Observations on RPG environment design

Observations on RPG environment design

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been extremely active working on a mod project for Dragon Age: Origins.   While I had a pretty solid underlying concept for how the mod was going to be structured, built, what sorts of environments it would feature, gameplay style, story progression, etc., actually sitting down to create the world that it will take place in has provided me some interesting insights that I’d like to share.

Create a world for the gameplay you want

This first point seems obvious, but I’d like to start out with it for that reason.   The majority of my level design experience in the past has been focused largely on first-person shooters.   First-person shooter level design, especially in a multiplayer context, is something you could already write a book on, but suffice is to say that it requires special attention to a few key features: 

  1. Flow – easy to say, not so easy to describe.   Generally refers to how the player moves through the environment and transitions between areas, and the movement options at any given juncture, i.e. can I go up or down?   Left or right?   Is there cover?
  2. Tactical opportunity – designing levels for a shooter is all about risk versus reward; every power-up has to put the player in some level of danger to acquire, requires some sort of skill to achieve, etc.
  3. Aesthetics – by aesthetics here, I don’t mean simply “is it pretty”, but how light, shadow, colour and so on interplay to provide the player with suggestions, i.e. a light in one location will cause players to move towards it, while a dark place will be more likely ignored.   Helps direct movement through spaces and make the level easier to read and memorise.

The big mistake I went into my level design in Dragon Age was to pretty much design like a first-person shooter, which is to say, I prioritized function over form in a gameplay style which is basic enough that function isn’t   really something one needs to design around.   Since the player’s movement options in Dragon Age are quite limited, i.e. simply running, without any jumping or leaving the ground, I initially created flat environments which were extremely open and good-looking, but also not necessarily useful for gameplay, navigation, and so on.   The end result, in the end, was visual monotony, confusion and a lack of variety in combat environments.

RPGs are different

When designing an environment for an RPG like Dragon Age, there are some similar design considerations to take into account as when designing levels for shooters, but with some very important deviations in the reasoning as far as the hows and whys go.  Most of these stem from either the differences in how the player moves through the environment, and the needs of the environment in conveying story and lore to the player.

  1. Accessibility – the player needs to navigate a large environment with many places and characters; these need to be easily visible and generally easy to find simply by following the natural suggestion of the level design, not hidden away or placed at random.  
  2. Tactical variation – while in a shooter, variation is something which occurs from the fast-paced nature of the gameplay and designing environments around flow, in an RPG, this extends to the level design itself.   The player can’t do many interesting things beyond run around, so the level design has to pick up the slack; you can’t get away with placing a few pillars or chest-high walls.
  3. A esthetics – while in a shooter, aesthetics serve the function of reading an environment, in a RPG, this has to be balanced with lore as well.   A very tricky proposition, but generally set-piece environments are memorable and also help flesh out a world, so use this to your advantage and build a world that is interesting to explore with many unique locations, buildings, etc.

To illustrate this, I’ll refer to a couple of screenshots.

In the first iteration of this environment, the fountain in the middle of town was situated on flat ground and didn’t serve as a very good focal point.   I found that in play-testing with a couple of friends, they ended up getting lost and confused in the world because they weren’t quite sure of their relative position in the world.

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Putting the fountain up on a hill, putting an eye-catching statue on top, adding trees, plants, grass, and some subtle sunlight coming down gives the player a much greater sense of where they are in the environment, especially from an “on the ground” perspective.

Initially, the entrance to the Slums, which is the location where much of the combat takes place, was a simple hole in the wall which didn’t really lead anywhere.   Not only was it not obvious where it went, but it blended in so well to the rest of the environment that play-testers simply ran past it entirely.

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To help change this, I did a number of things.   First, I added a large archway to symbolise its importance as a transition area.   Second, I made sure some of the sky was visible through the arch’s opening.   Third, I played with the lighting to give the entrance more shadows, and placed a lot of random clutter, including trash piles, overturned carts, rubble, and added a downhill slope to all help impress on the player that it was not just the lower-class district lore-wise, but that it was also a rough and dark place, unlike the open air of the Market District.   The Slums themselves, while not complete enough to demonstrate yet, are a much different environment, with smaller corridors punctuated by open spaces, with branching paths and choke points to help the player manage enemies.

Lastly, there was the problem of the Council Representative (effectively a town crier) in the middle of the Market District.   While he had a lot of things to say, including important plot information, I found that when play-testing, he was very easy to ignore, since he blended in so much with the random crowds standing around, and nobody spoke to him unless I suggested it.

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To help make the Representative more visible, and in turn help better communicate the conditions of the story and world to the player, I decided to put him up on a podium and surround him with a large crowd complete with appropriate sound effects.   Not only that, but a trigger added to the area would cause the player to enter a dialogue sequence with him if the player moved close enough to the podium.   I found that with a little bit of tweaking, I could get it so that players would not just notice the podium, but run towards it almost instinctively due to its raised height, and be given the necessary information every time.


Designing an RPG, even the relatively short one that I intend my mod to be, has been a pretty informative experience right from the beginning.   Although I have approached level design on plenty of occasions before, creating a world that worked for the gameplay style, as well as for story, was something that I wasn’t wholly prepared for initially, but with a few tweaks I managed to vastly improve the gameplay experience as well as the player’s absorption of the story and lore.   I hope to use this knowledge in designing future environments in order to help build even more interesting and compelling locations for players to explore.
 Originally posted at Critical Missive