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Archive for the ‘Levels’ Category

Back in spring of this year, I was taking a class on 3D level design that focused its practical work on building a series of levels for Half-Life 2. Our final project was to have the entire class make a campaign of individual levels, with students being divided into teams of three or so people, each team assigned a different level in the campaign. My team was assigned the final level, in which all weapons and enemies were available, and the pumped, final conflict was to take place. It could have been the most exciting level, or easily the most catastrophic failure.

We decided to implement it as a sort of “last stand” level, in which you and many allies would mount a defense of a street intersection against wave after wave of mixed enemy attackers, culminating in an attack of overwhelming force which would segway into the closing cinematic. Hanspeter Ziegler designed the street and building layout such that we had multiple enterable buildings with internal rooms, stairs, and windows to shoot out of, and I set up the positions of friendlies and enemies, laid down the AI node graph, and set up the attack patterns that would let enemy troops sweep from building to building.

Our team worked early, hard, and with intent. We cared about what we were doing and we wanted it to be fun. I spent many hours playing our level, finding bugs in pathfinding or odd geometry, areas of the flow of battle that could be improved. Despite the instructor being concerned if we had too much ahead of us, we kept to schedule and had time to refine the balance, optimize for performance, and add elements of polish.

In the end, we had a level that was a lot of fun. It was open-ended — you had hard points, medics, and weapon caches distributed throughout the level in different buildings, and waves of enemies that could be dealt with using a wide variety of strategies and weapons. Your actions would determine whether NPC allies survived or fell.

I remember mentioning to the instructor that I was really happy with how our level was turning out. I even liked it more than playing the base game of Half-Life 2. She suggested part of that might be pride; I disagreed, because I already knew what it was. Half-Life is an extremely linear, refined game. Our level was an open-ended, arena style level, where every play was new, and you used tactical strategy to learn the terrain and experiment with strategies.

Just today I was watching Jonathan Morin’s talk about predictability in games and how to avoid pre-conceived experiences in game design. He showed a clip from Groundhog Day — a great movie, but the clip showed Phil Conners bored out of his mind as he recited events before they occurred and robbed an armored car without risk of failure, because he knew the exact moments people would turn away and knew his efforts would succeed. Jonathan Morin then talked about the problem of games being just like this with repeated plays — too predictable after the player goes through the same sequence again and again. This sentence resonated very strongly with me:

[Game designers] want to control what the player does, we want to control when he’s going to do it, we want to control why he’s going to do it, how he’s going to do it, and what he is going to feel when he’s doing it.

It was an extremely well-chosen video clip that really captured the problem with highly linear game structures, and that incisive concern seemed to capture at least my personal impression of some of the highly polished, highly refined linear levels such as are found in Half-Life 2. A specific experience, a specific difficulty, a specific set of challenges. This experience might be calibrated to be incredible, but it’s still only one experience. I like these levels… once. And that’s if the designer did a good job. But I prefer a level that lets me play with strategies and tactics, that lets me experiment and decide how I want to play.

Our Half-Life 2 map let you choose if you wanted to snipe from rooftops, shoot from the fire escape on the third floor into the street below, or fight in close quarters to hold a stairwell in a storefront shop with three friendly NPCs and a medic. If one tactic wasn’t working, you could try another. If you ran out of ammo for one weapon, you could switch to a different tactic, or sprint across the street to the hard point across the way and try to hold that one. Our level encouraged intentional, strategic, and improvisational gameplay that changed with every play through.

As a player, I find those experiences more fun the first time, and far more replayable in successive times. As a designer, I find levels and mechanics that create these experiences to be more challenging to create, but far more satisfying.

Jonathan Morin was the lead level designer on Far Cry 2, a game I’m currently playing, and one that epitomizes the kind of dynamic, player-driven gameplay I’ve described here. His blog is the Game Design Cave.

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