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Level Design - What's Fun, What's Not?

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I'm just doing a little research for a project I'm currently working on. I'm designing/building a level for a doom3 mod, and I want to know if I'm heading in the right direction. So tell me some of your favorite types of gameplay elements, as well as your least favorite. What kind of puzzles are fun, which are frustrting? Which are frustrating AND fun? How much backtracking is too much? Is a bit of backtracking ok? Just some examples of the kind of feedback I'm looking for.. Keep in mind this is a first person shooter, with gameplay similar to that of the dungeons in zelda games.

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Your question is pretty broad. . . how about some more specific questions to help get people started (give some specific puzzels and ask if they are good or bad)? Also, a little more information about what sort of game you are working on would be helpful. When you say the gameplay is similar to that of zelda, do you mean that it is similar in terms of fighting style, theme/setting, enemies, etc., or all of the aforementioned?

A little backtracking is ok. However, anything more than a minute or two at a time is annoying, and avoid forcing the player to repeatedly (more than say, twice) backtrack to the same area. In general, just keep the level varied. The theme, general setting, and possibly enemies can and probably should be consistant, but the puzzels need to be varied and you should strive to expose the player to as many different aspects of the setting as possible. For example, if your level takes place in an office building (from the Zelda thing, I realize that it probably doesn't, but bear with me), have the player visit halls, offices, bathrooms, conference rooms, elevators, vents, the janator's closet, and anywhere else you can think of that makes sense. If the player must get from floor to floor, then have him use the elevator most of the time, but also mix it up by forcing him to take the stairs from time to time, or let him break a window and use a window-washing platform to lower himself to the floor below. Keep it varied, but don't overdo it -- although having several different methods of getting from one location to another is good, you don't need a new one _every_ time; most of the time the elevator is fine because a) that's what a person would probably really use and b) stairs may be interesting once in a while, but of course the speed of an elevator will be prefered most of the time. I'm too lazy to give any more examples, but the same applies to puzzels. Vary the important ones, but include any short and simple ones that are logical (note the "that are logical" -- if a door should be locked, then make it locked, but don't make the player get a key if a real person would just break the thing down). Same thing for enemies: vary the enemies, but make them maybe 50% just what you would expect (such as gaurds in a prison). [/rant]

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I'm fine with backtracking, EXCEPT when you have to enter a previous level. When I have to go through another loading sequence just to go back to someplace I've already seen, thanks to some heartless puzzle, I get mad.

If the backtracking is in the current level, fine. Just no loading times.

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Original post by mumpo
Your question is pretty broad. . . how about some more specific questions to help get people started (give some specific puzzels and ask if they are good or bad)? Also, a little more information about what sort of game you are working on would be helpful. When you say the gameplay is similar to that of zelda, do you mean that it is similar in terms of fighting style, theme/setting, enemies, etc., or all of the aforementioned?


Well I'm really just looking for general responses..They don't have to be specific to my mod...but generally I'm talking about the level design itself, putting sound, combat, lighting ect.. out of the picture. Basically I want to make maps that will still be somewhat interesting without the use of enemies at all. (though i don't intend for people to play it this way)

What you said about backtracking is exactly how I've been doing it all along...I think it's a pretty good approach, and there really isn't any way to avoid backtracking alltogether without making it totally linear (unless there are paths that the player may never cross, which is a lot of work that gets wasted).

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Generally, I'd say I prefer the levels that actually utilize some degree of tactics. I seem to enjoy being pinned down, and having enemies trying to work their way to my flanks. I always appreciate a suprise rush from the rear on occassion too.

For me, Doom3 didn't have enough "lateral" movement in it's fights. It was usually me standing across from them. Hardly any real options for cover, or escape. When the hallways got wide enough to use, I knew to expect a piggie instead. Fights where I had to worry about an elevator or timer would be better and more realistic than steadfastly terminating every monster I see.

It's just important to mix it up. Once I can guess what's going on, it's no fun anymore. Doom3 would have really scared me if one of those bosses was a close-quarters-battle in a large room full of pillars that made sure I was close to whatever I was peeking at. The only time a piggie really got me was when I first met it in that cramped office!

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Level design is one of the things that i feel was superior Doom1\2 over most FPSs that followed. The single player maps had more Deathmatch like layouts, far less linear than what is common now. You might encounter a locked door at the beginning of the level, and find the key in the other end, after opening two other locked doors. Figuring out where you had to go required some thought, and there would be a lot of backtracking, but most of the time, you could pick a different route. It's kinda hard to explain, but the first (shareware) episode of D1 is stuffed with good examples. The first level of deus ex comes to mind as well. The player shouldn't have to explore every room in a level to make it through, but there should be bonuses for doing so, like finding more weapons and ammo etc. Of course, you'd probably have to use most of that ammo to kill the extra enemies you'd encounter. More optional challenges is good. Let the player find his own way instead of making him feel like he's following a scripted route.

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About backtracking, please don't over do it. I think the most you should make a player go throught the same place are 3 times, and that's if the last time is going to be quick. A 4th time might come after you have advanced 10 hours or so in the game, so it's only applicable in games with few or just 1 big world.

I am playing Metroid Prime, and there is this time when I have to gotten pretty far, then you have to go back all the way to the beginning just to get an item needed. Then you have to go all the way back from where you just came. That was a pain in the ass, I think that kind of things shouldn't be done... I can accept it if what you are getting is something really cool, but what I got there wasn't something impressive so it didn't felt rewarding to go back all the way to get the item and be back to where I was.

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A little bit more on the subject of backtracking. I think it's fine as long as you provide new challenges, like spawning more enemies, or destroying a bridge, forcing the player to find another way to get back, like walking on some pipes or something.

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On backtracking:
Several games use backtracking without it being a pain. Games such as the resident evil series required huge amounts of backtracking. Super Metroid for the SNES also had a large amount of backtracking as well. The key to proper backtracking in level design is to create new experiences during each backtrack. This can be achieved in several ways. First is the use of keys and locked doors. If a player enters a room with several doors, some of them locked, then they will have to enter this room several times. This is fine as each time the player returns to the room it has new meaning since it will allow access to a new area (assuming that the player now has a key to open one of the doors). A better approach is when a person enters an area that has areas inaccessible to the player when they first encounter it. I.e. gaps between ledges to far to jump across, ledges to high to jump up to, areas blocked by some object, areas with breakable walls, doors that are jammed instead of locked, areas that require some small puzzle before entering, areas that require all or all of a particular type of enemy to be killed before entering, etc. Now the player will come back to this area several times but each time will have new meaning. Once the player gets high jump boots, or sprinting ability (allowing for longer jumps), or a strength enhancement that allows large objects to be pushed or picked up or jammed doors to be forced open, or explosives to blast open weak walls, or the ability to manipulate a new object (such as lighting torches) can now manipulate those objects in a pattern to open a new passage way, or a new weapon to kill a particular type of enemy that once dead will open a passage way, etc. Also having an area populated with different enemies that need to be killed in different ways adds depth, especially if some creatures can’t be killed at all unless a particular item/weapon is used. This makes the player avoid some enemies and be rewarded later on with the ability to dispatch enemies that before hand had to be avoided. These enemies don’t necessarily need to then open up a new area, as it is usually enough of a reward for the player to kill what they once couldn’t, though an extra reward is best (perhaps the new creature drops a useful item/ ammo/ gold/ etc.). Damaging environments also work well (i.e. an area too hot for the player, an area with poison gas, or simply water to drown in). Make the player go through a short portion of this area, usually by making then run/swim through a small portion to a nearby passage way so that they can understand the impact of the area. Then later give them a breathing apparatus, or a heat suit, or a diving suit, etc. that will allow them to pass unharmed through the new area to explore. Changing an already explored area is effective as well. An area that the player has been through before is now on fire or has had the roof collapse or is partially submerged under water or is now dominated by a new enemy. Now there are new obstacles in an old place keeping the element of newness even in an old area.

On interactive objects:
Interactive objects add a huge amount of depth to a game. When using interactive objects, though, it is necessary to determine how much of an impact the object will have in the game. Some games allow for unnecessary items to be interactive (such as toilets, soda machines, televisions, etc.). If these objects simply have a quick animation with no outward effect on the game space then they should be put low on your priority list. These objects are still important, but once a player has seen it they are unlikely to return to it again. These items can have boosted importance if they convey information useful to the area/level/storyline (i.e. a television displaying the news gives some back story, a computer that gives a map, etc.). Also interactive objects can be made to heal the player, such as the mentioned soda machine could heal the player when they drink a soda. The most important interactive objects are those that will have an outward impact on the game space. Anyone who has played Doom will remember the impact the explosive barrels had on game play. An explosive object adds more strategy for the player. If the player attempts to hide behind the object they may quickly find that their hasty barricade was ill thought out once a bullet fired by the enemy meant for the player instead detonates the nearby explosive object. This also gives the player the option to wait for approaching enemies to get near the explosive object so that they may kill several enemies with less ammo using the environment to their benefit. The player perhaps could also push this object over to a weak portion of a wall and then use it to blow open a new passage way. Other objects such as traps that could hurt the player make the player pay more attention to the area they are passing through or perhaps the player may attempt to lure an enemy into one of these traps. Moveable objects also add effect depth in that they can also be multi-purposed. A moveable object can be used to block a door where enemies are coming through, or it can be used to help climb to high areas otherwise unreachable, or be pushed into a shallow liquid (poison water/ lava) and be used as a stepping stone, etc. Interactive objects give the player choices about how to proceed through an area. This generates varied experience, which allows for different players to take a different approach and thus has a different gaming experience.

Hmm, that’s a few ideas off the top of my head. Hope that this input helps you with your level design. Good luck.

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The topic of good level design is a topic touched on quite a bit, and I'd strongly advise doing some reading here and on gamusutra, if your interested enough. There is an article on platform game level design somewhere (maybe here?) which is a very good read, not because we're designing platform games, but because we're designing games based on 'progression', just like good platform games are! Keep that last point in mind.

Personally i believe a variety of gameplay ellements are required for an interesting and stimulating experience (see FUN!). Make sure, however, that all the information required to complete any task in the game is presented in the game itself, all the way down to the tutorial set. If the games challenges are based on combat, what is the combat about, what does it entail, don't draw too heavily on other games without justifying the additions within your game itself. Some games also suffer from gameplay that is not intuitive, most game audio systems are not top notch 3D environments, therefore when Id 'turned out the lights' in Doom3 they alienated almost every player of the game (no one I know can justify they're decision even if you are supposed to be in hell! its just bad gameplay). The overall idea is to make sure that the player feels like they're in the game or at least the gameplay, rather than trying to battle the game itself, remember, the game is for the player, not the developer.

What kind of puzzles are fun? Usually ones that the player has to think about for a while, but don't take a week to beet, INFACT, a puzzle's average completion time for a first time round player (at the appropriate difficulty level!), should be able to figure it out in an appropriate amount of time for that genre. Puzzle games can take hours of gameplay time, not probs...the gamers were expecting that when they signed up. FPSs, NO WAY, any puzzle that doesn't involve other gameplay forms simultaneously should not take longer than say, 2 minutes, maybe 5 if your feeling cruel! FPSs are about action and getting into the game, there is nothing fun about looking at a wall because you missed hearing something at the start of the game! Again the message here is as long as the information is available for all relevent puzzles the player is trying to beat at the time they believe they must beat it (or very close to that point in time), then the puzzle is more than likely reasonable (and please, no math if the player does not expect it in the 'genre contract', tell them what to expect if it does!).

If you follow the principles that are suggested in the paragraphs above, your game shouldn't be frustrating. If your gamers tell your that they are, start reading other sources, if your not already of course.

Backtracking is a misnomer for a common type of gameplay device in older platform games I believe (althought the type of gameplay predates this period, it is here that it became more widely understood). This device is where a level designer will re-use content that was previously presented. There is luckely a hard and fast rule for utilizing this technique thankfully! Since most games that utilize backtracking are based on 'progression', backtracking must therefore be implemented as progression. An example was presented above in the form of Super Metroid. Your not going backward, your just going through a level presented using re-used content! As always keep the content fresh so that it doesn't get old, ala Super Mario World, where all of the content was probably used in more than one place in the game but in diffent ways and combinations and not too much of any one kind artifact of content.

Bottom line, if your game doesn't feel balenced, it probably isn't, and this is a very powerful way of knowing if your game is fun for intelegent, budding gamers like most of us here are as well as the biggest portion of the paying subscribers to our medium (games that hardcore gamers despise that are played by so called casual gamers reflect this very well, all hail the day gameplay like that of the old SNES games return to bring the gaming world once again to its knees)!

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Good level design is not absolute, as it depends on what you like personally. One dangerous aspect of any game design is the dreaded realism-gameplay-axis. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject (I'm trying to restrict my ramblings on FPS level design). Entering ramble mode, please stand by... ... Done.

As far as restricting the player's movement goes, I think Duke Nukem put it rather correctly in Manhattan Project: "Someone is gonna pay for making me find these freaking key cards!", "Coloured key cards suck!", and "Surprise surprise, I need a key card...". I mean, it can be neat once in a while, but I don't find it mentally pleasing to see the levels flooded with arbitrarily coloured key cards hovering half a meter above the ground, revolving around their imaginary axes much unlike the Earth revolves around its own. Having key cards is not the root of all evil per se, but having three differently coloured, yet surprisingly similar key cards in every single level of the game is a frightning thought. Do note, that the term key card is rather abstract here; it can be keys, spells, presses of a button, or what have you — something you have to seek with religious vigor just to pass that one last door, wormhole, portal, whatever. This is just a special case of the real problem, however.

One of the greater problems with restricting the player's movement is the fact that there is only one way of solving such problems, and that solution is defined by the level designer. And the player won't like that. This is what mumpo was saying, I reckon. If there is a puzzle involving a locked wooden door, slowly rotting away in the bottom level of a long-forgotten dungeon, requiring, say, a red, electronic key card, and I just happen to be a gun-wielding maniac with a rocket launcher and a surplus of rockets with me, I really don't see a solution involving running about mazes trying desperately to find a red key card. I see a solution involving an explosion and a lot of splinters. However, most games reward me with a decal on the still quite evidently intact door and an overwhelming WTF-feeling in my mind. Of course, after making such an effort I might not even be able to breathe, let alone gasp in the middle of the WTF-horror, but that is beside the point. The point is to have alternative solutions to problems, but not enforcing a different solution every time.

Don't think like a designer, but rather like a player or like an NPC (after all, it is the NPCs who spend most of their time in these environments, that is, until the player decided to come in to kill everyone). Think how the NPCs would have constructed the environments (regarding artificial environments, that is). Everything in the level should be there for a reason. This is not to say that everything in the level has to have something to do with the player or the story, but with the theme.

Having evident linearity in a level is another major turnoff. This is not dissimilar to the key card problem, as one way to hide the linearity is to use such devices. I'm not saying the player shouldn't be guided in to the right direction (by preventing him to access irrelevant areas), but having every single door not on the relevant path locked (or literally nailed shut, as in Max Payne) shows a lack of imagination. Having the ability to visit rooms that have nothing to do with the story is not frustrating, as long as the player doesn't get lost.

I have to agree with Schultz in the sense that the original Doom levels (and similarly the Duke Nukem 3D levels) were much more fun than the levels in many more modern games. One reason for this was the fact that not only could you play the levels in single player mode, but later play deathmatch in them and see the levels from a completely different point of view.

Reusing bits of the level architecture in other levels is not a sin, in my opinion. In C&C: Renegade, all buildings with the same name (hand of nod etc.) had the same architecture. I considered it rewarding to see familiarities and patterns in the levels; revisiting the same kind of buildings with the same architecture, yet in different situations story-wise, was neat. Even though the general layout of the nod bases differed radically throughout the game, the building blocks were the same for a large part of the game. I don't consider this backtracking, but someone probably would. As such, someone would consider it punishing the player.

(You could even build the levels randomly using such patterns, which could greatly increase the replayability factor (even if it meant just a little variation and not really "totally" random levels). Alas, my instinct suggests to me that Doom 3 is not a formidable candidate for such level creation? Having the levels exactly the same (including the enemies' starting positions etc.) makes the game less appealing for a replay.)

Common structures shouldn't be made labyrinths. After all, real-life buildings are usually desinged to make moving from one place to another easy, not difficult. Having evident sniping points and the like is not necessarily a good thing, as most real-life buildings tend not to have such (by desing, at least). Of course, this is yet another gameplay-realism-argument, so in order to enhance gameplay you might want to throw logic out of the window.

Also, I must admit that I have an obsession of ventilation shafts. The more accessible ventilation shafts a level has, the better. [lol]

While not being all that informative, I hope these more or less flabbergastingly obvious example scenarios are of some help.

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Interactive objects give the player choices about how to proceed through an area. This generates varied experience, which allows for different players to take a different approach and thus has a different gaming experience.


And THIS is what makes these games replayable. I guess that's my main beef with doom3. There's pretty much only one way to finish it. One set path to follow. So why would i want to do it again? To gun down those monsters with even more superiority? I've played the first games literally hundreds of times, and i can still do something a little different. the third one only once (though i've started replaying it a couple of times. boring). But let's not let this turn into the "why i dislike doom3" thread :P

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This might not apply to a DOOM 3 map, but to game/level design in general. It seems to me it's a good idea to let the player feel like a god every once in a while. I mean, you obviously don't want to let them play the whole game in god mode, but maybe they get an item or something that is godlike, but breaks after a few uses. Something like that could really spice up the experience.

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