The Three-Tile Rule

Sorry, you hip cats, but I didn’t have time to finish the LP post I was working on. (For the reason why, please refer to yesterday’s post title.)

But that’s okay. I’ll take this time to make fun of the RPGMaker community a little bit.

As you may or may not be aware, folks don’t draw their own graphics for their RPGMaker games. Most of the time their graphics are ripped wholesale out of existing commercial RPGs, especially from the SNES era. 16-bit graphics fit that nice sweet spot between “looks nice” and “easy to work with” that the higher-res graphics of later RPGMaker engines lack, and as a result, there are a lot of RPGMaker towns out there that look suspiciously like the ones in FF6.

Since everyone was pulling from the same pool of graphics, RPGMaker communities needed some other metric to determine which games had good visuals. So they concocted a series of rules which, if followed, would produce a nice-looking game. And which, if ignored, meant your game looked like a steamy pile of hey-hey. Of these, my favorite was the three-tile rule.

The three-tile rule was very simple. When drawing your maps, you had to make sure that no wall or flat space existed more than three tiles long. The fourth tile had to jut out, or switch directions, or cut inwards. The result, as written in scripture, was a more natural-looking environment. Nothing in nature is perfectly straight.

Overnight, every location in every new RPGMaker game started taking on this jagged, zig-zag appearance.

On its face, I think the rule is fine when applied appropriately. For an average outdoors-y dungeon, the three-tile rule might be a good yardstick to rap on the knuckles of laziness. Instead of a straight forest path, you’d be forced to stick a few trees or rocks in. Instead of a starkly narrow valley, you’d have the rocky terrain widening and narrowing in places. Deftly used, a guideline like “no straight edges for four tiles” might be a good addition to a mapmaker’s toolbox.

However it was applied, though, games were judged as though the three-tile rule were a holy commandment issued from on high by a big bearded dude who flings thunderbolts. People would mock otherwise beautiful-looking mountainsides because of a few straight edges. Straight coastlines were maligned. Eventually, artificial constructs like walls, houses and castles came under the hammer. (Although at that point the rule was perhaps being applied ironically. Impossible to tell.)

The harsher problem, in my opinion, was that some makers were applying the rule to games it should not have applied to, out of a desire to fit in. FF6 has nice, organic-looking caves and rivers, yes yes, and so everyone was trying to be FF6. But not every game is FF6. FF6’s dungeons are sterile and lifeless, devoid of moving parts or puzzles. The gameplay happens in combat, where your characters exhibit a huge variety of abilities, strengths and weaknesses to explore. Making the maps visually interesting is a good way to pave over your mediocre dungeons.

But then you had games like Zelda: A Link to the Past, or Lufia II, or Golden Sun, or any of the Quintet RPGs. Maps in these games were blocky and cartoonish, built more like playgrounds than real-world locations. Which was a good decision, considering the design of those games called for very action-packed locations. You move pieces around, interact with the environment, position bad guys. These games use their blocky visuals as shorthand for the player’s ability to immediately see the exact position of every screen element.

And then you have an entire class of games, such as EarthBound and Dragon Quest, which are simply aiming at a different style of aesthetic. Does anyone really think EarthBound would have been better if the maps were more “organic”?

That’s really my broader point here: no matter how useful or ubiquitous your rule might seem, there are always reasons to break it. Some rogue scholar is going to come along and post a comment like “what about a rule saying everything in a game should be fun?” — and yes, I mean that too. Some people derive enjoyment from successfully completing long, trying tasks which, in and of themselves, are not individually fun. Millions of people pay Blizzard $15 a month for the opportunity.

And so, for a while, the RPGMaker community produced a lot of games which were mostly forgettable, but very well-received on the basis of not having any straight edges… at least until the next New Rule came along.

“But Brick! Maybe you’re not as smart as you think you are!”

Smart? Who ever said anything about smart? In fact, let me tell you how smart I’m not. Last night at work I was prepping a stack of envelopes. The following day someone would stuff these envelopes with pedometers (not fun ones, like Pok√©walkers; just boring hospital-flavored pedometers), stamp postage on them, and send them out the door. My job was to apply address labels to them and then put a post-it on top indicating what was supposed to go inside.

But I’m not smart, so instead of writing “PEDOMETERS” on the post-it, I wrote “PEDOBEAR”.

I stared at it for a few moments trying to figure out what wasn’t right about it. Then I threw the post-it away and tried again. An hour or so later, walking past the stack on an unrelated task, I looked down and noticed the second post-it also read “PEDOBEAR”.

I am confident I got it right the third time.

12 comments to The Three-Tile Rule

  • The RPGMaker community doesn’t understand level design? COLOR ME NOT SURPRISED.

    As you said though, it’s not a terrible little thing to keep in mind “Hm! This is awfully straight! Should I do something?”. Though I think it probably should more be the rule of 4 or 5. Or the “3-5 tile Rule”. I think you can look at those FF4 screen shots a post down to see the rule doesn’t hold up. I’d actually argue that “3” doesn’t give you enough space to have a significant amount of spacial variety. That basically puts 3 tools in your tool box for defining spaces.

    Brick I’m sorry so many people in that community are compositionally challenged.

  • narcodis

    Yeah, I always thought the 3-tile rule was pretty stupid. There are/were alot of stupid people who use RM, though.

  • MJG

    It’s been a good 9-10 years since I’ve had any connection to the RM community, but it sounds to me like very little has changed. The one thing I very distinctly remember from back then was the way that games were judged almost entirely on how fancy you could could get within the confines of the RM2K engine. Have a custom battle system, a custom menu system, a DDR-style mini game? A+! Have a well thought out story, carefully balanced battles, and the default battle system? C- at best, newb. Drove me nuts.

  • Solitayre

    I can’t wait for everyone to come out and vehemently defend their right to use rips, too.

  • Kadj

    I’m impressed that three comments went by without anyone wondering why “pedobear” is strong enough in your mind to slip up.

    You have a point though. About the three-tile rule I mean. I like hearing your RPG Maker-related commentary; it helps me think a little harder about my game design opinions.

  • Issun

    I came as soon as I heard!

  • LouisCyphre

    Where else but Scibbe will you see “Tags: game design, pedobear”?

  • WIP

    I am hoping to see the pedobear tag used much more frequently.

  • Metal Man Master

    Every time you make a post about the RPG Maker community, it gives me more and more reasons to never become part of that community. The Three-Tile Rule is perfectly fine as a guideline for making better background designs, but it’s nothing people should be total dicks over.

    Heck, some of my favorite games do the equivalent of taking some gated community’s rules and throwing them in the wood chipper. Riviera: The Promised Land was one of my favorite RPGs in years because it mixed things up, going for a somewhat bizarre blend of RPG, visual novel, and QTE game. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I like it when RPGs try things outside the box.

  • Rosewood

    As someone firmly at the “player” end of the player/designer spectrum, this post was interesting to me. Imagining how I might go about designing a RPG castle, for example, I came up with a few things:

    –give the player something to do in several of the rooms. Don’t bore them with a bunch of empty spaces, give them the sense that there’s a purpose to exploring it thoroughly
    –have a secret or two, to make the player feel cool discovering them
    –color the castle in a way that suits its role in the game, i.e. a monster citadel being colored differently from the castle of a peaceful kingdom

    I can understand the spirit behind this particular community-mandated law, but not the notion of applying it universally and mercilessly. If you make a castle that follows the three-tile rule and makes your player quit out of boredom, you’ve still made a bad castle.

    And as for the pedobear thing–well–golly.

  • Drifloon

    I think you’re absolutely right that any attempt at an eternal ‘rule’ of game design is destined to fail from the get-go. Different games work by different rules.

  • Kalaina

    I’m crawling your blog, so this is about two years late, but I wanted to comment anyway. Maybe you’ll even read it (if you have a notification system about comments)!

    I was at one point a kinda-sorta-almost member of the RM community – I find game design fascinating and my inclination toward programming made me rather good with RM itself, and yet I never honestly tried making a game. I can’t tell you why now, but I was there to play games because there were gems to be found and they were free and easy to get. That low cost of entry is nice when you like RPGs enough to care about RPG Maker, yet end up hating most of the ones you play for one reason or another (commercial or otherwise).

    My point is that I don’t think I ever really understood the whole “everyone is making games and cares more about making games than playing games” thing until now. The point where it’s more about the process and the tool and less about actually making and playing games that are enjoyable, and even when playing games people are critiquing their construction.

    But reading some of the things you have to say now, it makes a lot more sense, and I think I can finally understand why you discontinued your reboot of Kinetic Cipher. To summarize what I think about KC in a few lines, I have never in my life played an RPG so charming. The game is absolutely dripping with delightful charm, down to every single treasure chest. And I’m just talking flavor, because on top of all that charm are excellent battle mechanics and, of course, the amazingly well-constructed puzzles.

    In short, what you did with KC(A) is utterly beautiful, and were there more of it, it would easily rank among a list of my favorite games. At one point you made a comment about how you would love it if someone lowballed your game with a minimum of XP, and I did – up until the slime boss when I was actually too underlevelled to beat it because you made too many of the battles technically skippable and I thus didn’t have enough XP to actually know a multi-hit spell.

    With that said, you are absolutely right that your game did not get the attention it deserved, and I think coming from the standpoint of the RM community was the cause of a lot of that. But the RM community isn’t a group of gamers so much, and KC didn’t get enough people playing it and appreciating it on its own merits, which is what any game deserves.

    And it contributes to the whole mindset of RPG Maker as something more than just a platform for making games. It SHOULD simply be a tool, no more than any programming language, but I think that by-and-large RM games are all seen as coming from the same tree.

    It seems that there’s just a lot that’s unfortunate about RPG Maker and its associated community, and I’m really sorry that your game was a victim of that (and I know your concerns go beyond what happened with KC). But I hope you can take some solace in having at least one fan who still appreciates your work, so many years later, even if you’re now done with the idea of making games.

    Now to find out if there’s any possibility at all that this wall of text is going to actually make it onto your comments.

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