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About Me

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  1. 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:
  2. Intro This is one part in a series of articles that will attempt to explain how I think when I design. The purpose of these articles is not as much to provide a hands-on practical approach – just to explain how I do stuff. Once I finish this series, I’ll focus on some more practical applications of this stuff. (Link to Part 2) Important points from the last article The Big Principle: A game is fundamentally a conversation between the designer and the player. Principle #1: As a game designer, your job is to ask your players questions. The players’ job is to answer those questions using the tools you give them. Choice Field: A collection of spectrums all of which describe a single game mechanic. Spectrum: Any two opposing concepts which are the same in nature, but differ in degree. Binary choice: Any two opposing concepts that differ in nature, but are the same in degree. Dimension: An individual spectrum or binary choice within a choice field. Game Mechanics The focus of this article is going to be game mechanics, which I was pretty vague about last time. “Game mechanic” is a term I use a lot differently than some other people who write about game design. I tried to make up a new word, but it made reading and writing this impossible – so I’m going to stick with game mechanic. I’m not trying to say my way of using it is better or anything, just when you hear me say it – this is what I mean. First off, a definition: Game mechanic: A game mechanic is the meeting point of two design ideas: a Question the designer asks the player, and the Tools the player has for answering that question. Each game mechanic contains at least two choice fields – one for the Question and one for the Player Tool that answers it. wrenches… cuz game mechanics!! Another way of saying it is that the Question and the answering Player Tool are two sides of a coin, and the coin’s metal is made out of “game mechanic.” For example, let’s examine one of the game mechanics from the combat system in games like Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure and Skylanders: Giants or Ratchet and Clank. There are several overlapping mechanics that all affect combat in these systems, but for this article I’m going to focus on just one so you can see how a mechanic’s two choice fields are related to each other Mechanic: Enemy Placement VS Weapons The game mechanic I’m describing here focuses mainly on the interaction between A) where enemies are placed in the game world in relation to other obstacles (Question) and B) the player’s weapons (Tools). Hopefully from this example you can see how both of these are two sides of the same coin – and how both inform each other. Question: Enemy Placement This question asks the player “how do you want to attack me.” By placing the enemy across, on, or behind obstacles – enemies gain an advantage that the player can overcome with good weapon choice. The choice field attached to this game mechanic looks like this: Spectrum #1: Horizontal (near/far) Spectrum #2: Vertical (low/high) Each dot in the diagram represents a type of terrain variance that is an example of the extremes we’ve built into this choice field Flat Terrain (low/close) – Control case. Everything is effective on a flat plane, given no other wrinkles. Horizontal Gap (low/far) – Blocks movement but not projectiles. Ranged enemies placed across gaps have an advantage the player will need tools to overcome. Vertical Ledge(high/close) – Enemies up on a ledge are hard to hit unless the player can get up on the ledge, or has tools to overcome that advantage. Line-of-fire-blocking Cover (high/far) – Blocks some projectiles and affects movement. Enemies placed behind cover are immune to horizontal attacks unless the player moves around it, or has a tool. Each of these represents a question the designer is asking – which requires that the designer give the player tools to handle it. Tools: Weapons In this example, I’m ignoring a number of spectra that exist in this combat system and focusing mainly on two: Range and Directness. Range is how far away the enemy can be from a player before a weapon gets useless. Directness is whether the shot travels directly at the target or takes another indirect route. The choice field attached to this game mechanic looks like this: Spectrum #1: Range (near/far) Spectrum #2: Directness (direct/indirect) Each dot in the diagram is a category of weapon we used in the design of Skylander characters. We chose the categories because they offered players a tool to solve the extremes of enemy placement questions. Note: If you’ve seen my Skylanders GDC talk (link), this might start to sound familiar. EXAMPLES: Close (Short/Direct) – Weapons that do damage very near to the player, like a knife or sword. These are good on a flat plane, or when close to an enemy behind cover. Weird (Short/Indirect) – These attacks usually affect large parts of the combat area with damage coming from nowhere in particular – like flaming skulls raining from the sky. Because this is obviously very powerful, we usually limit it with extra rules: e.g “You have to stand still to use it” would make it worse against close-range enemies. I’ll get into how that works, later in this article series, hopefully. Straight-ahead (Long/Direct) – Weapons that fire projectiles at range. The projectiles fly straight in the direction they’re fired until they hit a wall or a target. These fly over gaps, but are usually bad at hitting guys on ledges or behind cover. Lob (Long/Indirect) – Weapons that fire projectiles in an arc, or otherwise along a non-direct path. These are good for getting up on ledges or behind cover, but may arc over closer enemies. Principle #2: Put Them Both Together Together, these two choice fields make up a single mechanic from a combat system like those in Skylanders, Ratchet, or God of War. There are far more mechanics, which I hope to get into next time, but for now what I want you to see is how the two halves of a mechanic relate to each other. This leads us to Principle #2: When the designer creates a challenge to ask the player a Question, the designer must also create Tools for the player to answer it. The task of designing the one IS the task of designing the other. The player’s abilities and the challenges you create to test those abilities are two sides of the same coin. “Game Mechanic” is the term I’m using to show how the two combine to become basically the same thing. It is possible to design each half of the coin separately, and I hope to explain how to split things up like that later in the series, but for now I just want you to know that it’s pretty difficult if you aren’t careful. (Link to Part 4 - To be Updated) *Note: This article is published with permission from the author, and in accordance with Creative Commons guidelines. Source: Follow Mike Website: Website: Twitter: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord:
  3. Intro This is a part of a series of articles that will attempt to explain how I think when I design – my system, in a way. I’ve somewhat arbitrarily nicknamed it Trinity, and hopefully by the end of the series I’ll be able to explain why I picked that name. The purpose of these articles is not to create a formula, to create a rigid system, or even to suggest that my system is better than another. The whole purpose is just to try to explain, in writing, how I think when I design games. (Link to Part 1) Important points from the last article In the previous article, we went over two important principles: The Big Principle: A game is fundamentally a conversation between the designer and the player. Principle #1: As a game designer, your job is to ask your players questions. The players’ job is to answer those questions using the tools you give them. A Disclaimer At the end of the previous article, I mentioned a concept I call “choice fields.” In this article, I’m going to attempt to explain these to you, but I have to say this first: The subject is really complex, and I’m probably not going to be able to explain every facet in one article. A “Choice” Field. Get it? Eh? Eh? Why do I bother? “Emergence” In order to understand what a Choice Field is for, first I need to explain a decade-old concept: Emergence. In 2002-ish, after Grand Theft Auto 3 (GTA3), the most popular buzzword in the video game business was “emergence,” often in the context of “emergent gameplay.” The term was coined mainly to describe the kind of open-world, “sandbox-y” gameplay that GTA3 was the first to really do well. The term got its name from the way brand new gameplay objectives seemed to “emerge” from the overlapping of small sets of rules and abilities. Play styles that are not part of the game objectives seemed to come out of nowhere, and players found themselves spending tons of time creating goals in the game world for themselves and spending more time doing those than actually finishing the critical path missions. Choice Fields In thinking about how to design Emergence into a game, we can’t think about what kinds of things we “want” to emerge (because then we’re just designing them into the game). Instead, we need to think about how to create the overlapping sets of rules and abilities (questions and answers) that create the environment from which emergence springs. That overlapping set of rules and abilities is what I refer to as a Choice Field. More specifically, though: Choice fields are a collection of spectrums all of which describe a single game mechanic. Game Mechanics Basically a game mechanic is any arbitrary set of “things” in your game. If you can imagine being assigned to work on a thing by your boss, it’s probably a game mechanic. I’m using the term “Game Mechanic” here in an odd way on purpose – since I’m not really looking to get too specific in to what’s inside a game mechanic yet. Example Game Mechanics: An enemy, the player, the level design, the metagame design, the vehicle system… You’ll notice that mechanics can contain other mechanics. This is cool. I really just need a word so I don’t have to keep typing “that thing the choice fields are connected to” over and over again. Spectrums “Spectrum” here refers to any two “opposite” concepts which are the same in nature, but differ in degree. For example, long and short are both measurements of “range” (their nature) but completely opposite in degree. Examples of spectrums: High / Low (Health) Long / Short (Range) Cheap / Expensive (Cost) Fast / Slow (Speed) I want to differentiate spectrums from “binary choices.” Binary choices are two opposites that differ in nature, but are the same in degree. Examples of binary choices (generally avoid these in Choice Fields) Left/Right Yes/No Right/Wrong Binary choices are less useful than spectrums and produce much more limited results. You only get all of one or all of the other. They do not define a spectrum, but rather a fork. When working with Choice Fields, binary choices are useful in certain rare situations, but should generally be avoided. “Dimensions” Each individual set of spectrums in a choice field is called a “dimension.” Choice fields can have any number of dimensions, but they generally have between one and three. I’m not even going to try to explain this without pictures, so I’m going to go through examples of the first three dimensions below, and hope you get the idea. Choice Field Examples 1-Dimensional Choice Fields The simplest choice field is a “one-dimensional” field. Basically it means it only contains a single spectrum or a single binary choice. (This is one exception to the “no binary choice” rule of thumb I mentioned above.) As an example, let’s take the mechanic “Enemy” and the mechanic “Player” and attach a single binary choice to each one: Game Mechanic: Enemy Binary Choice: Alive or Dead Game Mechanic: Player Binary Choice: Alive or Dead Let’s pretend these two resultant choice fields are the only ones in the whole game: An Enemy that kills a Player in one hit, and a Player that can kill an Enemy in one hit. The game designer is asking the question: “Do you want to attack this enemy or not?” The Player has an ability that allows it to kill an enemy. Note: This doesn’t get much more interesting if you substitute spectrums for the binary choices. 2-Dimensional Choice Fields One-dimensional choice fields aren’t super interesting most of the time, so you don’t see them used a lot. More often you’ll see two-dimensional Choice Fields. In a two-dimensional choice field, you take two spectrums and splice them together. This is much easier to see than to describe. Using the same example as above, you end up with a choice field that looks something like this: Game Mechanic: Enemy Spectrum #1: Min HP to Max HP Spectrum #2: Min Damage to Max Damage A Two-Dimensional Choice Field representing an Enemy game mechanic Each dot on the diagram represents an Enemy that is an example of the extremes we’ve built into this Choice Field. Max HP, Min Damage – “Defender” Max HP, Max Damage – “Heavy” Min HP, Max Damage – “Attacker” Min HP, Min Damage – “Swarmer” The designer is now asking the question, “Which of these Enemies do you want to attack first,” and the Player must be supplied with abilities (Weapons) to deal with all four Enemies created by this diagram. The choice field for the player’s Weapon mechanic might look something like this: Adding ammo allows us to differentiate our weapons from each other Each dot on the diagram represents a Weapon that is an example of the extremes we’ve built into this Choice Field Game Mechanic: Weapon Spectrum #1: Min Ammo to Max Ammo Spectrum #2: Min Damage to Max Damage EXAMPLES: (Ammo is represented in these examples as “breakability” – number of times it can be used before it breaks) Max Ammo, Min Damage – “Whiffleball Bat” Max Ammo, Max Damage – “Sword” Min Ammo, Max Damage – “Chainsaw” Min Ammo, Min Damage – “Fragile Stick” So if we assume these two Choice Fields are the only ones in the game, our game now looks like this: We have four Enemies, each of which has different health and damage values. The player has access to four Weapons (A, B, C, and D), each of which has different damage and ammunition values. The player will want to use a high-damage weapon to kill a high-hit point enemy and vice-versa. The addition of the ammunition spectrum makes sure that you can’t use every weapon all the time, and keeps them in balance with the Enemy choice field. You can see how the Enemy and the Player develop their choice fields in parallel. This is done deliberately. You can start with either, but they are both dependent on each other. 3-Dimensional Choice Fields There are a lot of times where a two-dimensional choice field is exactly what you want (I’ll hopefully get into that in later articles), but often you’ll want things to be a bit deeper. I’m imagining that most of you read the description of the game assembled in the previous section and thought something was missing, or felt imbalanced. What was missing is a third dimension. I’ll get right into examples. Let’s take the Enemy mechanic from the previous example and add another dimension to it: Range. Game Mechanic: Enemy Spectrum #1: Min HP to Max HP Spectrum #2: Min Damage to Max Damage Spectrum #3: Min Range to Max Range When you add range, things get more interesting You can see that adding this one dimension once again doubled the number of dots in the diagram. As before, each dot is an example of the extremes we’ve built into this Choice Field. We get four new Enemies out of this (A, B, C, and D) which are the same as the enemies from our two-dimensional example but with the ability to strike at range: Max HP, Min Damage – “Defender” Max HP, Max Damage – “Heavy” Min HP, Max Damage – “Attacker” Min HP, Min Damage – “Swarmer” Again the game would be asking, “Which enemy do you want to attack?” The player would need the ability to deal with Enemies at range, so now there are four more possible weapons in our Weapons mechanic, each capable of striking at range: Max Ammo, Min Damage – “Shotgun” Max Ammo, Max Damage – “Gatling Gun” Min Ammo, Max Damage – “Sniper Rifle Min Ammo, Min Damage – “Pistol” You can see how adding just that one dimension to each of our Choice Fields immediately enriched the available options we have for designing challenges for the player. Caveat Just because there’s a dot in a diagram above, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use it. I’ve found the sweet spot is to make a three-dimensional choice field, like examples above, and only use 3-4 of the 8 dots in it at a time (e.g. 3 enemy types per level). You get lots of variety without overwhelming the player with complexity. I’ll explain more in later parts of this series, how I choose which “dots” to keep for a given section of a game. (Link to Part 3) *Note: This article is published with permission from the author, and in accordance with Creative Commons guidelines. Source: Follow Mike Website: Website: Twitter: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord:
  4. Intro This is the first of a series of blog posts which will try to convey my overall design methodology, which I’ve nicknamed Trinity for now. It’s a big task, and I’m not sure how many posts it will take to get there – we’ll have to see as we go. There are two ways I could write this: I could start big and zoom in, or start small and zoom out. If I start big, I start in the realm of abstract principles and, over the course of the series, drill down to show how those principles are applied in practice. The other way (which is the way I’m going to write it) is to start with specifics and, by the time the series is finished, show how all the specifics are just applications of a few generic principles. I like the second way best because I don’t like having arguments, and generic principles are argument magnets. Arguments are hard to avoid without a huge amount of preamble – and so I will start with the preamble and move on over time to the “amble”. The kinds of games I’m discussing There is one overarching principle, though, that I have to state at the beginning. These posts will all grow out of the idea that “a game is fundamentally a conversation between a game’s designer and the game’s players.” I state this not because I believe that is the One True Definition™ of games, or because I think that is the only way a game can be made – but because I am limiting the scope of this series to games which are that way. I’m sure someone can come along and make a great game that doesn’t meet these criteria – and that’s cool. What I’m going to talk about in these articles might even apply to that game, but I have no idea if it will. All the games I’ve ever made or played fit this definition, as far as I’m concerned, so just know all that going into this and take everything with a grain of salt. I hope to demonstrate how it is true at some point, but until then just keep this in your mind as you read the rest of this series and try to see how it applies: A game is fundamentally a conversation between designers and players. Principle #1: Games ask questions, Players answer them Trinity all begins with what I’m calling Principle #1 (not because it’s most important or anything, but because I happened to write it first). As a game designer, your job (in a very practical sense) is asking the players questions. The players’ job is to answer those questions using the tools you give them. I think this is what legendary Game Designer Sid Meier meant when he said that games were a series of interesting choices, only I want you to see it from a slightly different angle: Instead of focusing on the choices, I want to focus on the questions the game asks that cause players to make the choices. It may seem like a small difference, but focusing on choices has a number of knock-on effects. Sid Meier's Civilization IV Focusing on Choices Before I talk about questions, let me give you a couple examples of what I mean by “focusing on choices.” Hopefully this will give you an idea of the knock-on effects I’m trying to avoid by phrasing Principle #1 (designers ask questions and give players tools to answer them) this way. Normally when I see designers approach mechanic design by designing a series of interesting choices, I see something like this: “Do you want to go left, or go right?” The designer here wants players to make choices about their path through a level – ideally choices that result in varied gameplay. Imagine a linear level that forks off two ways, and you have to choose one. Or you’re given dialogue choices between good and evil, etc. There’s nothing really wrong with doing it this way, but I find the results end up being expensive to make, and the player only sees half of the game this way. Even worse, I’ll sometimes see things like this: “Do you want to do it the right way or the wrong way?” Imagine an enemy that can be damaged by two different attacks. Attack A does more damage to the enemy than Attack B. Sure, the player can “choose” between them, but only one is correct – so it’s not really a choice, it’s just rope to hang the player with. There are many other pitfalls I see all the time because a designer focuses more on the choice than on the reason the choice is there in the first place. Focusing on Questions & Answers (AKA Game Mechanics) Think of it this way: The game presents a problem, the player uses a countermeasure. Our job is to design both the problem (question) and the countermeasure (answer) that solves it. You can start with either, but eventually you’ll need to design both. Before I close this first post, I want to walk you through what it’s like to design this way. It’ll become more obvious as the series goes on, but this should give you enough context to make it through to the next post. Let’s take the same problem of the multi-vulnerable enemy I mentioned above. We want the players to have choices in dealing with this enemy, so the enemy needs to ask a question that prompts each answer. The easiest, most used form of this is the enemy with vulnerability states (e.g. When the enemy turns red, Attack A is most effective. When the enemy turns blue, Attack B is most effective). This is very common, but there are other answers too. For example, the enemy could ask a single question, but the best attack to use against it at any given time is based on the context the enemy exists in. Let’s say you have a 1 HP 1 Damage enemy called “Bob” which stands still and shoots at the player. The player has three attacks: One shoots bullets straight ahead (Magic Missile), one does damage over time to everything in a short cone (Cold Spray), and one lobs a projectile into the air that explodes on landing (Fireball). The attacks may have other differences, but for now let’s just consider the range. If the player encounters Bob on a flat plane, any of the three attacks are a good answer. If Bob is behind cover, though, Magic Missile and Cold Spray are useless unless you run around and get a new angle. Fireball, though, could arc over the cover so it’s the best option. If Bob is up on a ledge, the player could aim and shoot with Magic Missile, or try to jump and lob a fireball. If there are two Bobs close together, Cold Spray and Fireball will hit both of them, but Magic Missile will only hit one. The enemy is still asking one question “what’s the best way to attack me” but now we’ve added a meta-question: “Given the terrain, what’s the best way to attack me?” You keep stacking questions and meta-questions on top of each other until your game feels like the player has enough choices in every circumstance. A few things to notice: The goal isn’t to create individual choices, but rather to create a “choice field” (or “design space,” as I’ve heard it called). I’m going to go into these more later, just keep them in mind. The questions and answers can all be very simple. When layered together with other questions (like those asked by a level design’s gaps, ledges, and cover), new answers begin to emerge based on context. I started this example with the attacks and questions already decided to make Principle #1 more clear, but usually you have to decide on these things yourself. In later posts I’ll try to illustrate how I come to decisions like that (it’s complicated) but just remember that the foundation of it all will rest on Principle #1 (designers ask questions and give players tools to answer them). (Link to Part 2) *Note: This article is published with permission from the author, and in accordance with Creative Commons guidelines. Source: Follow Mike Website: Website: Twitter: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord:
  5. In a wide-spanning and deeply insightful interview held by our friends at ForgeHub, Hardy Lebel discusses the explicit simplicity in the original CE multiplayer levels and answers questions like "why do your maps suck" and "why does the sandbox and mechanics have to carry your maps?"Though humorous in nature, Hardy answers these questions with a serious and respectful discussion of iterative learning and the essential link between level and game design - he had to learn 3ds Max for the multiplayer portion of the game, and having never modelled in the program before, had to very carefully and explicitly lay out levels that would be both feasible for his level of technical skill, and enjoyable for players within the CE sandbox, which he explains was something akin to a "party game with guns". Hardy was able to implement a solid design process in order to accomplish this goal: game design and level design need to reflect and support each other, like a good marriage. The game mechanics have to be securely in mind - a single, minuscule change to the sandbox can profoundly effect the rest of the game's design! The success and reverberation of Halo: CE throughout the industry should speak volumes for the wisdom of such an approach, so we're grateful to be able to have him on record presenting the reasoning behind his design. Please check out some of Hardy's other work, and give him a follow if you enjoyed the interview.- icyhot Follow HardyYoutube: Follow ForgehubWebsite:
  6. Recently, I decided that I wanted to start blogging again so that I could discuss various aspects of game development and the game industry. In the hope that it will help to improve my own understanding and provide some insight into the world of Game/Level design.Back in September 2017, I was invited to do a Rezzed session at EGX, where I decided to talk about level design, as that’s one of the areas of design I’m most passionate about. So as my first blog post I wanted to take some time to explore what goes into creating a navigable space.Fun Fact: Level design is an area that I’ve always been interested in, and where I got my first real break in the industry. My first real industry job was working as a QA/Design intern during my final year of University which gave me great insight into development processes. Shortly after graduating I joined Coatsink as a level designer working on Shu, I have been with the company almost 3 years, in which time I have worked my way up to become Lead Designer. What is a level?This might seem obvious to most, but due to the sheer amount of terminology, you’ll encounter, defining exactly what a level is, may differ from person to person or even game to game. Level’s can also be characterised as missions, stages, maps, worlds, rounds, waves, acts or chapters. Put more simply a level is a venue/space used for player interaction. That being said - even though the terminology we use might differ, what goes into a level is usually the same. With that in mind what I’m going to discuss is, by no means, a definitive definition - but some of the characteristics should go into creating a good level. Defining a levelAs a level designer, you’re tasked with creating levels, missions, stages, episodes or player areas. These are just a few of the terms that are used to describe the spaces that a player will encounter. A level is usually a space that has been constructed to convey a series of different gameplay events, that are composed in such a way that they can if done correctly, lead the player through an environment.One very important thing to bear in mind - when it comes to level design - is that a level acts as the conduit between the player and the game’s mechanics, helping to establish a relationship between the player and the rules that govern the world. Understanding the play spaceRegardless of the type of level you create, all levels have some kind of play space - an area identified by a designer in which they allow players to play, usually defined by logical boundaries. These spaces aren’t always boxed off, some are more free-form and allow players to come and go as they please, but any space in which the player must occupy to complete a challenge, objective or perform an action is defined as a play space.A play space is usually comprised of a lot of different elements and different types of information and, as a designer, it’s your job to ensure that the player doesn’t become too overwhelmed or get lost while trying to navigate.A large part of any play space, are the challenges that it presents to the player, the severity of which can differ greatly, throughout the game. These challenges can be both big and small; Defeating a large group of enemies or using logic to solve a puzzle that has multiple stages and requires players to utilise the entire space. Smaller challenges can be as simple figuring out how to navigate through spaces successfully, there doesn’t always have to be a conflict to create a challenge. Look at a game like Portal most of the challenge comes from figuring out how to get through a space by setting up portals is the correct configuration. Most spaces will always present some kind of navigational challenge, so it’s important that these space are navigable. Good player navigation should never take control away from the player, levels should be intuitively designed so that players understand what they have to do and how they can achieve it, using the mechanics and tools they have available. This can lead to players feeling more empowered it can also help to establish a certain level of emergent gameplay.Player choice is an important thing to consider when creating a level even when the destination or objective is predetermined and will always be the same. Even when you have a linear experience or sequence of events it’s still possible to offer players the illusion of choice. This is most commonly achieved by presenting players with multiple ways to accomplish something so the destination may always be the same but the decision is up to them. We call this the illusion of choice because despite that it’s the player who chooses how they get to a destination, where they have to go, it’s always the same. Uncharted 4 embraced this approach, you were given small open environments to explore, but you always left through an intended/ predetermined exit. Level design considerationsWhen designing and creating a level you need to think about the affordances you offer to the player. Affordances account for any visual aspects found in a play space, and how they’re presented in relation to the player’s goals. In level design when we talk about affordances, we usually refer to the clues we give to the player, about how something can be used - either through the object itself or the context in which it appears.As level designers, we can utilize affordance theory to help make spaces more readable and easier to understand. Affordance theory states, that the world is not only perceived in terms of spatial relationships and object shapes - but also in terms of object possibilities for action, the affordances. For example, a door in a game has multiple properties, it can be open or closed, locked or unlocked and even obstructed. The characteristics of a said door can be shared but there needs to be some kind of difference that informs its current state. A door that is left partially open with no obstructions will be interpreted as usable. Likewise, a similar closed door with no obstructions will be interpreted in the same way. If you don't want the player to use a door make it obvious that it is obstructed or locked through the visual language you use. When identifying what affordances will appear in your level, it's important to remember that perception drives action. So, in the case of a game, it’s important to think carefully about how areas and objects will be perceived. If it looks like the player should be able to interact with something, then they should be allowed unless there’s a well-communicated reason why they can’t.Affordances need to be careful consideration when you’re building out a play space - but they aren’t the only thing that goes into making a good level. Levels should be fun/interesting to navigate when trying to achieve this, you need to address various factors. Avoid causing frustration and make sure your design intentions are clearly communicated. If they aren’t it won’t be clear to the player, leading to the player becoming stuck or lost - potentially giving up - and no one wants that!Techniques that can be used to help with communicating information include colour coding, signposting, waypoints and even lighting. When applying techniques to communicate information to the player try to ensure that the visual language you use is consistent so that player can start to identify the relationships between the language used and what it is trying to tell them.One of the more common techniques that we see used in games to aid navigation is colour coding. Good use cases can be found in Horizon which use yellow paint to highlight your way forward especially when it comes to climbing, likewise, Rime also uses colour coding to highlight climbable surfaces and show the around cliff faces. Level progressionLevel progression influence’s how a player navigates the space, it also allows the developer to control pacing and how events unfold. Progression can be a powerful tool for a designer; it allows you to dictate how and when players will reach certain areas when they will learn new information and encounter mechanics which means you can ensure a player doesn’t end up in a situation where they aren’t prepared.One of the last areas that I wanted to touch on - when it comes to designing and crafting levels - is the concept of, show don’t tell. Levels should always tell the player what to do, but not explicitly how to do it. When building and designing a level make sure you provide all the tools (mechanics) and objects (props) that the player will need in order to overcome whatever obstacles and challenges that come their way. Level’s don't have to be exclusively used for telling the player what to do they can also be used to tell stories. Visual storytelling is another aspect of level design that can help to better establish a game's story and emphasize the current state of the game world, in how it reacts to the player and their actions.You don’t need to necessarily need to show the player how to do it, if your level is intuitive enough and the game mechanics are well-established, players should be able to figure out what it is they need to do. Well, that's it for this post, in future posts I will look into some of the different level design techniques that can be used to encourage navigation and help to create believable and readable spaces. I’ll then take look at a general level design.Thanks for taking the time to read my post, hopefully, you found it a little interesting until next time take it easy *Note: This article is posted on Next Level Design with permission from the author Source: JonathanTwitter: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord:
  7. Who is Hardy?Hardy LeBel has been in the game industry for over 20 years, with stints working as the lead designer of ONI and Halo, and as Design Director of Microsoft Game Studios. He's the founder of The Video Game Career Academy. Series IntroIn this Youtube series, Hardy helps us Learn Level Design. The series is broken into 5 parts as follows: What is Level Design? Intention Invention Iteration Intro to Unit 2 Level Themes Level Concepts Integrating Game Mechanics Gameplay Building Blocks Physical Construction Surprises The Video Series Learn Level Design Class 1: What is Level Design? Learn Level Design Class 2: Intention Learn Level Design Class 3: Invention Learn Level Design Class 4: Iteration Learn Level Design Class 5: Intro to Unit 2 Learn Level Design Class 6: Level Themes Learn Level Design Class 7 & 8: Level Concepts (parts A & B) Learn Level Design Class 9: Integrating Game Mechanics Learn Level Design Class 10: Gameplay Building Blocks Learn Level Design Class 11: Physical Construction Learn Level Design Class 12: Surprises Follow HardyYoutube: Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: Follow us on Twitter: Discuss on Discord:
  8. Welcome to our very first Game Design content here on Next Level Design. The ability to effectively and efficiently teach players is the core foundation of Game Design. In the video you're about to watch, Design Doc digs into some classic games and breaks down what they do well, and what they don't do so well. From the video description: We take a look at Mario, Final Fantasy 13, and Majora's Mask to discuss how games teach players in ways that either smoothly guide us through or just drag/over simplify the overall experience with excessive hand holding. What examples can you think of where a game taught players its mechanics either exceptional well or exceptionally poorly?