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[In the third installment of his Action Adventure Level Design series, Lara Croft creator Toby Gard examines how the design process should incorporate discussions of pacing, structure, and mood -- and how leads can hone their feedback to the team to make it all work. Part 1 described how to create a Level Flow Plan to hand off to the level team. Part 2 described a variety of tools to help turn those Level Flows into detailed, immersive and interesting levels plans.]
By the end of the process described in the last article -- building through fiction -- you will most likely have a mixture of paper maps, written stories, detailed flowcharts, concept art and possibly some 3D mockup spaces, depending on how each level team prefers (or has been instructed) to represent their plan.
Those levels will have taken shape in surprising and unexpected ways. Levels that we had assumed to be straightforward action levels may have revealed rich veins for puzzles, and many levels are likely to have prompted ideas that fall outside of the current game mechanics.
To structure their feedback, the creative leads need to validate all level plans in relation to each other. Because the levels are likely to be pretty complex, it is useful to create a simplified representation of the whole game so that you can assess the pacing and emotional consistency of the experience.
The first step we need to take is to identify all of these special case interactions and ideas that the level teams have come up with while fleshing out the level plans. Inevitably they will be some of the coolest in the game:
Ken Kong falls down a 30 story lift shaft, doing frantic mid-air kung-fu until there is a pile of zombie bodies beneath him thick enough for him to survive the drop.
It sounds awesome, but the fight system simply cannot accommodate this "fall fighting" mechanic, so the level team has suggested it as a cutscene.
In a couple of other levels, Ken Kong has to destroy some walls and the level teams have proposed different McGuffins to allow him to do this, such as a convenient, precariously balanced heavy object that will break through the wall if triggered.
It is this list of ideas that can produce the neat and original game mechanics that will set your project apart from everyone else's. By promoting ideas that have the flexibility to be expanded into the core mechanics and peppering them throughout the game, we can create a richer more coherent overall experience.
How could destroying walls become a reusable mechanic? Would it require a consumable, or is it a readily available ability? How rich of a vein is it to be tapped for more applications? Does it have synergy with other player abilities?
Let's say that we can integrate destroying walls with a new survivor type, a demolitions expert, who carries around explosives that can be put to all sorts of uses, but who also explodes when attacked by a zombie -- potentially taking out a large proportion of your crowd. This could make for an interesting risk/reward mechanic and with some standard "explodable" barriers and/or enemies could be used in several levels.
Perhaps the "fall fighting" could also be used on several levels, but this seems more like a mini-game than a new mechanic. While the idea is interesting, the question is, could you make the gameplay deep enough to justify three or four "fall fighting" sequences throughout the game? It potentially seems like a large investment for too small a gain, but if we could make it work, it would be really cool.
These mechanics are generally gold, because they were not forced into the game design from a desire to tick boxes based on competitive products, but were discovered organically through an exploration of its unique themes and the thoughtful exploration of its world.
Once we have integrated the new mechanics and rejected or noted all the new set pieces, we will have adapted the character to live in this more clearly defined world and gathered a major part of the information needed to give feedback to the level teams.
Most games have a basic mixture of elements. For instance, an FPS might have 70 percent shooting on foot and 30 percent vehicle combat.
If every level in the game had exactly that mixture of gameplay, it would get dull for the player pretty quickly. But if you have levels that are entirely on foot, interspersed with a few levels that are predominantly or entirely involving vehicles, then they will act as palate cleansers, changing up the experience enough to keep players interested.
By looking at the mix of gameplay types over the course of the game, you can isolate points where the experience might be too flat.
A great example of a game that keeps the player constantly interested is Half-Life 2. Almost every level has a new central theme, whether it's a new weapon, a new vehicle or a new type of enemy, your experience changes dramatically every thirty minutes or so.