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I'm curious as to what the best method for sketching out and prototyping a map is, and if there are any tools available to facilitate this.

Pen and paper is probably a good place to start, but I would like to know if there are any worthwhile tools to look into, something akin to a UI mock up tool like Balsamiq

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8 Answers

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You could try Google Sketchup. I worked at a place where the designers used this to create block models for maps that the artists would then use as reference. A block model is a very basic, untextured version of a map used to test and develop the layout of a map. I think they were importing these models into UnrealEd as well.

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Don't blow off pencil and paper so quickly. It iterates faster than any tool lets you, never crashes, and every one of your developers can read it.

Also, I've heard great things about Legos.

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I definitely wouldn't blow off a sketchbook and some pencils with good erasers. I was just wondering if there was an intermediary tool between pen and paper and trying to create the full blown map. Basically just looking for a more polished draft to work from –  Andrew Burgess Aug 16 '10 at 18:25
    
If its not playable is it as valuable? If not its probably just considered concept art or a specification, perhaps how big the doors are in relation to a player. –  underscorediscovery Aug 16 '10 at 19:27
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@FuzzYSpo0N - I think it's more valuable to have a solid understanding of what you want your level to look like without committing a lot of time to developing assets and what not that you might or might not need, as well as discovering potential problems or pitfalls before you've overcommitted –  Andrew Burgess Aug 16 '10 at 19:51
    
The problem with Legos is that they lend themselves far better to narrative than to architecture. We've tried them numerous times and people always rather come up with a story than with a map. Even if they are told to build a map they immediately fall into storytelling mode when they present it. That said, Legos might be ideal for prototyping story. –  martinpi Aug 17 '10 at 9:17
    
Yea true on the legos. @Andrew - agreed, i actually was teaching this recently. Layout the level for gameplay and look if you can because you will lose out redoing things later. No need to do any assets at all until the level feels right. Then, make a playable cubes/walls only mesh. –  underscorediscovery Aug 18 '10 at 17:45
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It depends on how many levels you have between initial concept and final map rendering. The process I like most goes a bit like this:

If I am working with a writer, or someone who would intimately know more about how the world should be put together than me. I give them a nice entry tool to use, something that allows them to convey their ideas to me in something other than endless paragraphs. The tool I use for this is AutoRealm: http://autorealm.sourceforge.net/

I like this, more than letting them just turn in pencil / pen sketches for a number of reasons.

  • It's digital.
    • I like this the most, because if they mess up Ctrl+Z is handy. No nasty erasures.
  • It's pretty. (if they spend more than a few seconds working with it)
  • It lets them plot places of interest and comment them.

From there, I take out my tablet and draw my own notes over the map (in art-editing tool of choice).

  • What needs prototype models.
  • My idea of how the level will flow
  • What I am vetoing
  • What needs improving / can be expanded for dramatic effect.
  • What is frill (just pretty & terrain) and what is important (stuff I want to test)

So whomever is doing the terrain gets those files, and I start making quick proto-models in sketchup. I don't focus on getting anything perfect, because frankly someone can do it better and speed / execution of concept in prototyping are my goals.

And that is my path from Sketching -> Prototyping.

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Not to sound trite, but you'll also be better off with a pile of sticky notes. This will help not only with generating several renditions of maps/location-based venues, but makes for more efficient workflows and ui design. Often, it's the low tech applications that reign supreme. Stickies notes are also very effective when working with a team set of various personalities and divergent approaches. For 3d visualization ... have to agree with the rest. Sketchup takes the cake in producing workable solutions especially when dealing with vertical planes and relational environmental setups.

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As with most design-related things, I would argue that there is no "best way" to design maps either. You should really just experiment with different tools. But I'll share what worked for me (your mileage may vary).

Personally, I find that tool to use varies on my mood. Sometimes I'll do pen-and-paper sketches. Other times (especially when I want to share my designs over IM), I end up doodling in a paint program. Sometimes, I'll open up a map editor like tiled (or sometimes other poorly-written editors that have lots bugs and I wouldn't recommend to anyone like maped3 but which I have great familiarity with) and use some placeholder tile art, which I gradually refine into a real map with useful tiles (not as useful for more involved maps that are not 2D, however -- but might be a starting point to get a rough layout).

If I'm not in a terribly visual mood, I might even just open up a plain-text editor and describe an area in writing. I've occasionally found myself just plotting out an area in ASCII art. The particulars will be better sorted out when I actually feel like crafting a complete map.

Some people might enjoy using 3D modeling tools, but I personally find them too involved and time-consuming. And I don't feel this sort of encumbrance when doing 2D sketches and tilemaps. After all, these are temporaries, and world designs are likely to change after they've work into a playable prototype.

(Similarly, I probably wouldn't use a specialized prototyping tool for deciding a user interface. But I do use other options. I could draw it out by hand. Perhaps I'd scribble in a paint program. Maybe fire up a detailed mockup from the get-go. Possibly even defer the interface specifics until I have coded an unstructured but working prototype.)

However, find whatever works for you. Keep trying new things, going with what suits your current mood, and while you may never find the "best" method, you'll find something functional, and that lets you at least make steady progress.

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Paper is your friend to start with and get some good ideas going.

Chris Howe is right, Google Sketch up is one of the easiest 3d modeling packages to make basic shapes in. Sketch Up's ability to export models as Collada files, that can be easily imported into most 3d game engines, make it great for fast prototyping and iteration. I have done this in Unity 3d to make basic level layouts for testing.

Another great thing about this workflow is you can take the files you tested on and import them into a higher powered 3D application such as Maya for texturing and detail.

The only thing that Google Sketch up does not do well is Spheres. You can create arcs and cylinders but spheres are a pain. If you plan on starting from a sphere or adding on to a sphere do not use sketch up.

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MS Paint have done wonders for me during the years (if you're on a windows computer and don't mind digital art).

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The best way I've found is to do a quick sketch of the traverseable area of the map on a white board, a sketch or two of what things should look like in different areas on paper, and a collection of 'useful parts' (anything from mechanical bits inside, say, a clocktower level to standard things that should all have the same size, eg, doors) are noted and if needed designed to whatever level of detail necessary (in some cad software, or sketchup will also work for this if the required detail is low enough). Then it's just a matter of blocking out the area according to the runmap, filling in the 'dirt' (or other material that makes up the default 'filler') and from here I add all the details that were decided upon in the above steps- putting in buildings, sticking doors and windows on/in them, etc. The last step to physically create the map in the game is to add 'doodads', little things that make your game more believable. a good set of doodads I've found useful to include are power lines, garbage, graffiti, wall posters, and advertisements, in addition to broken bits from local materials in that particular area of a map, eg, a pile of broken bricks in an area where most of the buildings are brick, or a few broken tiles on the ground in an old public bathroom, etc.

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