Maze Levels have always been a sort of redheaded stepchild in the gaming world. Early generation games liked mazes because they are easy to generate procedurally, but fewer and fewer games are taking advantage of the Maze in their games. This seems to be under the misinformed premises that mazes are inherently frustrating for players, that they are too difficult to design, that they don’t carry flow, and any other number of reasons. Weird then, that mazes are fun in real life – Corn Mazes, Hedge Mazes, even those little dollar-store ball mazes are pretty fun for a few minutes.
What do corn maze creators know that we don’t? First off, the corn maze is a social experience. Corn mazes aren’t any fun if you’re alone, they’re just cold and desolate places. What about hedge maze creators? Well, there’s a goal in a hedge maze. Collect this, get to the end, see all four corners, etc. Hey, those sound like gameplay!
So let’s talk about what a maze really has to offer your game. The most important thing for you to think about right now is the following:
MAZES ARE EXPLORATION
Let me repeat that. Mazes are exploration! Too many times when you hear ‘exploration,’ your mind automatically connects it with ‘open-world’ style games. Mazes are not open-world, but they are exploratory. The player has to explore to proceed through the maze, there’s no other way to get through. And exploration is a good gameplay mechanic, so it must have some potential for awesome gameplay regardless of where you put it. I recently finished working on a research game, Olympus, which more-or-less centered around a maze level (based off the ancient Labyrinth at Crete), and I spent a good year on this Labyrinth alone. Even after all the playtests and refinements, I still feel like there is work to be done on it, but I want to share with you some of the things I have learned from it.
So what makes a good maze that is fun to explore? Let’s look at some things that will help you build the most awesomeist maze known to gamekind.
- Avoid endless corridors. This is probably the biggest problem designers run into when they are laying out their mazes. Too many corridors! Corridors are freaking boring! Look at the maze to the left. That doesn’t look like good gameplay! That just looks like running, and running is never gameplay. Avoid endless corridors by adding special rooms, landmarks, encounters, puzzles, and cutscenes. Make your maze interactive, dynamic, and awesome.
- Let the player determine their own pace. As designers, we routinely struggle with this, but every player is going to approach exploration mechanics very differently. Some players will be careful and calculated while others run headlong into danger with urgency! Some will trek down every path available just to see where it leads. Some will want to fight every enemy they see, and some will want to run away from enemies. It’s uncontrollable, so just embrace it and factor it into your design.
- Give the player a glimpse of what they are to encounter later. Like in any good game, you can give the player hints to foreshadow what they will encounter later. This is especially important in Mazes because you have to keep the player’s eyes on the prize. It’s easy to get very distracted in an exploration game, wandering off on tangents that are completely unrelated to the primary goals you’ve given to the player. This is fine in open-world exploration, but in mazes, a distracted player gets easily lost and turned around. Use unique landmarks often throughout your maze so that players know where they have been and what they are after.
- All of your normal Level Design insights apply! Your mazes are indoor exploration! Awesome, that means you can use lighting, sound, and all those other fun little tricks in the Level Designer’s toolkit to draw the player towards or away from certain things. Treat your maze exactly as you would any other level (often, it’s better to make it its own level anyways). Set your goal, draw the path you want the player to take, then start lining that path with landmarks, goodies, and enemies. Don’t forget to look to the other paths in your maze though — countless dead-ends with nothing in them are no fun.
- Plan on spending a lot of time on the maze. Everything about a maze is more complicated than its open-world exploratory counterpart. For programmers, pathfinding through narrow corridors lined with traps, puzzles, and obstacles quickly becomes a pain. The maze will probably tax your rendering pipeline due to compact nature of it — occlusion culling is your best friend. Lighting is troublesome in hallways as well, so expect to spend some time baking lightmaps. For artists, your maze has to look damn good. The player is going to be looking at a lot of walls, and if the textures on them are shoddy throw-togethers, your maze is going to feel bland and worse yet, unpolished. I’m not personally a fan of normal maps on environments, but in a maze with good lightmapping, they can bring it above and beyond the norm. Finally, for designers, you’re going to need to design and implement a lot of stuff to keep it interesting. Enemies, obstacles, traps, puzzles, rooms, you name it. Even the reward structures get tricky before too long — after all, you can’t just throw rewards at your player at every dead-end, or they’d be meaningless. The labyrinth in Olympus was about 30% of the gameplay but took about 60% of the time to build.
- Refinement is king. Some designers love their design documents and their calculations, but at the end of the day, your maze needs to feel good, and that’s not something you can document on a spreadsheet. As soon as you get your simple geometry in the engine, start tweaking and modifying your design. Your artists might hate you if you move too many hallways and rooms around, but remember that it has to stay interesting, or no one’s going to want to make it through. Keep adding and tweaking landmarks, props, lights, and events until you get something that you and your playtesters enjoy thoroughly. Do keep your level design documentation up to date with your changes though, so the team is on board with the most recent version. Remember, the documentation is not the most important thing — the enjoyment of the level is.
I hope these things that I’ve learned over the past few years working on this labyrinth will help you the next time you think about the levels in your game. Honestly, I’m tired of seeing Fire and Ice levels, Top of Building levels, forest levels, jungle levels, and all of those other cliche designs you see out there. How about putting a level of your next First Person Shooter in a hedge maze? A level of your Third Person Platformer in an underground, medieval maze of catacombs? How about designing your sewer level into a maze? The basement of a Mayan pyramid? There are a million ways to build a maze, so let’s see some more of them ^^. Post a comment with your unique and interesting maze setting for a game!