//death

We had a death in the family this week. I didn’t get much work done.

I think death is often dealt with poorly in games. To those that experience loss, it can feel trivial. And for those who haven’t experienced it, sometimes the way the characters handle it seems like an overreaction.

Part of it, like with other kinds of media, is that death is used as a writer’s tool. Usually to move the plot forward or help another character grow. In books like Slaughterhouse-5, death is trivialized to aid the theme that all life is fleeting. In A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), death is there to lend character to the world, give it a realism that isn’t as common in fantasy, and promote the sense of real danger that comes with any interaction.

Video games have another tool that helps. Where books deal more with emotions of the characters, video games let you actually feel the help another character gives. When a capable party member like Gremio (Suikoden) or Aerith (Final Fantasy VII) dies in an RPG, or someone that’s aided you during the entire playthough like Agro in Shadow of the Colossus or Estelle in Tales of Vesperia temporarily goes away, you feel that real sense of loss. You’re weaker without them.

But video games are much worse at dealing with non-useful figures. People that are with you, that provide moments of joy, but are largely just there and occasionally make your goals more difficult to complete. The real experience.

I don’t have a solution, per se. These are just idle thoughts.

But it’s important to be aware of any medium’s strengths and weaknesses. With video games, story death is better handled when mixed with gameplay. When you want a character’s death to be felt, make sure that character was very useful. Make sure that no other character can easily or perfectly replace them.

This is what made the deaths in The Legend of Dragoon so laughable. Although I enjoyed the game, whenever you lost a party member, you’d immediately gain a new party member that had all of the same skills. The spear-wielding knight dies. He was a great party member. You feel that sense of loss for all of two minutes before the king strolls up and says he’ll help and, don’t worry, he trained under the knight so he has all the same skills. When your healer leaves later in the game, another character just pops on by with the same skills. It’s a re-skin. Aside from a little change in dialogue, there is no loss.

Books (and words in general) deal with mental emotion and inner thoughts. Movies deal with facial emotion and that sense of believability that comes with seeing real people moving around.

Games deal with interaction. Loss, and all emotions you want a player to experience, need to be tied to that interaction to be felt as completely as possible.

But how to deal with the death of a character that had no use? Either it’s a problem waiting to be solved, or just simply better left to other media.

//scope issues

I came across this Tweet the other day:

It seemed to resonate with everyone, the comments being large agreement that scoping was difficult. And I couldn’t help but think how much it related to my current side project.

For the uninitiated, “scope” in project terms refers to how large a project is, in terms of content and systems. Open world games like Grand Theft Auto and The Elder Scrolls tend to have a large scope: a very realized world with thousands of NPCs, items, and hand-crafted narratives. Games like Splatoon and The Witness have a pretty modest scope, focused around a few features and never straying too far from that. And games like THOTH or my own Tetris Fighter have a tiny scope, with short completion times for both the game and the project.

Games with large scope require large teams, while games with small scope don’t require nearly as much, naturally. In fact, having the wrong scope for the wrong team size is problematic. 5 people trying to make Breath of the Wild? Not going to happen. 300 people sitting down to make Super Hexagon? Waste of resources. The problem always comes down to a mismatch in resources.

And one of those resources is time.

My goal was to make a game a week, with an extra week of buffer time if things got too crazy. That means two weeks from game realization to completion. With such a short amount of time, scope needs to be small. No original music. Simple systems. Not a lot of hand-authored content.

So why did I choose to make an RPG?

PrettyConcise.png

“Pretty Concise” was an attempt to make a very simple RPG. Abstract a lot of the systems out. Few stats. No combat. Story handled by little blurbs of text. English-only.

But RPGs, by nature, are not small scope games. Even this one, with a tiny scope, ended up needing a lot of work. After all, there were locations to hand-craft. 3D models to make. And, more than anything else, formulas and balancing to do. And those take time.

I wasn’t originally going to make 3D models. I was going to have everything be cubes. Nor was I going to have money or side areas. But, here we are:

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And still there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

But all that said, I’m becoming more and more proud of this little game each day. While it still has a bit to go before it’s actually fun, I think it’s a good start.

So maybe instead of making 3 games, I’ll just make one semi-big one.

Next game, however! That’ll have a better scope. Hopefully.

Haphazard Vs. Intentional Level Design

This is Part 2 of the level design series. Click here for Part 1, “Questions to Consider with Level Design”.

In spite of going into area creation with some idea of the final result, many novice level designers approach the actual formation with little concrete thought. Why does this level exist? What does it add? How long should it be? Any of those questions from before are asked often in retrospect rather than prior to actual creation. In other words, a beginner will just start to make something.

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Just going to see what happens.

In writing, there are two kind of writers: freewriters and outliners. Freewriters will just write until nothing more comes out, letting the story “tell itself” and the character’s “move in their own directions”. Outliners will make an in-depth overview of the whole plot, and then find it hard to deviate at all, even when the characters and situations call for it.

Of course, these two extremes are not meant to be a binary. In fact, all writers find themselves somewhere on a line between the two, one more outliner than freewriter, and another more freewriter than outliner. Knowing about the two ends of the spectrum helps a writer understand the areas they lack: an outliner should try to focus on their ability to create unbridled, while a freewriter should give some more time thinking about and outlining major points in a plot.

Game designers, like writers, often find themselves somewhere on the line between haphazardly creating (freewriting) and intentionally crafting (outlining). And truthfully, though a lot of bad has been said about haphazardly building a level, neither one of these ends is all completely good and bad.

Haphazard Level Design

There are many reasons why a level designer might just start making something without direction, without it being a mark of inexperience.

Take a cave area in an RPG. The story basically dictates that the main characters are going to hide away from the empire in a cave, get lost and split into two groups, and then reconvene having bonded with the people they got lost with. It’s a powerful story moment. It lends itself to some interesting mechanics too: puzzles dealing with lighting, enemies taking advantage of the lack of party members, and rock-moving puzzles.

Everyone loves rock-moving puzzles.

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How will our heroes solve this one!?

The point is, when working on a team, some things are going to be decided for you. Out of your hands. Other times, you’ll make an area based off of concept art and need to “place down” a level on top of the area. Even working solo, sometimes your own inner writer will be getting to areas of the game before your inner level designer is.

The benefits to haphazard level design:

-Area almost certainly introduces a player to an aspect of the world. When an area is built before the challenges are added into it, the level can feel more real and lived in.

-New ideas can spring up naturally. Like with freewriting, sometimes a level wants to tell its own story. Maybe a mechanic that wasn’t planned for makes an appearance because, when making the level, it just “fits”.

-Designers don’t have to feel restricted. Although great pieces of art often do arise from restriction, there is value in the untethered mind.

-You can often create more in a limited amount of time. Without much thought, levels can flow like water. In many open worlds, a large portion of the game is made haphazardly because, well, there’s not enough time to plan everything out.

The problems:

-Levels are sometimes truly bad and need to be scrapped. This can be a real source of wasted time.

-Levels might throw too many new concepts at a player at once. Without thought, each element could make an area feel confusing.

-Haphazardly designed levels often forget to connect to levels past and future. Built “in the now”, they might not utilize past skills or foster new ones. At worst, they might just exist without purpose.

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What does this level even mean? Where does it connect to anything else?

With that said, haphazard design is truly a better fit for an experienced level designer, who intuitively knows how a level should be paced, and what kind of challenges need to appear.

Those aspects of level design, when handled by beginners, are often best done intentionally.

Intentional Level Design

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of the best levels are made intentionally.

That doesn’t mean that every inch of a level was done with precise focus, but rather when a level was being added, there was real thought being put into it.

“Ah, this is going to be the first level you go to after being granted the double jump skill. The very first section needs to let the player play around with it, and understand the timing. The first jump will be vertical, requiring the double jump. So if the player fails it, they don’t have to do any kind of backtracking.

“The second jump will be over a small pit, so that if they do fail, they have to backtrack to a small ladder and restart the jump. This adds some consequence, but not too much. On the other side of the pit will be some basic reward.

“Then we’ll get them feeling confident again with some ground enemies they have to kill. You know, ‘differences of kind’ and all that. But now we’ll pepper in a few flying enemies that can be hit more easily with a double jump. Show the versatility of the double jump.

“Okay, toss another pit like that second one. Maybe throw an enemy in it that shoots fireballs up. If the player doesn’t time their jump well, they might get hit by the fireball and fall in the put. But then they can just kill the fireball spraying thing and make the challenge easier.

“Now, we don’t want to focus entirely on double jumping. That’ll feel too gimmicky. So let’s slow things down with a little puzzle. Gotta light all these lamps in this cave. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, this is in a cave. Okay, so there’s this lamp lighting puzzle. Definitely don’t need to jump, but hey, feel free to. Maybe it’ll make this puzzle feel better.”

“What kind of puzzle, chief?”

“Eh, just make it. Doesn’t really matter. Haphazard, or whatever. Something simple.

“Okay, next up, a big pit. In fact, a couple big pits. Each jump is from one nice crystal path to another. Give the player a little spectacle. If the player falls, they die. This will ratchet up the tension a bit. But the checkpoint will be right before, so no big deal.

“Then we end on some simple jumps, a few challenging enemies, some nice reward, and the level end. The difficult jumps will be all behind us, and the challenging enemies will provide a satisfactory end to the level, but without testing any really new skills.”

This kind of a level will almost certainly be better than something made without thought. Things are being placed with order, and there’s very few pacing problems. The level is built to intentionally teach a skill and reward the successful learning of it. The big con is that the level will probably feel less “lived-in”. Like a Mario level, it will be mechanically interesting, but obviously designed. Art added to the level after the fact will attempt to hide some of this design, but cannot mask it entirely.

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I think we can all agree that this doesn’t seem like a real, living place. It does seem interesting, however, and looks fun to play.

The benefits of intentional level design:

-Planning out a level will make a level feel better to play, 99% of the time. Everything will be placed with thought as to how it can build player skills and reward them.

-Thinking about a level and writing down how the level will play allows feedback before a level is made. It tends to be a lot faster to design a level on paper than within the game engine itself.

-Intentionally building a level often focuses on the core experience. While haphazard design can lead to things being added for no reason, intentional levels tend to not get bogged down in unimportant details.

The problems:

-Thinking about a level for too long, especially on a small team, leads to games that are never finished. Sometimes you just need to make something.

-Intentional levels often feel built. It can take away from the believably of the world.

-If your design experience is limited, level designs will often all take similar form. Your typical “Introduction–>Expansion–>Twist–>Conclusion” doesn’t work and shouldn’t be used for every level. There needs to be enough to distinguish one level from another.

Regardless, my general feeling is this:

As a beginner, focus on intentionally designing levels. After you have enough experience under your belt, feel free to let instinct take the wheel.

Conclusion

If you find your levels are not working, take a look at them again and ask: why aren’t they working? Was there not enough thought placed? Too much?

The ultimate truth is that all design requires thought. It doesn’t just happen one way or another. Ask questions. Get the opinions of others. Be critical. Look at your creation from afar and see what it does well and what it does poorly. And from then on, reevaluate the methods that brought you to making that level.

At the end of the day, find what works for you. And go from there.

Questions to Consider with Level Design

Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles to making a good game on a good schedule is making sure that everything that is made for the game ends up in the game. Many times, assets aren’t used for one reason or another. Maybe an asset fits an earlier idea for the game but not some later version. Or, plainly, it could be a placeholder. At the worst end of the scale, something might not be used in the end because it was ultimately without any redeeming quality.

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In spite of FFXIII being rightly criticized for its level design, the areas were still fine to look at aesthetically. And they did fit into the world itself. While someone might look at FFXIII as a poster child for bad level design, I’d argue it’s biggest failing was in a lack of “differences of kind”. But that’s a story for another day.

In platformers, hand-made dungeon-crawlers, action adventure games, and RPGs, among others, level design can be one area in which lots of time can be consumed and yet poor quality assets result. What factors make or break level design? Why can be it so costly?

When approaching level design in any game, a few factors need to be considered prior to putting anything in the game.

  1. What is the purpose of this level?
  2. How does it relate to every other level?

Each of these questions still needs to be broken down further, to their more specific components.

  1. PURPOSE:
    1. Does this level teach a mechanic?
    2. Does this level introduce the player to an aspect of the world?
    3. Does this level attempt to challenge a player’s current skills?
  2. RELATION:
    1. How difficult is this level compared with the ones around it?
    2. Does it use mechanics previously learned?
    3. Does it fit in thematically with the areas around it?

There’s a lot to consider when looking at a level. Over time, game designers come to understand the process on an intuitive level, but the factors are all there. Beginner game designers might want to take a more focused approach, and actively think about what they’re adding into the game? Can you answer all the above questions?

Instead of going with Mario 1-1 or another common first level, let’s look at Route 1 in the first Pokemon games and see if we can answer the questions. I’ll put down my thoughts, but first see what you come up with.

route1

Does this level teach a mechanic?

Yes. Rather explicitly, because it’s the first game in the series, it tells you (and then you subsequently experience) the fact that wild Pokemon only appear in tall grass. Shallow grass and roads are totally safe. It also teaches the player about ledges they can go down, not up.

Does this level introduce the player to an aspect of the world?

The towns are all separated by these routes with wild Pokemon. While towns are safe, these areas are somewhat dangerous. Notably, the patches of random wild grass are most heavily concentrated close to the town. They get easier to manage the closer the player gets to the end, which could trick the player into feeling like they’ve already mastered some element of the wilderness.

Does this level attempt to challenge a player’s current skills?

As a first testing ground, an introduction to a mechanic is already challenging a player’s skills. While they’ve had the chance to move in relative peace in the first town, the combination of ledges and wild grass additionally challenge the player’s ability to move around the space itself. However, it doesn’t last so long as to completely frustrate the player.

How difficult is this level compared with the ones around it?

This level is much harder than the town, which had only one story battle, but with the player’s control of a level 5 Pokemon compared with the surrounding level 2-3 Pokemon, it shouldn’t provide too much difficulty. Even if the player gets tired, they can jump over ledges all the way back to the beginning, with the only bit of grass on the return route the patch right in front of the town.

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Does it use mechanics previously learned?

Combat is taught in the first town, and here it is on display. A direct connection with the information the player was previously taught. However, elemental weaknesses don’t have to be considered here. Just raw HP and damage matters most.

Does it fit in thematically with the areas around it?

This is the first introduction to the wild, right after it was previously discussed with the player. Artistically, it doesn’t look too different than the first town. Aside from it being a little short, and like many Pokemon areas, focused on design over realism, it feels plausible that this stretch of land exists. Like many RPGs, it does seem odd that someone raised in this world still needs someone to explain to them the dangers around the corner, but it’s a minor complaint.

Overall, the area succeeds. It’s a solid introductory zone. Likely, this area underwent some of the most intensive testing as first sections of any game are often the most scrutinized.

While I don’t know the personal development of this game in particular, many games and books will do much of their final editing on the first section once the whole game is in place to ensure that the initial bits reflect on the game as a whole.

As for why level design can be so costly? Well, that’s the result of imagination; of Haphazard vs. Intentional level design. And that’s a topic I’ll discuss next week.

This is Part 1 of the level design series. Click here for Part 2, “Haphazard Vs. Intentional Level Design”.

//testing, music, and randomization

This week saw more work get done on the final area. With all my additions, I gave it a nice playthrough and I’m generally happy with the results.

Often in development, more time goes into working on the game rather than playing it. In some ways, this comes from a trust in yourself that the things you’re doing make sense and fit into the game. And, that for every week you put into a game, you get about 10 minutes of actual additional playtime in the game. From that perspective, testing might as well be every month, so you have almost an hour you can play. Gives you a nice macro look at how the game is coming.

But, really, best practice says that testing should be happening often.

One of the best things that happened this week was getting the final version of music for the first area from the composer. It’s so good. SO good. I may be overselling it, but it really does sound good in the game. Accompanied by a slightly updated sound system that keeps a song playing between scenes and the game feels a lot more like a real game.

Getting all the music and voice overs, will, I hope, make the game feel done.

Aside from that, I added some randomization to the jump sound so that it doesn’t get too repetitive. Although the real key might be to have two or three different jumping sound clips and randomly choose between those. The game isn’t too long, so hopefully the sound isn’t too annoying, but there is a lot of jumping in the game.

All in all, a good week. Could have been better, but I feel accomplished.

//writing, writing

The one aspect of this game that has been the backbone and the most anxiety-inducing has been the actual writing for the game. The dialogue, and the six narrators.

It makes sense that the most important area for the game is also the one that makes me sweat most. The platforming and level design, the UI, the save system, the art style–everything is second to the narrative. Everything serves to prop up the writing. And, if the writing ain’t good, it all falls apart. The writing is both the foundation and the house itself. The architecture. Everything else is the plumbing and electricity, if we keep the metaphor. Important, sure, but not what makes or breaks the structure. Not what stops the building from collapsing in on itself.

And, because it’s been so important, I continue to relegate it to the back-burner. Working at it slowly. Chiseling away at this final statue.

But, sure enough, the rough draft has finally been completed. Woo!

While jogging yesterday, I had my final stroke of inspiration. The lynchpin or keystone to the whole narrative. It just came. So thank God I finally got out of the chair.

Now the key is to see how it works in the game. Implement scratch voice overs and see if a playthrough of the game will yield the story as I imagine it. Will all the important pieces be there? Will the questions the player is left with be the right ones? Taking a look at the script doesn’t even do it justice, however, as moments are propped up largely by what’s around it. The environment you hear the quote.

Will this moment be forgotten because the player was focused too much on platforming? Will the player skip over this section by accident? How much of the story is acceptably missable?

The solution isn’t to continue to put the story on hold. It’s to finish the actual game and then playtest the heck out of it to see if it makes sense. And that requires finishing the final level first.

Let’s just hope that final level is good.

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//2.5 months later

It seems with each update that the next update becomes exponentially further away. I’m going to try and amend this behavior.

The good news is that I’ve been working hard on the game. The first level is now comprised of 3 sections:

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While the third part has been shown before, the first and second part are new. The third part is also quite different than it was two months ago.

There is also some explanation involved here. The first part (1-1) is a 2D view, traditional side-scolling style level. The second part (1-2) is top-down. The third part is same as before, the 3D platforming that the game has been doing since the beginning.

One big decision that’s been made since last time is that the game would take place with multiple camera view points. This helps ease players into certain mechanics and controls. One of the main reasons I switched to this style was actually because when playtesting, many players were confused by objects like buttons and mechanics such as climbing walls. By restricting the player’s movement, the player could learn how these things work by being forced to interact with them.

Those three above levels have now been demoed multiple times. Each demo, people like the game more and more, which is always good.

As an aside, the hardest decision I’ve had to make so far was in telling a great composer that I couldn’t hire him for the project. I have a composer for the project already, but the fact that someone good actually wanted to help work on the project was a nice surprise.

Level two looks like this:

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Level 2-1 being side-scrolling and level 2-2 being the old Pyramid that I’ve been so proud of. Today was also a day of trying out GIFs, so I have one to go with it:

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This is what the Pyramid looks like at the ground level, moving on the lower ring.

Level 3 is better than it’s ever been, but still needs work:

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Level 3 has barriers that the player can only travel through when they’re a certain color. 3-1 is top-down, 3-2 is 3rd person, and 3-3 is side-scrolling. Hard to say which one I like the most.

While the first 3 levels are generally good, level 4-6 are definitely works in progress. Level 4 can be completed, but level 5-2 and all of level 6 is unable to be completed by the player at this moment.

Okay, let’s put them all up in bulk:

Level 4:

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Also a work in progress, but generally levels I’m proud of. A GIF, for in-game view:

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Level 5:

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Level 6:

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In general, the game continues to soldier on. However, I got a pretty big bucket of water splashed on me on the weekend.

I decided to ask for help on the official Unity forums in regards to running a kickstarter. And the fact is, I’m not ready. The game doesn’t look amazing yet, and I don’t have a name or following that would help a kickstarter get off the ground. I’d been looking at it like free advertising, but in fact, as many people suggested, I should focus on getting around more before I invest in this campaign.

All that said, the wake-up call was good in focusing me towards building my social media influence and on making the game look better.

I’m at a strange crossroads in any case. Focus on the game and building social media? Release the game as soon as it’s done? Should I focus on quantity over quality?

Whatever I decide, there’s clearly a long road ahead.

 

P.S. The game’s working title is now “The Many Sides of Ball”. Deals with the pun on the infinite sides of a sphere, as well as the fact that the game is about the many perspectives of others on Ball’s multicultural life.