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Mapping in five easy steps

mapping

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#1 Indrah

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Posted 05 March 2012 - 03:10 PM

So, since lately I’ve been doing nothing but mapping (what with the writing muses being on vacation). I’ve mapped and mapped and mapped, and not for myself (to me it’s harder to laze about when it’s something for other people) and I’ve grown somewhat confident in my mapping skills. Some people asked me the typical “How do you do it?” or commented “You’re fast”.

The answer is being practical, using the editor, and practice. My mapping style is not pretty. I’m not a parallaxer. I use the editor and a 100% RTP tileset. I’ll summarize my usual methods below. I’ll be assuming you know the mechanics of the editor (shift clicking, the shadow tool, etc). While I use the ACE engine and the RTP for the examples, any engine that uses an editor and a tileset should be the same (heck, you can probably apply this to parallaxing too).


Step 1: Setting
Take a piece of paper. Or the editor. Whatever works. What are you going to be mapping? A city, a dungeon, fields? Each work differently, so it’s important you set on that first.
Now, what’s the point of the area? Is it a plot scenario? Is it only a glorified corridor to transfer to the next area? Is it a place where a secret npc/item/monster shows up? Does it NEED to have certain equipment/features?
If it’s a complex area (more than one map) you’ll want to think of a rough idea of how they are connected. You can later modify this as needed, but it helps to know how to organize the maps and what direction to map towards.

With that in mind, set down a barebones of how the rooms are distributed and what is in each room. Depending on the map, plan on other floors too.

For the sake of this tutorial, I’ll make an interior map, a temple. We’ll make it a wide building with two floors and the central area longer than the rest. (I will only fullt map one room, but this way you can see the room distribution and planning).

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Step 2: Barebones and structure
With a rough idea of the distribution, it’s time to make an outline of the actual map. Take the ground tile and make the shape of the room, then add the walls and limits.
Does it look to big/small for the setting you want? Adjust as needed. You can plop down temporary tiles in the map to see how it fills out and if it needs more or less space. It’s also the time to do a rough division of the maps. If one map has different areas, you can use walls or a different floor tile to make the map more compact and interesting.
For now what tiles you use exactly is not a concern. Just focus on distribution and space.
Also set up the space for the connections to other maps (if you have them).

For the example, we’ll map the main room in the first floor of the temple. On the far top of the map we’ll put the altar with the statues, and at the sides we’ll put a couple of counters and shops (because it’s selling its talismans, or whatever).

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Step 3: Style and primary items
Time to choose what to use. What tiles are you going to be using for the walls and floor? Do they match? Do they fit the setting?
You wouldn’t put a fancy rug in a very poor house, and you wouldn’t use a ragged stone wall on a posh palace. Same goes for furniture. Try to keep in mind what the map is FOR. It makes no sense to put cupboards full of bread and wine in a smithy, and a bar won’t be displaying jewellery.
If you find you’re lacking specific resources, you can get them now or use a placeholder and find them later (say you need a certain style of statue/column/furniture you don’t have on the tileset).
When you’ve placed your A tiles (walls and floors) place the focus points of each area. Counters and a few items in a shop, beds in a room, statues, etc. Whatever is important.

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Also settle on your mapping style. What sort of wall height do you use? Two tiles, one tile, three? Do the lower limits of the wall display the outer wall? Do you use a cut-off floor tile? How do you map exits and transfers?

Here are some common styles (of course, these are not the only ones that exist)
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Step 4: Details
With the basic map done, it’s time to go crazy and fill out the rest: with the core items in place, the rest is dressing the map up.
Unless the point of the map calls for it, what you want is for it to be neither empty not cluttered. More than the actual contents, it’s a matter of distracting the player’s eyes.
Keep in mind where the player is supposed to WALK, and let their path free of obstacles. Around that path, add decorations, not occupying every single tile or being too symmetrical; try to be random (or not, depending on the setting, but absolute symmetry usually makes maps too stiff). Also keep in mind where the tiles are designed to be used. Some are clearly made to sit on flat surfaces like counters or the floor, others are mounted on the walls.

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Step 5: Finishing touches and revision
How does the map look? Do you like the effect? Now that it’s done, do you dislike the walls, or the floors? Go and change them. Did you need some tiles you didn’t have available and used placeholders? Go and import the correct ones. Fix everything that needs fixing.

It’s also the time to apply the final shadows. Since any use of the shadow tool tends to snap back to the default if you touch it during mapping, you should wait for the last phase to add them. Remember to keep a fixed style. If you paint shadows over walls, do it always the same way.
Also remember to apply shadows to add depth (for example in bridges, overhanging areas and such).

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When everything’s done, step back and revise the result. Did you miss some shift-click mapping? Are all the shadows correct? No cut-off mapping errors? If so, you’re done!


Things to remember:
-Keep a constant style. If you decide to shade over walls, do it all the time. If you use a cut-off floor style, keep it. If at any point you decide to change your style, revise everything and change it.

-Remember to leave clear routes for the player to navigate and always playtest your maps when they’re ready to see if there are any passability errors.

-Also keep in mind where you will place Npcs, if any, and their walk routes if applicable. If you have npcs roaming around, leave space to allow the player to pass if the npcs

-Keep a consistent and reasonable setting. If a city is poor, it won’t have many niceties like paintings in the houses or fancy furniture. A town in the snow will usually have fireplaces and fires to fight the cold; hot tropical settings don’t have much use for them. Remember to decorate all maps according to their setting.

-With VX Ace you can make as many tilesets as you want. Sometimes it may be a matter of simply adding things to an existing tileset, which is only a matter of making a copy of the tileset (so you don’t have to manually input all the passabilities again) and adding an extra tile sheet with what you need. Remember Ace has split the tiles over five tilesets; what you need for a dungeon may simply be under Interiors.


Tips and tricks:
-Interior areas: it’s a good tactic to make interiors vary from simple squares by editing the base shape.

Example:
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You can also create a nice visual effect by splitting the space with walls into lesser rooms. You will have to watch out, though, walls take a lot of vertical space depending on how high you do the walls, so this setup will quickly eat up space (this is actually a good thing if you have areas with nothing interesting to add).

Example:
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-Exterior areas: Grass, dirt roads and elevation are your friends. Patches of grass and dirt roads (or differently colored grounds) divert the attention of the player nicely without having to actually add much decoration. Roads are also specially useful to give a sense of direction to the player. Remember to randomize them a bit so they’re not completely straight lines.

Example:
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-Dungeons: It’s especially important to remember what you’re supposed to do in each map. If there’s a puzzle in there, don’t clutter up the place and let the player roam comfortably. If it’s only a decorative hallway to another map, make sure there’s some direction as to where the player is supposed to go.

Example:
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-Simple edits and recolors: Everyone can do this, and it helps a lot to create ambience. You may find that repeating, for example, the same weeds and flowers in fields over and over across the world gets old. It’s simple enough to recolor the flowers or make a simple cut/paste job to come up with new items. Small obejects like flowers and single tile decorations are usually simple to cut and combine.
There’s also recoloring. The same grassy tiles can become a different map just by changing the colors (making the coloring greyer, more vibrant, a different tone, whatever) same goes for walls and floors.
So if you ever feel like those trees, caves and stones are looking boring, crack open a graphics editor and mess with the tiles a bit.

-Map size: If you don't feel very confident in your mapping, don't try to take on huge maps, the bigger the map, the harder to make it good. Keep to compact maps and connect them with warps, as that style allows for less "filling" of areas you have no use for.

To finish, here's an example of the five steps for examples in interior (the same we just did above) exterior and dungeon areas.

Interior: Temple
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Exterior: Forest
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Dungeon: Ice Castle
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And that's all! I hope you find this helpful. If you have any questions or feel some areas lack explanation, tell me and I'll work on it.
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#2 Brainshack

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 02:33 AM

Very nice tutorial.

Well done :)

#3 BadMinotaur

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 02:35 AM

Nice tutorial! I look forward to applying this knowledge when Ace finally lands.

#4 Freykin

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 02:47 AM

Very nice tutorial, some great advice in here :)

#5 WizzyT

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 02:54 AM

Excellent Tutorial, mapping is probably my strongest aspect within RPG maker but im still amazed to see what other people can create.

#6 Reynard Frost

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 02:57 AM

Very well done tutorial. A great approach to designing levels and I'll definitely take advantage of this advice when I begin putting my levels together.

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#7 Shaz

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 06:27 AM

Nice tutorial. I really like the extra detail you go into with your explanations, and especially the heaps of pictures to show it all.
Avatar by Nio Kasgami

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#8 ~Mad Hatter~

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 08:17 AM

Nicely Done.
The 5 Steps are great.

Thank you dude :D

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#9 jgkitarel

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 08:19 AM

Nice, I admit that I do this more as a hobby rather than as a dedicated game developer due to work committments, but breaking the process down like you did simplifies what many at first think is a daunting task. While you admit to not using parallaxes, that is not a bad thing. They should only be used when necessary, not as a matter of course.

#10 Nemau

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 09:51 AM

Excellent!

#11 headless1

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 10:05 AM

Very Nice.

Thank You

#12 Marty

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 11:12 AM

nice job on this, it will help me out. thanks :)

#13 Link

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 12:25 PM

I've always had trouble mapping and this definitely helped me sort things out. Can't wait to put what I've learned in action.

#14 amerk

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 02:39 PM

As mentioned before, excellent tutorial. May I ask how you would go about designing a prairie, grassy field, or mountain path? I assume the idea is about the same, but trying to get things to fit without being too open is tough when it comes to those types of maps.

#15 PentagonBuddy

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 02:57 PM

Surely I've commented on how nice this is before? At any rate, psssst feel free to take out the brackets on the mapping tag! OTL I was terribly slow in updating the guidelines, but actually you don't need to do that at all!

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#16 KevinOmeGa

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 03:01 PM

Definitely some great tips that I am sure to use in my game.

#17 Indrah

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 03:13 PM

Thanks for the praise everyone! It's awesome how fast they're coming XD

@Penta: Will do o7 Thanks for the praise >///<

@Amerk: What's the purpose of those areas and what are their main features? How do you separate the screens?
I'd tell you to first and foremost get a clear idea on WHAT the player does in those areas. Once you have the rough idea, think of how many "filler" or "corridor" areas you want and how you separate and connect the maps, and then do the actual mapping.

For example, the mountain path: If you're only meaning to connect two areas, I'd tell you to use either a winding road with a sky parallax in the background to show ascension and descension, you can use the cliff tiles to show elevation and so on, but I'm aware that on the whole the VX boxy tile style makes mountains on the whole tricky to map. It's a kind of cliche trick to make some maps that go through caves to connect various areas in the mointains, since caves and such are easier to map. If it's merely a road, keep a linear (not straight) path and maybe do a couple of small side roads or alternative channels with a few freebies.

Grasy plains and praeries have the difficulty of no real classic "divides" like thick tree walls of cliffs. If you want to keep the player on a more or less strict path (not a huge empty field) I'd say making a very slight elevation (not a cliff, just a slightly elevated path or an unwalkable terrain) around the road, and if necessary have the characters comments on "Don't go too far from the roads" to give the player some excuse as to why they can't step on that.

On the whole, wide open areas are not recommended, because they're a bitch to map and fill out, and may feel confusing to navigate. If you MUST map big spaces, try to have a clear route (dirt paths, non-grassy lines, guiding stones, etc) and plenty of landmarks so the player doesn't get lost.

#18 amerk

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 03:23 PM

Thanks, Indrah, those tips do help. I was thinking of how tricky it is to make mountain ledges look realistic, as you are winding your way around, but I've been studying other screenshots to help get ideas, and tomorrow I'll definitely be looking at the sample maps, which I've heard are actually pretty good for a maker. Your tips do give me some definite ideas, though. It's much easier to create non-linear paths in forests and caves than it is on mountain paths.

#19 ADM

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 03:29 PM

Great tutorial. I'll definitely be taking advantage of this as I learn the workings of Ace.

#20 Indrah

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Posted 13 March 2012 - 03:39 PM

@Amerk: I was pondering on how mountains work and since I don't remember actually mapping any decent one myself, I did a fast try.
PLEASE IGNORE THE BLATANT ERRORS. This was a very fast sketch done in five minutes, it's not meant to be a finished product, but with some luck it can serve to illustrate what I said about mountains before.
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