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The importance of content-spacing and level-design in free-roam games.
by Aleksander Adamkiewicz on 06/03/12 11:35:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


When you think back at your best gaming experiences, what do these have usually in common?

Is it the marvelous graphical fidelity?

The high quality audio?

Or is it, like it is for me, the "flow" of the game? The precise and perfect spacing of "things" that you do or experience during gameplay.

This space in-between experiences is, at least for me, the most important thing to nail down in game design.

It is almost like a rythm or a musical composition.


When I "design" new adventures or campaigns for my tabletop games, I usually follow a certain narrative structure than can be called "classical".


The Three Act Structure

Three-Act Structure


I found out early on in my design experiments that i can use this structure for more than narrative, or conversely, to apply narrative to something that is normally seen as narrative.

For example, combat-encounters and map-design could be plotted in the three-act structure, as well as the plot/story itself.


If we apply this structure to free-roam games, and adjust it a little for a visual interpretation, we can see how discovery of new content and its spacing correspond with a satisfying experience.


Example: Skyrim

Skyrim Map All Locations

Skyrim is ~37 km² (14 sq. miles)

Content in Skyrim is plotted so you are about at maximum ~60 seconds away from meaningful interaction.

If you think about it, how do you approach exploration in open-world games like TES and Fallout 3?


Lets assume you have no quests active and just set out in a particular direction.

Since the games are first person perspective (or 3rd person if you really want to), the first thing that happens is you start walking in a direction of interest. This is the introduction-period of our graph.

The first "plot-point" happens if you notice something of interest (content), be it a dragon fighting a bear, a temple or an unexplored dungeon.

Your "rising action" section of the graph corresponds your approach of the content, you grow tense at the exploration, the discovery.

The second "plot-point" corresponds with you reaching the content.

The crysis happens when you resolve what the conent means (to you, the game), be it fighting a cult of vampires, reading a stone tablet or just appreciating the vista.

And then the cycle starts again.

The contrast with other games like Fallout 1, which didn't have a first person perspective, this delivery was handled in a different way, but with the same structure.

In the case for Fallout 1 the exploration mechanic relied on the overworld-map and its random-encounter system (which is still the best random encounter system ever created).

The travel itself generated rising action the furter you traveled, as the probability went up to have a random encounter. And then of course there was the random encounter itself, which could be completely non-combat.

In Skyrim this extends as well to the dungeon "design".

Skyrim dungeons are, while often being complex, essentially linear in their level-design.

That doesn't mean they don't have multiple ways of approaching objectives, but the  structure and the emotions they invoke are carefully engineered.

All dungeons have an introductory area near the entrance, the enemy-density and strength is low. The deeper you go the higher the enemy density and their level, usually culminating in some sort of "boss-fight" and a very quick exit without any enemy-encounters.


Counter Example #1 LA Noire

LA Noire is 13 km² (8 sq. miles)LA Noire is 13 km² (8 sq. miles)

While LA Noire is smaller in size than Skyrim, it feels larger and traversing it is a lot more tedious than Skyrim.

First, there are no easily discernable landmarks when the player looks around from any given position of the map. This is due to being in an urban environment, most of your view is blocked by buildings, generic buildings no less.

There is little to no visual pointers to where you are exactly in relatation to the game-map, there are only subtle visual differences between districts. When you compare this to Skyrim, due to the varied environments the player always knows where he is.

Second, content is not distinct from non-content.

In skyrim points of interest are distinguishable, some are hidden, yes, and need a large deal of exploration and dedication to find, but they are upon reaching recognizable as content.

LA Noires city is mostly generic filler, non-conent. Outside of missions there is no interesting things to explore or do, beyond collecting collectibles of course.

Thirdly, traversing the city is restricted to streets, a problem games like Assassins Creed for example do not have, even though they are also set in an urban setting.

Furthermore, the traversal is even restricted to "proper" and "realistic" traversal. Driving fast, aggressive, crashing is not possible.

Instead of making the large and open world interesting, the game makes it an obstacle that needs to be overcometo get to the things you want to -do- as a player.

LA Noire nails the 50s America visuals, the mood, the noire perfectly, yet it shows us that this is not enough, the level-design and content-spacing works against the toolset presented to the player.

Its one thing to see a map-marker and drive towards it looking at the map, and another thing entirely to actually see the actual content and approach it.


Counter Example #2 Fallen Earth

I don't want to discuss the merrits and/or flaws of FE per-se but rather show the difference between the map-design of Fallout 3 and FE, and why Fallout 3 is an engaging open world and Fallen Earth is not.

Fallen Eeart is a game that looks and plays reminiscent of Fallout. The game is set in the post-apocalypse of earth and starrs mutants, zombies and destroyed cities as well as a first-person perspective if you so desire.

This is the map for Sector 1 of Fallen Earth (there are 3 sectors). Fallen Earths size is 83 km².

Your first longer journey as a new player will be from Terrance to Embry Crossroads after finishing the "extended tutorial" in the starter area (Terrance).

The time that it takes you to travel from Terrance to Embry Crossroads is about 3-5 minutes on horseback (roads give you increased speed).

In between Terrance and Embry, there is nothing of interest, beyond quickly respawning mob-packs, mining-nodes and non-accessible quest objectives aquired from.

In contrast Fallout 3, like most Bethesa free-roam games, keeps in line with having content closely spaced and concentrated. No content is further away than one minute of travel on foot.


The first flaw in the map-design is that Fallen Earth features a classical quest-hub system where you pick up quests "in town" and then "run out" to complete them in the vicinity or travel to another quest hub.

There is no incentive to just set out into this huge, interesting open world and just discover things.

This is a trap that game-designers often fall into. Creating large worlds, realistically large, but with no incentive to -do- anything in it.

A large world by and off itself does not suffice to make it interesting for the player to partake in it, there must be -content- in it to make it worth-while for the player to invest the travel-time.

Especially in MMOs designers often think that with enough people playing the empty spaces will "fix themselves" because players are a part of content.

Unfortunately this is not true unless the players do something that is meaningful to the -other- player.

Set-dressing isn't content by itself, it needs to be relevant to the gameplay. Not necessarily interactive, but meaningful and engaging (lore, for example). In the way that Fallen Earth visually presents Points of Interest in the distance they lack distinction from non-content (like LA Noire), they lack resolution for the rising action (battling through mobs blocking your way) when you reach them.


Games are best when you experience things, and even better when you -do- things to experience said things.

Content needs to be carefully spaced, it needs to be meaningful and varied.

Repetition can not provide a crisis.

Designers not only need to think of -what- to put in their game, but also -where-.

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EnDian Neo
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Thanks for the article, enjoyed reading it. Your analogy to linear map design is pretty clear with Skyrim as your working example.

How does the 3 act dramatic structure translate to spacing points of interest on an open map? What I understand is that you need to seed your maps with lots of interesting things so the player doesn't get bored traveling.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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In an open map you have to visually present the content to the player.

You have to make the player interested when he looks around (set-pieces), and then provide a short but meaningful journey to the content.
The 3-act structure comes into play when analyzing the players emotions approaching the content.

If the player can't see the content visually, there is no interest, no introductory period, and therefore no rising action.
The emotional engagement of the player stays level when traveling, the travel is not interesting.
This is why in some games the traveling or traversal of the map is a bore/chore.

For example, the first time you leave the Fallout 3 bunker you immediately see Megaton in the distance, Springvale, as well as the capitol building and the ruins of DC.

This gives the player immediate points of interest. Additionally, upon reaching the POIs there is -something- there.
Additionally almost all ruins, buildings, etc. have content in them, there is something meaningful there (loot, terminals to read/hack, secret lore, mobs with a story behind them).

Compare that to LA Noire for example, where 90% of the city is complete filler, its only there to make the world large for largeness sake.
GTA4 does this to an extent also, but at least in GTA4 you are not bound by "the law" and create your own fun and content by just going on a rampage if you get bored.
Trying to get to your mission-destination with the police chasing you is more interesting than just driving, because you are utilizing the gameworld.

Applying the 3 act structure for visual content-spacing is but one way to make open worlds engaging, but for games featuring exploration its my preferred way of doing it.

I'm guessing my main point got lost a bit in the article...

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Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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My article tries to cover only one important aspect of map design, content spacing and traversal.
Of course its not the -only- aspect.

Fallout 3 still does content-spacing and meaningful content better than LA Noire.

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Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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"Sure, but isn't it a pointless effort if the content doesn't do what you are defining/stating it as doing?"

Well isn't it a pointless effort if the content does what you are describing but the traversal makes it a chore?
Both concepts are intertwined and not separate.

In unison they make a game better

"(since I haven't played Skyrim)

Do the "plot points" / "emotional catalysts" fall flat half or more of the time because this design of map layout doesn't work (like with FO3/Morrowind) without these catalysts performing precisely the way they are intended to function?"

I believe that Skyrim has much better map-design than FO3.
Its like Bethesda is learning their lessons and evolving their design-philosophy in that area.

Honestly i played Morrowind so long ago that i barely remember how the map design compares to Skyrim, so i can't really give you a concrete answer on that one.
But I "feel" that the Skyrim map-design is better, it "feels" more evolved and engineered (in a good way).

"also along the same line, to repeat what I said (hopefully not frustrating you) does this layout in effect function as well as simply having the plot point as a constant?"

I don't understand the question.

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Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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Well thats where we go into plotting out motivation for a player.

In the end there must be a motivation for the player to keep playing the game.

Sometimes the motivation is emergent, like in the case of really good gameplay, or competition (playing with friends), and sometimes you need to "put it in" and hope for the best.

Maybe my article-title should have been
"Visual motivators and their pacing in an open-world environment"

But i agree that if you put a different motivator into your game, it might not need to rely on map-design as much.

The Elder Scrolls Daggerfall had a huge map to explore, 487,000 square kilometers in size (i.e. ~10.000x Skyrim). Only it was mostly randomly generated, maybe 0.01% of it was hand-crafted.
Compared to that, Morrowind was a huge step-up in map-design. :)

Christer Kaitila
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The more "weenies" (google this term) the better.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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weeniesplural of wee·nie (Noun)plural of wie·ner (Noun)Noun:
-A man's penis.
-A frankfurter or similar sausage