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We’ve talked a bit about arranging challenges in a non-linear level. But what about the person actually playing your game? How do they find their way around? In linear games, it’s easy. “Which way did I come from? I’ll go the other way”. In non-linear games, it’s a bit more complicated (hell, sometimes the answer IS “back the way I came.”).
Now, the easiest way to do this, which a lot of modern games do, is to give the player a map, and put a marker on the map telling them where to go and an arrow pointing them how to get there. Now, this works to get the player from point A to point B, but it takes away a lot of the fun of actually exploring the space and finding your own way to the goal. It can also feel unnatural and immersion-breaking. On the other hand, if you give no guidance, there’s the possibility of the player getting lost and frustrated and not even know where they’re supposed to be going.
As I said in the last part, there are a lot of benefits to linear design. You can control the pace at which the player is introduced to new content and harder challenges. What if we want the feeling of exploring a non-linear space, while also creating a sort of linear-experience of introducing challenges to the player?
We’ve talked so far about stringing together challenges in a linear order. Challenge 1 is followed by challenge 2 is followed by challenge 3 and so on. There are many advantages to building a game around this structure: you can tightly control the difficulty curve, easily make sure everything is introduced in the right order and you can know where the character will begin a challenge and design all the obstacles to block that specific path. But, of course, many games benefit from giving the player more freedom in how they explore the world of the game. And you can still apply much of what you’ve learned about linear level design to non-linear level design, it just takes a bit more consideration.
I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks games have as an art form is the idea that the author of the game does not have total control over the game due to the element of player input, and the fact that unexpected events can emerge out of the interaction between the player and the systems within a game. A lot of designers see a sort of wall between the parts of the game that they can control, and the parts of the game that, due to their interactive and emergent nature, are out of their control. There’s an approach to emergent gameplay that basically says “put a bunch of interaction-rich mechanics together and see all the weird things that happen when someone plays it”. There’s a kind of disavowing of responsibility for the outcomes of an emergent system.
This article is going to be a bit different. I want to go a bit into my own personal process for planning out levels. Now, everyone is going to be different in what works for them as far as their own creative process is concerned, but I thought it might be useful to share my own.
Up till now, we’ve talked about creating individual challenges. The next set of articles will be about putting those levels into context. We will start with linear level design (ie. Games where you progress through levels one after another in a set order). Eventually we’ll talk about more open-ended, non-linear level design, but for now let’s keep things simple so we have a foundation to build upon later.
So far we’ve talked about obstacles in very narrow terms. Things that require direct, tactile action: dodging, shooting, avoiding, ect… However, there are also mental skills that games can challenge: Verbs such as explore, plan, prepare, solve, manage (resources), ect… To put it another way, the obstacles so far have required action and reflexes. But a challenge could also require thinking and planning.
Last chapter, I talked about obstacles in the most simple terms: Something that tests a specific player skill. However, you can also make a challenge that provides the player a choice between multiple skills. You’ve given them a problem and there are multiple (more or less equally challenging) ways to get around it. In fact, such choices are often implied by your game design. Let’s look back at an example from the first part:
I’ve released part 2 of my series on level design.
You can read it here: http://renegadesector.com/level-design-primer-2-fitting-challenges-to-mechanics/