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Gameplay vs Level design

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Hi guys, I was thinking lately about the design process itself and a problem came to my mind. Imagine you are designing a video game and you are on the stage when you have to decide: Do you design levels so they look cool and offer great visual experience and a variety of enviro and then design the quests for the location? Or do you create a great story and then just throw buildings that serve your purpose into the location creating a design-oriented architectural boiling pot that you then adjust for the graphic purposes) For the purpose of discussing the problem lets take its a roleplaying game. Why a roleplaying game you would ask? Because in my opinion its most complex genre when it comes to adjusting the content of a story you want to tell to enviro.... or the enviro to the content??? or maybe other way around? If any of you have helpfull thoughts, post mortems etc I would be more then gratefull if we could share our experience. Regards J

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The story should lead the level design. Working the other way around would be crazy.

"Hey Bob, our level designers made us eight awesome maps.. we've got a contemporary military base on a tropical island, one set on the moon, one on an oil rig, one on an alien starship, then there's another based on a medieval european farm, another in ancient egypt, one in a WWII japanese POW camp and the last one is a really awesome steampunk style fantasy city. Now all we need is a storyline to tie them together...."

[grin]

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In an RPG, often the story needs to shape the levels, because the other way around would be, like Sandman explained, crazy.

Though what you're asking is if the levels come before the story, and that isn't necessarily tied in with *gameplay*. See, the way I see it, gameplay always comes first. A level needs to be designed in such a way that it enhances gameplay and lifts the fun of the game. A simpler, (visually) cruder design thathelps gameplay more than a visually stunning gameplay is often better. It depends on the genre of course, but if you look at a platform game like Super Mario, incredibly realistic graphics and stunning visuals in your stage may hamper gameplay, and it's still pointless to have if your stage is completely worthless and boring. For RPG's or Shooters, graphics have a immersive function, but when gameplay suffers because of it, then something is wrong.

In the case of an RPG, environments are naturally created following the story as this prevents out-of-context levels and provides consistency throughout the world's environments. Very little point in spending time and money creating a great-looking level if it fills no functionality to the game or if it needs story add-ons which may ruin an already solid plot.

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I know what both of you are saying but what if you write the greatest and most twisted story ever. One part of the story takes place in a city.
You put the story into place, start constructing the level and then you reach the point when you look at it and think "damn it all looks the same, where's the variety in it?" So you start changing the enviro so it has cooler graphics and breathtaking views (but it doesnt really changes the main story)
So after few hours of redesign you find yourself in a place where you have got the greatest story ever, and a breathtaking views.
BUT! Because you redesigned the location and added few other things then you originally planned some of the side quests (like go and kill 50 people in that district) suffer because, the enviro becomes more open, and that equales - the whole balance of the combat that u planned from the beggining goes to hell.

One would say: plan your great story, then plan a good breathtaking enviro that offers variety and good gameplay.

Sure, sounds easy:) But how? :P The biggest problem is that sometimes you catch yourself in an infinite loop of redesigning untill it looks like crap :)

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Rather than adhering to a strict order, try doing both at the same time. While you're coming up with ideas for your storyline, also build some test levels to try various styles and themes. Both activities can influence each other.

While you're doing so, simply write down the ideas you get, whether they be story ideas, gameplay situations, level themes or anything else. You'll often be able to use an old idea later on in a different situation. Mix and match.


EDIT: Tweaking is part of the design process. Sometimes you'll have to go through quite a few iterations to end up with a good result. If you keep changing things and the result is actually getting worse, then you're doing something wrong. Take a step back and think about what you're doing and where you're heading. You may need to alter your course.

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I'm not sure if it's relative but I believe so:

Don't forget that Bioshock was game of the year last year by many video game critics, and it basically underwent the process of design, renovate, see how it works, redesign, renovate, see how it works, etc. In fact I believe they ended up with quite a different game from what they initially planned.

Changing things isn't bad, as long as you are working towards the goal of great gameplay... and like we saw with Bioshock, you may not even end up with the same game you began with when it's all said and done... although I'm not sure if "tweaking" accurately describes it by that point.

(Though I'm not saying you should always do this... it just isn't necessarily BAD)

Cheers
-Scott

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It all goes to hell when you start building your game with the story in the center. See this is what I mean. Gameplay should be focus. Graphics, evinronments/level design, story and sound should complement and enhance gameplay. In your case, jrokosz, you're determined to have your planned-out story and you tweak the environment to accomodate the story, which unfortunately makes gameplay worse. Or, you're making level design changes because, like you said, everything lacks visual diversity, but now you're changing the actual level for the worse. Change it for the better.

There's nothing that prevents you from changing the level design and then balancing our the upcoming gameplay scenario. If this brings out a result that is better than what you had to begin with, then you should do it. You might want to contemplate if it's worth the trouble, though; is the change that vital?

A pre-emptive approach is always the best, although in practise there's ALWAYS need for changes, tweaking, and sometimes even complete overhauls of design segments. Plan out in advance how you want your environments to be. State clearly how the whole scenario ties in with the story, then state clearly how that scenario will be in gameplay and how the level design should be so as to accomodate the scenario. Then make some preliminary balance-plan if it's combat-related, for instance. Tweak and change accordingly, but some sort of planning ahead should lessen the amount of work needed.


What you should keep in mind is that gameplay should come first. Everything else is just there to complement it so that the game shines more.

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This is just a linear vs sandbox dilemma.

With sandbox games, such as Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout, and GTA, the world and environment take priority. If it looks like you could swap the story with another without much level design effort, it's a sandbox game.

With linear games, like Half Life, Doom, and Deus Ex, you reverse the order and figure out where the game will take you before you build it.

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Quote:
Original post by Kest
This is just a linear vs sandbox dilemma.

With sandbox games, such as Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout, and GTA, the world and environment take priority. If it looks like you could swap the story with another without much level design effort, it's a sandbox game.

With linear games, like Half Life, Doom, and Deus Ex, you reverse the order and figure out where the game will take you before you build it.


I don't think it's a dilemma of any kind. Story will do you no good if gameplay downright sucks, but a free-roaming world is no better if, again, gameplay downright sucks. You need to have a solid gameplay design first. As I said before, I think the title of the topic doesn't make sense when reading the initial post, because that post is asking whether story should steer the level design or if the level design should steer the story. And I'm saying that if you let level design steer story, you'll hardly get a coherent story unless you design each level similarly to one another. In that case, you're still letting the very idea of a story steer it somewhat.

See it this way: A game like Grand Theft Auto has more or less one big map where everything else is built from. A game like Oblivion has LOTS of maps, and so I doubt they were designed first, with a story implemented on them later on and then gameplay to accomodate both. Most likely, all three were developed interchangeably, and reworking each section was standard procedure.

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Quote:
Original post by Metallon
I don't think it's a dilemma of any kind. Story will do you no good if gameplay downright sucks, but a free-roaming world is no better if, again, gameplay downright sucks.

I would argue that the majority of linear games out there with fantastic stories have downright yawn-worthy gameplay. They write a fantastic story, then add in gimmick string-tied gameplay to get from place to place, usually just to start up the next cinematic. Many people seem to like these games, but I'm not one of them.

Quote:
As I said before, I think the title of the topic doesn't make sense when reading the initial post, because that post is asking whether story should steer the level design or if the level design should steer the story.

Gameplay can't be stretched very far without level design, so I suspect that's what was intended. Gameplay, in context, is meant to be equal to level design.

EDIT: Wait.. I was thinking "gameplay vs story". After looking at the thread title again, I don't know what it means. Must have been a mismatch.

Quote:
And I'm saying that if you let level design steer story, you'll hardly get a coherent story unless you design each level similarly to one another.

One could build a small city and easily write an interesting story that takes place in it. Writing that story wouldn't be more difficult than having no specific location to set it in. In fact, having restrictions and limitations to grab a hold of one's limitless thoughts can often provide a boost to creativity. It solidifies a sense of direction.

For example, I would love to write a unique story to take place in Fallout's world. The world can remain unchanged, other than characters and dialog. I might also slap a different logo on a few buildings.

Quote:
A game like Oblivion has LOTS of maps, and so I doubt they were designed first, with a story implemented on them later on and then gameplay to accomodate both.

The setting was obviously intended from the get-go, but I see very few links to the intricate aspects of the story anywhere in the game world.

One really obvious example is the part where you need to hunt down spies. That kind of story element could have happened anywhere. The same is true with the majority of the main quest. Abstract missions in unrelated dungeons to find important items that are part of the main quest. Traveling somewhere to talk to a story-related person, who lives in some random village that seems to have nothing at all to do with the emperor, the o-gates, or oblivion itself. There are only a handful of locations that seem to be directly related to the main story, and all of them could have easily been designed and built before the guts of the story was dreamed up.

[Edited by - Kest on October 21, 2008 1:13:36 PM]

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