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What makes a good Metroid-style level design?

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I'm working on a 2D platforming game that involves a mix of Metroid and Castlevania gamestyles. That is, the player starts out naked (equipment-wise) in a huge world, only parts of which can be reached because of his inferior equipment. As he finds more toys, his ability to navigate increases (e.g. gaining a double-jump ability, or a grappling hook). My question is this: what should I keep in mind as I design levels for this game? Well, they aren't actually "levels" in the traditional sense (more like areas). Are there any good online resources that you could point me to? I want to make the game playable without obtaining every last powerup; in Super Metroid you only really needed 15% of the items (or more reasonably, about 30%) to finish the game, primarily because a sufficiently badass player could skip certain supposedly-required items and needed less artillery against the bosses. As an example, there is a large shaft in one part of the game which the player must apparently skip the first time through (it's filled with monsters and has no platforms to stand on). Later an ice weapon is obtained, with which the player may freeze the monsters, thereby creating platforms that can be climbed. Alternatively, the first time the shaft is reached, the player may kill the monsters, and using a wall jump (notably, an undocumented ability), climb the shaft to explore an area earlier than he should be able to. For me, I'm going to have a mage-type and a fighter-type character that the player can switch between at will; ideally I'd like the game to be completable (if painfully so) with only one of the two classes. I also want to throw in some shortcuts that the clever/observant/skillful players can make use of (as well as the players who are mostly fully equipped and near the end of the game, but exploring every last bit of the world). Any advice for this kind of thing? My overall goal is to increase the replayability of the game by making as many ways to complete it as possible (including self-imposed challenges), without detracting from the difficulty of the first run through the game, when presumably the player is making use of every available resource. Edited to make the subject line less generic. [Edited by - Derakon on November 29, 2004 10:20:04 AM]

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This sounds like a pretty rad game. I love the gameplay of metroid. Its sort of got a unique feel. If you can capture it, then your game would be just as fun.

Something i noticed about alot of good games is that theres usually a sort of path to go, and then theres a ton of extra extensions off that path that lead to special things or minor items (like +5 Missiles). The harder that sub path is, the greater the reward at the end. Medium difficulties would lead to +5 super bombs or something. Then, harder ones led to things like Energy Tanks.

Here, i drew a generic map idea showing paths.

The black outline is the zone area. The green stars are way out of the areas. that thick maroon color going in a circle is the main path. the smaller olive looking ones are extensions.

Pretty much, theres one path that you can go through from one green star to another, and not need to find many secrets, or get many items, or do a whole lot of exploring. Also, the main path is usually pretty obvious. However, it can be TOO obvious, so you should change it up by having the path do some twists and turns. Not just a perfect circle or straight line. Have the player go up some floors, go down some later, ride an elevator, do zigzag rooms going down.. But then, dont put too many that the player is getting lost. Just enough to keep the action going without too much thought on looking at the map.
The sub-paths are usually a little harder to find or get into. There could be a door you cant open yet, or it could be a block hiding in the corner that you can travel through. Also, some of them are out in the open.
Based on the difficulty of finding the path, and the difficulty of exploring it to the end, you should set an item who's worth is related to that overall difficulty.
The subpaths that are blantantly obvious should lead to things like Save Points, Map Rooms, or Recharge rooms. Usually, those subpaths arent very long. Sometimes, throw a boss fight that drops and item, or a special event or somethign at the end of the obvious subpaths that happen to be longer.
some side paths should require you to have some ability to get to the end. These are usually pretty visible form the main path, and will stay on the players mind untill they think of a way to take that sidepath. You can do that by having Doors that react to certain abilities, a ledge thats too high to jump onto without superjump, or a chasm you cant get across without flight or a grapling hook. Those are just some examples. As long as you get the desired effect, be as creative as you can.
The first time the player uses an ability for its intended use (such as jumping high to reach a ledge), it must be forced on the player. Prevent the player from getting out of the room (or small contained area) that the item was found in so that unless they use it, they cant get out. For example, when you find the morph ball in the first metroid, you coudlnt leave untill you rolled into a ball to go under the platform (since it was to go oveR).
The place where they should be forced is at those purple dots on my map. Those purple dots are where main paths meet. The items and powers of the player should determine wich of the other two main paths at that junction you want the player to take.
One path should be one way only. You cant have the player go the wrong way, so you direct them downt he right path by not making it possible to go both ways on the other.
To make it one-way, you can use the terrain to help.
an example:


The ball is the "o". You can go from left to right, but unless you have the spring ball, or bombs, you cant go right to left. This prevents the player from going to the end of the path without going all the way around. Also, at the end of the path, there should be an item powerup that allows the player to take that shortcut both ways. They'll be gratefull to use a shortcut through zones that they've already done.

The little purple dot on the subpath is where you find an Extra special item that you dont NEED in order to complete the game, but might make it a little easier, fun, interesting, etc. Just something extra for the player to play with and never be forced to use.
Also, you coudl have two subpaths connect at a junction that is one-way only. Later, when the player has the item to go back and forth, they can use that as a shortcut within the zone.

Not all zones should should be a circle path like that. That zone could just be a passing zone, so you could set the main path from any of those green stars to any other one.

You can controll backtracking easily, too. Essentially, the game is broken down into nodes and paths. The player will eventually travel every path at least once. However, there are some that they will only need to travel once, and there are some that they will travel over and over. Get an idea of how frequently that path will be used, and use that idea to determine the difficulty and complexity of that path. Ones that are used often should be fairly easy. The further the player is in the game, the easier the path should get. For example, the first time it would be normal difficulty. the second time, you now have missiles, so some enemy in the room is faster to kill. near the end of the game, you have super sprint, and can just run through the room.
The paths that arent taken often should be more complex, and contain gimmick rooms. Stuff that is fun once or twice, but would get annoying after too many tries (like that wall jump are in metroid 3).
Also, with frequently used paths, players will get to go through familiar terrain, but each time with a different reason. They player might go explore the zone for the first time to get the special item at the end (and gain access to another zone), or they might be revisiting that zone to look for extra hidden stuff, or they might be there just to use the shortcut to get between zones faster.
Thats pretty much the pathing concept Ive figured out.

Now, what you're talking about with making the game playable with both classes...
It would be just lame if both classes had the same jumping and damage state but just a different way to attack or something.
You would need to change the game in two ways: 1) The two characters shouldnt have the same abilities and skills, 2) There is a different main path and set of enemies (but the same terrain and levels).
Since you will have a character who can get new abilities, but come with other disadvantages. An example would be to not give the other calss the ability to fit in tight spaces (like the morph ball). It would be pretty interesting to play the same map twice, but using different strategies, and getting to places in different order. Also, there will be some places that can only be reached by one character and not the other.

In order to get an idea of the main path of the whole game, you'll want to create a zone map. Dont draw any rooms or antying. Next, draw some connect lines to each zone using two or three spots on each one. There shodulnt be too many ways out of a zone. it seems metroid has it at about 3.. After you've got a sort of order for the zones, start drawing a main path for the whole game. Youll want the players to stay with the theme of that zone, so make a little adventure for each one. with a few ways out of each zone, the player will feel like they're not really following a main path (although, they are restricted to that main path by their dependancy on items). When the player dosnt realise that theres a path, they get the illusion of a bigger world. As you draw your main path, mark locations of interest. Mark anytime the player needs something specific to take a certain path. Mark any ideas for what items or gimmicks those paths could have. By the end, you should have a main path with alot of back between zones, but not neccissarilly going through an entire zone the same way they did the first time. Create shortcuts through zones that can only be accessed using certain items or powers.

If anything, play through Metroid 3 again, but durring the whole time you're playing, concentrate on the gameplay. Concentrate on questions like:

- How am I being forced to go a specific way before i can progress? Pay attention to anytime you use a shortcut, or go through an entire zone thinking about how restricted you are to following one main path.

- Is the main path too obvious, or not obvious enough, or is it just right? How easily did your intuition lead you down the main path further into the game?

- Where does that intuition come from? You may feel like you;re going the right way, and thats because the game gives subtle hints that you are. Try to find those hints and conciously understand them. Look for reoccurring themes.

- How is that intuitive navigation hidden? How easy is it to tell you're being forced to follow a path? If the player realises that they're following a set path, theres less of an illusion of a huge area. If its just corridor after corridor, it feels more level based instead of free and open.

Pay attention to alot of the subtleties of how gameplay is changed with jsut a few items, and create rooms to nurture that gameplay.
For example, there could be a pretty big area where you cant get out of the morph ball, and you have a little puzzle to solve. Or, there could be an area where you have small platforms to jump on and theres lava on both sides. Give the rooms some varity in style. Have some run and guns, some puzzles, some explorations, some special gimick (like underwater, in lava, or in zero gravity), some with just a couple real tough enemies, or some with a lot of easy ones.

I guess thats about all the advise i have. goodluck.

EDIT: Also, I dont know if alot of people will read your thread if you name it somethign unorigional. Everyone's read tons of "How do you do level design" threads, and gave their input. I dont know if you can change the thread topic, but you should change it to something like "How to make Metroid style level design" or soemhthing.

[Edited by - Garmichael on November 29, 2004 5:48:00 AM]

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Wow. Thanks for all that advice. I hadn't thought of using graph-theory mappings, but it sounds like that'd be a good way to get a basic skeleton of the map laid out. The points on one-way passages and branching nodes are well taken, too. Sounds like you've thought about this a lot. :)

As for my mage and fighter, I'm basically figuring that the mage will play similarly to Samus in the Metroid series (though not identically), and the fighter will have more of a focus on melee and using equipment. I certainly do not intend to replicate abilities between them, though there will have to be some overlap if they're both going to be have to be able to reach the same areas (if not in the same order). One thing I'm thinking of is giving the fighter a dash ability, while the mage gets the double jump. That would mean that the fighter can clear long gaps, while the mage can clear tall ones. The fighter would get a grappling hook that sinks into soft ground, and the mage gets an earthquake spell that degrades weak walls to create handholds (again, allowing the fighter more horizontal movement and the mage more vertical). The fighter gets to jump off of enemies to gain height, but since it's difficult to use, most people won't think to try it to gain access to new areas. :) Primarily, the fighter gets equipment and new physical abilities, while the mage gets new spells. Sadly this means that I'm having some difficulty thinking of ways to improve the fighter's mobility in unique ways that the mage doesn't get.

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Yeah, after yo8u make a skeleton, then you can start making rooms using a level editor or whatever. When making individual rooms, try to remember the tons of Side scrollers you've played over the years. Super Mario games, Metroid, Donkey Kong Country, Castlevania, etc. Nintendo made some amazing side-scrollers, so I would pay attention to them. Think of the individual areas and elements of those levels and rooms, and try to recreate some of those elements.

For your characters, you could give them similiar abilities that overlap. Like you mentioned the distance jump vs. the high jump.

I like the idea that the mage would travel the land more vertical-style, and the fighter would be more horizontal-style.
You'd wqant to focus on that a little bit as you create your maps and come up with ideas for the abilities.

For the magician, you could give him abilities like:
- High Jump. The jump goes straight up, and if they player moves to the left or right, the jump ends and they fall. That way, they could ONLY jump straight up, and barely catch a ledge. This would prevent him from jumping across long chasms like the fighter can.
- Transform to fairy. Like in Zelda 2, you might have an ability that turns you into a small flying creature for a limited amount of time. You could use it to go into small areas near the roof of rooms and such, but it wouldnt last too long. You could get this spell later in the game, so it would allow access over long chasms, but still restrict those areas untill you're about done.

For the Fighter, you could give him stuff like:
- Dash. To clear long gaps, like you said.
- Torpedo. This would give your fighter an attack similiar to Raiden from Mortal Kombat. He would fly forward a short distance, head first. This would be used to get through small gaps in walls that he coudlnt get through while standing to get to the otherside. Imagine sort of like a column with a hole at the base.
- Wall Climb. This would be a later ability for him, but would allow the fighter access to areas that the macician can access early on.

Sort of create areas that both characters can get to, but at different times.
Make it so the eerly magician abilities have a similiar end result as later fighter abilities, and vice versa. Of course, you dont want the SAME skills. The fairy transformation (a late magician skill) is essentially a mix of the torpedo and dash abilities (early fighter skills)

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I see that GMTA is in effect here. :) I have put my notes on character design online here so you can see what I currently have in mind for the characters. The mage's Phoenix transform gives him flight, while his water transform should allow him some Morph-Ball like abilities.

I like the idea of making the mage go mostly vertical and the fighter mostly horizontal. It gives me a good mental set for designing the world. Right now, I think my biggest worry is that the player will have too much freedom if he uses both classes, not that he has too little if he plays only one. It seems like unless I'm very careful, there will rarely be roadblocks that are entirely unsurpassable at the current stage in the game, since there's going to be one class that'd have to get through there without the missing ability anyway. Roadblocks thus will have to require either an alternate path or use of both fighter and mage abilities.

Well, one thing's for certain. Designing this game's world will be hard. It should be worth it, though.

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Sounds like good, solid advice so far so I just have one or two minor points since I love these kind of games.

You don't have to be so obvious as to put an attention-getting marker proclaiming where you are but do make each room that branches off to different paths unique. If you're feeling really rambunctious, make every room unique(just randomly change one tile should do it).

Area names are necessary. I like the modern 2d Castlevania's intro sequence to each new area. I'd also like to see it every time I enter a new area(but make it optional) and I'd really like to see the area name when I go to the map screen-it makes it a lot easier when trying to get a game to 100% completion(am I in the Cave of No Return or the Cave of Eternal Night and which one has the Dagger of Might?).

This might have been mentioned, but I think it's also a good idea to not only let your player travel better, but travel faster as the game backtracks(like getting something that lets you run faster or the teleporters in Castlevania).

Save points near bosses and major intersections are good too, unless you can save at any time, in which case never mind.
Good luck and can't wait to play it.

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I am planning to name the areas and have area names flash up every time the area is entered (though it shouldn't interrupt gameplay). On the map, I'll probably just color-code everything. I do agree that navigation should be easier than it tends to be in these games. Sure, by the second or third time through, you don't generally get lost, but the first time is often needlessly (and hence, unenjoyably) confusing.

I'm not entirely certain I want to have teleporters available, but I'll certainly have fast-movement abilities. Notably, the mage gets a phoenix transform (flight in open areas) and a water elemental transform (fast movement in water), while the fighter gets quicksilver armor for even-faster-that-running movement, complete with a damaging touch attack. These are all relatively late abilities (except for the water transform, perhaps). The fighter also gets a "run" ability fairly early on, and slightly later, the mage gets to swap places with monsters, which should make crowded areas faster to navigate.

This game will definitely need to have good mobility for the player, which is why a large number of the new abilities pertain in some way to movement.

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