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Melon

What is flow?

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A lot of times when I've seen people here talk about what makes a good map, "good flow" is in the list almost every time. But what does that actually mean? I'm not too hot on my gamer lingo but I'm pretty interested in level design theory, so I'd appreciate it greatly if someone could fill me in.

I've always imagined good flow to mean that the natural path the player follows always takes them down the path that progresses the map. A level with good flow will result in the player spending minimal time wondering where to go next because they're always subtly encouraged to go that way due to layout, lighting, detailing and the way fights play out. Players are either always looking at their objective or are having their movement controlled by clever enemy placement, etc. I might be wrong.

Do people consider pacing to be a part of good flow? While it definitely helps your map to have downtime where appropriate and build-up to the big fights (or in the case of slaughter maps, constant pressure all the time), is that really flow? If a player gets lost and ends up wandering around big empty areas for 5 minutes humping walls is it a flow issue or a pacing issue, or maybe both?

Forcing the player to revisit areas and having easily distinguishable landmarks helps keep the player oriented and adds a sense of place to the level. Does this help create good flow or is such architectural and layout design a separate thing?

I'm interested in hearing (reading?) your thoughts. Tangents related to other parts of level design are also welcome because I think it makes for interesting discussion, but mainly because deep down the main question this thread is asking is probably just pedantic word definitions :)

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One thing I loved about ID's maps is the lack of flow in many of them. I don't like being told where to go. I like discovering and exploring levels rather than being prodded like cattle to go in a certain direction.

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play greenwar for the flow factor :P That was my number one concern making it.

Basically it means no dead ends, no snags or annoying objects and detail encumbering the player. Good flow means you can easily move around the map, the map's layout isn't confusing causing you to get lost a lot, doesn't involve a lot of tedious backtracking or pointless dead ends.

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Melon said:

A lot of times when I've seen people here talk about what makes a good map, "good flow" is in the list almost every time. But what does that actually mean? I'm not too hot on my gamer lingo but I'm pretty interested in level design theory, so I'd appreciate it greatly if someone could fill me in.

To me, flow is how easy it is to walk around a level, navigate it, to get a sense of where it is going. Imagine a river, it flows along the riverbed. If it empties into a pool, it's stopped - the exit of a level. The beginning can be imagined as the snowmelt of a glacier.

I've always imagined good flow to mean that the natural path the player follows always takes them down the path that progresses the map. A level with good flow will result in the player spending minimal time wondering where to go next because they're always subtly encouraged to go that way due to layout, lighting, detailing and the way fights play out. Players are either always looking at their objective or are having their movement controlled by clever enemy placement, etc. I might be wrong.

Basically. I'd consider clever enemy placement more of random logs or large boulders in the path of the river than actual twists and turns of the riverbank - thats more attributable to the architecture.

Do people consider pacing to be a part of good flow? While it definitely helps your map to have downtime where appropriate and build-up to the big fights (or in the case of slaughter maps, constant pressure all the time), is that really flow? If a player gets lost and ends up wandering around big empty areas for 5 minutes humping walls is it a flow issue or a pacing issue, or maybe both?

Pacing is more of an aspect of flow to me, a fast, white-water rapids section of river can be just as interesting as a serene bubbling brook. I'd consider the player getting stuck as more of a swamp or where the river gets muddy. And an impatient player could easily be an impatient boatsman who wants to get home so bad he'll row to the banks and get off instead of trying to row through the mud.

Forcing the player to revisit areas and having easily distinguishable landmarks helps keep the player oriented and adds a sense of place to the level. Does this help create good flow or is such architectural and layout design a separate thing?

Consider a river flowing through a forest. It goes out of the forest onto a plain. Then it cuts back into the forest, maybe 20 feet from itself. Yeah it's part of flow, but it isn't always easy to get a river to turn back around like that. The river could also split into smaller streams that wind around each other until finally rejoining. That'd be more of the nonlinear aspects of mapping, with many options on how to get the objective done, but the true objective is to finish the level. The river example doesn't quite work here as I'd be surprised if someone actually got a river to flow back onto a part of itself that's higher up (coming back to the beginning of a nonlinear sequence and starting another path).

Hopefully you get something out of that wall of text and I didn't just type all that for the sake of keeping my creative writing skills somewhat sharp ;)

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DoomHero85 said:

lack of flow

Hellbent said:

pointless dead ends

Why does always E3M4 come to mind reading this?

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e3m4 was always one of my fave doom maps. I didn't think the dead ends were pointless at all. It is a pretty linear map tho.

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I love e3m4. That's one of the maps I meant, but also maps like e3m3, e3m6 and e3m7 where you're not exactly sure where to go and you're kind of left to figure it out rather than funneled in one direction come to mind.

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Well, E3M4 isn't that bad at all. I more wonder whether E2M7 has a sense in some of the dead ends.

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ArmouredBlood said:

Hopefully you get something out of that wall of text and I didn't just type all that for the sake of keeping my creative writing skills somewhat sharp ;)

I certainly did, thanks for the post. The analogy was fun to read. Your first paragraph sums it all up nicely for me.

It seems that many people are considering non-linearity to be an important part of good flow. I'm not sure I agree and don't think it has anything to do with flow at all.

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I think it depends heavily on the action you're trying to create. If your map is all about fast action, the player should be able to be running and gunning most or all of the time. Enemies should come on strong but not in huge numbers. If your map is about huge epic battles, you can have giant mobs of monsters but you still need some areas for the player to hide, re-stock, etc. If your map is about exploration and puzzle solving you can expect the player to stop more to think about where to go next.

In all cases however, there are extremes which should be avoided. If it's just physically annoying to get through an area (like opening 12 doors in a row) then that is most likely an example of objectively bad flow. Also it sucks when the map is so open and sparse that you can just run through giant empty sectors.


In general I like maps where the player is constantly moving, without getting too hung up on puzzles or circle-strafe battles

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For me, good flow means constant motion, constant progression.

English is a language I'm really not comfortable with when discussing game theory, so I'll leave it at that.

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Phml said:

English is a language I'm really not comfortable with when discussing game theory, so I'll leave it at that.


Really?? What language is better? Your english seems totally fine considering I never would have expected you to be a non-native speaker...

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See, if I were a native speaker I wouldn't have made the mistake of phrasing my sentence in a way that might imply English isn't a fine language to discuss game theory with. And as I'm typing that, I'm not even sure I understood your "What language is better?" comment correctly and I might be completely off the mark by answering the way I do. :P

I'm just talking about me personally. I have trouble finding words to explain even basic concepts, because I'm not really fluent. I've started typing only to erase later maybe ten, twenty sentences in my previous post before finally giving up on it.

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magicsofa said:

Really?? What language is better? Your english seems totally fine considering I never would have expected you to be a non-native speaker...


There are a lot of people on this forum who aren't native English speakers, but have excellent command of the language relative to your average Joe walking the streets in...oh I don't know...Nebraska.

For example, I've only been living in the US (where English is obviously the predominant language) for a little over 10 years. I'd say that my English is relatively decent, and my mother tongue (Chinese) has been slipping lately, especially with my being in Law School, but I still make rather silly grammatical mistakes all the time in common day to day vernacular.

Anyways...getting off topic. Flow to me is exemplified in the style of a player. When I watch a Stx-Vile or Adam Hegyi demo, no matter how crappy the enemy placement or how badly designed the gameplay is, they can make it flow like nobody's business.

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Phml, I understood that you meant you would have trouble finding the right way to describe what you mean. I just find that interesting because you speak so well...you say that you have trouble explaining basic concepts yet you use complex sentences like:

If I were a native speaker I wouldn't have made the mistake of phrasing my sentence in a way that might imply English isn't a fine language to discuss game theory with.


That's a rather advanced concept I think! Also, this reminds me of when I took Calculus a couple years ago. I had this graduate student teacher who couldn't explain anything. He clearly knew the material well, and he could use all the vocabulary, but he often confused me and the other students. As a native speaker he did poorly when trying to help us understand. However, we had homework review sessions with an Asian grad student who could barely pronounce english words and had a very limited vocabulary. We all learned much more from his review once a week, than from the regular lecture. Despite a lack of vocabulary and fluency, he was able to explain things to us in very simple terms which helped us a lot.

But, don't agonize over it if you don't feel like taking a stab at it - I was just curious :P

Qaatar said:

When I watch a Stx-Vile or Adam Hegyi demo, no matter how crappy the enemy placement or how badly designed the gameplay is, they can make it flow like nobody's business.


I like that you brought this up. If you think about it, a player in any old map can proceed with extreme caution; luring enemies away from the pack to kill one-by-one, always peeking around the corners of a new room, running away from battles that might cost a lot of life; Or they can proceed like Rambo, setting off every trap and waking every monster while wildly firing their weapons. I have personally experienced this affect when I try to be really conservative on a map, die, and then start seeing how quickly and insanely I can re-play it. It totally changes the mechanics.

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Qaatar said:

There are a lot of people on this forum who aren't native English speakers, but have excellent command of the language relative to your average Joe walking the streets in...oh I don't know...Nebraska.

Good to be mentioned, I'm not a born Englisman either.

Anyway, I suppose flow is the business I certainly don't cope with much. Many times I just throw my map together and let others become familiar with it.

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hervoheebo said:

To me "flow" sounds like a highly pretentious word that can magically describe every good quality a map could have.

This.

IF I had to try to describe "flow", I wouldn't imagine "good flow" being something that you instinctively notice. Rather, you could notice "bad flow" as the map becoming either a boring drag through a muddy swamp, or something that moves on too fast. You probably wouldn't notice when it's good though, because good flow would feel natural (compared to bad flow feeling out of place or outright wrong).

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FLOW .. I expect everyone, including the original user of the term, is inventing something to give some meaning to it.
Here's another idea.
Bad flow is like an obstruction in a stream. Like an eddy around an obstruction, the play action gets hung up dealing with the obstruction.
Good flow makes a level easier to play, as the player does not have any obstruction to deal with. But I disagree that good flow is always best.
Some levels are defined by the obstruction they force the player to deal with. In fact, I would say that every good level puts some obstruction before the player that obstructs the flow.

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