These are posts I made on my own blog. I figured I'd post it here to see if I can get feeedback on them, or perhaps they might even help someone. Lemme know if there's some info which I might have left out or something which you disagree on or anything, I'm fine with that.
The RTP for RMVX is very square. A lot of people expressed dislike for it especially when compared to the freedom and curves you had for RMXP. But this is a very different type of style. Mapping with RMVX should be treated different than working with RMXP, but I find people who used to work with RMXP try to use the same techniques. Old school RPGs should be referenced when trying to map something in RMVX. I keep FF3 and FF4 maps around in case I need inspiration for a map.http://www.rpgclassics.com/shrines/nes/ff3/maps.shtmlhttp://www.fantasyanime.com/finalfantasy/ff4/ff4maps.htm
Before you go about mapping a place, you should think about what it is going to contain. Randomly placing objects you find in the tileset isn't a good way to go about mapping. If it's a town, what type of town is it? Then, get even more detailed with it. It's a farming town. How do I make it interesting and memorable to the player? EVERY game has a farming town. What can I do to make it stand out? What places does the player have to visit? What should I have in the town?
Houses shouldn't all look the same. Vary them, in relation to who owns it, what it's used for, and just so that it's visually interesting to the player. Not only that, but the player will remember a place more if it doesn't look like every other one. "Ah the Inn is the square one with the big central open courtyard" gives the player a location reference and makes it more memorable than just being another 2 story house but with an Inn sign on it.
If you find you can't make something interesting, make it smaller. A map doesn't need to be big for the sake of being big. If you're not using that space, take it out.
This is the first RMVX map I made. Below is the beach, and above are cliffs. I should have made the houses one tile smaller for each floor, and there other changes I would make. I had in mind for this "Beachside city". I had a few years ago gone on vacation to Portugal, and was walking through one city which really inspired the general layout of this. It had the beach below, big buildings and interesting sidewalks above, and what I walked through was largely on the sidewalks near the buildings with the nice beach view below. My goal was to try to get that feeling with the map.
I saw a painting by Howard Behrens, and drew inspiration on that for the crazy house on the left. I think finding some good images can really inspire you to try something unique for a map. For example, I saw in a book a fantasy artist that had draw an old city that looked like it was based on the cathedral designs. So for a map, I decided to take "Cathedral" as the underlying theme for it. It would have flying buttresses, be elevated and tall, have many towers, gargoyles around, and things like that. Although I ran out of tileset space for gargoyles because of RM2k3 restrictions. Could have been charsets but that never occured to me.
That was more on the creative side, making it more visually appealing to the player. But what's probably even more important is to make sure it works in the first place! If a player can't find the exit of the map, if the map is so huge that it lags the players computer, if the map makes it so hard to cross, if it's so cramped and full of enemies that you get into a battle every 3 steps, if the player can't even see where they're going, it won't matter much if it looks nice because it will still be frustrating.
First off, the exits to the map should be clear. When testing your game, you may know the way to go even if there's no indication of where to go, but the players may not have the same idea as they didn't make the game. You can make subtle hidden paths, but if you do that it should be for treasure or other optional contents, not for the main path. Be consistant in what kinds of paths/edges let the player leave the map and which ones don't. For example, If you start out in the beginning with only stone paths on the edge letting you leave, while grass on the edge doesn't, and then change it mid game to allow the player to leave on a grass edge, the player will have a harder time figuring out that exit.
Here's an example. The 2 paths out of the area are clear. The other sides are visibly blocked, and those sides have the most detail too.
Landmarks, rarely used noticeable objects, or a noticeable visual change (like having purple leaf trees in one area instead of green leaf trees), can make a certain map more memorable, and allow the player to remember where they are if they get lost. Say you have 6 forest maps and they loop in a circle. If they all look similar, then the player will get lost for some time. If you have one of the maps with a large statue in it for example, then when they reach that statue, they'll instantly remember where they are, and that map would be more interesting for it.
This is something even more important in an Action RPG or a game that has touch encounters, but make sure the player has enough space to move around. You shouldn't have little flowers blocking the player, or have small blocking objects everywhere. It'll make it harder for the player to get away from enemies. Try to limit the amount of objects you place in the players walkable area. If an area is not accessible to the player, then feel free to put more details there. Take a look at this map (From Seiken Densetsu 3):
The area that the player and the enemy can walk in have a dirt path, and a few flowers. In the areas that are inaccessible, there is a whole field of flowers, a bunch of green plants together, a variety of cliffwork, water, so it still looks nice while not intruding on the players space at all. Good for an action RPG and for a touch encounter map.
Fogs and lighting effects are particularly abused in the RMXP community. I can understand, some of the effects are nice. However, be sparing with it. Maybe you're walking on a misty mountain. But if you even have them in your town, short of weather effects or for a specific foggy atmosphere, then you're likely overdoing it. Lighting effects should be subtle, and only for particular cutscenes or a rare map here and there where you'd really want to show off its beauty, then put a lighting effect. It'll make that map even more beautiful for it, and make it more memorable (See landmarks above). For most of FF6 and Seiken Densetsu 3, they did not use the effects even though they could. Fogs/Lighting is NOT a substitute for making a good map or there to hide your bad mapping. There are places where it's good to have though, a burning map. It's fine to use them for specific purposes. You may want to consider making or finding new ones and not relying on the same ones everyone uses.
The mist isn't grey and doesn't cover the whole map. It moves horizontally, and works nicely to give off the atmosphere here. Also, this is a good example of a night map which will be the next paragraph:
I see fairly often people making their maps near pitch black when it's dark. You have to consider people who aren't playing full screen, people with darker monitors (particularly CRT), and some peoples eyes aren't as good as others. It's not even needed most of the time, just lower the brightness a little and boost up the blue. You can see the Seiken Densetsu 3 screen above is dark and at night, yet everything is still very visible even without requiring full screen.
For contributing to the atmosphere, sound effects work well. You can really add to the atmosphere by just having sound effects in the back based on the area. Events such as birds, fish, butterflies can make the maps look more alive too.
Something that I'm adding on to here:
Some people go as far as to use graphing paper to map out their dungeons. It's good to plan out your area beforehand. Even if you're not an artist, you can at least sketch out the basic design of the map on a paper. With mapping, you not only want to consider how it looks, but how it functions for the player gameplay wise.
References for good maps:
Final Fantasy 6 mapshttp://www.fantasyanime.com/finalfantasy/ff6/ff6maps.htm
Seiken Densetsu 3http://mmxz.zophar.net/rpg/mana2/images/images.html
(Better for references if you're using RMXP or RM2k3. See the top of the post for RMVX references)