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Ratio of Set-Piece to "Breathing Space"

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When I first started making maps, I wanted to make each part of the level engaging; that's why my first map was a super gameplay-restrictive 1024x1024 where every inch is some railroaded setpeice or trap. However, as I became more experienced and began studying other maps from a level designer's perspective, I began to notice what I call "Breathing Spaces" or "Sandboxes", areas not explicitly designed with specific moments, player tactics, etc. in mind, just usually static geometry and standard, low-level enemies or even none at all (Ex. many areas in E1, that one room with brown sludge and no enemies in Plutonia map01)(the rooms where nobody thinks "This is the Crushers Room, the Nukage Room, the Chaingunner Room, etc.). I tried making a map that utilizes more of this; but I find myself overthinking if each of these "spaces" are actually engaging or if the player would just be on autopilot through it, and if the player wants to be on autopilot. So I have some questions:

  • What is an appropriate ratio of setpeice areas to "breathing spaces"
  • Is it difficult to make these spaces engaging?
  • How can I tell if I'm over-designing an area?
  • How "gameplay dense" should a map be?
  • Is it possible for a space to be "too open" or "too restrictive", and if so what defines those?

Also inviting general level design discussion regarding gameplay restriction/freedom

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25 minutes ago, NEANDERTHAL said:

What is an appropriate ratio of setpeice areas to "breathing spaces"

This is entirely subjective, IMO. Some maps work well with no incidental combat sections at all, some maps work well because there are breaks between high pressure fights, some maps work well because there's a constant "free form" type of combat going on. But what is an appropriate ratio still remains subject to personal preference by and large.

From a "design POV" there may be reasons to avoid or include more "breathers". For example a challenge map with very difficult setpieces aimed at players of higher skill probably would be wasting people's time by throwing too much fluff around. By the same token, a map that is supposed to play very "laid back" overall might have a lower ratio of setpieces, and a lot more free-form combat instead. Maps that go for exploration can't seem to afford to have too many setpieces, because those lock-in arena fights usually get in the way of exploration, hence they're more spaced apart and such... It still is a subjective matter though :P


33 minutes ago, NEANDERTHAL said:

Is it difficult to make these spaces engaging?

No. Simply design areas such that players are always getting pushed around a little, or employ the good old carrot on a stick to make players want to push forward. A few higher threat enemies coupled with some "satisfactory-fodder" can do the trick just fine. If thingplacement isn't your thing, maybe give players interesting ways to have agency over parts in the environment, like platforms, bridges, lifts and such. Just make sure there's something to do, even if it is trivial.


37 minutes ago, NEANDERTHAL said:

How can I tell if I'm over-designing an area?

Not sure what you mean. But if you want something that is different from "scripted setpieces", make sure that players can tackle these breathers at their own pace a little bit better. The more a section leans towards "one approach above all", and the more it punishes not following that one approach, the more "overdesigned" it might be. All of this should be put into perspective, however. For higher difficulty maps the "one above all approach" can be perfectly fine, if there is enough leeway to make it "feel simple" compared to everything else.


41 minutes ago, NEANDERTHAL said:

How "gameplay dense" should a map be?

Depends on the type of map. Slaughter and challenge density is usually very high. If you want an atmospheric dungeon crawler with tons of secrets and exploration you may want lower density.


42 minutes ago, NEANDERTHAL said:

Is it possible for a space to be "too open" or "too restrictive", and if so what defines those?

You most likely don't want players to get lost, so huge ass open areas with nothing in them might be worth avoiding. Even if you want breathers, it's still nice when people don't have to look for the next fight for minutes in order to make progress. "Too open" wrt combat is certainly a thing for some players. If you're constantly exposed to threats no matter where you go, then it isn't really a "beather". Visually, "too open" can be a consequence of areas that feel empty and featureless.


Too restrictive doesn't exist as far as I'm concerned. If the goal of the map is to make movement feel uncomfortable, then be restrictive, walls, obstacles, hurtfloors... Knock yourself out. As long as it's possible to navigate the map properly it's fine. Keep in mind that restrictive will be perceived as more difficult by the majority of players, because we're talking about a game that was by and large a simple and straight forward shooting gallery for a long time.

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The answer to almost all of those questions is "it depends" / "it's a matter of taste".  Different people have very different tastes.


It's also worth noting that a 'breathing space' room can become a set piece room, and vice versa.  e.g. "Here's a room with some imps.  But when you come back here after getting the blue key, OH BOY."  or conversely, "There's a big fight.  But I constantly drip feed roaming monsters into this map, so any time you come back here you could run into a minor skirmish of some kind".


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I'll echo what Nine Inch Heels and Capellan have said. It's all a matter of personal style and approach. My personal approach is basically all-out-war from beginning to end, but at varying intensity throughout. It usually means hot starts, a lot of incidental combat, traps of varying severity, and chaotic, unscripted battles with high monster density as the setpieces. I'm easing up a little on some of that, but I don't expect it to change all that much. I guess I have Doom ADD.


It sounds like you might be interested in doing maps with a more relaxed pace. Having spaces where nothing, or nothing much happens, can indeed give players "breathing space" as you said. You can also put safe spaces into a map where a player can retreat from combat and monsters cannot follow. Or you can use your breathing spaces to build suspense and a sensation of menace. Just be aware that players will often fail to see what your intentions are unless you make it really obvious. Also be aware that players need a clear path to explore from these breathing spaces, or they may get lost.


There are plenty of players who appreciate what I call "pacey" maps, i.e., maps with breathing spaces and perhaps an emphasis on exploration, so feel free to experiment and see how it turns out. Hell, we have puzzle maps nowadays with no monsters at all. And you can always bring the hammer down hard in pacey maps, too. Indeed, it can be even more unnerving for the player if they get a big shock after some relaxing moments. It's all good!

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