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  1. The more ‘open world’ video game environments get, the more navigational paraphernalia get foisted upon player shoulders. Maps, markers, checkpoints, radars, and HUDs persist on the screen and faithfully point towards where the game intends you to go next. There’s nothing wrong with map-based navigational aids: they streamline gameplay and provide helpful markers for posterity in truly open-world environments. But if we are to look at games as tools that foster exploration, immersion, and pattern identification (and we should), then overt navigational aids carry an air of spoonfeeding, at times disrespecting player intelligence and reducing challenge. One game franchise that doesn’t feature maps is the Uncharted series. Although these games are linear, the levels are still sizable and it’s easy to get lost or take wrong turns. But the players rarely do so. Naughty Dog brilliantly uses environmental cues to guide the player along its levels without them even realizing it half the time. Let’s look at the elements they use… Weenies This term was coined by Walt Disney and is in splendid effect in all Disney theme parks. Weenies are basically architectural or visual magnets that draw people towards them (usually towards where the park designer wants the to go). Magic Kingdom has Cinderella Castle. Epcot Center has Spaceship Earth. The Animal Kingdom has the Tree of Life. And so on and so forth. People can see these structures looming over their line of vision from anywhere in the park. They provide navigational grounding and a ‘place to go to’. They are always situated at the center of the park, so that people visit most of the attractions along the way as they head towards the weenie. All four Uncharted games use weenies regularly. There’s always some temple, castle, tower, or marketplace in the distance that your in-game partners point out at the beginning of the level, and that you spend most of the level traveling towards. French castle in Uncharted 3 Another Uncharted 3 weenie Tower in Uncharted 2 (I don’t know why the lights are still on) Radio tower weenie in Uncharted 3 Blinking light weenie in Uncharted 4 Island weenie in Uncharted 4 Naughty Dog have used weenies in their other magnum opus series, The Last Of Us, as well. Like dependable North Stars, these weenies successfully guide players lost in digital seas. Light In the book ‘100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People’, Susan Weinschenk writes about the importance of central and peripheral vision. As the first thing people see, central vision should ideally encompass the critical elements that the designer wants the player to see. Peripheral vision acts as a context-setter and validator of central vision; if the elements in peripheral vision are dissonant with those in central vision, the player’s mind jars and the designer-player communication link breaks down. The Uncharted games use light and central vision to their advantage. In levels with darkness (and some without), light is strategically placed in the player’s central vision as a marker for progress. For example, when you explore the cavernous London underground in Uncharted 3, floodlit tunnels point you forward. Like so Or when you’re breaking into a Turkish museum to ‘borrow’ a priceless lamp, light splattered on the walls highlight where Flynn plans to use his grapple rope. Naughty Dog definitely thought ahead These light-based markers are even more important in levels where speed is paramount, such as the flashback chase sequence in Uncharted 3. As young Nathan races up the stairs to a locked door, the camera angle brings a small window above the door (with light streaming from it) into focus, and players instinctively jump through it, congratulating themselves for a quick and smart choice. Little do they know of the deliberate design choice that made the choice for them. Color In the ‘100 Things…’ book, Susan Weinschenk also talks about a concept called chromostereopsis, the color combination in two-dimensional pictures that acts as a visual illusion and gives a perception of depth and contrast. Although the Uncharted levels are certainly not two-dimensional, color contrast is cleverly used to bring interactable objects into focus. Naughty Dog seem to be fans of yellow. In detailed levels where objects that can and cannot be ‘grabbed’ are tough to distinguish, yellow is usually a good indicator to take that leap of faith. For example, in the memorable opening sequence of Uncharted 2, yellow rails underneath the hanging train are more often than not the places you need to jump to. The pirate ship levels in Uncharted 3 are a veritable sea of yellow. The bars you’re on are yellow… …and so are the bars you jump to Here’s more… …and more The best place yellow came to my rescue was in these levels. In one particular stage, right after two long fight sequences that involved swimming and ship-jumping, I was stranded on a platform with no idea where to go next. I snooped around an oblong yellow bar, and lo and behold. I just had to push a crate attached to it so that it lowered and made a forward path. The yellow bar showed me… …the way forward Motion The eyes focus where they see motion. The Uncharted games use this trick fairly subtly, both as foreshadowing tools and navigational guides. In the Uncharted 2 opening, Nathan wakes up battered and bloodied on the seat of a train. He looks outside the window and sees snow whipping past it, sideways. Why sideways? Because the train is hanging off a precipice, as he finds out a second later. The motion of the snow is a great touch of detail that adds to the overall awe of this opening. ‘What…?’ is right Or take the previously mentioned flashback chase sequence in Uncharted 3. When young Nathan jumps onto a rooftop, suited goons cut off his path from the left. Where does he go? Barely visible on the first playthrough, a flock of birds take flight as soon as Nathan lands on the rooftop and flee towards the right. The players’ eyes follow instinctively and they turn Nathan right without even thinking about it. And of course that’s where they have to go. Using motion as a navigational aid Pretty neat. Affordances A final word on ramp-shaped aids that Naughty Dog use regularly in chase sequences. Player mental models are well developed enough to know that when they see a ramp, they move towards it and jump off it. Ramp-shaped stairs in Uncharted 4 Jump off the ramp and onto the lampposts Ramp during chase sequence There’s plenty more to dissect from each Uncharted game, but I’ll leave it here for now. Let me know if I’ve missed something out or got something wrong! References (for screenshots and content ideas) Game Maker’s Toolkit: Game Design Conference: MrSkillToKill2: *Note: This article is republished in full on Next Level Design with permission from the author. Source: Follow Abhishek Twitter: Medium: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord:
  2. A grenade explodes nearby (well, in the game you’re playing), sucking away all the sounds of the battlefield and filling your ears with a dull, manic ringing. You’re relieved when the aural effects of the grenade fade, allowing you to hear enemy shouts and gunfire as you scramble for cover. You now appreciate what you had before because it was momentarily taken away. Let’s talk about reduced stimulation in video games. /// All about affordance Game design, just like any other type of design, is predicated upon a strong relationship among affordances, signifiers, and feedback. While these are common terms in design-speak, I’ll establish a working definition of how I understand them below. Bear with me, because this is relevant to how reduced stimulation is used in games. Affordance: The possible ways (real and perceived) in which any object can be used. Affordances stem from an object’s inherent design and our own biases while interacting with similar objects in the past. A sidewalk presents the affordance of walking, standing, running, and more. To take a more video game example, a lever next to a door presents the affordance of being pulled and having an effect on the door. Signifier: Clues that enhance the affordances (or invalidate certain perceived affordances) of objects. It’s a designer’s job to place signifiers and minimize the distance between truth and perception for users. A ‘No Running’ sign on the sidewalk is a signifier that the sidewalk isn’t meant for running. A ‘Pull Me’ sign or blinking lights near the lever are signifiers that validate your initial assumption about the lever. Feedback: Reinforcement that you’ve used the object in the way it was meant to (or haven’t). Designers must account for consistent feedback so that users know they’re progressing in their journey. A fine for running on the sidewalk with the ‘No Running’ sign is feedback. A red glow and a closed door changing to a green glow and an open door when you pull the lever is feedback. Signifier and feedback. Video games function by guiding and teaching you to interact with the game world and objects as intended (through signifiers) and telling you when you get it right (through feedback). This is done through visual, audio, and mechanical clues. Essentially, stimulation. It’s interesting when games break from this convention and reduce stimulation to provide greater challenges, unique atmosphere, and more. Let’s see some ways in which games do this. /// Increased challenge Powerful enemies, tricky platforming, brain-busting puzzles, or anything else that demands precision and skill are conventional methods to increase challenge. A lesser used trope is reducing stimulation and forcing you to adapt without the help of the usual signifiers and feedback to oversee your path. Shovel Knight, an indie platformer, does this well in its Lich Yard level. This is how the level looks at the beginning: You’re comfortable with how the game works, the character moves, and the enemies attack. Visual and audio clues are present. The level might be challenging, but the stimulation isn’t tweaked. Then this happens: Lightning, please guide me. You have to deal with the level in pitch darkness, committing the world around you to memory as staccato lightning briefly illuminates the land. Jumping across platforms changes from perfunctory to treacherous. Look before you leap. For sure. Enemies hide in the blackness, begging to be overlooked. Skeleton in a dark closet. It feels like playing a completely different level, even though it’s not. It’s the video game equivalent of moving around the house with a blindfold and a flashlight. It’s important that the game doesn’t reduce stimulation to such an extent that it starts feeling unfair, however. And Shovel Knight doesn’t fall into that trap. New enemies and mechanics are always introduced in the light first. For example, you learn that you can shovel bushes into the air and use them as leverage for jumps at the beginning of the level. Later on, you’re tasked with doing the same thing beneath an inky sky. The Lich Yard level reduces stimulation to increase challenge but maintains a balance in doing so. You feel a loss of control but never a complete lack of control. /// Increased replayability Incentivizing players to go through game levels multiple times is almost always a good thing if done properly. It decreases game development costs as the same assets are used for multiple experiences. It increases the shelf life of the game. And it lets players measure their progress, marveling at how much they’ve improved since the first time they played a particular level. Replayability is usually encouraged through hidden collectibles, secret areas, optional objectives, and time-limits. But I demonstrated in the previous section, reducing stimulation can effectively change a level and entice repeat playthroughs. Rayman Legends, a zany Ubisoft collect-a-thon, employs this concept effectively. As end-game content, some Rayman levels have special ‘8-bit’ or low-res versions where the visibility is deliberately grainy and choppy, making the already precise platforming that much more difficult. So, a level that looks like this… …has an 8-bit version that looks like this… Honey, the antenna’s all screwed up again! The ‘8-bit’ level cannot be beaten without gaining mastery over the original level, knowing its every nook, cranny, beat, and jump. This encourages you to not just ‘pass’ every level, but gain an intimate understanding of its layout, your character’s jump-arcs and acceleration, and the exact enemy placements. I mean, how else can you beat this? Just like Shovel Knight, Rayman Legends isn’t unfair with its reduction of stimulation. You can beat the game without playing these ‘8-bit’ levels, so it’s end-game content meant specifically for completionists and advanced players. And while the ‘8-bit’ levels themselves might be merciless, you have a far more forgiving training ground to get your feet wet. Engaging pacing “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” - Alfred Hitchcock Apart from reducing stimulation in specific levels, games (especially story-based games) also dial-up and reduce stimulation periodically throughout their duration to keep the player engaged. If an action game, for example, is all high-octane payoff and no simmering build-up, it won’t hold the audience’s attention. The changing stimulation we’re talking about here is not the sporadic darkness of Shovel Knight or the messy static of Rayman Legends. It’s more often the stimulation of game mechanics that are varied to change the pacing and give players different things to do. Uncharted 2 is a great example of pacing done right in games. Each high in the story beat — whether it’s manic combat, speedy platforming, or bombastic set pieces — is bookended by the quieter lows of puzzle-solving or reflective exploration. Not exactly a sophisticated regression model, but still. A sequence in the mid-point of the game follows this sine-curve perfectly. After protagonist Nathan Drake hitches a ride on a train, you fight your way through bogeys full of armored enemies, hanging off the edges, dodging railway traffic signs, and even bringing down a helicopter. Peak. After the train crashes in the snowy mountains, Nathan is rescued by a Tibetan Sherpa and brought to a village. The relaxed stroll you take through the village is an ideal juice cleanse to contrast with the previous bloodbath. The sprint button literally doesn’t work during this section. You’re implored to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. Trough. Nathan then goes searching for secrets in the mountains with his new Sherpa friend. The stimulation ramps up slowly with some relatively easy platforming. Climb. A mini-peak is reached when a horned, hirsute horror-monster jumps from the shadows and charges at you, breaking the tranquility. Mini-peak. Once you’ve taken care of the menacing monkey man, the stimulation cools down again with some calm but visually stunning puzzle solving and platforming. Climb again. You eventually escape the cavernous ice and get back to the village, only to find that the bad guys have attacked with all their might. This is where the stimulation mirrors its crescendo from the earlier train sequence as you engage in battle with enemy forces. And a tank. Peak Everything in Uncharted 2 is over the top. The peaks have helicopters and tanks and are really peak-y. The troughs have massive puzzles and beautiful exploration and are still really stimulating. But within this heightened visual framework, game mechanics are used as the stimulational fulcrum to create an engaging narrative see-saw. /// Unique tone Genres in media — whether it be movies, books, or video games — are pretty much set in stone. One of the ways to differentiate your creation is to adopt a unique tone within that genre, a mix-and-match combination of elements that separates your work from its run-of-the-mill counterparts. Deadpool and Captain America: Winter Soldier are both superhero movies but their tones couldn’t be more different. One of the ways games can author a unique tone is (you’ve probably guessed this by now) by reducing stimulation and removing extraneous design elements to make players feel a particular way. For instance, Journey makes players feel a sense of smallness and wonder as they travel harsh lands at the mercy of fellow strangers by looking like this. Journey. No enemies, combat, or dialogue. Just huge swathes of empty sand with a mountain simmering in the distance. Expansive, serene, and unmindful of your presence. Moving from expansive to oppressive, games like Limbo and Inside are bleak, saturated in grey, and invoke shades of film noir in their presentation. Limbo Why is the tone and atmosphere of these games unique? I think one reason is our brain’s proclivity for storytelling. For millennia, the brain has remembered and passed on things in story form. It craves narrative coherence. So, just like the brain fills in gaps to produce a picture from disparate shapes, it also fills in gaps in what we’re seeing to form a story (a special left-brain function called ‘The Interpreter’ does this). So if a game deliberately has sparse visuals, non-verbal narrative, and layers of abstraction — reduced stimulation — we fill in the gaps. And each of us might fill in those gaps differently. If Uncharted 2 is Nathan Drake’s story, Journey is closer to our own story. Inside. *Note: This article is republished in full on Next Level Design with permission from the author. Source: Follow Abhishek Twitter: Medium: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord:
  3. I know I’m late to the Hollow Knight party myself, but if anyone out there still hasn’t played this magical arthropod adventure, do yourself a $14.99 favor and fall into Hallownest — you won’t regret it. And you do fall into it literally and otherwise; over 40 or so hours, as I descended down Hollow Knight’s subterranean realm of rain-soaked cities, cavernous sewers, and verdant gardens, so did my mind sink into perfecting its laser-precise combat system, deciphering its blink-and-miss story moments, and unraveling its interconnected worlds. The premise of Hollow Knight is simple and light on exposition. You’re a small skull-faced wraith armed with a nail and charged with exploring the decaying, sparsely inhabited kingdom of Hallownest where something has clearly gone wrong. And Team Cherry certainly kept the theme of exploration as a guidepost while designing the game. Here’s Ari Gibson, co-director of Team Cherry in an interview with PC Gamer: "A lot of these decisions we’re making, a lot of the scale and the rooms we build, all of it’s built around this sense of discovery. Exploration and discovery." In this article, I’ll be looking at how Hollow Knight crafts a navigation system that stays true to these themes of exploration and discovery by making players earn their progress in areas that are taken for granted in other games. /// Map-rotransactions Plentiful navigational aids are the norm in video games today, almost to a point where they’re counterproductive. It’s a tough tightrope to walk — provide too many map markers, waypoints, and HUDs and risk spoon-feeding players to the point of boredom, or provide too few aids and risk players banging their heads against dead-ends and cul-de-sacs in frustration. Hollow Knight breaks this navigational dilemma into individual components and essentially lets each player walk their own customized tightrope. Hollow Knight’s main navigational aids are a map, a compass to orientate the player, and pins/markers to highlight areas of interest in the map such as benches (which are checkpoints), stagways and tram stations (which are fast travel points), shops to buy and sell items, and so on. Prima facie, this sounds like a lot of navigational help, but they’re a final state that players have to work towards (if they so choose). When the game begins, you have no map, no compass or markers, nothing. Just you and your raggedy nail plummet down into The Forgotten Crossroads, the first big area of Hallownest, and start exploring. After some puttering about, you run into Cornifer, a cheerful cartographer that offers to sell you a map of the area. Find Cornifer in each area to access that area’s (incomplete) map. He mentions that a map alone will mean little and that his wife Iselda has a store in the village above ground that will help you make more sense of your surroundings. Find Iselda in Dirtmouth to fill in your map. It’s in this shop where you can buy a compass that tells you where you are on the map, a quill to fill in parts of the map you explore, and markers for areas of interest that can be placed on the map (either automatically or by the players). Menu of markers and pins that can be purchased for your map. Hollow Knight does a few things right here: It lets players choose the level of navigational support they want. If someone isn’t very skilled at mental models and spatial awareness, they can purchase every marker possible and have their map be a guiding light. If players are more confident of finding their way around (or if they just like the feeling of unforeseen dangers lurking around every corner), then they can choose not to purchase an area’s map from Conifer and go in blind. Even activating many navigational aids doesn’t make the game too easy to explore. The game does this by providing an incomplete ‘fog-of-war’ map from Cornifer every time — it’s up to players to fill it in. Any markers that are bought from the shop also only identify areas of the map where players have already been. So you won’t know bench locations in a new area in advance. Buying the bench pin automatically updates the map with bench locations (that you’ve already been to). Hollow Knight turns basic navigational questions (questions that are usually imperative for game design to answer accurately) such as… Where am I? Where am I? Where do I go from here? …into player-driven choices that require effort and sacrifice. It’s a game about exploration and discovery, after all. Exploration as a gameplay loop Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania, although Team Cherry wouldn’t necessarily apply that label. This roughly means: It has large interconnected areas filled with obstacles and power-ups. The player is able to access new areas by gaining these power-ups and getting stronger in the process. There’s a fair amount of ‘backtracking’ (going through the same areas twice) and getting lost. A simplified version of Hollow Knight’s main gameplay loop is shown below. Once players enter a new area, there’s usually a stiff test to overcome (either a boss battle or a platforming gauntlet) and a new player ability lies at the end of that test. Having gained the new ability, players can now access new areas by using that ability. For example, you enter the Forgotten Crossroads… …to ultimately fight the False Knight (a boss battle). After defeating the False Knight, you gain a new spell-casting ability… …and use this ability to defeat a hitherto invincible enemy… …that was blocking entry into the next area, Greenpath. While loops like this drive the overall narrative, Hollow Knight also has shorter, exploration-focused gameplay loops within each area to help instill a sense of progress as players move towards the end goal of that area. Hollow Knight’s shorter, exploration-focused gameplay loop. When you first enter an area, you don’t have a map for it because you haven’t met Cornifer the map-maker yet. So you explore away, relying on mental models as you succumb to the wonders of the next room and the room after that. All on your own. Hollow Knight never gives you anything for free, but that doesn’t mean finding Cornifer is a completely hit-or-miss exercise. The game provides signifiers of Cornifer’s presence in the form of a paper trail and the sound of him humming a merry tune to guide you along. There you are! Once you have your admittedly rudimentary map, you continue to explore, but this time with a completionist’s itch to turn the rough pencil-strokes of your current map into the high-definition exhibit of penmapship that it’ll undoubtedly become. Turn this… …into this. Apart from the signifiers to Cornifer’s location mentioned earlier, Hollow Knight makes another design choice that, in my opinion, is meant to encourage exploration and map-filling as a gameplay loop. Once you have an area’s map (and your quill), new areas explored will automatically be filled in whenever you save the game or die. This is a game that’s notoriously tough and follows some Dark Souls tenets like taking away all your Geo (currency) whenever you die and forcing you to go back to the location of your death to get it back. But while it takes away some progress as a punishment for dying, it lets you keep your map progress. It’s a stick-and-carrot balance that feels like the game’s telling you, “Yes, this is tough, but now you know what’s around the corner. Try again.” I don’t know what’s real anymore I strongly think that how “real” a game feels doesn’t depend on its graphical fidelity or accurate imitations of real life at all. A game feels “real” when it makes you believe in its setting (however conventionally unrealistic that setting may be) with in-world consistency and a sense of personality. It’s tough to put this exercise into some standardized ten-step process, but executing correct UI choices will usually make the cut. Hollow Knight combines two design considerations, one atmosphere-focused and the other gameplay-focused… Hallownest, a once-vibrant kingdom now swimming in its own detritus, would have had road signs to help travelers find their way. Players will need some guidance when they’re exploring new areas of the map. …by including in-game signs for benches, tram stations, stagways, and more. For example, once you’re in the Royal Waterways, the winding sewers beneath Hallownest’s main city, you soon see a picture of a bench scrawled with chalk on the wall. Time for some well-earned rest. Or if you’re mulling around in the Forgotten Crossroads, you see a sign with a bug and some tracks, leading you to a Stag Station that opens up fast travel to other areas of Hallownest. This sign… …leads to this. These signs are a good example of diegetic UI, which refers to UI elements that are part of the game world and can be seen by both you (the player) and the player-character. It’s not the right UI choice for every game, but usually hits the mark when it simultaneously helps players and builds a sense of consistency and depth in the game world. How Firewatch’s UI enhances immersion Hollow Knight is filled with bits of diegetic UI and signifiers. Almost every bench and fast travel point is earmarked with signs. A swordsmith you can visit near the City of Tears is signified with a sign and a series of failed swords strewn along your path. And your map itself is diegetic, since you physically acquire it within the game and update it with markers and tags that are also real within the game. The game doesn’t pause when you view this map , which is a small but important touch that makes Hallownest feel real. This article is not meant as design truism. Maybe the design choices mentioned above won’t work for your game, and maybe they didn’t work in Hollow Knight for you. But for me, exploring a game’s world has rarely been so organic yet authored, tough yet fair, and mystical yet real. For more stuff on game design, you can visit my Medium profile to read my other articles or follow me on Twitter. Thanks for reading! *Note: This article is republished in full on Next Level Design with permission from the author. Source: Follow Abhishek Twitter: Medium: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord:
  4. Titanfall 2 does so many things well. It has surprisingly robust character-building for a shooter, creating an endearing and believable camaraderie between pilot Jack Cooper and his iron giant buddy BT. Its single-player campaign is short, varied, and intense, packing more into 5 hours than most games do in 15. But perhaps the most impressive feat that Respawn Entertainment’s metal gnashing fun-fest has accomplished is unifying all of the game’s design systems to incentivize one core feeling: speed. For the uninitiated, Titanfall 2’s premise is simple. Militia rifleman Jack Cooper gets a pilot’s life foisted upon him after his mentor dies in battle, leaving Jack and his robot BT-7274 (the thing he ‘pilots’) to go on all manner of death-defying high jinks in an attempt to defeat the evil IMC. The game’s not winning any awards for its story, but you hardly pay attention to the occasionally hackneyed tale when the gameplay is so breathlessly enjoyable. Let’s take a look at how Titanfall 2 uses all the weapons in its game design arsenal to make being a pilot feel so fast. /// Movement For a game built around rapid motion as one of its lodestones, design decisions around player movement are critical, and Titanfall 2 hits it out of the park. The basic move set lays the foundation: the pilot can use his suit to double jump, wall run on vertical surfaces, slide on the ground, and cloak for short periods of time. But the game deliberately subverts industry design norms while implementing these features, incentivizing you to chain these forms of movement into an offensive orchestra during both platforming and combat. Wall runs: When the pilot wall runs, his speed increases with time. This encourages you to chain wall runs with other forms of movement, use wall runs to both attack and evade enemies, and, most importantly, look to start the next wall run as soon as the current one is done. You’re safest when you’re at speed, and wall runs (against conventional logic) help you gain speed. The level environments are also generously sprinkled with surfaces to wall run on, both during scripted story sequences and otherwise, leading you to find creative ways of downing enemies. Definitely more satisfying than a normal knife to the back Slides: Just like wall runs, when the pilot slides, his speed increases with time before coming to a stop. This, coupled with the long duration of a single slide, means that you can use this game mechanic as an offensive maneuver rather than just a retreat to find cover. Again, just like with wall runs, the sine wave of increase-then-decrease of slide speed makes you want to start the next slide that much sooner. The speed of a slide increases with time before coming to a stop Cloak: The pilot can cloak for a vanishingly small amount of time. Titanfall 2 — at least the single player campaign — is not a stealth game, so it was important not to unintentionally hand players a ‘safe’ combination of mechanics that could be used to finish most missions (think MGS Phantom Pain and the silenced pistol). The limited cloak time and the much longer time it takes for the ability to recharge means that you either use it to get out of a jam or to get a drop on unsuspecting enemies. But then the cloak is gone (at least for a while) and you’re back to the usual trapeze artist madness. Cloak in moderation is good for you Other nice touches like being able to change direction in mid-air during double jumps and choosing an ‘always be sprinting’ option from Settings also add to this fast, movement-chain friendly navigation. Enemies Not to diss any other shooters, but you know how enemies in many modern day FPS games are often the same basic unit with more armor and perhaps different weapons? When there’s minimal distinction between the various enemies you encounter, your mind naturally gravitates towards the single optimal way to defeat them. This leads to repetitive combat, which leads to an ultimately monotonous gaming experience. Titanfall 2 circumvents this trope wonderfully through the use of orthogonal unit differentiation. This design principle basically refers to multiple game elements having different functions, forcing you to adopt varying strategies and behaviors while encountering each element. Titanfall 2 has enemies that differ in their speed, damage quantity, and type of attack, and this makes you evolve and adjust with each enemy encounter. This very rudimentary graph highlights Titanfall 2’s enemy variety Grunt: The most basic enemy in the game, this unit is a foot-soldier with limited ability and intelligence. They have a hit scan attack, which means you can’t dodge their bullets when you’re in their sights. The grunt’s hit scan attacks Although individually not that dangerous, Grunts can be formidable in groups, will call for backup, and sometimes have shields that force you to navigate (again, at speed) around them for a hit. A grunt’s shield Stalker: This is a robotic enemy that differs from grunts enough for players to employ new strategies while fighting. They do more damage and are faster than grunts. Rather than just hang around, Stalkers come right at the player, forcing them to get out of cover and showcase that speed. They also have projectile weapons that can be dodged. A stalker comes right at you and hits you with projectiles Drones: These are flying robots that, just like Stalkers, are fast, come right at the player, and fire projectiles that can be dodged. But also, just like Grunts, they attack in groups. By combining bits of other enemies’ behavior, you have a completely new one that must be dealt in a unique manner. Groups of drones can be very frustrating to handle Prowler: Lizard creatures that are insanely fast and rush to bite and maul the player. I’ve categorized them in the graph as CQC or Close Quarters Combat. A different enemy in design and behavior, not just in graphical veneers and name. Prowlers can kill you in seconds if you’re not careful Tick: Robotic arachnids that make a beeline for the player before exploding. They have huge speed and damage, but from a tactical standpoint, their damage hurts other enemies too. If two of these go off in quick succession… I could go on and on, but the central thesis is this: when you’re in a massive arena with all these enemy types, the battle is almost like speed chess on steroids. Because there are enemies that rush directly at you, sniping them all away while sitting behind cover is useless. Because many enemies have projectile attacks that can be dodged, you feel confident jumping and sliding their way around them. And because each enemy has a unique set of attacks and behaviors, your mind (and your character) is whirring at mach speed as you make decisions while bunny hopping your way to victory. Level Design If these core mechanics weren’t enough, Titanfall 2 also has delightfully unique levels that are all geared towards making you take faster decisions and navigate the landscape quickly. So you will be time traveling in one level, taking on different enemy sets in both the past and the present… Best level ever …and jumping from wall to wall while also traveling through time. Ever Another level has you in a manufacturing facility, traipsing your way through the interiors as the level literally moves around you. Factory fun Two levels later, you’re armed with a retrofitted weapon that can move platforms and you basically create the level as your rush to your escape. What does this button do? Two things to note here: Although the themes of these levels are separate, they all feed into the central game feel of breakneck speed by making both navigation and combat faster and more challenging. The themes are abandoned after the levels are complete, preventing any feeling of drudgery or sameness and leaving you wanting more. /// Titanfall 2 is not a perfect game. There still are environments that feel similar and enemy encounters that make you think ‘I did something like this two hours ago’. But these foibles pale in comparison to its most towering success: the conceptualization and execution of a distinct game feel. A game feel of speed. You feel like a maverick pilot with a planet-hopping jumpsuit every second, from initial training to dramatic denouement. And all of the game’s systems — movement, enemies, level design, and more — coalesce with the aim of making you feel that way. Know any other games that have executed game feel successfully? Any other things in Titanfall 2 that I missed out? Let me know in the comments! *Note: This article is republished in full on Next Level Design with permission from the author. Source: Follow Abhishek Twitter: Medium: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord:
  5. I love watching Conan O’Brien’s ‘Clueless Gamer’ series. The lovable talk-show host plays the role of video game troglodyte to perfection as he ribs on the needlessly complex pretentiousness of many best-selling games. He rolls his eyes through long cutscenes, chuckles at often juvenile storylines, and hilariously struggles with the game controls. And he kind of has a point. Although not a problem for gaming enthusiasts, the litany of games with high production values, sequels-to-prequels, and story-heavy RPGs are difficult for casual gamers to just pick up and play. The tutorials comprise of walls of text or entire levels that teach you the button combinations and timing needed to conquer that dungeon or find that lost city. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that. But it’s just not conducive to casual play. In this post, we’ll look at a level that serves as a game tutorial with understated brilliance: Level 1–1 in Super Mario Bros. This game is from a time where console wars and Let’s Plays were definitely not part of everyday life. It thus had to be very easy to pick up and play while also being challenging and hard to master. Super Mario Bros. walked that tightrope with elan. Without further ado, letsa go... /// The Opening Screen As soon as you start the game, this is what you see: Pretty standard stuff, right? While it seems quite simple, a deeper look reveals the beads of design sweat poured into this screen: Firstly, the opening screen is devoid of any danger, allowing the player to experiment with Mario’s basic controls and get a feel of what the game is about. This is far removed from, say, the Uncharted games where Nathan Drake usually starts the game hanging from a derailed train, battling pirates on boats, or in bar fights. Awesome as these games are, there’s something calming about starting the game simply and allowing players the freedom to mess around. Secondly, the screen positions Mario on the left with lots of empty space on the right. These design choices help create an affordance and subtly tell the player to move right. Note: Affordance refers to the possibility of an action on an object or the environment. For example, a sidewalk presents the affordance of standing, walking, and running. The fact that Mario stays on the center of the screen for the rest of the game makes his opening positioning on the left even more pronounced. Mario stays in the center of the screen for most of the game… …except in the opening screen It should also be noted that video game budgets weren’t the bottomless pits they are now, and the common elements used for both the bushes and the clouds speaks to Nintendo’s resourcefulness. Boxes and Goombas As Mario plows forward, he is greeted by things both intriguing and intimidating: Once again, there’s much more going on beneath the surface. The properties assigned to each element help differentiate friend from foe in the player’s mind: Let’s look at the box first. It’s stationery and suspended in the air, piquing curiosity rather than raising haunches. It’s also glowing and emblazoned with a huge question mark. These are signifiers that scream: interact with me, I have a surprise for you. And since the player has already used the left and right touch pad controls, the next logical control to use is the up button to make Mario jump into the box and reveal a coin. Note: Signifiers are signals that communicate the methods of interaction possible with an object or the environment. In a way, affordances are assumptions (stemming both from our past experiences and the object’s design) of what interactions are possible, and signifiers are explicit clues that either validate, invalidate, or enhance those assumptions. From the sidewalk example, a sign reading ‘No Running’ is a signifier indicating that the sidewalk is only for standing and walking. Signifiers are also majorly at play when we look at the Goomba. Unlike the stationery box, the Goomba is traveling towards the player. Unlike the glowing question mark that generates curiosity, the Goomba has an angry face that marks it as a potential threat. And just like with the box, the most obvious mode of interaction to vanquish the Goomba is to jump on it. And if the player doesn’t get this, runs into the Goomba, and dies: not much of a problem. The game is restarted to a point just a few screens before, and this time the player is wiser about the course of action. This short cycle of engagement allows the player to learn the basic controls quickly without inducing frustration. And don’t get me wrong, Mario can be a frustrating game at times. But the player has already learned the basic mechanics by that time. It’s as if the game is saying: okay, now that you know what I’m about, show me what you can do. It’s a frustration that makes the player more eager to beat the game, as opposed to making the player rage quit. The joy and inevitability of mushrooms Once the Goomba has been dispensed with and the player knows what to do with boxes, the game delivers its next surprise: Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto said that he chose a ‘suspicious mushroom’ to make Mario bigger as he thought it was a symbol that would be globally understood. While the signifiers here are a bit more muddled, there are still enough teaching points for the player to imbibe. First, unlike the Goomba that moved towards the player, the mushroom goes right, perhaps giving the impression of getting away from the player and automatically making it more attractive. Second, it falls down from the platform, teaching the player that gravity affects some objects (like Mario and the mushroom) and doesn’t affect others (the boxes and platforms). Third, it hits the green pipe and comes towards Mario, an early lesson in how objects interact with each other in this world. If the player learns this quickly, he/she won’t be surprised to see enemy patrols bookended by pipes later on in the level. This is an early lesson… …to teach this Now, as the mushroom comes towards Mario, the players have two choices, right? Either read the signifiers and run into the mushroom, or give into distrust and jump over the mushroom. But no, the game only gives the illusion of choice here. Whatever the player’s feelings about the mushroom, Mario will run into it. If the player tries to jump over the mushroom, Mario will still bounce off the underside of the platforms and fall into the mushroom. Every single time. If Mario tries to jump over the mushroom… …he will fail And once Mario falls into the mushroom and becomes bigger, the player knows for sure that these particular mushrooms are friends, not foes. The level design here makes up for the questionable signifiers and ensures that players get the benefit of mushrooms and experience the joy of powering up. Teaching through safe training The last point we’ll look at in this post is how Super Mario Bros. teaches players its mechanics by first having them practice it in a safe environment before upping the ante. This is a recurring trend in many levels, and indeed many future Mario games. For example, there’s a series of pipes of increasing length in the first level. This section teaches the player that holding the jump button for longer makes Mario jump higher. And if the player takes time to learn this, fine. There’s solid ground between the three pipes instead of the gaping ravines that follow. There’s minimal punishment for taking time in learning the controls. Teaching Mario how to jump higher Almost immediately afterwards, there are two pyramid-like objects that Mario has to jump over. If the player fails, there’s solid ground between the objects and the exercise can be repeated. Once the player learns this skill, the two pyramid-like objects are repeated, but this time with a pit in between them. Failure will be costlier now, and that’s okay. The rules are on the table and skills are being tested now. That’s what makes the game fun but not frustrating. Learn here… …before applying it here There’s so much more to learn from each Mario level, but this post is already prohibitively long so I’ll end it here. Let me know if I’ve gotten anything wrong (I’m learning too, after all) and share any other examples of great game tutorials that you can think of! References (for some screenshots as well as content ideas): Extra Credits: Eurogamer: nesplay: Source: Follow Abhishek Twitter: Medium: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord: