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After a hiatus, Level Design Primer returns! This time around, I want to talk about one of the evocative qualities of level design. Specifically, the ability to create familiar and unfamiliar space.
But first, as a way of illustrating what I mean by familiar and unfamiliar space:
There are two kinds of stores. The kind that you go to to because there’s things you specifically need to buy. The electronic store where you look around for the memory card section, pick one off the shelf, bring it to the counter, buy it and leave. The grocery store where you go up and down the isles picking up all the things you’ll need for the week. Then there are the shops you enjoy going to. You walk into the store, and you don’t know what you want to buy, but you know where the first thing you do when you enter the store will be. You’ll take a beeline to the coffee dispenser, or the stack of 25 cent comics, or the PS2 bargain bin. You make yourself at home. The experience is different.
This is what I mean when I talk about familiar space in games. Not just a place that you know the layout of, or know what to expect, or know your way around. A place where you feel at home, where you have control over your environment, where you already know where you want to go, and what’s the quickest way to get there.
Familiar space could be the home town in a JRPG, it could be your ship in a sci-fi adventure, it could be the hub area. It’s the player’s comfort zone. They know their way around they know where things of importance are. If there are obstacles, the obstacles are far below the current level of the difficulty curve, and the player can deal with them with barely a thought. Familiar space is not just safe (or safe-ish) but open and easy to navigate, with recognizable landmarks.
Unfamiliar space, then, would be the places the player goes when they’re leaving their comfort zone. The dark cave, the alien planet, the abandoned building, unexplored continent.
There is an evocative power to familiar and unfamiliar space. If you’ve played a Metroidvania, I’m sure you’ve had this experience: You’re delving further and further into an unfamiliar location, getting through challenges, and finally you find a new item. The item lets you pass through barriers that you couldn’t before. But you went through a one-way passage to get here. You can’t turn back, you have to push forward. You finally get to a passage blocked by the barrier that you can now open using your weapon. You walk through, and suddenly you’re greeted by an area you recognize. That door you just opened was one you walked by a hundred times, always wondering where it led. And now you breath a sigh of relief. You know where you are, and, what’s more, you know how to get to a save point from here. Tension and release.
Unfamiliar space can become familiar space over time. The perfect example is the Link to the Past overworld. At the start of the game, everything but your house is unfamiliar space. For a while, the overworld is presented as a series of challenges that you need to overcome. But after a little while, a chunk of the overworld becomes familiar. The enemies no longer pose a threat and you know your way around. You might unlock an item that lets you remove various barriers, thus opening up shortcuts that makes traversal easier. What was a linear path from your house to the castle at the start of the game opens up and becomes a zone that players can move freely around. And as you progress through the game, you open up more and more of the world, and those parts of the world go from unfamiliar to familiar. The dungeons, on the other hand, as the main challenge sections of the game, have the job of always being unfamiliar. You might hang out and just wander around the overworld, but in the dungeons, you have a specific goal, and obstacles in your way.
One thing to note is that openness can lend both to the quality of familiar space and unfamiliar space. If the player is dropped into a new area, and the area is very open, it can overwhelm them and lend to the feeling of unfamiliarity. One tool you can use to turn unfamiliar space into familiar space is to have it open up over time. Introduce it to the player as a linear or semi-linear set of challenges, and guide them around so that they start to recognize the landmarks. Then give the player ways to open up shortcuts and thus give them more freedom of movement through the area.
Some games will also subvert familiar space. Take a place where you felt comfortable and safe, and make it dangerous and unfamiliar. This can be a powerful moment. In Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, when you jump forward 7 years and become adult link, your home town, Kokiri Forest, gets invaded by monsters. It’s no longer the safe haven you remember it as. And what’s more, the Kokiri no longer recognize you now that you’ve grown up. It is no longer your home.
Probably the most interesting (and frightening) parts of The Evil Within were when the safe room, where you go to save and upgrade your character, suddenly becomes different and threatening. These sections are all the more frightening because they are happening in a place that the game had set up as a safe haven. They’ve invaded your safe place.
Keep in mind how the player interacts with the space in your game, and, moreover, how the player feels about the areas of your game. Where does the player feel safe, or comfortable, or at home? You can use these familiar and unfamiliar space to create emotional and dramatic arcs through the level design itself.
<–Part 18: Emergent Objectives ——– Part 20: Coming Eventually…
I’ve talked before in my Level Design Primer series about Gating mechanics: mechanics that block player progress until they’ve accomplished a certain task, reached a certain location, or acquired a certain item, thus directing the order they play through an otherwise open space. Keys in Legend of Zelda, mobility items in Metroid, and so on. Not all gating mechanics, however, are absolute.
I would like to break up gating mechanics into two categories: Hard Gates and Soft Gates. A Hard Gate is when some condition absolutely needs to be met in order to progress. The condition is a binary (either you got it your you don’t) as is the gate. Doors which can only be opened by missiles in Metroid, or doors which can only be unlocked by keys in Zelda, are both examples of Hard Gates.
A Soft Gate, on the other hand, is when progression would be prohibitively difficult until a condition is met. In this case, the condition could be either a binary or a sliding scale: the more of it you have, the less resistance the Soft Gate provides. Take, for example, areas in JRPGs with enemies of a higher level than the player. In order to reach the next town or dungeon, they have to pass through this area. If they are under-leveled, they still have a chance to make it through, but they’d be better advised to hold off until they have leveled up some more. Another example would be a tough boss battle in a Metroid game. The player already has all the items you need to take on the boss, but they might want to acquire more energy tanks and missiles before the fight.
Put in basic terms: a hard-gate is an obstacle that requires the player go do something else before they can progress. A soft-gate is an obstacle that encourages the player to go do something else before they can progress.
By creating soft-gates, you can give the player more freedom while still guiding their experience. You can let players test the boundaries of their environment and assess their own ability (as well as their character’s power and resources). And if the player decides that the Soft Gate provides too much of a challenge, it’s up to them to make up the difference, and up to the designer to provide ways for them to do so. They might take on quests to gain experience, seek out items to make them more powerful, or obtain resources they can use when trying to get past the Soft Gate. Soft Gates can act as motivation for the player to explore the optional content of a game.
It also gives them more leeway in how they get past the gate. A long time ago, back in the EverQuest days, a friend of mine and I, at a relatively low level, made the decision to attempt a cross-continent expedition. MMOs like EverQuest (and it’s descendants such as World of Warcraft) are full of soft-gates in the form of the level of enemies in each zone. Each area of the game is build around being faced by players in a certain level range. However, you aren’t required to be within that level range to enter that area. We managed to sneak our way through high-level zones and eventually make it to the other side of the continent (although my character ended up dying in the final zone outside the city we were heading too, a zone which, ironically, contained level-appropriate encounters). Such an adventure would have been impossible with hard-gates, but with soft-gates, it became a fun subversion of the intended pace of the game.
To tie this in to what I’m currently working on, in Ninja Outbreak, the final area leading up to the boss becomes accessible a few zones into the game. At that point, you could head directly for the final boss and, if you defeat him, beat the game. The game has Metroidvania-style weapons which open up new paths. However, there is a way through the final area which doesn’t require the special weapons. It’s much longer and more dangerous than the path that does require them, though, and there are no checkpoints in the final area. The crux of this is that it puts the responsibility on the player as to how they proceed. This final area serve as a soft-gate, encouraging the player to explore the game world, but not requiring it. That way, every time the player puts themselves into a dangerous position in search of a weapon, it was their choice rather than something they were forced to do.
I want to talk about different types of difficulty. A lot of times, people will describe a game as difficult without really looking deeper, which feel misses a lot of potential for analysis. I want to break down the concept of difficulty into a few different sliding scales:
Skill Window: The raw difficulty of completing a challenge in the game. The amount of skill with which you must interact with the game’s mechanics. These skills could be reflexes, accuracy, strategy, perception, and so on.
Simple vs. Complex: The amount of mental processes the player has to keep track of while playing. The amount of considerations the player needs to make, and the distance they need to plan into the future.
Forgiving vs. Unforgiving: How many allowances the player is afforded.
Low Stakes vs. High Stakes: How much can you lose (in terms of progress and/or resources) when you fail.
Recoverability: Do you have a chance to recover from your mistakes? How hard is it to do so? How many opportunities do you have to do so?
Readability: How much information does the game provide you. When you do something wrong, do you know exactly what it was? Do you know how to fix it?
Short Term Consequences vs. Long Term Consequences: How long does the effect of failure last. Does the player simply go back a few minutes and try the challenge again, or does the failure continue to negatively affect the player hours later?
Positive Feedback Loop vs. Negative Feedback Loop: Is it hard to recover from failure, and easy to push success forward, or is it easy to recover from failure, but hard to maintain success.
Alright, with that out of the way, let’s look at some examples and see how they fit along these scales:
Difficult indie platformers such as VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy: These sorts of games focus mainly on high skill and few allowances. The levels require quite a bit of dexterity, as well as a good plan, to complete, and a single mistake means returning to the last checkpoint. Note, however, that these games have low stakes and very short term consequences: you usually go back to the beginning of the current challenge, and once you succeed at the challenge, there are no lasting effects from your previous failed attempts. Because of this, there are also no positive or negative feedback loops present, since success or failure don’t effect your future chances of success or failure. It doesn’t matter if it took you 1 or 100 tries to beat a level, the next level will start the same way, and you’ll be in the same condition. Complexity is also fairly low, in that you generally only have a couple modes of interaction with the world (run, jump, wall jump, ect…). The only real complexity comes in from how many obstacles there are to keep track of and plan around in the level.
Dark Souls: Dark Souls is interesting not only because it’s fairly famous (infamous?) for being difficult, but also because many people who have played the game extensively will, with a straight face, tell people that the game actually isn’t all that difficult, and I think that dichotomy is worth exploring. The main issue here is that the game is not as high-skill as it seems: the game moves fairly slowly and most of the time you have fairly large windows in which to act. However, the game is very unforgiving, and a mistake could cost you very highly depending on the circumstances. If you miss an attack, the long attack animations leave you open for enemy attacks, which can then stun you and leave you open for more enemy attacks (Note that this would be a short-term Positive Feedback Loop). However, if you survive an encounter, you have a limited resource in the form of Estus which you can use to recover.
Because of the long space between checkpoints, the stakes get higher and higher until you reach the next bonfire. There are also a lot of situations where player mistakes are somewhat opaque, and require the player to try various things until they find one that works. For example, when I first started playing Dark Souls, I had trouble with the Parry. You have a fairly small window to parry, and if you fail, it’s hard to tell if you parried too soon or too late. (The game got a fair amount easier when I stopped even trying to parry). The game is fairly complex as you have to keep track of your surroundings, maneuver to get the best position, be aware of how long various actions take, and be careful not to make mistakes. It’s also worth noting that there are positive feedback loops that extend for longer than just one encounter, in the form of Souls and Humanity. You get these resources by battling enemies, and you lose them by dying, then dying again before you can recover them from your corpse. If you die once, the stakes are raised to include the resources you had gathered, and if you are doing really poorly and die twice, you lose those resources, constituting a positive feedback loop. If, on the other hand, you are doing really well, you will continue to accumulate Souls and Humanity (which in turn increases the amount of items you find) which serves as the other side of the possitive feedback loop.
Megaman: Megaman is a fairly high-skill game. The encounters are fairly simple, but you need a good plan and precision to get through an encounter. You’ve got enough health that the game will forgive a few mistakes (unless you fall down a bottmless pit), however, because of the skill level, if you keep throwing yourself at an encounter that you haven’t figured out the trick for, you’ll quickly eat up your allowances. The game has limited lives: your stakes are either a small amount of progress and one life, or, if you’ve run out of lives, an entire level’s worth of progress. However, other than lost progress, there are no long-term consequences to failure. You can recover some health with items that enemies drop, but you don’t really have much control over it. The game is very readable. Everything is very up front about how it works, and encounters can be solved by observing enemy patterns and having good control over your own movement. There’s also an interesting game-wide positive feedback loop: each level you beat provides you with a weapon that will make further levels easier.
XCOM: For the sake of convenience, let’s focus specifically on the recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown, although much of this would also be true about X-COM: UFO Defense. The game takes quite a bit of skill (which, in this case, means tactical ability, since this is a turn based game). You have to be very careful in choosing moves. By the standards of a tactics game, Enemy Unknown comparatively simple. Your characters have a limited moveset, enemies act in fairly simple ways, and a lot of the game comes down to positioning and proper use of cover. However, the game is fairly unforgiving: your units don’t take many hits, and if one of them dies, it can set off a positive feedback loop through your units panicking that will wipe out your squad. The game also has long-term consequences. Units that die in battle are permanently dead and failed missions will reduce your support. Losing a mission doesn’t end the game, but they can lead you to ultimately losing the entire game (Of all the examples I’ve listed in this article, this is the only one where actually losing the game, rather than losing progress, is a possibility). On the other hand, success will raise your units’ levels. As far as recoverability: on the small scale, you can heal wounded units and revive unconscious units with a med kit. On the larger scale, it is very hard, and often impossible, to recover from a failed mission or a mistake in development, and because of the nature of the game, the actual game-over could come a while after you’ve sealed your fate. The positive feedback loops in the tactical portion of the game can be rough, but the positive feedback loops at play in the overarching game are absolutely brutal.
The point of all of this is that difficulty is a very multifaceted element of game development. The idea of difficulty and challenge is so fundamental to game design, I think it’s important to fully analyze what makes a game difficult, and establish a vocabulary to describe the different ways in which a game can be difficult. This article is by no means comprehensive, I’m sure there are modes of difficulty that I’ve left out or haven’t thought of. But it should provide a starting point for discussing difficulty in more detail than “this game is hard/this game is easy.”.
Hey, everyone. I recently launched the Kickstarter for my upcoming Spaghetti Western Action-RPG Bandits and Bounties.
I just finished playing through Super Metroid, and a thought occurred to me. Something that is both a strength and weakness of the “Metroidvania” style of game is that sometimes you see an object out of reach, and don’t know if you can actually get to it with the items you currently have, or if you need to come back later. In many cases it’s obvious: there’s a colored door or marked block that you don’t have the weapon to open, but many times it’s not as obvious, and you have to solve some sort of navigation puzzle to reach the item.
Why I think this is ultimately a strength is it creates the possibility, but not a certainty, of an unsolvable (for now) problem, which is a rarity in games. Games are designed around the player, and thus every problem is made to be solved. There’s no reason to give up on a puzzle because you know there’s a solution. But with this, you get ambiguous situations where there is a chance that the problem is insoluble for the time being. Giving up could be the correct option, and because of that, it means more when you figure out that a problem can be solved and you don’t give up.
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Today I want to talk about the relationship between specific and general elements of games. It’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. But first I should define what I mean by specific and general.
The key, I think, to understanding games as an expressive medium lies in the following:
Claude Shannon once famously estimated the number of potential chess games as being at least 10 to the 120th power, which, as the cliché goes, is more than the estimated number of atoms in the observable universe. However, in all of these games of chess, there is not a single one in which the two sides come to a peaceful solution to their conflict, or in which the pawns rise up and overthrow their own king, or in one of the bishops converts the opposing pawns to switch sides. There is not even a scenario in which one side grows their ranks; the best they can do is maintain their numbers, and the likely outcome is a steady reduction in pieces over the course of the game for both sides.
In addition to this, there are many themes which reoccur, perhaps not in every single game, but in most well-played games. Using your pawns to shield your more valuable pieces, sacrificing pieces in order to pull your opponent into a disadvantaged position, using multiple pieces in tandem to push the opposing king into a corner. None of these things are explicitly stated in the rules, but they are behaviors that are implied by the rules. The rules make these behaviors beneficial to winning the game.
The crux of all of this is that, despite the often near-infinite numbers of permutations games can have, they still make a statement through what the player can do, what the player can’t do, what the player should do, and what the player shouldn’t do.
Many people talk about designing using “verbs”. In other words, thinking about the actions the player can perform in a game. Run, Jump, Talk, Shoot, Trade, Swim, and so on. But it’s as important to think about what the player can’t do, and it’s also important to consider which of the actions that are available to the player are incentivized and disincentivised.
As a developer, it is important to understand how the cans, can’ts, shoulds and shouldnt’s form the core of the narrative of the game. To go back to the chess example, the narrative of chess could be said to involve class hierarchy, strength in numbers, sacrifice for the greater good (or, one might argue, sacrifice of the lower class for the benefit of the upper class), zero-sum warfare, the importance of thinking ahead, setting and avoiding traps, and so on.
Take, as another example, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and how so much of the core experience comes from the fact that the player can’t fight back against the monsters. In addition to that, they are incentivized against looking at the monsters for too long, which helps make them more frightening. Also, players are incentivized towards scouring the level for items such as lamp oil which causes them to keep themselves in an uncomfortable position for longer. All of this combines to create the atmosphere of fear and helplessness that is at the core of the game’s experience.
Or, to take the example in another direction, think about how, in Megaman, the fact that you can’t shoot in any direction other than horizontally is such a core part of the challenge of that game. Think about the way you’re incentivized to complete the levels in more-or-less a certain order because of how the boss weakness system works.
Remember as a developer how much control you have over the overall experience. Anything the player can do is something you’ve (either intentionally or unintentionally), allowed them to do, and sometimes what you don’t allow them to do speaks as loudly as what you do. And within the bounds of that experience you’ve created, the way they play will be informed by what you have decided is beneficial and detrimental. In this way a game can have a consistent theme or narrative or meaning or whatever you want to call it, even if the events change from playthrough to playthrough.