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In the third installment of his Action Adventure Level Design series, Lara Croft creator Toby Gard examines how the design process should incorporate discussions of pacing, structure, and mood -- and how leads can hone their feedback to the team to make it all work. Part 1 described how to create a Level Flow Plan to hand off to the level team. Part 2 described a variety of tools to help turn those Level Flows into detailed, immersive and interesting levels plans. By the end of the process described in the last article -- building through fiction -- you will most likely have a mixture of paper maps, written stories, detailed flowcharts, concept art and possibly some 3D mockup spaces, depending on how each level team prefers (or has been instructed) to represent their plan. Those levels will have taken shape in surprising and unexpected ways. Levels that we had assumed to be straightforward action levels may have revealed rich veins for puzzles, and many levels are likely to have prompted ideas that fall outside of the current game mechanics.Evaluating the Big PictureTo structure their feedback, the creative leads need to validate all level plans in relation to each other. Because the levels are likely to be pretty complex, it is useful to create a simplified representation of the whole game so that you can assess the pacing and emotional consistency of the experience.Extraction of MechanicsThe first step we need to take is to identify all of these special case interactions and ideas that the level teams have come up with while fleshing out the level plans. Inevitably they will be some of the coolest in the game: Ken Kong falls down a 30 story lift shaft, doing frantic mid-air kung-fu until there is a pile of zombie bodies beneath him thick enough for him to survive the drop. It sounds awesome, but the fight system simply cannot accommodate this "fall fighting" mechanic, so the level team has suggested it as a cutscene.In a couple of other levels, Ken Kong has to destroy some walls and the level teams have proposed different McGuffins to allow him to do this, such as a convenient, precariously balanced heavy object that will break through the wall if triggered.It is this list of ideas that can produce the neat and original game mechanics that will set your project apart from everyone else's. By promoting ideas that have the flexibility to be expanded into the core mechanics and peppering them throughout the game, we can create a richer more coherent overall experience.For example:How could destroying walls become a reusable mechanic? Would it require a consumable, or is it a readily available ability? How rich of a vein is it to be tapped for more applications? Does it have synergy with other player abilities?Let's say that we can integrate destroying walls with a new survivor type, a demolitions expert, who carries around explosives that can be put to all sorts of uses, but who also explodes when attacked by a zombie -- potentially taking out a large proportion of your crowd. This could make for an interesting risk/reward mechanic and with some standard "explodable" barriers and/or enemies could be used in several levels.Perhaps the "fall fighting" could also be used on several levels, but this seems more like a mini-game than a new mechanic. While the idea is interesting, the question is, could you make the gameplay deep enough to justify three or four "fall fighting" sequences throughout the game? It potentially seems like a large investment for too small a gain, but if we could make it work, it would be really cool.These mechanics are generally gold, because they were not forced into the game design from a desire to tick boxes based on competitive products, but were discovered organically through an exploration of its unique themes and the thoughtful exploration of its world.Once we have integrated the new mechanics and rejected or noted all the new set pieces, we will have adapted the character to live in this more clearly defined world and gathered a major part of the information needed to give feedback to the level teams.Gameplay Types Most games have a basic mixture of elements. For instance, an FPS might have 70 percent shooting on foot and 30 percent vehicle combat.If every level in the game had exactly that mixture of gameplay, it would get dull for the player pretty quickly. But if you have levels that are entirely on foot, interspersed with a few levels that are predominantly or entirely involving vehicles, then they will act as palate cleansers, changing up the experience enough to keep players interested.A great example of a game that keeps the player constantly interested is Half-Life 2. Almost every level has a new central theme, whether it's a new weapon, a new vehicle or a new type of enemy, your experience changes dramatically every thirty minutes or so.By looking at the mix of gameplay types over the course of the game, you can isolate points where the experience might be too flat.Example: KFZKLet's carry on with the imaginary game Kung Fu Zombie Killer, discussed in depth the last installment. The variety of gameplay in that design comes from the types of survivors that you rescue.• With doctors, you could have a level where your goal is to heal injured survivors.• With forklift truck drivers, you could have a level where heavy equipment has to be taken to a particular location in order to progress.• With engineers, you could have levels that included traditional puzzle elements.• With soldiers, you could have a level where your crowd actually does most of the fighting for you.• And so on.Let's assume these were the locations we settled on for the levels:• Dojo• Hospital• Building site• Army base• Power station• Police station• Supermarket• Town hall• College campus• Cinema• TV station• Office blockWe know from the story that the game has to start in Ken's Dojo and that it has to end with camera men filming Ken as he rescues jenna126xyz.We have goal mix of 80 percent fighting, 20 percent puzzles for the whole game and we had ordered things like this: But during the detailing phase two things happened. (More likely a massive number of things would have changed, but let's keep it relatively simple.)First, someone came up with a really cool teacher survivor who can put zombies to sleep by lecturing them, which changes the gameplay mix at the college to involve more puzzles.Second, someone has proposed changing the cinema into a film studio, whereby the zombies and the survivors can be based on clichés like Wild West or Godzilla films. People are very excited about this idea and enough crazy mechanics have come from it to justify potentially splitting it into two levels.Consequently things are now looking a little less balanced and we have one too many levels: We have found enough new mechanics that we can nearly introduce a new mechanic every level. By cutting the supermarket and moving the power station a bit earlier we can adjust the level order to create a better gameplay rhythm: This can still be improved; we can look to either find a new survivor type that can be added to the town hall level, or we can try to replace it with something else that gives us more opportunities to do so.Mood MapThere are potentially a host of emotions you will want the player to experience over the course of the game. The main character may experience things like unrequited love, revenge, sadness, and anger. These sorts of emotional events are important to track but they are not as important as the overall emotional tone or mood that you want the player to experience.By "mood", I mean a basic emotional concept that can be passed to the audience. So panic, fear, trepidation, awe, and excitement would be considered moods, while higher order conceptual emotional themes such as revenge, jealousy, or nihilism would not be.Generating the mood map has two purposes. It is used to assess that the level order and content will not interfere with the emotional journey of the player but more critically it is a fundamental tool for aligning the whole development team towards creating a holistic experience.For instance, let's say that the story of Ken Kong will go like this: Ken fights his way across the city saving the loved ones of his crush, but it takes him so long that by the end when he reaches her, she has been bitten and become a zombie herself.If I define the mood map like this: Kick-arse awesomeness - farcical chaos - mounting triumph - dark comedy• Art will keep things bright and well lit.• Animation will tend towards outrageous over the top stylized action.• Music and sound effects will tend towards fast-paced and comical.• Designers will feel free to be more game-y in UI game design decisions.By defining the moods specifically over time you will guide the whole team more precisely than you might imagine. For instance "mounting triumph" implies a growing crescendo. It is likely to encourage a ratcheting up of music intensity, increasingly outrageous level end victory animations, and a general tendency to try to up the pacing each level.While you probably assumed that the tone of KFZK would be defined as something like "zany", the act of stating it over time has a dramatic impact on the whole development.For instance, if I instead define the mood map for the whole game like this: Panic - horror - increasing trepidation - tragedyEvery aspect of the game will be completely changed by this mood map:• Art will create darker dirtier spaces; they will light the levels with flickering pools of light and dress it with increasingly disturbing stories.• Animation will tend towards realism and will avoid any movements at might be construed as funny.• Music and sound effects will be disturbing.• Designers will try to keep UI and other design elements realistic and invisible.With exactly the same game design, these two mood maps would generate utterly different gaming experiences. When the whole team embraces the mood map and diligently tries to express it in all the assets and creative decisions they make, the mood will be successfully instilled into the player.What normally happens, though, is that every team member has a slightly different idea of what mood or tone the game should be creating, and rarely any idea at all of what mood the player should be experiencing at any given point in the game. Is it any surprise that most games fail to move people, when the development team are all communicating slightly different messages?The mood map can be as simple as the above four stage progressions, or it can be as detailed as putting several mood chunks into each level. It is worth bearing in mind that literally no story-based game has only one mood. Even horror games oscillate between building tension and outright terror.Once you have the gameplay types laid out and the moods defined you can see how the current level plans fit together. In our case we have puzzle levels late in the game that are clearly going to slow the pace where we want people to be experiencing "mounting triumph." By reordering levels, or shifting ideas from one level to another, we can better support the emotional goals: Luckily KFZK's level order is very flexible, but most games are not. In most cases the answer is to give feedback to the individual level teams to try to reach the desired mood and gameplay mix.While the above example is probably not the best order, or even the best mood map, the point of the exercise is to try to force yourself into examining the entirety of the plan so that feedback on each level is given relative to its place in the whole experience.Block Mesh and PrototypeThe next step is to start building the levels in 3D, and I argue that the best people to do that are artists, not designers, if you want believable and interesting spaces. Block mesh should validate whether the level as planned will fit into the technical and production limitations while demonstrating that they can be compelling enough spaces.As these levels are prototyped, inevitably things will end up being slightly different than planned. Designers will adapt their plans based on the art, so throughout the block mesh and prototype phase, the leads have to continually update the game rhythm chart and validate the levels within the context of the mood map.By continuing to extract new mechanics that arise from the block mesh phase and staying open to level re-ordering you can continue towards a balanced game plan without restricting the creative process of the level builders.Final planAll the information gained by building the block mesh should have refined the game design significantly.• A final Mood Map has been created that will inform all asset creation.• New mechanics have been defined and inserted into all relevant levels.• Levels have been reordered and massaged to create the desired pace and mood.• Memory budgets have been validated.• Weak level plans have been cut.• Player abilities have all been prototyped and final metrics defined.Once all the levels are prototyped and one level has been polished to act as a vertical slice, production can begin from a very solid basis. *Note: This article is posted on Next Level Design with permission from the authorSource: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/133829/action_adventure_level_design_.php?Follow Toby:Website: www.focalpointgames.comTwitter: https://twitter.com/mechabadger
This is the second part of a three part series of articles dealing with level design in action adventure games. Part 1 described Level Flow Diagrams, that act as the core of the level brief provided to a team by the Leads. Part 2 describes a process of expanding that brief into a detailed level plan. This stage of the process is most often carried out by a cross-discipline team of designers, artists and coders, who will expand the level brief into a detailed level plan, but this process can equally be the next step that an individual designer takes when designing a level solo. A Note on CollaborationDelegation and teamwork are vital given the scale of modern console development. Without them, leads become bottlenecks that slow development and sap motivation.The current trend is towards agile development whereby scrums are given ownership of individual problems. This has many advantages over the old waterfall methodology, but there is one pitfall to watch out for with peer-only teams.If a group of peers go into a room with the goal of making design decisions, the tendency won't be towards a design that everyone loves, but rather towards the design that everyone least hates.The psychology goes this way:1. Person X suggests a new idea that he thinks might be mint. It's not a complete idea yet, but he believes it has a kernel of goodness that could make for a unique piece of gameplay.2. Persons Y and Z who have not seen anything like this idea before quickly point out all the flaws in the idea.3. Person X, whose idea still needs nurturing, responds defensively, firing off hastily-thought out solutions that people also don't like.4. The idea is shut down and the group moves on. If person X brings it up again, people are going to think he is beating a dead horse.5. If person X brings it up again, people are going to think he is beating a dead horse.6. Next, Person Y suggests something that he has seen in a game before.7. Person X and Z both remember that being pretty mint in that other game, and they know it can be done, which means low risk.8. Everyone feels good as they write the tired, overused mechanic/scenario up on the whiteboard.9. Repeat.There is little to no way to get vision from a peer-only group unless they have worked together long enough that they are all on the same wavelength.There are two potential solves to this:1. Separate brainstorm and decision meetings.2. Employ a group design method I tested at Crystal Dynamics called a "The Thunderdome" (as coined by Mr. Ron Rosenburg.)Thunderdome!A "Thunderdome" gives each member of the level team the same deadline to propose a complete, individual solution to the entire design problem (in this case a paper map.) Once that (tight) deadline is up, the whole level team comes together and shows their individual solutions to their teammates, and everyone discusses the pros and cons of each one in a respectful way.Then the team (and the lead) cherry picks the best ideas from all the proposals and merges them into a unified team plan.This is the equivalent of forcing lateral thinking techniques in an individual. Humans naturally solve problems by brainstorming solutions until they find one that works, at which point they generally stop thinking about the problem. Lateral thinking techniques push us to go beyond that first working answer and try to find three to five more, to see if there is a better solution out there before moving on.When each individual in a "Thunderdome" creates their own solution, I guarantee that none of them will be the same, and the group will have multiple working solutions to pick from instead of one compromise solution. Of course this is not in the agile way -- which probably makes me a heretic who must be burned or something.Stage 2, Building Through FictionWith the Level Flow Diagram in hand, the next stage is to fill in the details.Architecting the level through storiesThis is the time to explore the level's stories because from them, the juiciest parts of the level's design will emerge.Regardless of the narrative of the game, each level has the potential to tell many layers of its own background story. Even an empty office has the potential to tell little stories that transform it from a dull set of plain rooms into a real place through artfully placed builder's tools, scrounged furniture, used cups, and discarded rubbish.But the real power of level stories has nothing to do with set dressing; it is in their ability to provide you with context-relevant gameplay scenarios that the story-based method really shines.To make the level real to the player though, first it must be real to you.A Cautionary Aside: Gather and Study ReferenceI would argue that the power to immerse the player, to absorb his attention completely, is the common attribute of the greatest and most successful games.Gathering and studying reference is critical to creating immersion for the player. It is something that the entire team should do, not just the artists.Everyone stores simplified constructions of reality in their mind; schemata that codify the critical features of the world around us. We use our schemata to recognize and interpret everything we experience.We also use those same simplified representations of reality to recreate it through art. Because no two people use precisely the same critical features to build their schemata, every person's art has a unique look, filtered through the lens of their uniquely simplified representations of reality.While schemata allow us to rapidly process the deluge of information we receive each day, they come with the cost of a blindness to data that does not fit with them. That data gets stripped away and left unprocessed. Because we rely on them constantly, we tend to trust them implicitly.But the fact that no two people have precisely the same schemata is all the clue we should need to realize that they cannot be trusted at all.When we are creating worlds in games, immersion is only possible for the player if we can convince the players that the space is authentic (whether stylized or not.) If the critical features on screen don't match up with the critical features of the player's schemata, then he or she will not be fooled by it.So as game makers we must have really precise schemata to convince the widest selection of players.When designers or artists rely on their standard schemata to judge their own creations, they are mistakenly assuming that others will judge their work using similar standards as they do. This can be particularly egregious when people from one country try to reproduce locations from another. American dumpsters sitting in the back streets of Paris or French road signs on the streets of Chicago might seem acceptable to the developers because they do not mismatch with their very simple schemata of those distant locations, but these contextually inappropriate placements will be laughably inaccurate to people really familiar with those places.Given that games are released worldwide, it is difficult to overestimate the damage to audience immersion and perception done by poorly researched levels for a large percentage of your audience. Remember, it's your worldwide reputation on the line.Case Study: Kung Fu Zombie Killer!!Blurb: When the living dead smash up his martial arts studio, Wu Shu master Ken Kong must punch, kick and chop his way through the zombie apocalypse while gathering humanity's remaining survivors on his quest to save the You Tube celeb of his dreams. Style:'70s exploitation movie visual themes mixed with a Japanese anime-inspired visual language. Highly stylized over-the-top combat, unrealistic physics, fun gaming conventions reign over realistic game rules. Street Fighter meets Pikmin in this zombie-filled romance beat 'em-up. Game Pillars:Fluid Environmental Kung FuThink Jackie Chan: Ken Kong picks up and uses everything around him to dispatch his zombie foes.Whether he is slamming doors into their faces, or ripping off one zombie's arm to bludgeon another to death, Ken Kong's simple multi-lock, rhythmic fighting system turns combat into a bloody storm of body parts and flailing fists.Protect the survivors!As Ken Kong saves the living from the living dead, they join the crowd that follows him, urging him on to greater feats of martial prowess. Different types of survivors can either bolster Ken Kong's abilities or can be applied to tasks throughout the game:Police - Shoot any zombies they see.Nurses - boost to Ken's health recovery.Martial artists - increased survivor resilience.Workmen - repairs.Geeks - hacking.Civilians - Cheering (boosts Ken's damage) and fortification building.Etc.The more there are of a given type of survivor, the better the crowd's abilities become. The crowd will stay together and can be ordered around by Ken, but they must be protected from being bitten by the zombies or the whole crowd could become infected.Secure each levelKen must shepherd the survivors to a location that can be fortified so that they will be safe.This could mean securing the entire level, or just one section of it. The crowd itself does the fortification, barring doors and boarding up windows. The more survivors there are, the faster repairs are done. Essentially they are closing enemy spawn points, and Ken must stem the flow of enemies while the fortifications are in progress or the crowd will be eaten by zombies.ThemeWhile the film Planet Terror is a good starting point for the mock '70s horror exploitation movie feel, Kung Fu Zombie Killer has a more lighthearted Viewtiful Joe feel at the same time.MotivationKen is in love with the YouTube vlogger jenna126xyz. In fact, he is her only fan. Throughout the game, Ken forces everyone he saves from the zombies to sign up as fans of jenna126xyz in an attempt to win her heart.Given the ludicrous nature of this game concept, it might at first seem that there would be little point in rigorous research or fictional development, but I contest that there still is.Even a world with a silly premise will resonate more fully when effort is made to realize it in its entirety.Example Level: Hospital Second FloorAfter watching jenna126xyz's most recent tearful videocast, Ken Kong is now trying to rescue Jenna's grandmother from a hospital overrun by the undead. The idea is that you see Grandma almost immediately, but can't get to her without the Hospital Director's keys, found near the end of the level, giving you an objective and a goal. The Hospital Director, on the bottom floor, will not come out of his secure office until the building is secure, forcing your secondary goal (save the survivors) before you can open the way to grandma.A Boss fight is worked into Grandma's room, and once that is done the level can pretty much end -- a fairly bog standard level flow.The section of the level we are going to focus on is the Second Floor, highlighted in red on the Level Flow Diagram above.A hospital is hardly an original setting, especially in this context. Hospitals are obligatory whenever there are zombies around: Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead, and Planet Terror are just the tip of the iceberg. So the challenge is to walk this well-trodden ground and still make something somewhat fresh. The key to that is to look around you.Preparation: Designing from lifeWhen deciding how to tackle this hospital level, it would be tempting to begin by looking at the many other examples of hospitals in competing games, and while it is useful to learn what has already been done, it wouldn't help us get original ideas for this particular level.You are likely to be able to rattle off a list of areas from your head that you would expect to find in a hospital, from waiting rooms and restrooms to operating theaters and canteens. Most likely the overriding impression you will have in your mind will be long, seemingly endless hallways with single or multi-bed wards off them.But when you actually go to a hospital, there is so much more to see. There are gift shops, libraries, kitchens, rehabilitation areas with gyms or pools.There are auditoriums, children's play areas, janitorial closets, elevators and their associated maintenance areas. There are courtyards, roof gardens, underground parking lots, and changing rooms for the doctors and nurses, with lockers and showers.You also see just how many more off-limit areas there are than public ones. Some are secured with passkeys, others with ordinary locks.These locked doors lead to record rooms, office spaces, drug and equipment storage rooms and all manner of other administrative areas. Their doors are either solid or have very small reinforced glass windows. A great deal of research can be done from books, movies, and the internet but nothing can replace personal experience. While not everyone can go to the pyramids or an abandoned space station whenever they feel like it (unless you're Richard Garriott, of course), most people could visit an abandoned or ruined place near them (as long as is safe to do so) that will evoke a similar mood and mystery on a smaller scale. For our purposes that means there are many places where people could potentially survive a zombie attack, along with lots of opportunities for us to realistically gate the player. The key is you must look, in order to find inspiration. The trap of arbitrary spaces There is nothing more amateurish than arbitrary architecture, by which I mean spaces obviously only built for the player by the game designer. Whether it is a city street or an ancient ruin, it is the designer's job to build spaces with a fictional purpose as well as a gameplay purpose. When a player enters a temple that has no space for worship, or a tomb with no burial chamber nor rhyme nor reason behind its layout, he or she will not be convinced that they are exploring a real place. The worst starting point for a level is a series of featureless, functionless boxes joined by corridors into which gameplay is inserted from a list of gameplay goals. Levels built that way may as well be randomly generated. Even if you are creating an outside space, studying ordinance survey maps to see how real world topology looks and going for a stroll in the hills will let you turn a bland height map into a believable outside space. The difference between a height map that has been pulled up and down randomly, and one that appears to have simulated real weathering is enormous. Looking at real spaces for inspiration will bring the physical rules of building construction to the forefront of your mind, it will inevitably bring truth to your work and give you ideas that you would not otherwise have thought of. You must design the spaces of your level primarily for the people living in the game world and then adapt it for the player. Starting Point: Floor Plan I'm going to use this section of a hospital floorplan, based on a general admissions unit from a real hospital, to show how one floor of the level might be constructed through fiction. First off you can see that while the majority of the areas are not designed for the public to wander around, access to them is relatively easy. For instance, the admin area is easily accessible by climbing over the reception desks from the waiting room, even if the two doors were closed and locked. The only rooms that are likely to be kept locked at all times are the workrooms, the records room, and the storage room. They would most likely have keycard or combination locks so that staff could relatively easily get in and out but patients couldn't wander in willy nilly. The examination rooms would most likely have been unlocked when the zombies arrived, but along with the nurses room, the manager's office and the W.C, they could have been locked by survivors trying to escape the living dead. Red and Blue Keys There have been an untold number of physical key card puzzles in games, and almost as many broken-down elevators. The hardest challenge in design is avoiding the clichés when trying to disguise the keys and locks in the levels. Kung Fu Zombie Killer is a beat em up, so most rooms on this floorplan are probably too small to fight effectively in. The rooms can be scaled up to an extent without becoming ludicrously oversized, but it is general note that as games lean towards more believable spaces there is a greater need for better camera and animation systems to cope with confined spaces. The reality is that without unique abilities, there is little that hasn't already been done a hundred times when it comes to player gating. The standard options have been so thoroughly explored, re-dressed and reskinned, that many games these days have simply begun to do away with them altogether. Games like GTA let you go almost anywhere and attack problems from any angle. Their gates are metagame gates; the beginning and end of missions, the opening of new city areas. They don't struggle to mask the opening of the game world in fiction -- they make it very clear. I'm not arguing for one way or the other; both can be done well or poorly. In this game, I'm using NPCs as keys; they are keys that can be eaten by your enemies. If your keys die, then you won't be able to achieve some (or potentially any) of your goals. Populating the level Now that we have a better understanding of our location, it is time to look to any ramping documents and decide what sorts of scenarios have to be fit into the level. Kung Fu Zombie Killer's NPCs are also used as the game's help system, pickups, power-ups, quest givers, quest items, achievements, secret items, traps and puzzles. They are ultimately flexible from a gameplay point of view, but even better, they add life and narrative to the game. We want to place the following in this section of the level based on a ramping plan: NPC's to save: • A security guard - who shoots zombies and has a security pass • ~2 doctors - who heal the crowd and lower chance of crowd infection • ~4 nurses - who increase Ken's health • ~18 civilians - who contributes to Ken's damage bonus by cheering Items to use: • toilet • letter openers • sinks • heavy swinging lamps • dishes of scalpels • table lamps • windows • flower pots • wooden chairs • head-height glass cabinet doors Zombies to Kill: • Tons of them. Sculpting the play path When working into realistic spaces the first thing to do is work out how much you want to modify the physical flow from room to room. This comes down to how linear or open you want a level to be. For the sake of this example we are going to funnel the player fairly heavy handedly just to illustrate some of the ways it can be done. In this case I used two standard techniques; the permanently blocked door and the hole in the wall. The fiction for these changes is fortifications that are so drastic that they can't be undone, and walls that a large number of zombies have burst through. These two types of permanent changes to the floor plan can dramatically change the way you move around a realistic space. The first step is to define the primarily play path. I have funneled the player in a big circle all the way round to the storage closet above the entrance, where the security guard is hiding with a nurse. The security guard is necessary to unlock the door on the east wall, the only way through which you can reach the staircase and exit this floor. The barricades can be disassembled by any survivors if you approach from the side where the crosses are. The fortification point is this floor's zombie spawner. Ken has to fight on the patio while the survivors build the barricade, before jumping back into the building at the last second. The more survivors Ken has released, the faster that the barricade can be built, but the player needs to make sure that there are no (or few) zombies left inside the building because the survivors are vulnerable while fortifying. Everything else is fairly self-explanatory; there are four bonus civilians and a nurse that can be unlocked from the manager's office if the player backtracks with the security guard, lots of zombies to kill, and a second barricade that can be dismantled to create a shortcut if backtracking is necessary through this space. Set dressing The simplest examples of level stories are told through the "forensic" placement of art; bloody hand prints on the walls, discarded children's toys, and overturned tables and chairs. They don't affect gameplay, but they provide mood and richness to the level. For masterful use of storytelling through set dressing, look at Fallout 3. Every area had its own stories to tell from depravity through to insanity, all laid out in the artful placement of everyday objects. Those small forensic clues can be expanded to full narratives describing the fates of characters you may never meet in the game. For instance, you might find graffiti scrawled in blood on the walls describing somebody's final moments, but finding a room with its doors off its hinges, a toppled pile of tables and chairs just behind it and a fat, satisfied-looking zombie sitting in a puddle of blood, tells a similar story while also offering you the chance to respond. This level is filled with possibilities for those details and they can all be pulled out of the backstory of these survivors. The Backstory As I sculpted the play path I wanted, I was coming up with the following back story: Zombies first came into the waiting room from the stairwell. The security guards managed to fight them off and managed to permanently block that door. Meanwhile, two patients ran and locked themselves in the toilet. Next, zombies started coming in through the entrance. The hospital staff moved everyone out of the waiting room and barricades were set up trying to secure the admin area. Meanwhile, the zombies in the stairwell manage to smash through a wall into one of the examination room. Another permanent barricade was set up, and just to be sure, a security guard locked the next examination room's door as well, just to be safe. By this point zombies have started climbing over the reception desk and break through the right hand door into the admin area. Everyone evacuated further back into the offices except one doctor who hides under a desk. A nurse was already hiding in the manager's office, and she let four patients in as the zombies swarmed the admin area. The rest of the survivors ran towards the patio, but a mass of zombies smash their way in through the patio door and the survivors find themselves surrounded. Groups crush into any nearby room and lock the doors behind them, leaving some unlucky people locked out in the corridor. Almost the entirety of this story -- plus the stories of the other humans that didn't survive this attack -- can be carefully laid out in the artwork. The more questions you ask, the more stories can be hinted at: • Is there a reason that the security guard ends up with that particular nurse in the storage room? • Is there a reason why one nurse has access to the securely locked manager's office? • Who shut the door of the North East workroom, shutting the zombies in there with a group of (now dead) nurses? The upshot of using this method will be a sense of authenticity during play that you cannot achieve any other way. While players may not consciously pick up even half of the detail you are putting in, they will feel it. They will be drawn into your world in a way that more laissez-faire methods simply cannot achieve. Thunderdome Part 2 Now, were I a member of a level building team, the map I've created above and the back story that goes with it would be presented along with all the others: one from each team member. They would be reviewed by the whole level team, who having all thought it through deeply, are now informed critics, under the watchful eye of the lead that wrote the Flow Diagram. Each design would be unique and all would have their plusses and minuses. No one design will be so perfect that it will be better than everyone else's in every respect. I know there would be better ideas on the table than mine because I work with talented people. But perhaps some of my ideas would be end up being selected and they would go into a final level layout that would be better than anything any one of us could do alone. Fact. And that's magic. Summary • Research thoroughly; there are many people who will know if you skimp. • Always visit a real location for inspiration. • Always start from an architecturally sound floor plan. • Sculpt the play space with events that occurred before the player arrived. • Define the back story through the design and let them feed each other. • Write down the back story so that as the design is realized on screen; all departments can express it through art, animation, and sound. *Note: This article is posted on Next Level Design with permission from the author Source: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/132801/action_adventure_level_design_.php Follow Toby Website: www.focalpointgames.com Twitter: https://twitter.com/mechabadger
In this article, Toby Gard introduces the fundamentals behind the design of story-driven levels. While consideration of the gameplay is axiomatic to any successful level design, the inclusion of story elements - characters, objects, pacing, emotional tone, and narrative theme, to name a few - adds a whole new dimension to the process, specifically in the form of cross-team collaboration. Artists, composers, writers, coders, designers all have a hand in the design process, a little bit like the making of a film. Of course, anyone who has worked collaboratively knows that this type of situation can go south, quickly - Gard is aware, and provides creative solutions with solid reasoning. He also blocks out a simple, yet detailed approach to the psychological buttons a good story-driven level will be pushing (and why), while providing useful concretes, in the form of a Street Fighter-esque Zombie escape level, to help the reader imagine how the principles discussed might affect similar areas in their own endeavors.Intro - DelegationDifferent people have different approaches to delegating design responsibilities.I have seen creative directors who seem to have no vision of their own but merely act as filters through which their team's ideas are strained.I have also seen creative directors who form a rough image of what they want in their heads and then delegate the design to their team after loosely describing it to them. Inevitably the team then repeatedly fail to deliver his expected "right" solution. A better approach than searching for mind-reading designers, is for the creative leads to express clearly both what they want and where the flexibility is, so that their team can know how to take ownership without getting lost in the creative wilds.I believe that balance is achieved when an unwavering core vision is delivered to the team (based on the whole team's input and feedback) and then responsibilities are delegated with clearly defined parameters for success.This first article describes stage 1 of a process that does just that, based on the methods that I have found the most successful.The process attempts to balance to a healthy amount of creative freedom and ownership for a level team, while keeping a structured vision in place by defining what details are essential to work out first and communicate to the team and what parts are better to be delegated with success criteria.The steps that the entire process describes can be just as useful for an individual designer regardless of the level of delegation expected to occur.Since every project has its own needs and team structure, this process is unlikely to translate exactly for you. However, many of the concepts can be adapted for just about any story-centric game.Stage 1 Level Flow DiagramsThe first step in the clear communication of vision for level design is delivering the Level Flow Diagram.There are four sources from which the high level design plan should be drawn: Motivation - What am I doing here?Like any good scene or chapter from a book, the conflict and resolution of a level should be born from the main character's motivations. This is why the character's motivations should always be clear to the player or they will feel lost and directionless.These motivations translate into game objectives such as "find the man who killed your lover" or more simply, "kill Boss 5 of 10". The strongest objectives are ones where character and player motivations are in alignment.It is not enough to simply state the objective or motivation of a character if you want to create alignment. You also need to make it matter to the player if you want them to become invested in it.For instance, showing through cut scenes that the main character hates a boss enemy, while letting the player know they must kill that boss to progress, results in a much weaker alignment than giving the player reason to hate that boss enemy. If that boss enemy betrays the player after the player has come to trust him or if he takes something from the player (for instance by killing an NPC that the player has come to care about) then the player and the character will both have a real reason to hate him.The time it takes to setup player motivation is why it is so hard to align player motivation and character motivation in an opening cut scene.Often you have no choice but to state the character motivations right at the beginning, in which case the player will only have an intellectual rather than emotional alignment with him or her.To strengthen that alignment through the game, the motivation "I want to bring my girlfriend back to life" must be completely linked to the player objective "Kill the Colossus."If the objectives are not directly related to the motivation (for example, if you spend most of your time being waylaid by endless rat killing quests) then the player will lose sight of the meaning behind their experience and their alignment with the main character's motivation will erode along with their interest in continuing to play.Emotional / Experiential themesIt is during this first phase of the level design that you must choose which of the powerful and interesting set pieces and emotional events that came from the whole team during preproduction brainstorms will make it into the game.These are the high points around which you will fill in the rest of the level design. They are the moments that will define your game in the player's mind and it is crucial that they support or drive your story. The set pieces are high-concept action-oriented ideas such as "escape the burning building" or "find and defuse the four bombs." Set pieces are the basic building blocks for an action heavy game, just as they are for action movies. The challenge is in creating set pieces that haven't been done a dozen times before.The emotionally charged events are the heart of your game -- i.e. looking for survivors of a deserted village, only to find a shocking and disturbing answer to their fates as you enter the town hall.Emotional events have the potential to be more memorable than a set pieces if handled well, but they too require the building of player and character alignment, which makes them harder to pull off.PillarsThe game pillars define the basic things the player can do, so to integrate the cool set pieces and emotional scenes into the level, they must be compatible with the player abilities or they will feel anachronous.The most flexibility will come if the game pillars aren't considered final until all the Level Flow Diagrams have been completed. It is only during the process of picking the things that will actually happen to the player, that you will learn what the player abilities really ought to be and how flexibly you will need to implement them.For instance, if the game is about a jet skiing hacker, then it would be inappropriate to build a set piece around horseback crocheting. Doing so would have to rely heavily either on cutscenes and (shudder) quicktime events or would require specific controls, interface elements and abilities. Apart from being inefficient from a development standpoint to create new abilities for each set piece, they would be also be un-ramped for the player unless you included several such horse riding and crocheting sections, in which case those abilities should have been in the pillars in the first place.FictionRegardless what sort of game you are making there is a story that is almost as important to consider as the main character's; that of the level itself. Whether the player is experiencing an alien invasion, or trying to solve a murder mystery, their level of immersion is almost entirely dependent on your commitment to preserving fiction.The most common mistake made in level design is defining a set of challenges loosely based on a manufactured set of parameters and then trying to set dress them to look like something. This inevitably results in unconvincing, bland and forgettable levels.Despite many protestations from designers who feel shackled by a fiction-heavy approach, the reality is that when you resolve to respect the fiction of a level you inevitably find yourself designing spaces and events that surprise not just the player, but often yourself as well.I will go into this in detail in the second stage of level development called "Building Through Fiction" but for now, all we need is the commitment to ensure that our overall level flow is being defined in a context that can be made fictionally consistent.So no windsurfing on the moon -- however much fun that may sound. Level Flow ElementsSome people make full flow charts of their levels, but I tend to think that's excessively restrictive and not informative at all regarding basic spacial layout.I prefer a level flow that resembles hybrid between a schematic diagram and a simple beat sheet. Tube Map Beat Sheet The goal is not to be exhaustive, but to define the skeleton of the level; the core of it.On average I find that at least half of the final level goals will actually be added by the team during the next stage, so it's important to keep these simple because the level will at least double in complexity from here. If you can't fit the flow on one page, then it is probably too long.The types of elements that you would include will be different depending on the type of game you are making, but the goal is always the same; keep it simple.In this example I used the following:Level StimulusI use these to call out the player's arrival at an area. They serve as the locations on my schematic but also the critical information pieces given to player, during scripted events etc. Player ResponseThe things the player does. These are generally objectives that have been clearly communicated to the player. LocksLocks are the "hard gates" that restrict forward progress in the level until a certain set of criteria are met. (I'm lumping "soft gates" into Player Response for the purposes of this.) KeysThese are status changes either of the world or of the player character that will lead to opening a 'lock' somewhere.Example - Halo: Combat Evolved - Campaign 2, Flawless Cowboy and Reunion TourThis single page schematic actually describes two levels (one campaign) that takes about an hour to complete. Along with this diagram you would include notes that describe the intention behind each element and directly references the four sources from which they were derived. (This is how you define the success criteria for the level team.)MotivationKill the Covenant. Seeing the human fleet and the Pillar of Autumn being shredded in Campaign 1 gives the player enough animosity to last for a game's worth of Covenant killing.PillarsThis would include the focus on introducing the player their first experience with the three-man driving / gunning Warthog gameplay, and the cooperation with AI troops.ThemesReferencing films and other games is a good way to quickly communicate theme. Starship Troopers might be a good example to evoke the feeling of soldiers being overwhelmed by an alien enemy on an alien world.FictionThe level is teaming with touches that infer a great deal about both the larger story and the smaller scale individual stories of the ongoing war:Destroyed escape pods and the bodies of those that did not survive the landing litter the landscape, while debris from the space battle overhead fall through the sky. Each of the pod crash sites suggests the short desperate survival stories of the soldiers Master Chief meets there.*Note: I am in no way suggesting that Halo levels were developed using a method that bears any resemblance to this process. I have no idea how Bungie goes about its level building process. I used this Halo level as an example because it was both well-designed and well-known. I'm using this Halo level as an example because it was well designed and well known.Finishing upOnce a Level Flow Diagram is done, you are still a long way from moving onto the next stage, the handoff to the team.To evaluate a Level Flow Diagram you need to have done the whole game's worth. Only when they are all side by side can you can see how well they fit with each other and how the ebb and flow of gameplay will move from the start to the end of the game.Put them all up on a wall, and you will see where the player is being sidetracked, where a different order of events would make for a better rhythm and where emotional events are happening too early in a game for player and character alignment to have occurred.The secret to making a great story based game is to make the actions of the player be the engine that drives the story, not the other way around.Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are among the most successful stories in video games, yet many say the story elements were minimal. That's not true. The story was everywhere, because the player lives it.Ico was about escape and protection. Every time you managed to coax Yorda closer to escaping from the castle, the story of your struggle for freedom progressed. In Shadow of the Colossus, throughout the game the hero slowly sacrifices not just his own life but the lives of each colossi, in his mad quest to resurrect his love. Protecting a girl and Killing Colossi. The player actions are shaping the story taking the burden off the cutscenes and making the story matter to the player.SummaryLevel Flow Diagrams are the first key communication of Level Design intent to the team.Build Level Flow Diagrams from:• Character motivations• Emotional and experiential set pieces• Player actions as defined in the game pillars• The environment's own fictionUse minimal elements to draw the diagram, and represent only the main events.Keep it to one page.Ensure you are driving story through player action. *Note: This article is posted on Next Level Design with permission from the author Source: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/132714/action_adventure_level_design_.phpFollow Toby:Website: www.focalpointgames.comTwitter: https://twitter.com/mechabadger