Creating an Environment: Pt.4 Landmarks

Look – Over there! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It…hopefully, caught your attention!

The central tower brings attention to traffic, and a capturable point that could decide the round.

The central tower brings attention to traffic, and a capturable point that could decide the round.

Sometimes the funnest part of playing within a gaming experience is making things your own within an environment. By that, I mean personalizing the level in some way for you and/or a group of your comrades. Find the best spot with your favorite unit or weapon, and begin staking out for a heated competition. Make the space work for your own individual strategies with the rules already provided. These areas are your beacons of victory,  your bastions of hope. This is just one significance of making landmarks work within your level.

Before deciding what and where your landmark/s should be, first it’s beneficial that you have the main course on the table: the gameplay, the goals, and hopefully the look or an idea of it at the least. Aesthetically, proportions mean more than anything else for solidifying a well designed landmark. What makes it special, and stand out from the rest of the map? This might help you tone down parts of your map and balance  it out a bit before giving focal points the attention they deserve. Video games today are throwing information at us from every angle: Names, numbers, scores, status of an objective, time left, health left, ammo left – making the actual navigation flow is a way to bank on the qualities of play a game already has, if you’re modifying/generating content that is. Become a composer of rooms. Introduce variety into the mix, but with moderation. This is why landmarks can become a smart anomaly, balanced within the context of its environment.”It’s the space between the notes that makes the music” – Noah BenShea. Even if you’re not the most ambidextrous fellow, you probably hear or listen to music a lot. Humans are good at recognizing patterns and rhythm. Use that to your advantage, visually.

The hot spots represent the areas of most deaths in Dustbowl, for Team Fortress 2. The hot areas are all around capture points.

This graph represent the areas of most deaths in Dustbowl, for Team Fortress 2. The hottest areas are all around capture points (Taken from Valve’s official live statistics).

Landmarks don’t always have to be the point of objective victory either. Sometimes they’re so visually gripping they can help us focus on the real point of conquest. By populating the space with something like a capture point, a flag, or a table-turning device, it gives added incentive and significance beyond a nice spot to “Camp”, or remain stationary because of the topographical advantage it has over the rest of the map. In that instance, give the spot some vulnerability that makes it an opportunity more than a tree-house-for-cowards.

Focusing the traffic of multiple players to one area means they’re going to confront each other a lot there – so be conscious of how you work cover, or natural protection, into the area. Put the ball in the player’s court – they’re the ones in the game anyways. Let them decide what’s better for their situation. Guns blazing, or hide n’ seek? For as much reference there is to go by, you’re the one spending the time and making these choices, so be as creative as you can with what’s already proven to “work”.

Lost Winds (WiiWare) employs windmills as a landmark to suggest areas you might often return to. Crossing this bridge over a large gap in the village helps visually weigh the spot in an interesting way.

Lost Winds (WiiWare) employs windmills as a landmark to suggest areas you might often return to. By crossing this particular bridge beneath it, the player is involved in creating a distinct sense of scale.

Games with custom content will generally have a loyal fan-base, and fans are usually better at the game than most people, but what about games that are not as competitive? How can similar rules apply to the single player experience? Landmarks are just as useful in this case for many of the same, but not excluded from other, reasons. The one-sided, sometimes cooperative experience, can be enriched by allowing the player to see their goal ahead of time, but not giving it to them. All show and no touch, for now at least. How can obscuring the “goal” or reward add a layer of mystique and interest to it, without making it seem so generic it gets away from the point of being a landmark? Its job is to stand out, after all. A more passive approach to this is through the “hub-spoke” design. By inventing a memorable area a player needs to leave, and return to, can help a player teach themselves about the inner-workings of a game; the warp rooms introduced in Crash Bandicoot 2, or the gargantuan tree in the final level of Banjo-Kazooie. Sometimes a landmark is powerful in the sense of a capital city where one can repair, regroup, and rest up such as Zelda’s Hyrule City or the great mountain dwelling Ironforge from World of Warcraft. To feel safe and prepared is a potent thing in video games, and provides the trip to more dangerous landmarks with some depth. The relationship that landmarks then have with one another becomes a crucial role in the pacing of a longer experience.

Games benefit from repetition as well, so how can you avoid a predictable outcome of play within the design of a level? The outcomes are finite, but you’re so busy making the level you won’t probably have much time to count them all anyways. That’s what playtesting is for – and the next post in this series.

The tunnel in the middle provides early cover from two sides for a stretch, giving both teams a breather. One side is safe, the other knows they have one way out.

The middle tunnel provides early cover for a stretch, giving both teams a breather after the open-warfare and an added incentive for the progressing team.

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