Forum Post Breakdown: Game Design Edition

Heres a bunch of Game Design related posts I churned out on various forums I visit. Lets start with my ‘level design’ post which was supposed to become a full sized article. I’m lazy though.


WELCOME TO LEVEL DESIGN WITH DR. KAYIN

iTremble ye who look upon this map, for it is the mightiest of its kind/i

Tremble ye who look upon this map, for it is the mightiest of it

What makes good level design? Such is mysterious! Many men could point and say “Behold! This level is the shizzle, for rizzle”, and fewer but still many could psay “I like things!” and point vigorously at things which are made of good and things that are made of bad and EVEN FEWER may actually design a stage, have it be good and likely still does not know what he’s talking about. He also does not get to point.

Even I designed I Wanna Be The Guy with no idea what I was doing. I merely had intuition and experimentation to go by, which led to good and bad decisions as I went along, but over time I came upon the understanding of a process. But before I go into my methods, I will raise the first question. Why is Super Metroid so good and why does its map beat the pants off of everything else in it’s genre?

A typical Castelvania Area compared to a typical Super Metroid Area

A typical Castelvania Area compared to a typical Super Metroid Area

Super Metroid does a lot of small things very well through attention to detail. It keeps you moving and it keeps you moving in an energetic way. It makes you do platforming that may almost feel like formality when looking at it from a distance and it flows from one area to the next. it is active and varied, pleasing to look at and fluid. So with that in mind I will go on to discuss my building blocks for a level. This can apply to any type of level (not metroidvanias excusively) so I will use broad elements.

Concept

Before you do anything, you generally need at least a vague concept, thinking about what you want to happen on this screen, adjacent screens. You want to know what real challanges you want to have, if any and you want to consider the pacing of the game in it’s entirety when you come ot this point. Sometimes even a passing thought in these areas are all you need.

When you begin placing a level down, be it in game or on paper, there are other things you need to take into consideration.

Movement

Moving is the key thing you do in most games and in platformers or FPSs or anything, I generally think of two general considerations.

Motion

Portable Castlevania’s biggest sin has always been indescript hallways with periodic enemies. No features. No platforms to jump on. No motion but the most basic of motions. Games in the mairo series have traditionally been very good at this. Even tiny touches such as changing the terrain elevation or needless platforms and asymetrical areas makes moving from point A and point B way more enjoyable.

Flow

Flow I think of as distinct from motion. A stage has good flow not when you necessarily do a lot of ‘unnecessary’ ‘motion’, but when the path the player takes flows naturally. In games with winding passageways and complicated maze like structures, flow is important to gently guide the player where he has to go. Super Metroid does this beautifully as their are few times where you have to blindly backtrack. You can proceed through the game almost entirely through a cyclical motion. In linaer games like Half-Life, good flow wll help make the player not feel rail roaded. They are going down this road because they WANT to go down it, not because they have no choice. Playing the original Half Life, I always felt like I had mutliple paths to take that never existed during my first time through the game.

Pacing
pacing often has to be looked at in a macro and micro sense. In the macro scale, you may ask ‘was the last area hard? Does the player deserve a relaxing area? Do I need ot remind the player that this game is hard?”. You may ask if the game is reaching it’s climax and if it’s time to crank on the pressure. On a micro scale, each level is filled with ups and down.Long corridors in Symphony of the Night can get boring with your emotion impeded by ‘walls'(enemies) you have to hack down Even little screens in IWBTG can represent pacing. repeating rooms constantly filled with spikes are painfully stressful and even a few scant free spaces to move around in without fear can be a massive relief to players. On the same point, there are times when you purposely want to give no quarter.

Not Pictured: Quarter

Not Pictured: Quarter

Aesthetic

Aesthetic! Many hardcore gamers say they don’t care about graphics. Thats mostly BS. Graphics do not need to be fancy though by any means. Still, every screen, every panel, every section represents a composition. These compositions must look balanced. Stage design without balanced composition often feels random and arbitrary. Remove the moody atmosphere from the Colony section at the beginning of Super Metroid. Replace all the platforms with just simple boxes. Now it feels like a cheap flash jumping game! Take out the aesthetic screen balance and now the game looks like Cheetahmen II. Terrible aesthetic can even directly damage your flow.

You don’t have ot be an artist and don’t have ot make your levels a work of art, but at the very least you need things to be unnoticable Glaringly bad balance and composition can hurt to look at.

the simple lay out of most of the Zelda screens are burned into my brain.

the simple lay out of most of the Zelda screens are burned into my brain.

So… So far I’ve told you a bunch of stuff to look for. If you look you’ll probably find that these things are shown in pretty much all examples of games with good level design. Even Quake 3 maps use these concepts just to make something competitive! But I haven’t told you how to do any of this.

Well as far as I know, the only way to do it is guts and effort. The knowledge of what to look for and what is fun is key to making a good level. You have to test it and feel it. If you know what you’re looking for and keep in mind what makes an area more appealing, you have a better chance to hit the mark.

So what I’m hoping from everyone is that you add our input and insight on good levels. I’ll probably add more based on what I think of and what you say. I want to eventually compile a blog post out of this, so I’ll end here for now. May next time I’ll get into specific cases!

Also recommended reading:
Auntie Pixelante


Now wasn’t that nice, if not a little rough? Then theres a few posts I made on making games in general. A few people asked me for advice for new game developers.

Alright, lemme get some stuff out before I go to bed then.

First off, it’s better to complete something bad then make nothing at all. Your friends might disagree, but you have built up knowledge. This considered, it’s best not to start doomed projects. You’ll learn a little, but will never get the full picture.

So first thing is to not be over ambitious. If you over exert your self, you will never succeed and your effort will be wasted. There is no reason your ‘big’ game has to be your first game. Releasing a decent game of some kind will teach you an infinite amount of valuable things about managing your work and creating the content, as well as the effort required to get things done.

Second thing is to self edit.

Pro Tip: 95% of your ideas are abhorrent garbage

People often wonder how great designers come up with great ideas! The big truth here is generally that their average idea isn’t much better then yours. Well, maybe a little better due to experience, but they started out with ideas as bad as yours! The difference is, they are self critical. They do not hold their ideas sacred. They think about how workable an idea is and, if it is bad, they discard it. They are a better pruner of ideas then you are and the best way to become more like them is to prune more. Many people have idea that sound good, but fail, even theoretically. They are generally afraid to throw out ideas that seem cool, or try and shoe-horn them in just because. Develop the discipline to just say no to your self.

Secondly, great designers find a great idea and they make it shine. They don’t bog it down with excess. What excess is will vary, but they generally will focus on the juicy core. This isn’t to say you need to be minimalist, but the difference between minimalism and maximalism are smaller then you think. I’ll run this down quick…

Minimalism: Cut as many ideas and concepts away as possible without damaging the core idea (Example: Braid, Ikaruga)

Maximalism: Add as much awesome stuff as possible……. WITHOUT DAMAGING THE CORE IDEA (Example: Bunny Must Die, Radiant Silvergun)

So when adding or subtracting ideas to supplement your core concepts, keep this in mind.

Third! Brilliant people steal. A LOT. Originality is the most overrated concept in existence. If you look around hard enough, you should see that there is nothing new under the sun. Nunix said it pretty well earlier in the thread when talking about Idea Theft. REMEMBER THAT. Do not be afraid to steal. That doesn’t mean to just steal and be done with it — then you’re just uninspired and uninteresting to the player. Take the idea, polish it up, show it love and heck, implement it in a new, or heck, just plain well executed way. What games are accused of stealing and being clones the most? Bad games. Don’t be a bad game and you’ll be alright, even if a lot of your ideas are derivative.

The process of idea making, refinement and editing is one of the hardest things to learn. At the same time it is also one of the reasons why releasing garbage is good. It gives you a chance to get real feedback on your work so you can refine your internal processes.

Theres a lot of failure involved in making things, but that shouldn’t scare you. There is a Go adage I like…

Lose Your First 50 Games As Quickly As Possible

There are similar quotes involving painting as well. Failure is a part of learning and the sooner you make mistakes, the sooner you will no longer make the same mistakes again.

I guess thats enough for now, I think I should get to bed! Sorry if this is rambley, writing is not one of my best skills. I could benefit from a little more self editing, in fact. :(

A bit more on originality.

Originality is overrated.

Nothing about originality or innovation intrinsically leads to more fun or anything. I think people confuse themselves. They play a bad game that clearly wanted to cop off of Halo and they’re like “This game sucks! It’s so derivative and does nothing new!”

Well they’re sort of confused. When the game is a tepid mess, blaming the lack of originality is easier then blaming the lack of polish, love and care that didn’t go into the game.

When you play a good game, the slight differences between it and it’s predecessors seems huge, because it’s all dolled up and is well presented in a way that accentuates these differences. It doesn’t make the differences any greater, it just makes you notice them.

And some on game pricing…

I totally agree with Geo. I played VVVVVVV’s demo without looking at the price. Then I was like “Hey this is neat, if it’s priced right, maybe I’ll buy it!”

I saw 15 dollars. I was just like “lol” … I figured 5 might be the higher end, and 10 was possible. But 15? I laughed my ass off. I laughed at the absurdity.

I thought of all the things I could buy. Notably on the indy end of things, Noitu Love 2 is 5 dollars cheaper.

So for 15 dollars you get

for 10 dollars you get

HM. HMMM. HMMMMMMM. HMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM

And I haven’t even bothered to buy NL2 yet (one day I will). I just bought Serious Sam HD for 8 bucks. I can get a number of remakes of great games on PSN for less than 15.

VVVVVVV just does not look even close to a 15 dollar game. NL2 looks better than most professional DS games and its’ only 10 dollars. Granted I think it started at 15 or 20 but at least that looks awesome! VVVVVVV also has to compete with a number of FREE games.

15 is just a poorly considered price. He lost my sale and quite a few other sales I’m sure.

The problem I see if an issue of pride. If VVVVVVV was 5$ it almost seems to the average person that it was trying to make less money. Even if a simple game required a ton of effort, charging 15-20$ isn’t going to fly. You’re trying to find the optimal price point, not assess of much your game is abstractly worth on a value of goodness.

Feel that sting? Thats pride, fucking with you. Understanding price as an aspect of marketing and maximizing profits is the important part. This is regardless of quality, effort or production value.

I Still Hate Google Reader

Okay so now Google Buzz is going on. Okay fine. Buzz seems kinda harmless. I’m okay with poking over occasionally to see, well, the buzz! This is fine.

But now I have other peoples crap appearing on my Google Reader again. And how do I stop this from happening? By unfollowing people, which ALSO UNFOLLOWS THEM ON BUZZ.

Google. Google, seriously lets get real here. I NEVER, EVER, EVER WANT TO SEE OTHER PEOPLES CRAP ON MY GOOGLE READER. MY RSS FEEDS ARE CAREFULLY CHOSEN BY ME. I DON’T WANT TO SEE CAMERA REVIEWS, OR FUNNY FACE BOOK POSTS OR ANYTHING LIKE THAT. IF I CARE ABOUT WHAT MY FRIENDS ARE POSTING ABOUT I WILL LOOK AT GOOGLE BUZZ. FOR THE LOVE OF FUCK STOP CRAMMING SHIT I DON’T CARE ABOUT ONTO GOOGLE READER. FOREVER.

Thanks.

Penny Arcade Bayonetta Contest

edit: I meant to post this awhile ago. Might as well do so now.

Well, the contest was to be one of the first 500 people to beat the game on hard and report to Penny Arcade about it. I figured 500 people would blow through the game on the first day. Funny enough, by the time I finished hard casually, the contest was still on…. and was still on for a few weeks after!

I don’t just make hard games, I play them!

Ideology

I’ve always had a strong disdain for ideology. When I was young, I had ideologies but didn’t realize what they were at the time. To 16 year old me, ideologies were things people who were wrong had. I’m a much more balanced individual now, as one would expect when comparing someone to themselves when they were a teenager. The other day, my good e-friend from Hong Kong, garcia1000 (the lower cased name and number is critical to the true garcia1000 experience) shared with me a great quote from Charlie Munger. If you don’t know (I didn’t until he told me), Munger is one of Warren Buffet’s most trusted partners and a very rich man in his own right. Anyways, the quote goes as followed.

Another thing I think should be avoided is extremely intense ideology because it cabbages up one’s mind. You see it a lot with T.V. preachers — many have minds made of cabbage — but it can also happen with political ideology. When you’re young it’s easy to drift into loyalties and when you announce that you’re a loyal member and you start shouting the orthodox ideology out, what you’re doing is pounding it in, pounding it in, and you’re gradually ruining your mind. So you want to be very, very careful of this ideology. It’s a big danger.

In my mind, I have a little example I use whenever I think about ideology. The example is these Scandinavia canoeists who succeeded in taming all the rapids of Scandinavia and they thought they would tackle the whirlpools of the Aron [sp.] Rapids here in the United States. The death rate was 100%. A big whirlpool is not something you want to go into, and I think the same is true about a really deep ideology.

I have what I call an iron prescription that helps me keep sane when I naturally drift toward preferring one ideology over another and that is: I say that I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who support it. I think only when I’ve reached that state am I qualified to speak. This business of not drifting into extreme ideology is a very, very important thing in life.

I liked this little passage a lot, as it highlights the danger of ideology. The sad part is that these days, we are filled with ideology. The worst of it is political, because that just doesn’t result in a lack of thinking, it creates huge obstacles when it comes to getting anything done. Both sides approach issues by finding evidence to support their ideologies. Even when politicians don’t do this, they are drowned out by people who do. I find my self these days to be a liberal leaning moderate, but I don’t even care if someone shares my viewpoints anymore. Instead, I care about why people have their views. It is intensely unpleasant for me to see people expose points that I hold dear, but do so not because it makes sense, but because they have been suckling on the party koolaid too long.

My friend Paul and I argue about this frequently. I hesitate to call him a conspiracy theorist, but he does hold a very negative view on humanity that lends him to assume the worst. Paul believes in organized, very deliberate undermining of our system of government. Myself on the other hand believe, due to intense ideology, that these problems are not caused by people scheming or trying to play the system, they’re caused by people honestly believing they have the answer to everything because they keep beating it into their head. Even if they don’t at first, dirty campaign tricks, loaded questions and various other techniques beat their own axioms into their head. One thing I love about Paul though is he is not prone to intense ideology either. He disagrees with me, but for all his hate, sees my view and will discuss things under the context of my view and I do the same for him. We do this because our ideologies are not rock solid. We share information and ideas, discuss each others views and, at the end, come out with more information then we had before. We have constructive conversations despite having very different world views.

This is lacking in public discourse. Talking points are repeated over and over again. No one is converting the other side. We are merely entrenching. This is dangerous and scary to me. With how media is now, you can choose a new outlet that spins any story into a flavor you prefer. Our intake of news these days is done in a way that reaffirms what we already believe. We watch shows with people who tear apart the opposition. We celebrate their victories while our adversaries use it to demonize us. We think this is helping, we think this is making a point and exposing the fallacy of the enemy, but really we are just patting our selves on the backs. Nothing is being accomplished outside of the widening of the rift between people of differing opinions.

I wish people in the media would see the value of real discussion and real idea sharing. Instead we are in this feedback loop that pushes or biases further and further in each direction. I WELCOME those who disagree with me to disagree with me openly, honestly and fairly. I am not so married to my beliefs as to think I could not learn something. In fact, I feel feeble about opinions I have that have not been vetted in civil discourse. Again, I wish more people felt this shame over their thoughts and ideas. Maybe then we would come up with more balanced solutions to problems.

Independant Videogames and the Farce of Art

The question of videogames and art come up all the time. The question is actually a silly one, since whether or not they’re art is based on definition. So lets ignore that!

So way way back, I played Passage(I’ll be nice to link these stupid games). The game made groan in pain. Boring, with childish symbolism and no sophistication. On one hand I could say it’s a slight bit clever, but it was tepid and hardly enlightening. Apparently some people have had better mileage with it and the game became a big deal.

Really as I see it, people were just proud the retarded child drew a pretty picture.

The real sad backlash of this is what it’s done to the indy community. Between Passage and anything by Cactus, the independant game community gets the message of “If you put no effort into something and make a vague attempt at symbolism, you are clever and art making art!”

That’s not art! and if it is art, it’s TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE BAD ART. Thats the type of art that makes you say “These folks are hacks!” not “Wow look at this sophisticated medium”! They are doing a DISSERVICE to the medium, impressing no one but themselves, creating a circle jerk that produces even less then a real circle jerk! Amazing. Here are two examples I want to go over.

Seven Minutes: So pretty much a vague IWBTG ripoff of sorts, that replaces clever traps and humor, as well as polished ideas with… a vague Adam and Eve metaphor?

So you start in a room with a light in it. Some head (God) tells you not to touch the light(Forbidden Fruit). Upon touching it, GiantHEad tells you what a slap dick you are and if you want to have true enlightenment you will see the world end in Seven Minutes. So thats like, the break of innocence from the bible. So you spend Seven Minute running like hell to get through an ill inspired maze.

So the game is just meh in general. Nothing to cry over! BUT WAIT! if you touch the light and STAND IN PLACE FOR SEVEN MINUTES, GIANT HEAD CONGRATULATES YOU FOR YOUR ENLIGHTENMENT… and… makes you a God with him? It’s really quite insulting.

It’s I Wanna Be The Guy if Cactus made it, pretty much. Only some other dude made it. Maybe is other games are better but he seems hung up on giant heads. Whatever.

Execution: This is a game where you shoot a guy. THATS IT. You load the game up, it tells you to DO THE RIGHT THING. Game starts and you got a gun scope and a guy tied to a post with no context. You pull the trigger and he dies. CONGRATS! You lost! You fag!

So you load the game back up and GASP HES STILL DEAD! Your actions have consequences! He is dead forever! …. or until you edit your registry. Which I did so I could kill him twice. Regardless. So the game is trying to teach you that actions have consequences and permenance. of course, anyone knows this. We are ingrained to know this. This knowledge is one of those things that make us better then lower animals. Kids know this for sure once they break their first toy. We may forget from time to time, but this is not how you remind people.

So what makes this funnier, is… why is he tied up? Did you kidnap him and decide to execute him? Is he a terrorist or something who killed babies? Are you just placing the responisiblity on someone else like a coward? The game is wrought with stupidy. For an unsubtle as Passage is, it’s metaphor at least holds up under some scrutiny.

Real Art

What real art does is not take a slogan, phrase or idea and repackage it in a way that just says it differently. It must support the message. It must support it in a way that makes us realize something new. Art isn’t easy really. Schindler’s List isn’t sad or touching or enlightening because it says “Man it sucks to be a jew during the Holocaust”! It gives a insight through characterization and example. It gives real emotion. Brenda Brathwaite made a boardgame called Train which people slowly realize they’re transporting jews for execution. Now, I’m not sure if that is good (it could easily be hammer-anvil symbolism, but from what I hear the rules are written in a way to try and make people get invested in the act to a degree. Either way I withhold judgement). This game came out of a ‘pseudo game’ she made, which I find more interesting.

Her daughter had learned about the Middle Passage in school and couldn’t quite understand why it was so horrible. Sounded like a pleasent cruise to her! So Brenda made up a little game with prototyping pieces she had laying around that simulated it and had her daughter play. They had little pieces of different sizes, grouped in families. When the ships left, families got broken up between the ship. As time went on in the game, it became clear that there wasn’t enough food for everyone to make it.

Her daughter cried because the game taught her something she didn’t understand by approaching it from a unique angle. Granted this was a quick little game for an 8 year old (or however hold she is), so it’s not quite developed art, but it approaches it from the right direction. The hard part is doing this for intelligent folk and without being totally lame about it. Current Indy Game makers don’t even seem to be trying. They’re either like me, making actual games that are fun, or making shitty pixel art second grade metaphors.

Game maker Zarathustra referred to these as Sadlets (Like applets, only sad!). Please. Don’t make anymore. Either make a real game or have some sophistication. Or better yet, do both! you’ll be a better man then me!

edit: Turns out someone on destructoid beat me too this a few days ago with a FANTASTIC Post on the matter. Lemme thank Logo for giving me these too links, which I highly recommend.

Destructoid Article

Gamasutra Followup