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hardcore_gamer

Level design vs environment design: Which matters to you more?

Which makes a wad more memorable, good level layouts or good environment design?   

45 members have voted

  1. 1. Which makes a wad more memorable, good level layouts or good environment design?

    • A good level layout
    • Interesting environment design


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In the past few weeks I have been constantly obsessing over Doom level design theory in an attempt to improve my own level design theory, and there is one topic that I have been spending a fairly large amount of time pondering: The importance of level design vs environment design. Level design is basically what the actual layout of the level looks like. How the rooms are shaped, the flow of the map, where ambushes/traps happen etc. Environment design however determines the visual aesthetic of the level. I should point out that visual aesthetic is not the same as detail. Detailing merely means increasing the complexity of something, which isn't really the same as environment design. Environment design is about creating a sense of location, which can involve more detailing yes but it's not really the same thing. Creating cracks in the floor is detailing, but it's not a form of environment design since it doesn't increase the sense of location per say.

 

Anyway, I can't seem to decide which matters more for a good wad since there are many arguments both for and against level design being more/less important. For example, on one hand you can argue that level design is more important in that if the layout and traps are terrible then the map won't be fun no matter what. On the other hand, you can argue that if your map only consists of the same old boring featureless startan corridors we have all seen a million times, then the wad will be utterly forgettable regardless of how good the layout is.

 

In addition, one could also argue that even if the layout is more important in terms of gameplay, that the actual skillceiling of having a good level layout is much lower than being a good environment artist. Yes there is skill to it, but how much? Can it really be argued that the layout/gameplay difference between different wads is THAT big? Fact is that no matter how skilled the level designer is, there are only so many ways to design a map when comes to level layout and that in the end, all levels will consist of the same basic formula: Enter an area where monsters attack via some kind of trap or ambush, find the keys etc. Height variation can spice things up a bit, but only to a point. So one can argue that without interesting environment design nothing will make your level stand out from all the rest. 

 

What is your opinion on the matter, which do you feel plays a bigger role in making a wad memorable to you after you have played it? Level design or environment design?  

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Just now, hardcore_gamer said:

Can it really be argued that the layout/gameplay difference between different wads is THAT big?

Yeah

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Just now, esselfortium said:

Yeah

 

How so? I have been playing wads for over 10+ years and I have seen pretty much everything. I mean don't get me wrong, obviously there are different design styles. Slaughtermaps are not the same as more slow paced ones for example. But fact is, there are limits to how much you can make a level feel different or special with just the level layout/gameplay.

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Posted (edited)
6 minutes ago, hardcore_gamer said:

Fact is that no matter how skilled the level designer is, there are only so many ways to design a map when comes to level layout and that in the end

So there's no difference between WADs from 90s and WADs from the last 10 years?

 

To the poll: both and neither at the same time. It works more complicated than only these two things.

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1 minute ago, GarrettChan said:

So there's no difference between WADs from 90s and WADs from the last 10 years?

 

Sure they are, but this is somewhat of a flawed argument since in the 90's modern source ports like zdoom did not exist yet. But the original question doesn't really take into account the ability of modern ports like zdoom to create gameplay mods.

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Posted (edited)

Voted for layout for obvious reasons, I guess. Would like to add that good layout and nice "vistas" aren't mutually exclusive.

Edited by Nine Inch Heels

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If we're talking about memorability it has to be environment design. Lots of WADs have good layouts and combat, but it's visuals and environments that set them apart from each other. Imagine BTSX or Ancient Aliens without their palettes or textures, it wouldn't stick in the memory half as well.

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1 minute ago, hardcore_gamer said:

 

Sure they are, but this is somewhat of a flawed argument since in the 90's modern source ports like zdoom did not exist yet. But the original question doesn't really take into account the ability of modern ports like zdoom to create gameplay mods.

There are a lot of modern -complevel 2 WADs though. Therefore, whether ZDoom is present is not always the point to discuss. Modern (G)ZDoom maps are usually too much for me to enjoy for some reason. Of course you can argue that -complevel 9 WADs have their own added stuff, but those seem good to me.

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Your environment could be awesome looking, but if level design plays out like shit then I'm not gonna care. Aesthetic isn't everything.

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Posted (edited)

I feel environment design should complement level design. Level design is extremely important (it defines more than anything how the level plays), but environment design should complement it. Make the space readable, tell you how to go through it. A flat looking level with a great layout but textured in the same monotone texture that monsters get lost in isn't a great level. While I loathe a lot of modern games, there is no denying that good ones spend a lot of time on the design of the environment to help the player and make things work, but fundamentally the actual layout dictates the most details about how the space flows.

 

for that reason i can't really pick one. Great aesthetics with shit level design is bad. Great level design with shit aesthetics is detrimental to gameplay.

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Given how hard it is to make a WAD look like anything except a pre-designed death arena, I'm going with level design. If you want realistic levels you need to play a Build Engine game.

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When I saw Xaser's post, I felt compelled to respond in the following manner.

 

 

cat push watermelon lake.png

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Posted (edited)
41 minutes ago, hardcore_gamer said:

Can it really be argued that the layout/gameplay difference between different wads is THAT big?

 

39 minutes ago, hardcore_gamer said:

 I mean don't get me wrong, obviously there are different design styles. Slaughtermaps are not the same as more slow paced ones for example.

 

Sounds like you answered your own question here? Layout is straight-up king when it comes to determining gameplay, whereas the "environmental design" helps distinguish it visually from other maps. Like sure, maybe maps would feel "samey" if they all had 192 brightness and STARTAN everywhere, but layout (and subsequently thing placement) is what differentiates the action and pace of combat, whereas an author's choice of textures doesn't affect combat at all. It seems like you're being severely reductionist thinking about this to reinforce your viewpoint. For example:

 

41 minutes ago, hardcore_gamer said:

Fact is that no matter how skilled the level designer is, there are only so many ways to design a map when comes to level layout and that in the end, all levels will consist of the same basic formula: Enter an area where monsters attack via some kind of trap or ambush, find the keys etc.

 

Like come on, that completely disregards the difference in mapping preferences between authors at that rate. You're essentially arguing that Alm's layouts are just as predictable as mouldy's, which are just as predictable as Eternal's, etc. I agree with Eris that "memorability" is firmly seated in environmental design, texture choice, and color palette, but layout is not nearly as inconsequential nor derivative as you make it out to be.

 

30 minutes ago, Nine Inch Heels said:

Voted for layout for obvious reasosns, I guess. Would like to add that good layout and nice "vistas" aren't mutually exclusive.

 

That's the other kind of weird thing about this argument; where does a "mountain that you see from afar that you later explore" fit into this category? Because it's visually an impactful visa at first but then melds into "layout" once you teleport there. Likewise, even something that's plastered in STARTAN can be evocative just from its shape alone—like say, a pyramidal shape a la TNT MAP31. These concepts fit on a spectrum of design, and to pit one against the other—while conceptually fun—isn't really useful to help you improve design. A mapper should be focusing on melding the two organically, instead of trying to determine which is more important and thus needs more independent honing.

Edited by dobu gabu maru

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In all seriousness, the bottom line is that both play a role and they go hand-in-hand in making a memorable level. Of course, @hardcore_gamer didn't provide that option in the poll (whether through luck or forethought), because almost everyone would likely vote for that option.

 

I went back and forth in my own mind about this. When I initially opened this thread, I thought that the obvious choice was level design. The layout is important. Monster placement, trap design, and fun are paramount. If you don't have that, I would tend to side with @cyan0s1s, you won't get very far in to appreciate the environmental design.

 

But the more I thought about it, the more I found myself coming around to the way @Eris Falling thought about it--that what makes the level stick in your mind is the environment in which you are playing. That is what makes you stop and say, "Wow."

 

But, as I typed, I kept returning to the statement that if you played a level with legendary layout and design and blah texturing, you would probably remember it for the way it was when you played it, not for the blah texturing. However, if you played a level that was cringeworthy in design, monster placement, etc. but had legendary visuals, you would probably remember it as "that awesome looking horrible level" or "that level that would've won a Cacoward if it had played better."

 

So, I ended up siding with level design, although my preference would be to choose both.

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Are there actually many maps that are ugly but play really well? Thinking about it, it feels like maps with good level design also have good environment design. And there are quite a few great looking maps where the level design is not up to par. But maps with good level design and bad environment design? Can't think of any off the top of my head.

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Just now, boris said:

many maps that are ugly but play really well

 

Depends on one's personal definition of 'plays really well' but for me, maps in ToD's texture vomit style, maps by gggmork, maps in benjo's ToD-inspired texture vomit, many speedmaps that luck into it, a few Sandy Petersen Doom 2 maps, secret maps in Dimensions, maps in SuperCupcakeTactics' texture vomit style that happen to play well -- and stretching the definition of 'map', any test fight of mine that I happen to like (often with the default editor textures). Definitely some more over the years.

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Nicolas Monti's maps are one of my favorites, and they're really "ugly" haha but even the "uglyness" has some sort of patterns and beauty, as long as it doesn't look bland.

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1 hour ago, dobu gabu maru said:

Sounds like you answered your own question here? Layout is straight-up king when it comes to determining gameplay, whereas the "environmental design" helps distinguish it visually from other maps. Like sure, maybe maps would feel "samey" if they all had 192 brightness and STARTAN everywhere, but layout (and subsequently thing placement) is what differentiates the action and pace of combat, whereas an author's choice of textures doesn't affect combat at all. It seems like you're being severely reductionist thinking about this to reinforce your viewpoint.

 

 

I never said layout wasn't important. I just don't think there is as much room for depth/complexity as people make it out to be. It's very rare for me to play a wad and then have a "Wow, I have never seen that before!" like moment. In addition, I think much of the love that people here have for Doom has made them forgotten that huge numbers of gamers don't even care for Doom's style of level design. Ross Scott (the guy who made the Freeman's mind series) for example has this to say on Doom's school on level design during his review of Strife (the relevant part will start instantly and ends at about 12:44):

 

 

To those who don't want to watch the whole clip, here are some quotes from the video:

 

"If I am playing a game for the story or the shooter action, my first thought isn't how great it would be to have a fucking maze to navigate that holds me up from doing anything for 20 min at a time or more"

 

"I know I will get a lot of hate from people for saying this, but honestly I think Doom is overrated. Now it wasn't at the time, it was mind blowing technology when it came out. But looking back on it now, I can't say I think it's a great game."

 

"Jesus christ the whole game is a maze. You start off playing a small maze, and you work your way up to a large maze. Mazes and more mazes. Who cares about progressing through the levels or focusing on the combat? You're gonna spend half the game wandering around aimlessly because that's fun right? I am not talking about "exploring". Exploring is when you wander around because you want to. Mazes is when you wander the same area over and over because you are lost and you have to."  

 

"Some people consider Doom's level design to be brilliant, but not me. It's intricate, but so is a giant knotted up ball of wires. I think a lot of people get blinded by the nostalgia of Doom and forget that once you take away the demon shooting the game turns into a chore." 

 

The last quote in particular is something I think is a very good point. Huge numbers of people just simply don't care about how "sophisticated" the level design is. They just want fun action and don't want to explore (which as ross pointed out, isn't the same as getting lost in a maze). Now, I don't agree with ALL of his points. But I still feel it's important that people here understand that much of what people here consider conventional wisdom when it comes to level design isn't even enjoyed by huge numbers of people. Take for example Half-life. How complex are the level layouts of Half-life? Almost the entire game is linear! Did this stop Half-life from becoming one of the most loved shooters ever?

 

I personally am somewhere in-between the pro-complex design crowd and Ross. I like there to be at least SOME exploration element, but I don't want to get lost in a giant maze.

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I really try to make my stuff to have a balance of both things and myself actually don't like to wander around maps for too long in a switch or key hunting, but if i need to choose between only one of them then i'll try to make the visuals memorable as possible in some way.

nvf8xTQ.jpg

As this movie has been to me even nowdays

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2 hours ago, dobu gabu maru said:

whereas an author's choice of textures doesn't affect combat at all

Spectres in a black room vs. spectres in a colorful room.

 

Sure, there aren't many other examples super relevant to Doom ( maybe a large open outdoor area with Doom 2's episode 3 sky and a lot of cacos far away? ) but that very much stems from the design put into the sprites and textures. With less extreme shading on either, monsters and items could easily blend in with similarly colored walls, and this even shows a bit in very dark where the amount of colors is severely cut down and the shading on everything becomes a lot more mellow. Hell, this is a large reason as to why PvP maps avoid dark areas like the plague; it's a regular feature to include color customization for players, and black can make a player far harder to see in darkness due to ... well, a significant amount of their sprite ends up being black on very, very dark colors, not helped that even some of the non-customizable colors is the dark gray of the marine's rifle.

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Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, hardcore_gamer said:

"If I am playing a game for the story or the shooter action, my first thought isn't how great it would be to have a fucking maze to navigate that holds me up from doing anything for 20 min at a time or more"

That's why virtually all maps made by this community aren't mazes that take 20 minutes or more of pure running around to finish.

 

1 hour ago, hardcore_gamer said:

"I know I will get a lot of hate from people for saying this, but honestly I think Doom is overrated. Now it wasn't at the time, it was mind blowing technology when it came out. But looking back on it now, I can't say I think it's a great game."

Obviously this is a matter of taste and opinion. As such it adds nothing to the discussion about the importance of layout vs "environmental detailing".

 

1 hour ago, hardcore_gamer said:

"Jesus christ the whole game is a maze. You start off playing a small maze, and you work your way up to a large maze. Mazes and more mazes. Who cares about progressing through the levels or focusing on the combat? You're gonna spend half the game wandering around aimlessly because that's fun right? I am not talking about "exploring". Exploring is when you wander around because you want to. Mazes is when you wander the same area over and over because you are lost and you have to."

Yes, maps make you go places so you can find items and shoot stuff. The binding of Isaac does this. Final Fantasy does this, pokemon does this, duke nukem does this, serious sam does this, Quake does this... See where this is going?

 

1 hour ago, hardcore_gamer said:

"Some people consider Doom's level design to be brilliant, but not me. It's intricate, but so is a giant knotted up ball of wires. I think a lot of people get blinded by the nostalgia of Doom and forget that once you take away the demon shooting the game turns into a chore."

Of course doom isn't doom anymore when there's no shooting involved, duh. That argument is invalid. No reason to be surprised here, if you take the shooting out of a first person shooter, you're left with a "virtual installation".

 

1 hour ago, hardcore_gamer said:

don't want to get lost in a giant maze.

When has it happened ever, and why didn't you use the automap?

Edited by Nine Inch Heels

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56 minutes ago, Arctangent said:

Spectres in a black room vs. spectres in a colorful room.

 

Very true; I amend my statement to say "textures typically have a light-to-non-existent effect on gameplay"

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2 hours ago, boris said:

Are there actually many maps that are ugly but play really well? Thinking about it, it feels like maps with good level design also have good environment design. And there are quite a few great looking maps where the level design is not up to par. But maps with good level design and bad environment design? Can't think of any off the top of my head.

 

Agreed. A good solid layout involves solid architectural design; a good environmental design is merely an extension of a good layout. I don't think it's worth splitting the two into a dichotomy. It's like a good coffee, adding milk to a shitty coffee doesn't make it good but adding milk to a good coffee makes it enjoyable.

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1 minute ago, Joshy said:

It's like a good coffee, adding milk to a shitty coffee doesn't make it good but adding milk to a good coffee makes it enjoyable.

Are you hatin' on black coffee? ;-)

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5 minutes ago, Nine Inch Heels said:

Are you hatin' on black coffee? ;-)

 

Ah I can tolerate a shot of espresso but I'm more partial to a nice almond flat white ^_^

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And here I was, thinking Aussies were supposed to be a tough and rugged people, not froo-froo little sissies.

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Interesting discussions here which I would term in my head the battle between gameplay and aesthetics. To me, environmental layout has an effect on gameplay so the two are fairly intertwined. The overall aesthetic presentation however, is slightly different. And I'm a whore for a good looking map. (Which explains the effort I put into my maps) If I think about my favourite maps it's not only the gameplay that I enjoy, but what hits your eyes. That feeling when you drop down into the first hellscape in Deusvult 1 is nothing short of awe. A lot of what you see doesn't affect the gameplay much but the shear vertical scale of the area has massive impact on how you (or at least I), emotional engage with the gameplay. I also think Sunder is a very good example of this. Those maps are very good at having a consistent visual theme be in colour scheme or even a single texture. Pale Monument is a good example. Or Hive Mother with its repeating hexagons.

 

I also agree that it is rare to find a level with amazing gameplay and flat out bad visuals but there are maps that look good but are a bit flat to play. If I was being harsh then UTNT would fit in this category. Some of the combat is downright irritating but goddamn it looks good. 

 

15 minutes ago, Cynical said:

And here I was, thinking Aussies were supposed to be a tough and rugged people, not froo-froo little sissies.

 

We drink coffee as black as your heart over here in New Zealand. And our cricket team is better ... or at least not chewing its own face off

 

 

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