Overcoming the Obstacles of Creativity
An interview with Queen Elquein. Her AOW maps are well known for their terrain beauty and playability. Elquein is the scenario downloads manager for LeagueAOW. We mapmakers know that feeling of giving up when we come to a point where we run out of ideas or when we suffer from a map crash. Elquein had a particularly bad experience in her last AOW1 map: Athendore, where she lost the entire map due to a bug which corrupted the file. And she started all over again when most people will just give up.
These are minimap shots of the map "Athendore".
Q: Why do you make maps?
Why do I make maps? Hmm...hard to say. I suppose I want to be the best mapmaker out there. Modesty is a virtue, but not in this case. You need to have good goal in mind. I don't want to make maps that people think are "ok". I want to make maps that people will remember, maps that people will refer to when talking about good maps. I don't need much feedback. I know if my map is good or bad.
If it's bad, then it goes into the "Failed Maps" folder that I have, and you would be surprised to see how many half-made maps I have there. I aim for perfection. So until I make that perfect map, I'll keep making them whenever I have the time.
Q: Where do you usually get your ideas?
First, I thought I'd have a good answer for this, but now that I think on it, I don't. I never really get a grand idea, it's just something that comes out of nowhere into my mind. I just get this feeling sometimes that I want to create a map. Then, I just open the editor and start creating.
It really doesn't matter what I make, I just slowly begin to get more ideas, and I keep twisting and shaping those ideas as I try to put them on the map. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn't.
I once told a friend of mine that making a map is like painting, you are an artist of sorts. It's all about inspiration. I never force myself to make a map. I have tried, but the results didn't please me at all.
One little hint about generating map ideas: take pen and paper, and simply draw out or write down your ideas.
I personally like to just lie on my bed and draw a little minimap, with several little explanations and plans, about what it will look like, who will be there, what terrain I would like to use, and so on.
How to deal with difficulties when making maps
Q: Last year, while working on a large map, I remember you had to start over because your map file became corrupted, it must been hard, how were you able to recover from such a painful lost?
Well I wouldn't call it painful, it was just extremely annoying and it made me say things that I wouldn't normally say. But that also made me search for a solution for the annoying map crash bug that AoW has, and I did find it. So I never have to worry about that again.
But after I lost my map (that was suppose to be my greatest piece of work so far), for weeks I didn't even want to look at the editor.
I completely wiped everything from my mind and did other things I like to do that had nothing do with computers. That helped.
Slowly, when the fact that I had lost my map didn't annoy me anymore, I began re-making the map that I had lost. although it didn't look much like the old one, but the result was Athendore. I'm quite pleased with that map. So you could say that, that little crash, caused lot of good. :)
Q: What advice do you have for those who start on a map and find it hard to finish?
There are 3 phases when it comes to making a map.
First is the beginning when you have lot of ideas and you are excited. You can spend hours after hours creating your map that you have high hopes for.
After a while, the second phase begins. Most likely, you have made many exciting places, and now you just need to cover and make the more boring terrain. You know you have to do it, but you just can't bring yourself to finish it. You place a few trees and mountains, and then you get bored. I know the feeling, it has happened to me many times.
If you get over this second phase, you get to the very nice third phase: when it's time to finish the map. You would be making heroes and items; adding some finishing touches on the terrain, playtesting and so on.
Now obviously, most mapmakers, including myself, have problems with the second phase. That's when things start to get boring, and you think that you will never get this map done. This happens especially with large and extra large maps. When you get the feeling that you are just about fed up with the editor and making the silly terrain. Then it's better to just take a break - few hours, a few days, even a few weeks if you feel like it.
There really is no rush to finish the map. The more you rush, the more bugs you will miss, and usually, one can see it in the terrain if the mapmaker has been rushing to get the map finished.
When I was making Athendore, I had many week-long breaks in between. I just didn't want to make the map if I was bored. Even though making Athendore took me very long, about 6 months, I knew that I had done the best I could at that time, and was very pleased with the result. If you get that kind of feeling, then you should be happy. As all you need to do is to do your best, no more, no less.
Elquein's standards and playtesting methods
Q: You stress on quality maps, what are your standards?
If your goals are like mine, then you really need to pay very close attention to the terrain. It doesn't matter how good the story is. It doesn't matter how many heroes you have. They are all unimportant if your map looks empty, and uninteresting.
Now, I am talking about both AoW and AoW2, as the same goes for both of these games. When making terrain, it's a good thing to think on and look at the best maps out there. I'm not saying that you should copy them, but just see how the mapmakers have used all the available terrain.
Use flowers, use all kinds of trees. Make little rivers here and there and great mountain ranges with vast forests. Or perhaps a nice little flowerly valley, with gentle hills and lakes where a small nation of halflings live.
It's all about how well you do the terrain, and make your ideas come alive. The first things most people do after downloading a map, is to open it with the editor, and see if the map is worth playing.
And the first thing they see, is the terrain. The best way to give a crushingly good first impression is to make the terrain as beautiful you can. It doesn't matter if it's grasslands or wasteland, as everything can be beautiful in the world of AoW. I make every little hex on my map as detailed as I can. I consider every hex , even if it would be somewhere the players will not get to see. That's me.
Make the kind of maps you will want to play yourself. I doubt any of us would want to play maps that have endless empty deserts with a few trees here and there. At least I won't.
So, a well-made terrain is the backbone of a good map. But of course if you want to make a great map, you'll need more, and that's when the story comes in. No matter if your map is for single play, or multiplay, the story is important.
Well I am not saying that if you make a small slugfest like map, that it needs some epic and dramatic storyline, but one thing is for sure, a background story can only make the map better.
I am only a decent storyteller, and that is why I like to ask other good people to write me a great story. Like Athendore again, I was lucky that a friend helped with it and wrote that wonderful story for my map.
Writing a good entertaining story is not very easy. Everyone is capable of writing a bit of background for their maps. But when it comes to something that can inspire people to play your map, then most of us may have some difficulty in that.
So don't be afraid to ask some of those good writers to help you. There are plenty of them around at AoW Heaven and Lifeline forums. But a story doesn't mean just the story at the beginning (the background of intro story). That also includes events and messages that the players will get while playing and exploring the map.
Signs are also important. A little city by some riverbank can become more interesting if you bother to place a little sign next to it and give the city a little description, or a bit of history perhaps.
These little things make the map seem more lively and interesting. This will lead to players wanting to see more of what's behind the next range of mountains, or across that great lake. You can never do too much when it comes to such things.
And last, but not least, are the custom made heroes and items. Most people don't see this as that important. But I do. There is nothing more boring than getting the same hero and items everytime you play a map.
Variety is good. I always delete all the default heroes and items, and make my own. It might be bit tedious, and take longer to finish the map. But the more items and heroes you make yourself, the better. I always make at least twice the amount the map will need. And when it comes to heroes, you really need lot of low level heroes. Sure, it's more fun to make those high level ones, but it's not fun if someone gets a hero who will turn into a killing machine in a mere few turns. Same thing with items, it's better to make more of those normal and weak items, rather than items that raises every stat to full and gives you a whole bunch of immunities...
When making a map, you can never be too patient. It takes time to make a good map. But it is really worth it, when you see that people really like the result of your efforts.
Q: How do you playtest your maps?
I do most of the playtesting myself. First, I play it in Hotseat style, so that I control all of the playable races. During that test, I use cheats so I can see everything. As soon as I find a bug, I go and fix it, so there is no chance I would forget it.
After testing it in Hotseat mode I play every race one by one, until I have gone through all of them. It takes time, but it has to be done. And that's not all. Even after all the playtesting, I go through my whole map in the editor and doublecheck everything. After all that, I might consider releasing my map.
Sometimes I might ask few friends to help me, but usually I don't. And it has worked well for me so far. I know what looks good and what works, and I know what doesn't.
Of course, everyone should playtest their own preferred styles. Some like to ask for beta testers at the forums which is one good way to test a map and get additional feedback from others. Or you can ask your real life friends too, but sometimes they just say things to make you happy, so it's best to ask those who can't look you into the eyes. ;) (Ed- the logic here being that it's sometimes hard to look into someone's eye and tell them that the map sucks.)
I don't need to tell you people what to pay attention to when playtesting a map. But I can tell you that this is very important part of map making. Playtest your map as much as you can, again and again, until there are NO bugs at all. No empty signs, no typos, nothing.
I have to admit that I usually miss a few spellings here and there, empty signs...ahh, but we are only human.
Screenshots and editing by Bluecollarheaven.