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  1. Recently through the mysterious and tenuous connections of social media, I was asked a few questions about the game design of Halo multiplayer. Yes, the first Halo. Combat Evolved. Yes, I know that game came out when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, but there are still a few things about the development process that might be interesting to designers. One question in particular caught my attention: “Was quick-camo intentional?” Paraphrased, I read the question this way: "When the player picks up the Active Camo powerup, they turn invisible. If they shoot while they're invisible, they become visible for a while. But some weapons seem to make the player fade in and then back out of view faster than others. Was that intentional?" The answer is related to one of my Universal Truths of Game Design. The Universal Truths are rules that I have figured out throughout my career in game development. I know they're true, because I have followed these rules and succeeded, and I've ignored them (or just been ignorant of them) and failed. In this case, the answer comes from; UNIVERSAL TRUTH #3: You must create a mental model That means that, as a designer you must create a theoretical model that describes how the systems in the game should act with each other. Game data design and balancing is an incredibly complex task. As anyone who has ever opened up a set of modern game tools knows, there are an overwhelming number of places where a designer can change numbers that can affect how the in-game systems behave. Here’s an example picture of an open game toolset that I grabbed off the web: It’s a pretty typical screenshot of a set of development tools. There are windows that allow the designer to place objects in 3D space, and along the right side of the screen there are a bunch of folders that hold different types of data that you can fiddle with. And adjusting any of the numbers will change what happens in the game. I’ve seen it happen many times, a good game designer is tasked with making the game more fun and, faced with the complexity of that job, gets overwhelmed and doesn’t know what to change to make the gameplay better. At best, a designer stuck in that situation is ineffective. At worst, the game sucks because of them. In my process, I make a mental model of how I think the system should work. It gives me a place to start figuring out what numbers to change, and in what ways I need to change them. From there, I adjust the data values to suit that model. And the more rigorous I am with my mental model, the more confidence I have when I'm adjusting the sea of numbers in front of me. Let me give you an example. As we were working on Halo, the team lead’s first choice was to make the guns work the exact same way in single player and multiplayer. The responsibility for balancing all those numbers had been given to a senior designer on the project, but the general feeling was that his changes were not making the game more fun (see above). I talked things over with Jason Jones (the creative genius at the core of Bungie) and he and I agreed that somebody with more experience in game balance needed to take over the job. Initially, Jason volunteered to handle it all himself. As the man behind the game balance of Myth, and the Marathon series of shooters he was more than capable of the job. But I pointed out that multiplayer would have very different needs for the guns than the single player team. Weapons in the hands of dumb AI bad guys need to provide fun challenges for the player to overcome, but weapons in the hands of a player are a different matter. As a quick demonstration, think about the gunfights in Halo. In most cases, encounters have multiple bad guys shooting at you at one time. Each gun can be adjusted to be a little bit weaker in enemy hands so that player (the hero of the story) doesn't get overwhelmed. But in multiplayer, most decisive fights are one on one. Guns needed to be unique and powerful. I also pointed out that if we just used one set of data, as I was changing the gun data for multiplayer I might be damaging the overall balance of the single player game. Jason agreed, and we decided to "branch" the data and create two versions of the numbers, one for single player and the other for multiplayer. So starting out, I had a handful of guns with some data already attached to them based on the single player game. I had the freedom to change whatever I wanted. All I needed to do was figure out how to make the fighting fun. I needed a roadmap to follow. A mental model. But where to start? Follow this link to read this section of the article: https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/HardyLeBel/20150105/233483/Universal_Truth_Number_Three_pt1.php But just making the Halo multiplayer weapons respect their roles in the matrix really wasn’t enough. That’s kind of “first-person shooter design 101.” In a first-person shooter, weapons are the stars of the show. They need to look good, and sound good. They need awesome animations. They need to be effective in their roles and they have to make the player feel powerful and competent. But perhaps most importantly, they need to reward player mastery. To accomplish that, the design needed depth. Universal Truth Number Three (Part 2) I characterize depth as game systems or balance details that are included to enrich the experience of the player, but that are not necessarily explained or documented. They’re meant to be discovered and exploited as players’ expertise with the game grows. There are lots of great examples of what I’m talking about in all types of games, but I will offer up a couple of made-up examples for illustration: Example Game 1 is Wizard Warts, a fantasy role-playing game about a cabal of magical toads set deep in a haunted swamp. Pollywogs evolve into acolytes - able to hop, swim, wear armor and use weapons. But once they grow strong enough in the shallow waters around their home, they can quest deep into the swamp to find and eat one of the legendary magic Dragon-Flies. Four different types of Dragon-Fly swarms live in the swamp: Fire, Ice, Poison/Acid and Love. Once a toad gobbles one of them up, the acolyte evolves into a Toadzard, and can thereafter belch spells powered by the type of bug-dragon they gobbled. It’s important to note that an acolyte toad can only gobble one type of magic Dragon-Fly in their life, and the choice (and the evolution into Toadzard) is irreversible. The swamp is filled with a variety of magical monsters. They are all dangerous and hostile, but we can use the data of the game to add more depth to the gameplay. For example there are Plant type monsters are more vulnerable to Fire magic and take x3 damage from any source with that description, while Undead creatures are immune to Poison spells. Notice that one of the Dragon-Flies has two “type” descriptions – Poison/Acid. I chose to include the "acid" description as part of that spell group because of the depth that I wanted to include in the design. Acquiring spell powers and evolving into a Toadzard would be a big part of the fun in the game. But if the player chooses "poison" spells and finds that they are literally useless against undead monsters, and "poison" was the only type of damage in that spell category, it could leave an entire class of Toadzard useless in some situations. That’s a very un-fun outcome to players who chose to build that type of character, and it might make the game unexpectedly difficult. Consider the example of player who decided to make their Toadzard Poison/Acid and then had to take on a tough mission against Undead bad guys. A player running into that situation might have so much difficulty that they abandon the game, and who could blame them? Dropping some "acid" in helps solve these problems. "Acid" spells could still damage undead, leaving us the freedom to make "poison" spells useless against them. At this point you might reasonably ask; "Why fight so hard to preserve that part of the design at all?" The answer is that there is a lot of potential drama in the design that occasionally makes spells useless. It aggressively forces the player to adapt their comfortable play patterns, and it might encourage players to explore more of the content in the game. Imagine the player who finds themselves in a scary predicament when the spells and strategies that they've previously counted on suddenly stop working entirely. But, as they dig into the fullness of the spell systems they find that there is a way for them to adapt to the game situation without having to start over from the beginning. A less aggressive way to achieve a similar effect would be to extend the Fire example above, and only give the monsters vulnerability to some types of spells. So for example we could include Hate type monsters that were vulnerable to Love magic and Lava type monsters that were vulnerable to Ice magic. Anyone familiar with the Pokemon series of games will recognize this precise design. It doesn't penalize players as harshly as the proposed design above, but it's also not as dramatic in the player's experience. Follow this link to read this section of the article: https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/HardyLeBel/20150112/233956/Universal_Truth_Number_Three_pt2.php The interesting, and sometimes wildly frustrating thing about depth in a design is that some players never become aware of the underlying nuances. In fact there are countless examples where depth is built into games, but players don’t understand it or take advantage of it. Multiplayer games suffer the most from this kind of mismatch in player expertise, because the parts of their community that grasp the deeper elements of the design and use them often have a significant advantage over the less-knowledgeable. This can lead to all sorts of hard feelings. (if you’re a League of Legends fan, last hitting creeps should spring immediately to mind) As I mentioned earlier, depth in the game balance can exist without being documented anywhere else. Players will feel the effects as they play and hopefully they’ll pick up on the subtleties and learn how to exploit the design. But for that to work well the design needs to make some kind of intuitive sense to the player. In the Wizard Warts example, the player would glean that Fire is extra dangerous to plants. That's a common trope in games and of course; wood burns. But the underlying logic that "poison" wouldn’t have an effect on the Undead since they don’t have a working nervous system or circulatory system is less obvious, and so might never make sense to the player base. If the game is popular enough, the players will learn how the numbers work and "play around" them, but they're liable to think there's some kind of a bug in the game. So to recap: We need a mental model with an underlying design for depth which is (hopefully) intuitive to the player. Which brings me back to the multiplayer weapons design process for Halo. I’ll explain how it all connects in my next post! Universal Truth Number Three (Part 3) I wanted the Halo weapons to have depth, so I began thinking about all the guns that were in the matrix. I needed to understand what they were, and how they fit into the design. The Human weapons were easy to understand. I’m a Human, and I know what we use guns for. But the weapons used by the aliens of the Covenant were another matter. The easiest place to start would be to simply say that the alien guns were simply analogs to the Human weapons on the matrix. The pistols, assault rifles etc. could be basically the same, only with different visual presentation. Easy, yes. But that seemed like a huge missed opportunity to add depth and richness to the game. So I started thinking why would the Covenant choose these particular weapons in the first place? We (Humans) have guns. And once guns were developed, Humans developed systems to protect people from bullets (bullet proof vests, riot shields etc.) And then in the relentless march of progress, people invented ways to kill other people inside of their body armor (armor piercing bullets etc.) Remember that at the time there wasn't a lot of settled "lore" about the game story. I decided that in my model, Human Spartan armor was created as a desperate response to the Covenant attacks. It had similar functions, like a personal shield, but was based on different technology. So how about the Covenant? There were some notes about the bad guys and their guns, but the honest truth was that the aliens shot light-up bolts of energy because they looked a lot more visually impressive coming towards the player on screen. If the bad guys shot nearly invisible bullets and you couldn't see them coming at you, it would be a total drag every time you died. But just knowing that they were colored lights wasn't going to help me balance my combat data. Clearly they had guns. And they had an equivalent to our body armor – personal energy shields. I could imagine Covenant warriors facing off against enemies across the universe with their plasma weapons blazing. Or more specifically, their Plasma Rifles. As an poor man's analog to the Human pistol, the Plasma Pistol was a pretty dull thing, only useful as a desperation choice for one of the two gun slots you were limited to. I stared at the various data fields in the Halo toolset for quite a while, trying to imagine what to do with the Plasma Pistol to make it cool. And then a question occurred to me: What if the Covenant had to fight an enemy with shields like their own? Or what if they had to fight themselves? They’d need their own armor-piercing capability. In the Halo tools, every projectile had a “shield damage” value. Most were set so that they would damage shields at a rate that matched the damage that their bullets would do to the player's health bar. None of the projectiles were really aggressively balanced against shields. And you know how I feel about data balance in a matrix! I started to experiment with making Plasma Pistol bullets designed to specifically shred shields. It was a snap to make a projectile that blew them off quickly, but then it seemed overpowered to also make those bullets do good levels of “body” damage as well. Then it occurred to me: maybe the shield-shredding effect could be assigned to a different bullet. The one assigned to the secondary fire-mode for the gun – the overcharge. This proved to be very fun. In my early playtests, I'd grab the Plasma Pistol and use the overcharge specifically to blow up the shields on enemies that I ran across. But it was frustrating when I missed the overcharged shot (full disclosure: I am a much better designer than I am a player) So to compensate, I gave the shield-busting projectile a terrifying amount of magnetism so that it would track towards whatever I shot it at. I loved it – I could overcharge the Plasma Pistol and let the shot fly, and it would whip around corners and blast targets, stripping off their shields just as I came running in behind and mowed 'em down! In the short term, I won a lot of playtest games. Unfortunately, once this tactic became known to other players, battles essentially started with “overcharged salvos” of tracking shots whipping across the battlefield. The only thing you could do was hunker down in cover and wait as the first round of supercharged shots came whipping overhead before you started moving. It was interesting to see how these data adjustments changed player behavior during our playtests, but a bunch of auto-tracking missiles wasn’t very true to the spirit of the Halo combat model which rewards player skill, fire and movement. So alas, the “super tracker” overcharged shots had to go. But I did keep some tracking, to help reduce the frustration of a player using the overcharge trick but missing the shot entirely. So my mental model of bullets/armor/armor piercing was working to create fun combat. But what else could it do for the game? Follow this link to read this section of the article: https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/HardyLeBel/20150120/234625/Universal_Truth_Number_Three_pt3.php I made one other change under the hood of the Human weapons, which many people don't even realize exists at all. Jason Jones had designed the Human pistol to be the weapon of choice for players at medium/long range. The accuracy, high damage and the limited sniper zoom on the pistol made it a powerful choice for dropping enemies right at the edge of their "AI awareness" bubble, enabling players to pick off one or two targets as the enemies startled into their alert state and then came charging into battle. But it was strong. Damn strong. Frankly, it was too strong for multiplayer. I toyed with damage settings that made the multiplayer pistol weaker than it's single player counterpart. But to be honest, once it was "nerfed" it became a pale shadow of it's single player cousin and using the pistol became a lot less fun. Still, I felt that turning the full power of the pistol loose on the Halo multiplayer "sandbox" unaltered would be opening the door to endless criticism, so I decided to made a subtle change. The single player version of the pistol is "autofire" - meaning that if you hold the trigger down the weapon will repeatedly fire at the precise point you're aiming at. But... that's not true with the multiplayer version of the pistol. I wanted to at least challenge the skill level of players a little more. So the multiplayer version of the Pistol has shot spread. What that means is that, if you simply hold the trigger down and let the pistol automatically fire over and over, each bullet will deviate from the point that you're aiming at. And the amount of deviation will increase with every bullet. I wanted to make it so that players could still use the badass pistol, and it could retain the fun feeling that it had in single the single player game, but only if the player could master the technique of actually pulling the trigger with each individual shot. I still believe that this was a "righteous fix" - meaning that it was justified and the solution was (in my humble opinion) elegant within the restrictions of the established game play. Unfortunately, I lost my nerve a little bit. After all, this was a huge change from the behavior of the single player version of the Pistol. I was worried that players might have to re-train themselves to use the multiplayer version of the gun, which again might lead to huge volumes of outrage from players. So I didn't make the pistol deviate enough while auto-firing. Oh, the shots will spread if you hold the trigger down, but not so much so that you might not still get the head shot that you were aiming at. To this day, not adjusting the spread rate of auto-fire on the multiplayer pistol is one of my regrets. I wasn't aggressive enough! But hey, people still seemed to like the game. One of the things that I’m proudest of is how my mental model for Human and Covenant technologies had profound impacts on the single-player game. For example, the high camouflage ping rate of the Human weapons meant that, even late in the campaign, Human guns were ideal for exposing Covenant bad guys that were cloaked in Active Camouflage shields. A second impact was on the AI development of the game. When the mighty Chris Butcher (AI programmer for Oni and Halo) saw the changes to the Plasma Pistol, it gave him the idea to have the Jackals use the Plasma Pistol in it’s overcharged mode, along with their shields, to greatly differentiate them from the Grunts wielding Plasma Pistols and grenades. I’d like to take a moment here to talk about why I keep using the term “mental model”. You might ask “Shouldn’t the design document cover all of this?” And my answer would be that my design documents have never captured all the details of the game. I find documents valuable in helping me codify my own thinking, and they can occasionally be good tools for communicating a design to the people that are responsible for implementing it. But I've never encountered a game development team that religiously read every document produced by the game designers. And when you're actually knee-deep in making the game, you rarely have the time to fiddle around with keeping all your design documents up-to-date. So my own process has evolved to be very fluid and organic. I start with some clearly stated intentions as to what I want to accomplish with a design, and then start to build it. But along the way, I watch the design evolve and continually evaluate that process. As things happen I’m constantly deciding, “How is thing coming together? Are we going in the right direction, or should we be going another way?” So my paper specs get me started, but beyond that my mental model is constantly evolving. I once read a quote from Tim Schaffer, that I'm going to have to paraphrase heavily because I can't seem to find the original quote. He described the process of making a video game as building a puzzle out of pieces falling in slow motion. But the pieces fall at different speeds and the shape of the puzzle changes, depending on which pieces you get, and which fit. That is a very poetic and accurate description of what my process looks like: I like to toss the pieces up, and every day take a look to see what’s coming together, what’s falling behind and what shape the final form is going to take. (I apologize, but I can't find the quote out there on the web. If you find it please add it to the comments section and I'll edit this post!) So that brings us full circle, back to the one-sentence blurb question that I got via Twitter: was quick camo intentional? Yes; entirely intentional. All of the camouflage behaviors are a product of my mental model for Human and Covenant weapons, and my desire to add depth to the gameplay model for players to discover and exploit. Did it work? As I said before: often players will never know all the details included to add depth to a game. The fact that a person on Twitter was asking about that feature proves that, although my mental model was thorough and effective, it wasn’t so intuitive that players completely understood it, even after a decade of playing the game. But here’s the thing: even if an audience doesn’t understand all of the influences that shape their experience with a work of art, those influences still resonate in their mind at some level. That’s called subtext. When I watch a performance of Cirque du Soleil, I don’t know exactly what’s happening in the overall story of the performance. But I know there is a story. And my experience as an audience member is all the richer for it. There are large sections of the above article omitted here. We strongly recommend you read the articles in full via these links: www.gamasutra.com/blogs/HardyLeBel/20150105/233483/Universal_Truth_Number_Three_pt1.php www.gamasutra.com/blogs/HardyLeBel/20150112/233956/Universal_Truth_Number_Three_pt2.php www.gamasutra.com/blogs/HardyLeBel/20150120/234625/Universal_Truth_Number_Three_pt3.php Follow Hardy Youtube: www.youtube.com/channel/UCRTexStRSiHNR21y4hdx4Yw/videos Twitter: twitter.com/RazdByBears Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: http://www.nextleveldesign.org/index.php?/register/ Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NextLevelDesig2 Discuss on Discord: https://discord.gg/RqEy7rg
  2. 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: www.youtube.com/channel/UCRTexStRSiHNR21y4hdx4Yw/videosTwitter: https://twitter.com/RazdByBears Follow ForgehubWebsite: www.forgehub.com/Youtube: www.youtube.com/user/ForgeHubOfficial
  3. 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: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRTexStRSiHNR21y4hdx4Yw/videosTwitter: https://twitter.com/RazdByBears Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: http://www.nextleveldesign.org/index.php?/register/ Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NextLevelDesig2 Discuss on Discord: https://t.co/hkxwVml0Dp
  4. 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 offers an introduction to Level Design. The series is broken into 5 parts as follows: Building Game Levels - Part 1 Building Game Levels - Part 2 Level Design Inspiration and Concept - Part 1 Level Design Inspiration and Concept - Part 2 Game Development Career Questions The Video Series Intro to Level Design: Building Game Levels (Parts 1 & 2) Intro to Level Design: Level Design Inspiration and Concept (Parts 1 & 2) Intro to Level Design: Game Development Career Questions Follow HardyYoutube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRTexStRSiHNR21y4hdx4Yw/videosTwitter: https://twitter.com/RazdByBears Follow Next Level Design Join the Forum: http://www.nextleveldesign.org/index.php?/register/ Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NextLevelDesig2 Discuss on Discord: https://t.co/hkxwVml0Dp
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