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  1. How much thought have you given to the level design in top-down games? This video from Game Soup provides some great food for thought, looking at the attributes of CrossCode's level design that set it apart from other top-down games. Follow Game Soup Youtube: Twitter: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord:
  2. "In many video games, the player has control of the camera. However, the developer can control what's on screen through use of the environment to direct the player's movements and attention. Miriam Bellard has been referring to this as spatial cinematography. Miriam's talk explores spatial cinematography in theory and practice using examples from GTA V Online DLC (pre-production to final art). A truly cinematic experience can be developed by adapting film concepts such as shots, editing and 2D screen design as well as understanding how the player interacts with and perceives the game environment. Miriam discusses the effect of the 3D environment on the cinematic experience, including through movement, player attention, and spatial design." Follow Miriam Twitter: Linkedin: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord:
  3. Introduction Why was your first time in a Destiny raid remarkably more exciting than your last? Some would cite Destiny's 'feel' juxtaposed with the franchises notoriously shallow systems as the culprit for the dopaminergic delta. Some would hearken back to the good ol' days of Destiny, when raids like the Vault of Glass were apparently just 'better' than they are now. Others might even blame our inevitable disappointment on the games so-called 'overreliance' on repetition. Whatever you think the reason is, I'm here to tell you why I probably disagree. Not just about Destiny, but more specifically about the real reason any game stagnates. The best design never makes a choice for the player. Get it? No? Okay. I'll do my best to explain why this is relevant as simply as I can. If there exists an invariably 'correct' way to play a raid, or game, or class, or even map, the player is subsequently robbed of his/her free choice and only needs to acquiesce to succeed. As long as one or even multiple predetermined ideas are forced on a player, the player is not an influential factor. He's just a warm body, on his way to the factory we call 'modern video game design' to pull a lever the very same way he pulled it yesterday. Yes, some are better and more efficient at pulling that lever than others, but that's why things get stale. That's the real reason Destiny raids aren't as fun as they once were. When you load up a raid, and you're killing a big ass knight for the 30'th time, what are the quantifiable differences between this run and your first? Well, for starters, you've already killed this boss. As I stated earlier, Some will likely argue the point of repetition, so I'll preemptively indulge. Repetition is only detrimental if every cycle is the same as the one before it. To quote a famous Romanian level designer, your map only starts to stagnate when it's played the same way over and over. Repetition is actually a boon for a designer who knows how to wield its potential. It can create a beautiful dynamic where the meta for any given game or map evolves over time. It's rare, but I've seen it. Rocket League and Melee come to mind. That's why we can't blame stagnation on reiteration alone. The foundational design theory of an experience is what matters, and I can give some examples. Imagine you're going to play The Vault of Glass. Right off the start, you have to activate and defend 3 spires by standing in them, and deterring enemies from resetting your progress. That's it. There aren't any exceptions. Once your team has figured out what Bungie wanted you to do, that's the end of your neural activity. From then on, it's muscle memory training. In a couple weeks (if that) you will have experienced everything the raid has to offer, because every encounter passed that is designed the exact same way. Even if execution is incredibly hard, you know what to do. There is no more exploration, there is no more theory crafting. You stand here, and if you die, you change nothing and do it again. See what I mean? Good Design doesn't force these choices on people. If these encounters were designed differently, they could potentially evolve and hold replay value over long periods of time as people discover and create new strategies, as well as potentially new areas via similarly open-ended levels. Cooldowns & Systems First of all, cooldowns are a silly way to balance something. You can't give an ability integrity just by slapping on an arbitrary 14 second timer. As far as the grand scheme of a game goes, cooldowns DO balance the overall pacing and predictability of any given title. In that way, a game like Overwatch is balanced. On the other hand, you can't take something that's over-rewarding and make it okay just by making it rare. If it's stupid, it's stupid. Could one consider a tactical nuke 'balanced' if you gave it a 1 minute long cooldown? No? How about 10 minutes? It doesn't matter. If it's better than it is hard, then it's not right. In the very same way, the multitude of 'I win' buttons in games like Overwatch and Destiny aren't balanced. I don't care how long you have to wait between uses. Inversely, If a mechanic has integrity, it doesn't necessarily need a timer. This isn't to say that I think you should be able to spam everything all the time. That's not the point. The point is that you could design abilities in a way that allows the player to choose between them, which is intentionally allocated space for creativity. Systems, on the other hand, are often packaged and communicated by the developer in a way that makes us think we have creative control. A designer will say something like 'you can do x' as if you're being allowed the freedom to do 'x', when in reality, the system was designed in a way that the only choice you have is 'x'. Things like the ability to meat shield in Gears of War 4, the ability to spartan charge in Halo after sprinting, or vaulting in PUBG come to mind. They were designed to seem like you can do more, when in reality, if anything, your options have decreased after implementation. In the same way, the lead level designer for God of War admitted to 'tricking' the player into feeling like he could explore, when in reality he knew you couldn't. Faux design is everywhere, and it all wants to look like the real thing. Is it deep, or convoluted? Let's look at a game like World of Warcraft. I often hear WoW combat referred to as one of the deepest gameplay loops of all time, but is it? I don't really think so anymore. While It took me years of playing the game to realize, WoW eventually fell right under the category of design theory I'll start calling 'predeterminism.' Once you learn every ability, every quirk, and get proficient at every ability and even every class (barring how ridiculously long this takes) it becomes apparent. Especially in the highest level of pvp. The best players literally always know what the other player is about to do. Every pro match could be boiled down to players who are all excellent at their ability 'rotations' and excellent at punishing mistakes in those rotations. That's how players win games. They don't 'make plays' because the game won't allow them to. They simply have to manage what they have better than the other team, and pounce when the opposition makes a mistake. There are no 'surprises' at even the highest level of play, because the game is just that limiting. It still takes a tremendous amount of skill because of just how many things you have to track, but at the end of the day, that's convoluted. It's hard, and impressive, but convoluted. There are a few reasons for this. First of all, there is absolutely no overlap in utility within the sandbox of abilites. For example, every class has an 'interrupt' ability that literally only interrupts casts. Multiply this straightforward utility times 30 or 40 and you have a class in WoW. Some abilites do damage, some are defensive, whatever. This system means that I'm never actually presented with many real choices. If I want to interrupt someone, I press interrupt. Combine this system with a game where there is no aiming, and only an effectively 2d space, and you actually end up with a super shallow and thought discouraging game that usually rewards the person who has put himself through more hours than the other person just to learn how to 'play correctly.' Intentionality & Player Creativity With those many examples in mind, you may be asking yourself how one might go about preventing 'predeterminism' within his/her map or game, and maybe more importantly, how can one design with intent and still allow for individual creativity? To be frank, I'm still trying to figure this one out myself. I have ideas, some even well implemented and successful, but this is an incredibly hard thing to nail down into one sentence, although I am positive that such a sentence could exist. For now, I will try my best to provide pointers and examples. First of all, you need to build your map or game from the ground up with merit serving as your standardized currency. If you want something that's crazy powerful, that's fine, just make sure it's crazy hard. If you commit to this philosophy, you are paving the way for true creativity to shine, because no matter what insane things people eventually come up with, you can bet it will be hard to compensate and that you won't have to touch it. And remember, adding a cooldown to something that isn't balanced doesn't actually mend your design, it just makes that unbalanced ability happen less. Second of all, you do need to design counters within your map or sandbox. This might sound contradictory, but creativity only exists and is only necessary within set limitations. The trick is to just never force a player into using your predetermined and intentionally designed counters. If the only way to succeed in any given situation is to simply obey the design, you've gone too far. Third of all, you need utility overlap. If every part of your map, or every ability, or every weapon in your game only serves one purpose, then the player doesn't really get to think any more than 'this does this.' There's no choice, contemplation, or forward thinking. Imagine a gun that also knocks you backwards when you shoot it, which would overlap movement and offensive utility. Fourth of all, keep it simple. While the phrase 'easy to learn, hard to master' is overused at this point, it still rings true as the ultimate goal. If you design a simple, open ended toolkit that only limits the player by what his own ability allows, then you don't have to worry about adding artificial depth via complications, cooldowns, or gameplay systems. Lastly, always allow for the potential of swift counter-play. People constantly cite the longer kill times in Halo as the reason for the good players ability to turn the tides of a seemingly lost battle through sheer skill, but that idea has been long since debunked. What really allows a good player to turn on an enemy, or even take out multiple enemies, is the potential for brevity. In Halo's case, the magnums perfect time to kill compared to its average time to kill is the source of this potential, along with the ability to dodge bullets. It doesn't matter how long or short fights are, what matters is that I can kill you faster than you can kill me, if I play better than you. Apply this theory to everything, including counter play opportunities in level design. If I'm good enough at something, I should be able to do it quickly, or at least faster than someone else. Conclusion Once players learn the "right" way to play an encounter, a map, a class, or game, there is no longer any room for creative thought. The highest level will revolve around executing the already present and built in "correct" way to play. To avoid this, balance your design with player merit as your proverbial currency, create overlap in utility within your sandbox, and allow for swift counter-play. The best design never makes a choice for the player, but rather presents choice. We are facilitators, not dictators. Follow Westin Youtube: Twitter: Website: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord:
  4. Next Level Design has been given permission from the author to host this entire book in PDF format. Download the attached PDF at the bottom of this article for the entire book, or view it here: not sure? Read through this section on lighting that was recently posted on Next Level Design: In addition, we've included another small section of the book right here: pg. 25 INTRODUCTION Due to games’ ever-increasing complexity and the expanding nature of levels in general, it can certainly be said that levels are not easy to design. Levels, as said before, are combinations of dozens of different aspects, the conglomeration of which render them complex by nature. This combination of complex systems itself requires good design from the start in order to avoid an inconsistent and downright messy result. Because the different aspects are so interdependent, it’s very important not to lose sight of a level’s ‘big picture’. This chapter highlights some of the issues that can pop up when designing a level, as well as some more minor aspects to keep in mind. The overall design is the foundation for a level. Without a clear, strong design, there is no solid base on which to build the level. THE CREATION OF A NEW WORLDThe most important part of a successful level is its beginning. The way a level starts will determine a great deal about how the rest of the level will evolve and how quickly. In these days of growing complexity, efficiency and speed are valued highly. Getting off to a bad start or using bad work methods can cost time which is usually at a premium to begin with. Part of starting a good design is foreseeing potential problems before anything is created. By doing this early in the process, a good level designer can quickly and easily modify the design to better fit the available time, workload, difficulty, technical limits, or all of the above.How one begins a new level is different for every person. One designer may write everything down in a design document while another, like me, just plans it out in their head. The method used also depends upon if one is working in a team environment. Working with a team means that the level’s design must be communicated throughout the team which usually means some sort of written, drawn, or quickly modeled design that can be passed around and/or presented. How it’s done isn’t important as long as several key aspects are kept in mind and the end product is of a sufficient quality. If the technology used cannot create lush jungles, for example, then this must be recognized before starting.A design should progress only when exactly what is wanted and how to accomplish it is known. Exact information is the key to this. Again using the jungle example, one must know what the jungle will look like, the colors it uses, the overall style, how the player will move through it, if the engine can render thick vegetation, what kind of physics will be involved, and too many more to list here.To assist in this task, I have developed a type of checklist that is at the base of everything I design. The list compares several key values against each other to see if they are possible and if they should be modified. It also helps define the values better. The list checks to see if the rules of, for example, lighting and composition are contrary to each other and if the goal is possible and what direction to take. This extensive chapter will mostly be about the latter.A level is complex and it takes increasingly more time and effort to successfully complete one; thus failure is not an option. All the areas that could potentially cause a problem should be identified before starting any work. Once the design process starts it should go smoothly; design dilemmas should not occur or, if they do, should be easily overcome with few modifications to the overall plan. Getting stuck can be very demoralizing and time consuming. pg. 26THE CHECKLISTA level always begins with a goal, a theme, or both. The goal may be that the game requires a medieval castle, or that it’s missing an ominous environment, or that the level is to be the central hub of the game.After identifying the basic idea, certain key information needs to be pinned down before starting the level. This ‘key information’ will be referred to as ‘the keys’. The keys communicate important properties about the level. They are the key words the level is built around and provide more information on the level’s requirements.The following are questions to determine the key information for the level-to-be: • (1-Time) How much time is there available? Is there a deadline? • (2-Tech) What tools and game engine will be used? • (3-Limitations) What limitations are there? Is there a shortage of art assets or staff/personal skill limit? Can anything be made or are some aspects beyond the scope of the project because of their complexity? • (4-Requirements) What kind of requirements are there? Are there any specific elements, for example, special buildings or areas that have to be in the level? When compared to the rest of the game what visual style or theme must the level adhere to? • (5-Purpose) What is the overall purpose? For example, is it a multiplayer practice level or a singleplayer boss arena? • (6-Gameplay) What should the gameplay be like? How should it be played? Should there be enough room for a large boss encounter? Or does it need to be large enough to contain a large number of enemies attacking the player? Perhaps it’s a vehicle level? Or it is a stealth level? And so on. • (7-Theme) What theme and/or style will the level have? Will it be a castle or a jungle? Will the style be cartoonish or realistic?This is all essential information for a level. The order of the list is not as important as the answers. Once the essential elements of the level have been identified it can be run through a checklist to see if it holds up. Will it work? Look right? Play right?The keys provide the information while the checklist determines if it is possible or not. The checklist combines two or more keys in order to determine if they fit together or not. If the desired theme is a jungle, but the engine can’t handle rendering dense vegetation, then these are two keys that do not fit together and the design will need to be adjusted accordingly. This is the type of information the keys provide: essential information that design decisions can be based on before actually starting work on a level. Thinking ahead is the key to success.The checklist itself is a system for asking questions and making comparisons. The questions are different each time, but the comparisons remain the same. Verify that the individual elements compliment each other.Here's the entire Table of Contents: Download the attached PDF below, or view it here: *The Hows and Whys of Level Design is hosted on Next Level Design with permission from the authorFollow Sjoerd De JongWebsite: The Hows and Whys of Level Design.pdf