Wed Aug 31, 2011 7:59 pm
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Location: London, UK
First off, let me start by saying this is a god-damn excellent thread and everyone should read this before even attempting to make a dungeon.

Reading this thread has not really taught me anything I didn't know already about puzzles, however it has taught me the reasons behind why these puzzles work and that's just as valuable. In fact it's often when we don't know why things work that we're not as inspired to make new ones. If I'm honest, I've always been a bit bad with puzzles, I usually ask other people for ideas and then work around that. After reading this I spontaneously came up with about three or four ideas for good puzzles I can use, all big ones. Thanks for the idea!

EDIT: Despain threw some good articles out there too there, people should check those out. Thanks for that.

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