The importance of level design is well known for first person and third person action and adventure games, yet its importance in role-playing games is not as appreciated. Part of this lies in the way a game world is used in traditional role-playing games: since these types of games are less about player motor skills and more about management of statistics representing player character ability, game worlds are often simple containers for gameplay, without features designed to enhance game systems.
Illustration 1: An overworld from a traditional role- playing game (Final Fantasy VI).
Modern role-playing games, however, often incorporate play in which level design can have a positive role. The Mass Effect series uses the mechanics of a cover based shooting game, in which the player is tested to master the environment’s layout for effective protection from attacks, while needing a degree of physical dexterity with a mouse or controller to aim and shoot at enemy combatants. The traditional role-playing game design (management of statistics) is a layer that sits on top of the action oriented gameplay, instead of being the primary focus.
In these situations, level design as understood in the modern sense — a layout that takes into account player and enemy abilities in interesting ways — is pushed into the foreground.
While many role-playing games can be used to illustrate the growing importance of level design in this genre, this article focuses on one of the newest titles from Square Enix: Final Fantasy XV.
Final Fantasy XV (FFXV) gives the player several abilities that potentially play off of the layout of the world: warp strikes, link strikes, magic, and weapon choices. Let’s briefly look at each one.
- Warp Strikes. For this ability, the player can throw their sword or other melee weapon and then warp at high speed to the location the thrown weapon stopped. If selected on an enemy, this is an attack. Otherwise, this is an evasive move. Warp strikes can also by used to attach the player to special locations in a scene, such as a rock, tree, or tall structure. Not only does this remove the player from immediate danger (the player isn’t completely invulnerable, but is usually safe for a few moments), but also allows the player to regenerate health and ether (in the Final Fantasy series, the amount of ether a player has dictates how much magic they can use).
- Link Strikes. These are attacks in which other members of the player’s party make an additional attack as a bonus strike. There are numerous link strike abilities, but the one most applicable to level design is the blindside strike. In this attack, if the player strikes an enemy from the rear position, a party member makes an additional attack.
- Magic. Unlike in most other RPGs, magic is not an intrinsic ability that is controlled by a finite amount of magic ability that is restored via potions. Instead, it is manufactured from elements collected in the world. Since it is manufactured, a magic spell can be given, like a weapon, to other party members to use. Since combat encounters take place in the same space as world traversal, these spells can actually cause harm to party members, not just opponents. Indeed, this is very likely to happen, since many spells have splash damage effects.
- Weapon Choices. Another way FFXV breaks with previous RPG conventions is that the main character may use any weapon type in the game. Weapons include melee weapons of varying lengths and speed, and ranged weapons may also be used. The net effect on level layout is that a designer needn’t design spaces with only one weapon type in mind, since players are expected to equip weapons appropriate to the space they are in.
Open Versus Closed World Design
FFXV embraces an open world design for much of the game, in which players freely roam a large outdoor environment. This should not be confused with the earlier method of allowing free movement on a large map, while segregating combat to special dungeons or screens that cut away from the primary game world (a common style of play from early RPG design). FFXV’s open world has its gameplay built into the environment, which puts it in a similar space as other open world games such as Skyrim and the Just Cause series.
In such an open world environment, gameplay needs to occur in regular intervals across spaces that are too vast to allow for hand tuned combat encounters. In a linear action game, a level designer can easily create interest by tightly controlling the gameplay experience, but in an open world game, the world is simply too big for that! Games in this genre have to balance the exploration of a huge world with the need to create enough interest to make the exploration fun.
FFXV attempts to balance this by interspersing dungeons, caves, and forts throughout the open world. These areas are made with a finer attention to detail, or, one could say, they are handcrafted. Because of this, these areas more effectively complement the game’s design.
For instance, consider the following example from a screenshot of the Japanese version of the game.
Illustration 2: Combat scene from Final Fantasy XV. Note that the combat takes place on a flat road, unadorned with objects or obstacles.
Note how this particular environment is very simple: it’s just a flat road. For the above encounter, the player must use their mechanics absent of any help from the level design. This limits tactical options for the player, particularly since the player’s ability to warp and heal depends on transiting to locations in the environment that have been set aside for that purpose. The player’s enjoyment of this scenario is somewhat limited, then, to the performance of the game systems on a flat plane.
Obviously, a natural environment can provide opportunities for small-scaled level design. Topography and flora both provide some variation and can even provide opportunities for improvised play. And, of course, environment objects can be sprinkled throughout even huge environments.
Illustration 3: The player attached to an object in the environment in Final Fantasy XV.
In the above picture, we see the player character attached to a warp point, allowing them to heal and escape damage from combat. This is still in the open world, but Square Enix’s designers have placed various structures, both natural and man-made, to assist the game systems.
However, these are still thinly placed throughout the world, and there is no guarantee that the player is going to be able to use these for any given encounter, since these encounters are probably randomly generated in the open world. Who knows where the player is going to be? This makes it very hard to give a controlled, fun experience to the player.
For this reason, the designers rely upon some handcrafted areas placed throughout the world space. Since the open world must rely on systems rather than level design, the handcrafted areas provide balance. Some great examples are the forts and enemy bases throughout the game. These structures contain many warp points to allow the player to use this ability. The bases allow for a balanced approach where game systems and level layout combine to create fun gameplay.
Illustration 4: Inside an enemy base.
In the above example, note that the environment is still rather large; large enough for the player’s warping ability to play a large role, but not so open so as to remove opportunities to use it effectively!
One of the primary roles of world and level design is to support the underlying game systems: great level design makes game systems better. In FFXV, this is best accomplished in the forts and enemy bases, because these environments, simply put, support the game’s mechanics very well! However, these environments are only used a few times in the open world portion of the game. This is unfortunate, as while the open world of the game is fun for other reasons (beyond the scope of this article), the actual combat mechanics are best served in the hand made crafted, set piece areas, and surely providing more of them in the open world would make a fun game yet more enjoyable.
This isn’t to say the entire game needs to be one endless fort or enemy base. Part of the enjoyment in an open world game is the exploration provided by large environments. However, I would encourage game creators to figure out ways to repeat interesting hand designed environments in small, easily repeatable packages that can be spread throughout a game world. In modern games, creators need to find ways to break large handcrafted areas down into smaller, modular parts, to more easily intersperse them throughout an environment.
In conclusion, the best open world level design involves taking the best parts of linear world level design, and breaking them down into their core parts, and spreading them out throughout the open world.