Level Design Primer 5: Pacing Challenges

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.

First of all, you need to think about what your goal is for your game. In other words, what sort of experience you want to evoke. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume your goal is to keep the player feeling challenged and engaged without them becoming frustrated or overwhelmed. This is a fairly common goal for games, although many games can successfully subvert these goals.

So let’s break that down.

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In this example, we have a series of challenges. However, the challenges are all at about the same basic difficulty level. After a couple of them, the player has gotten used to the skills at play to the point where the obstacles no longer pose any challenge.

So let’s try another example, but this time ramp up the difficulty.

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Here we’ve ramped up the difficulty with each successive challenge. However, the player is still likely to get bored pretty quickly. It’s (necessarily) not because they’re not being challenged, but because they’re not being engaged. The challenges are all testing basically the same skills in the same ways, each challenge is just a more difficult version of the last. There’s no variety. So let’s mix it up a bit:

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This is looking a lot better (well, up to the point marked with a question mark, we’ll get to that later). There are a few types of enemies that challenge different skills. They show up individually and together and in different sorts of environments. (Note: I wrote a short article a while back which is fairly relevant now about when to begin level design: http://renegadesector.com/2013/01/when-to-start-level-design/ )

Keep in mind the content you have at your disposal when trying to create variety. If your game has puzzles as well as action, alternate between the two. And not simply Action, Puzzle, Action, Puzzle… Mix up how you’re going between them. Maybe have a couple action segments in a row, then a puzzle segment, then an action segment, then a few puzzles, ect… Create variety in the length of encounters (for example, when I make Run ‘n’ Gun games, I tend to alternate between scrolling segments where you move over a long distance while fighting enemies, and stopped-sections, where you must clear all enemies from a the screen before being able to progress. Shooter games often have long portions where the player is trying to get somewhere, and then once they get there, that place becomes a set-piece which they’ll stay in for a lengthy encounter.

Note that in addition to engaging the player more, variety also let’s you take more time ramping up the difficulty curve. If there’s only one thing the player has to know how to do, they’re going to learn how to do it pretty quickly, and you’ll have to keep making things more and more difficult to match. However, if you have a variety of things, they keep having to learn new ways to deal with new situations.

But, of course, you you can go too far with that and make an obstacle that is artificially difficult because the player doesn’t have enough prior experience to help them know how to deal with it. In the final challenge of the last example, the area marked by a question mark, an enemy show up that the player hasn’t seen before.  However, there are other perils for the player to deal with in that area, so they are likely to feel fairly blindsided by this new arrival and get overwhelmed.

Now, I could dedicate a whole article to teaching through level design, but, well, this video already covers it so well:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FpigqfcvlM

The point is that you should generally prepare the player for anything they’ll be expected to do. Generally, whenever I reveal a new enemy, I’ll make a challenge which contains only that enemy, so that you can really get a feel for how to fight it on it’s own, before throwing it into the mix with other enemies.

Another thing worth mentioning is that it’s often best to create variety in your difficulty curve as well. In other words, don’t just have it as a constant, gradual, increase, as that can get relentless. Sometimes give the player something that pushes the upper bounds of their skill level without becoming frustrating (boss battles usually do this), and sometimes give them a slightly easier challenge so that they can relax a bit and feel how much they’ve progressed in their skill.

I’d be remiss at this point if I didn’t mention that there’s a psychological concept devised by a man named Csíkszentmihályi called “Flow,” which is often used in discussing games. To put it simply, it describes the state someone enters when they are performing a skill-intensive action which is neither too easy (in which case it would be boring) or too difficult (in which case it would be frustrating). The better you get at something, the harder it has to become for you to remain in flow. For any given skill level, there’s a range of difficulties where they would enter into the state of flow. Flow is a very useful concept in crafting difficulty curves.

So, to recap, the basics of pacing which we have discussed in this article are

  1. Keep your levels progressing in difficulty so that the player stays challenged
  2. Don’t let the level too hard unless you want the player to get frustrated
  3. Keep things varied
  4. Don’t throw too much new stuff at the player at once, or else they’ll become overwhelmed.

Next time I’ll run you through a bit of my own process for planning out levels.

<–Part 4: Mental Obstacles   ——– Part 6: Planning Out Levels –>



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