What I am working on most right now is level design. I've had formal training in level design, but my experience in this field is still only a couple of years old. There's a lot I have to learn, and I learned something recently that I would like to share.
First, if you don't know about Flow - specifically the flow state as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - you may want to read up on it a little. If not, a whole lot. Like read the book of the same name.
tl;dr: the flow state is where you are so focused on a task or activity that you lose track of time, yourself, and everything unrelated to the task. Ever been so involved with something that when you looked at the clock you realise you should have left for work ten minutes ago? It's because you were in a flow state.
Video games aim to get the player into a flow state. It's how they hold your attention and get you addicted. Because the flow state is very addictive and a game that can reliably produce it is valuable to an individual.
One of my best friends was playing a level last night, and brought to my attention that certain specific spots were flow-breaking. I was defensive at first (as we always are... pff, artists, amirite?). Then I realised that was just about the worst thing my level could be. It should be catalytic to flow in as many ways as possible.
What breaks the flow?This is one of the specific points my friend pointed out:
The black line is the jump arc of the character. The red box is the character's collision box. As you can see, jumping from that point, the player will collide with the side of that platform. I don't have ledge grabs in Recess Race; this means the player will have a hard time getting up to the top platform without being conscious of this. They will have to hold the jump button to get enough height to clear the platform, and also hold left for enough time to get on top of it - but not for too long, or they won't have time to turn around, and they'll fall off the other side.
This problem makes the player feel there's something wrong with the physics or the level. That's the problem right there: if the player knows it's their fault that's fine, they'll be willing (even excited) to try again. If they feel it's the level/game's fault, they'll get frustrated and become more likely to ragequit.
RULE: The player must know exactly why they failed, and must feel it's their own fault. Otherwise the flow will be broken and they will want to quit.
How difficult is too difficult?
Difficulty is a problem I've always had. I, like many young designers, tend to crank the difficulty when something is too easy for me. This is deadly. If something is difficult for you, who designed the level and have been working with the mechanics of the game for months, that means it will be nearly impossible for a player picking it up for the first time.
The philosophy I've adopted for Recess Race has been: easy to play, hard to master. This is something Nintendo has done best for decades, and it's present in every game they release. It's particularly important to inducing a flow state. Consider this flow chart (pun intended):
A condensed version of the theory behind this: when the challenges presented to you are appropriate to your skill level, you will be more likely to be in a flow state. If a challenge is too difficult you'll get anxious, and if it's too easy you'll get bored. You'll also notice there's some wiggle room here: that's because sometimes a challenge is just a bit too hard for you, and knowing "Oh man I can totally make this if I try for a few minutes" is an awesome feeling. Then you beat the challenge and your skills have improved, meaning challenges of that difficulty are no longer as daunting. And you climb the "Flow channel".
So, how does Nintendo do it? I'll make a list.
1) Simple or recognisable gameplay: everyone knows how to play a 2D Mario game, and if they don't then they're likely playing with someone who does and they'll learn. They've never necessitated players to learn more than 2 buttons: Jump and Run; A and B. This means that players can feel comfortable that they'll never have to learn another button, which is reassuring.
2) Secrets. Secrets everywhere: discovering a secret is fun. It's so satisfying! In pretty much every circumstance. Because there's lots of different kinds of secrets. To name a few:
- Hidden mechanics or abilities: Super Mario 3D Land/World has a bunch of jump types. Crouch-jump, long jump, cartwheel jump (running in one direction, snap to the other direction and jump, gives you a higher jump than usual). None of them necessary to get to the end boss, but each super fun to discover/experiment with.
- Collectibles: again, in Super Mario 3D Land, each level contains 3 star coins that are usually difficult to find or present an optional challenge. These are great because they can be as hard to get as the designers want, because they're not necessary to complete the game. The player knows there's 3 in each level, so they might not be a secret per se, but they are often well hidden which makes them nonetheless fun to find.
- Secret collectibles: in Braid, there is a type of collectible that I didn't even know about after having (in my view) 100%'d the game. Someone told me they were there... and I had 20 more hours of gameplay in front of me. Sadly, this is an area Nintendo is not wont to delve into. They have in the past, but not for decades.
3) Difficulty settings: done wrong, difficulty settings are stupid and useless. However, done right, they can feel organic, empowering and enhance every user's experience. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD is a great example. Right off the bat, you have the option of playing the game in Hero Mode. Wait, what? Awesome! I want to be a hero! ...I take double damage? And there are NO RECOVERY HEARTS?! Oh dear... well, here goes nothing. This difficulty setting was a fantastic move from Nintendo: they know a lot of people have played the game before, so they don't want those guys to get bored with the same challenges, and this is super easy to implement. It also shifts the player's focus considerably: I had to keep track of every fairy fountain and constantly go back to visit my grandma to get soup. Going into a Gauntlet room unprepared was deadly (but super fun, I'd recommend it :D ).
I feel strongly about difficulty settings and some day I'll do an article all on those. Point out some shining examples.
So how does this apply to Level Design?
Most of the points in the previous points are actually about game design. I'll list some things I think are important for your level to be fun from beginning to end.
Difficulty curve: the most important. If you aren't conscious of how difficult your level is at each point, it will be impossible to shape an enjoyable experience for the player. Your difficulty curve should actually look a lot like the wavy line of the Flow Channel chart above. To make your own difficulty curve, look at each challenge in your level and rate it on a level from 1-10. Then look at the figures: do they generally increase as the level goes on? Is there ever a jump of 3 or more units (that's generally bad)? Are there 'break' spots where the difficulty decreases after a particularly hard spot?
Placing ingredients: when I say ingredients, I mean anything in the level that the player interacts with. It can be a special type of platform, or an enemy, or a pick-up, or even a specific platform formation that requires a specific skill. Always introduce these on their own before placing them in combination with other ingredients.
Here, the goomba is entirely on its own. You will either figure out a) it kills you, b) you can jump on it, or c) that you can jump over it and it's ok. Later on, you'll see it between two pipes so it patrols between them, or in combination with other types of enemies, or even just with more goombas. The challenge is much greater in combinations like these, so use them wisely. They can also be the most interesting and exciting moments for a player.
Give the player something to look forward to: this is difficult to explain, let alone pull off. It involves giving the player some kind of hook: something they know is going to come back later, or a task they need to work at for the whole level, or a big looming structure they hope they'll be able to visit later on. Some sort of mystery to keep them guessing; to give them a reason to keep playing. In Recess Race, it's the desire to finish well; to beat the other racers (bullies) who will beat you up/call you names if you get too close. You want to prove your worth! And the only way I let the player do that is by being awesome at the game. So the plan is to make the player feel as awesome as possible for as long as possible, and that means keeping them in a flow state :)
Well, that will be all for now. I hope you enjoyed these musings, and implement them in your game (if that's what you do!).
Until next time,
Keep flowing, super surfer.
-mysteriosum(the deranged hermit)