We often bash Neverwinter’s devs for various reasons. But their level design can be on point sometimes. Let’s take a deeper look into one of the most played maps: The Stronghold.
The stronghold map shows on the one hand brillant and on the other hand rather clumsy map design. This post goes into the positive aspects. But before we start, we have to find the map’s predecessor to see with what the level designers at cryptic were tasked with.
All hail the 3 lane setup
The stronghold map being Neverwinter’s adaption of the classic MOBA genre layout (2 opposing bases and 3 lanes connecting them) both simplified and toughened its creation at once. It may have given a basic structure for orientation but also one that somehow needs to house all of the building plots, Heroic Encounters, mobs and siege mode paths/structures.
Creating a map that will be played frequently for modules to come, that players will not easily get tired of and that can be extended without damaging its layout, is a sizable task.
The stronghold map is in fact almost perfectly mirrored along two axes (stronghold to stronghold W-E and along the river S-N), the center being the middle lane’s bridge.
After creating the PVE part they mirrored the map to add the missing half, which totally makes sense, since it has to be fair for both teams in PVP. This of course speeds up the creation process, too.
The earth is not flat
Most actual combat areas are within valleys between walls, hills or rock formations. This not only keeps the terrain way more interesting than a flat surface, it also lowers the average objects being drawn on screen. Heavily layered visual effects (aka combat with multiple players involved) cause major performance stress for your machine, which is entirely normal, but can cause serious performance loss.
Combining it with a wide open area (a lot of objects/textures being drawn on screen) would result in bad performance when it is needed the most (low FPS are most frustrating in combat). But more on this topic in the next post.
Overall the stronghold map is well optimized for high playercount combat, at least in terms of level design. Well done Cryptic. You have done worse.
I know where I am
This one caters to player experience on a more subtle level. The stronghold has different biomes with vegetation and atmospherical filters (Dread Ring Shadowfell region is an extreme example for this one) across the map. A nice effect of this is “Intuitive Orientation”. You look around and see grey rock formations, ruins and a summoning circle: Devil’s Hideaway. Or you see spiders and sense a more “mythical” vibe: Fae Canopy.
By paying attention to the direct surroundings, the player instantly knows where on the map he is. He starts connecting areas with their respective mobs and Encounters. It is much more engaging this way than having all regions look alike.
The use of landmarkers is also important: The stronghold’s central towers themselves give players an approximate feeling of distance and direction.
Enough space to be a hero
Heroic encounters play a central role in gathering supplies for your guild and give the map its endgame content elements. Simply using mobs of the respective areas is honestly not an innovation, but especially the “supply crates” and captured civilians the players can free, makes the whole zone seem more alive. Although not properly tying them to actual gameplay elements is a missed opportunity.
Usually the heroic encounters fit into their environment well and always give the players clear signals about what their challenge will be like just from its looks. The devs also learned from other regions with heroic encounters: Always having one epic encounter active and spawning a new one (after competition or upon timeout) almost instantly, gives the map a certain dynamic. It has a good balance between the three encounter sizes, as there are always enough foes to take out, while the map never seems too crowded.
NOTE: This is done via an “Encounter Master Controller”and it is the first time it was used. It is also active for the Demonic Encounters and will soon control the ones in the Elemental Evil regions too.
Like most levels nowadays we see reused assets, textures and mobs. And this is one of the few times where it actually makes sense. The stronghold map is not an adventure zone being tied to its own whole regional structure, like Icewind Dale or Sharandar. It rather is a summary of all challenges a guild has to overcome to be successful in this game.
How to slay your dragons
Here you can quite obviously see the dev’s learning process actually. Despawning all encounters and mobs upon calling the dragons is a smart move and also utterly necessary. The guild is busy killing dragons, nobody should focus on anything else and the server has a lower workload to handle.
Having to calculate all idle mobs or even some that are in combat causes high stress for the server hosting the specific instance. Just take the well of dragons as an example: How much less lag and frustration there would be if at X:45 all mobs and encounters between the dragons would despawn. Less workload for the server and less getting-knocked-down-from-mounts. There would even still be enough mobs for daily farmers, although the dragons are probably what they should focus on.
This queue takes forever
Though I do not like the way they cut key MOBA elements from the Stronghold Siege mode (no creeps, towers are non destructible and neutral monster combat is a joke), the map would actually be perfect for a competitive PVP gamemode:
- The map is limited: Decreasing the map size for PVP is honestly the best (and obvious) thing to do. With the cut areas the map would be too big. Even possible jungle areas should not be so far away from the action.
- Chokepoints for map control: The most important one. Having multiple paths come together and limiting the ways to rotate the map makes players clash in those chokepoints which are key to control map movement. It makes for big and (and even more important) meaningful fights. It gives the map strategic depth.
- One-way passage areas: Playing around with verticality especially around the catapult spots is a smart move. This means players can hold a perimeter to deny access. Except if you are a Trickster and can sneak through. Look at how interesting gameplay elements this could produce!
This map took forever
We can safely assume that the stronghold map has been in the works for several modules. Even today there is a team working on additions and improvements. Maybe the time consumed in its creation process is the reason why we are not seeing any new bigger scaled adventure zones being added to the game since module 5.
I think the devs are not incapable (though they sometimes try really hard to prove me wrong), they might just not have the time (or resources) to design the game how the players, and even themselves, want.
Next time we take a look at the stronghold map’s flaws, which even if I praised the devs today, are many and significant.