Game Design: Theory & Practice- P15

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Game Design: Theory & Practice- P15: My earliest recollection of playing a computer game was when I stumbled upon a half-height Space Invaders at a tiny Mexican restaurant in my hometown. I was perhaps six, and Space Invaders was certainly the most marvelous thing I had ever seen, at least next to LegoLand.

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  1. 398 Chapter 20: Game Analysis: The Sims but for many players it would seem to make the playing experience all the more compelling. Familiar Subject Matter Of course, The Sims is not the original software toy, nor is it even Will Wright’s first. His first success with the software toy genre came with SimCity. It too simu- lated a sophisticated system and allowed the player to truly control her city’s destiny. Though SimCity is an excellent, entertaining title, The Sims is more compel- ling still. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the player of The Sims is Y controlling humans instead of a city. In other words, it follows Chris Crawford’s insistence that games should focus on “people not things.” In general, most players FL will find people to be much more interesting than things, and players will be able to form an emotional bond with a simulated person much easier than with a simulated AM city. After playing The Sims for a while, players will feel sad when their sim’s amorous advances are rebuffed or when their house burns to the ground. Though certainly not as smart or interesting as actual humans, the simulated people in The TE Sims are close enough to being plausible that players will want to believe in their sims’ virtual existences and will fill in the simulation’s deficiencies for themselves. Furthermore, almost all the players who play The Sims will have an intimate knowledge of the subject being simulated before they start playing. They will feel that they are something of an expert on this “suburban life” subject and think they will be able to play the game better as a result. For instance, players know by instinct that they should set up a bathroom with a shower, a toilet, and a sink. If the job were to simulate an alien life-form’s daily life on another planet, players would have much less of an idea how to proceed and would need to figure out the life- form’s culture before they could expect to succeed at the game. Because players already know so much about the subject matter of The Sims, they are that much more drawn into the game. From the moment she starts up the game, the player feels good because she is putting her real-world knowledge to use in creating these simulated lives. When Will Wright made SimEarth, he created a game involving systems that players knew very little about, and this may explain why so many peo- ple found the game to be quite difficult. For SimCity, players had a better sense of what was going on; while they may not have been experts on urban planning and dynamics, players at least thought they knew how a city should be laid out and were familiar with problems such as traffic, pollution, and crime. With The Sims, most players know infinitely more about the topic than they do about city planning. Hence, the game is that much more compelling to play. Its very familiarity draws the player in like nothing else can. Of course, simulating a subject many of the players will be familiar with can be a challenge as well; if the designer gets it wrong, players will know instantly. In the Team-Fly®
  2. Chapter 20: Game Analysis: The Sims 399 alien-life simulator, who is to say what is accurate since the world and creatures are made up to begin with? This grants the designer more artistic license for how the world is constructed. However, in a reality simulation like The Sims, if the designer makes the wrong choice about what will provoke a sim to do what action, players will see the error and their suspension of disbelief will be shattered instantly. Working with a subject that players are intimate with may serve to draw them in, but if it is not done correctly it may drive them away as well. Safe Experimentation On first inspection, one might not think that what The Sims simulates is actually all that interesting. Indeed, for the suburbanites who are likely to own a computer to play the game and have the disposable income to purchase it, how different is the game-world of The Sims from real life? It would seem that the escapist and wish-fulfillment qualities many games possess are totally lacking in The Sims. Fur- thermore, The Sims does not even present “life with all the dull bits cut out.” The player’s sims still have to engage in the more mundane aspects of modern life, such as going to the bathroom, going to work, paying bills, and taking out the trash. Is this fun? Strangely, it is, since these more tedious chores lend an air of “realism” to the proceedings, which makes the player’s successes or failures all the more meaningful. Though the subject matter of The Sims may seem pedestrian, the game is so fascinating because it provides players with a safe world in which to experiment. What The Sims really provides to the player is a test-bed for safe experimenta- tion. While prudence may prevent the player from pursuing a career as a criminal or
  3. 400 Chapter 20: Game Analysis: The Sims professional athlete in real life, the game will allow the player to take her sims in that direction with little risk to the player. While building a house is a major under- taking involving great financial risk for the purchaser, in The Sims, players can build lavish houses, spend money on frivolous trinkets for their sims, throw wild hot tub parties, or pursue homosexual relationships just to get a sense of what life might be like if they lived it differently. If these experimental lifestyles turn out to not work as well as the players had hoped, the only loss is for their sims, an effect considerably less serious than real-world bankruptcy or social ostracizing. Indeed, if the player avoids saving her game after a catastrophic event or decision, the loss is easily undone entirely. The life the player controls in The Sims may be one quite close to her own, but the ability to try new things without fear of serious repercus- sions makes the experience compelling and exciting. Depth and Focus A big part of what makes The Sims work is the range of choices the player is pre- sented with for what he can do with his sims. Abdicating authorship is all well and good, but if the designer fails to provide the player enough meaningful choices, the player will find himself only able to author a very narrow range of stories. Indeed, it is the designer’s responsibility in creating a software toy to design that toy with a broad enough range of possibilities that the appeal of playing with it is not quickly exhausted. And Wright did that expertly with The Sims, leaving the player with a constant feeling that there is so much more to do and see in the game-world, that one could never hope to do it all. A player can concentrate on building her house, starting either with some of the pre-built houses or constructing one from the ground up. A robust set of house- construction and landscaping tools allows the player to create a very large variety of houses, with probably no two built-from-scratch houses ever being the same, even with hundreds of thousands of people playing the game. Once a house is built or purchased, players can concentrate on filling it up with all manner of interesting possessions which have a variety of effects on the inhabitants of the house. Of course, the player gets to construct the inhabitants as well, picking from a large range of personalities, body types, ages, ethnicities, and even hairstyles, with the option to make children or adults as well as males or females. Once the sims move into the house, the player is able to determine what they eat, what they study, what career they pursue, how they have their fun, and with whom they socialize. Whether it be house building, property acquisition and placement, character cre- ation, or life control, any one of these components includes far more choices than most games provide. When all of these different systems are combined, the range of choices available to the player increases exponentially, creating a game with truly unprecedented depth.
  4. Chapter 20: Game Analysis: The Sims 401 Of course, what the sims cannot do in the game is significant as well. The sims cannot leave their homes except to go to work, and when they do the player cannot follow them. Being able to go to other places would be nice, but consider how much more complex the game would need to be to simulate the rest of the world. A massive amount of additional work would have been required, and had that sensible limitation not been made early on in the title’s development it might never have been completed. By focusing on the home life, the game is able to “get it right” in a way it could not have had the game-world of The Sims been larger. In short, what would have been gained in breadth would have been lost in depth. If a designer spends all her time adding an unreasonable range of possibilities to the game, it is likely that any one of the features the game includes will be far shallower than if the designer knows how to focus her efforts. The Sims also expertly captures the “just one more thing” style of gameplay. This type of gameplay is perhaps best exemplified by Civilization, where the player is constantly looking forward to the next technology to be discovered, the next unit to be built, or the next discovery of new territory. Similarly in The Sims, the player may be working on having his sims meet new people, trying to advance their careers, hoping to put an addition on the house, and thinking of someday having them raise a child, all at the same time. Because of these constant aspirations, there is never a good place to stop playing the game; there is constantly something on the horizon to look forward to. Hence the game is fabulously addictive, with captivated players devoting hour upon hour, day after day, and week after week of their lives to the game. Interface The best a game’s interface can hope to do is to not ruin the player’s experience. The interface’s job is to communicate to the player the state of the world and to receive input from the player as to what he wants to change in that game-world. The act of using this input/output interface is not meant to be fun in and of itself; it is the player’s interaction with the world that should be the compelling experience. But since the interface determines how the player interacts with the world, if that inter- face is not up to the task then at best the player will become frustrated and at worst the player will be unable to perform the action he wants. The Sims’ user interface is a beautiful example of how to do an interface cor- rectly. It provides the player with a staggering amount of information about the game-world, while allowing the player to easily and intuitively make whatever changes she wants. Unlike many modern action games, the tutorial primarily provides the player with information about how to play the game, not how to manipulate the interface. The interface is so simple and intuitive that players pick it up with very little difficulty, no doubt the result of rigorous playtesting. The fact
  5. 402 Chapter 20: Game Analysis: The Sims that help is embedded throughout the interface is key, allowing the player to click on any text item for an explanation of how it is important and why it is relevant. The Sims has an extremely intuitive interface that includes multiple ways for the player to accomplish the same action. A big part of the success of The Sims’ input/output scheme is its similarity to systems the player is likely to understand before he ever starts playing the game. For instance, the buttons that determine the game’s simulation speed look like those one would find on a tape player, something with which almost all players will be familiar. A large amount of the interface is reminiscent of Microsoft Windows, with the pointing and clicking the player does mirroring that OS wherever appropriate. Item manipulation is reminiscent of Windows as well; the player can use drag and drop to place objects, or simply click and click. The standard Windows “X” appears in the upper right-hand corner of dialog boxes to indicate that they can be closed, and the regular OK/Cancel button combinations are used wherever appropriate. While the functionality mirrors Windows in many ways, it is important to note that the appearance of the interface does not look exactly like Windows. All of the but- tons are nicely drawn in a friendly art style that is a far cry from Windows’ cold, utilitarian sterility. If the game used the actual dialog box art that Windows pro- vides, the player would instantly be reminded of working with the file picker or some other Windows interface, not an experience he is likely to remember fondly, certainly not as a “fun” activity. However, by putting a new visual style on the behavior of Windows, the interface is intuitive and familiar to the player without actually reminding him of file management. Another example of this is the “head” menu used throughout the game. When the player wants to have a sim perform an action on a particular object, the player
  6. Chapter 20: Game Analysis: The Sims 403 simply clicks on the object in question. From there a floating head of her current sim appears, with a range of different actions the sim can perform surrounding it in a circle. The player then simply moves the mouse over to the action he wants and clicks on it. While moving the pointer around, the sim’s head actually tracks the cursor, watching it wherever it goes. This menu functions identically to a pop-up menu in Windows, but with several distinct advantages. The first is that it does not look like a pop-up menu, and thereby the player does not associate it with boring Windows functionality. Second, the menu only lists the options that are available for the current object at that time. A normal pop-up menu would list all of the objects possible, with currently unavailable options grayed out. Third, by having the sim’s head in the center, the menu brings the player closer to the core of what he is doing; he is directing the sim to perform a certain action. The directive he is giv- ing to his beloved sim is more intimate than it would have been through a more sterile, bland, and standard pop-up menu. Controlled Versus Autonomous Behavior In the game, the player is able to direct his sims to perform certain actions: take out the trash, call up a friend, take a shower, and so forth. The sims will also, however, function on their own without the player’s direction. The sims contain enough inter- nal logic to tend to their most pressing needs, whether it is to eat, to go to the bathroom, to play a pinball game, or to read today’s paper. As the player makes additions to the house or purchases further possessions, the sims will walk over to new objects and either applaud or complain about them, their reaction dependent on how much they like each particular object. This communicates to the player whether the sim is generally going to be happy with the new possession or if the sim would rather it were not there. Since the way the house is set up is a big component of the sim’s total happiness, this provides crucial information to the player about how to best set up the house. The autonomous behavior of the sims also allows the player to set up the house and then sit back and watch how the sims live in it. This makes the game more like SimCity, in which the player could only set up the framework of the city—its streets, its zones, its key buildings—and then see how the inhabitants of the city live in it. A player of The Sims can build a pleasant house that he thinks would be good to live in and then sit back and watch the sims inhabit it, using their default behavior. This provides yet another avenue for interesting gameplay.
  7. 404 Chapter 20: Game Analysis: The Sims The sims have some intelligence of their own, which frees up the player from having to worry about every last detail of their lives. The sims generally do not have the foresight of a player, however, and as a result will perform better, be more productive, and be happier if the player smartly directs their every move. For instance, the sims will not try to improve their career-boosting skills of their own volition, such as improving their creativity by learning how to paint. So it is often in the player’s best interest to override the sims’ internal choices for what action to perform next, if he wants the sim to attain her full potential. However, the autonomous behavior avoids the player having to micro-manage every little decision. Sure, being able to tell the sims exactly what to do is a key part of the game, but if the player is controlling a number of sims at once, planning something for every one of them to do at a given moment can be quite a task. The sims’ internal behavior helps to off-load this responsibility from the player when the player does not want to worry about it. A Lesson to Be Learned The Sims is perhaps the most original commercial game design released in recent years. The game does not take as a starting point any other published game, but instead seems to have emerged entirely from Will Wright’s brain. To look at the game is to marvel at its creativity and innovation. There is so much that is done right in The Sims, an entire book could be devoted to an analysis of its design. The game is truly like a computerized dollhouse, providing us the ability to play-act real human scenarios in order to better understand them. The description of the dollhouse found in the game is quite illuminating:
  8. Chapter 20: Game Analysis: The Sims 405 Will Lloyd Wright Doll House This marvel of doll house design is meant for everyone, allowing children as well as adults to act out fantasies of controlling little fami- lies. This incredible replica comes complete with amazingly realistic furniture and decorative items. Don’t be surprised if hours upon hours are spent enjoying this little world. What is perhaps most interesting and compelling about The Sims is the poten- tial it has to teach us about our own lives. What is the relationship we have with the possessions we own? How does the space we live in affect our lives? How does jealousy start in a relationship? Of course, no one would argue that The Sims is a completely accurate simula- tion of human motivations and activities, but does it need to be completely accurate to cause us to think about our lives in new and interesting ways? As we move our sims around and watch them interact, we may disagree with how the simulation models their behavior. But in that disagreement, we think about what we really would expect them to do, with that reflection shedding new light on the relation- ships we maintain in our real lives. This, it seems, is the potential of computer games—not to allow us to escape from real life or to even replace it, but to open up new areas of thought, to be able to see the world through a different set of eyes and come back to our own lives equipped with that priceless information.
  9. Chapter 21 Level Design “We’ve always striven for ‘immersion’ in the gameplay, but as we’ve grown (well, changed at least) as designers, our sense of that has changed. While the details of this attempt vary from game to game, the core goal has been to provide a range of player capability in the world. With this breadth of capability, the player hopefully feels more involved in their decisions. An Underworld player can open a door with the key, by picking the lock, by breaking it down, or by casting a spell. If the player can choose their own goals, and their own approaches to an obstacle, then when they reach the goal it is far more satisfying. Flexible simulation of game elements is a powerful way to enable the player to make their own way in the world.” — Doug Church, talking about his game Ultima Underworld 406
  10. Chapter 21: Level Design 407 A s computer games have grown in size and scope, the tasks that in the past were performed by one person are now performed by multiple people. This division of labor is necessary for the timely completion of the sophisticated and massive games the publishers demand and the marketplace has come to expect. One of the unique roles that was created through this division of labor was that of the level designer. Once the core gameplay for a game is established, it is the level designer’s job to create the game-world in which that gameplay takes place, to build spaces that are fun for the player. The number of level designers required for a project is directly proportional to the complexity of the levels to be used in that project. For a 3D game with extremely detailed architecture which all must be built by the level designer, it is not unreasonable to have two levels per designer, perhaps only one. Sometimes the game’s primary designer also serves as a level designer, and sometimes she merely oversees the team of level designers working on the project. For a 2D game, it is not out of the question for the game’s lead designer to craft all of the game’s levels. Level design is where all the different components of a game come together. In some ways creating a level is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle; to build his lev- els, the level designer must make use of the game’s engine, art, and core gameplay. Often level design is where a game’s problems become most apparent. If the engine is not up to snuff, the levels will start behaving erratically in certain situations, or the frame rate will not be able to support the planned effects. If the art is made to the wrong scale or has rendering problems of any kind, these difficulties come out as the level designer starts placing the art in the world. If the title’s gameplay is not able to support a wide enough variety of levels to fill out an entire game, or, even worse, if the gameplay just is not any fun, this problem will become apparent dur- ing the level design process. It is the level designer’s responsibility to bring these problems to the attention of the team, and to see that the difficulties are resolved properly. Often this can result in the level designer being one of the least liked team members, since he must always be pestering people to fix problems, but if he instead tries to ignore the problems he encounters, the game will be worse as a result. The job of the level designer is one that comes with great responsibility. With all the different aspects of the game’s content to worry about, the level designer’s job is certainly not an easy one. Beyond making sure all of the game’s components are up to snuff, if the level designer’s own work is not of the highest quality, then the game is likely to fail miserably. If the levels do not bring out the best aspects of the engine, the art, and the gameplay, it does not matter how good those component parts may be. Without good levels to pull it all together, the game will fail to live up to its potential.
  11. 408 Chapter 21: Level Design Levels in Different Games Joust made simple changes to its game- world to produce different levels. Y FL AM TE The definition of a “level” varies greatly from game to game. It most commonly refers to the game-world of side-scrollers, first-person shooters, adventures, flight simulators, and role-playing games. These games tend to have distinct areas which are referred to as “levels.” These areas may be constrained by geographical area (lava world versus ice world), by the amount of content that can be kept in memory at once, or by the amount of gameplay that “feels right” before the player is granted a short reprieve preceding the beginning of the next level. Though many classic arcade games such as Centipede or Space Invaders took place entirely on one level, others such as Pac-Man or Joust offered simple variations on the game-world to prolong their gameplay. Thus, the different mazes in Pac-Man constitute its levels. In a campaign-based strategy game such as StarCraft, the levels or scenarios are defined by maps accompanied by objectives the player must accomplish, such as defend the Terrans against the Protoss forces in this amount of time. In a racing game, a level would be one of the tracks available in the game. In a sports game, say baseball, the levels would be the different stadiums featured in the game. Here the difference between the various levels is completely aesthetic, since in terms of play mechanics, a baseball game played in Wrigley Field is only subtly different from one played in Yankee Stadium. Games such as Civilization and SimCity do have levels, but one key difference from the games described above is that the entirety of a player’s game takes place on a single level. The base level is also often randomly generated, and from there it is largely the user’s responsibility to construct the level as he plays. This is why Team-Fly®
  12. Chapter 21: Level Design 409 these titles are often referred to as “builder” games. For these titles, the authorship of the level is almost entirely abdicated to the player. This chapter deals primarily with games that use pre-built levels which have a major impact on the gameplay. Though sports titles and “builder” games may have levels, their construction is left up to the artists and players respectively, and there- fore is not generally of concern to designers. For games like Doom, Tomb Raider, Super Mario 64, Maniac Mansion, Pac-Man, StarCraft, and Fallout, however, the design of the levels has everything to do with gameplay and therefore the designer must be intimately involved with their creation. Level Separation How a game is broken down into its component levels has a huge impact on the flow of the game. Players often play a game a level at a time. If a parent announces dinner while a child is playing a game, that child is likely to beg to be allowed to “just finish this level.” In console games, frequently the player can only save her game between levels, which places further importance on the end of a level as the completion of a unit of gameplay. A level can function like an act in a play, a chap- ter in a book, or a movement in a symphony. It gives the audience a chance to see a discrete unit within a larger work, to understand what portion of the work has been completed and how much awaits ahead. Well-designed levels are set up such that difficulty and tension ramp upward toward the end of a level where some sort of a mini-resolution finally occurs. This may be through a boss monster to defeat or a special quest object to obtain. When the player finally sees that the level has ended, she knows that she has accomplished a significant amount of gameplay and should feel proud of herself. Technical limitations often dictate where the end of a level must occur. Only so many textures, sounds, and level data can fit in memory at once, and when those resources are used up, the gameplay has to stop long enough for different level data to be loaded in. New technologies present the opportunity for more seamless envi- ronments. Even on the technically limited PlayStation, the developer Insomniac was able to avoid loading screens entirely in Spyro the Dragon, instead just having Spyro fly into the air for a second while the necessary data is swapped in, then fly- ing back to earth in the new level. To the casual player watching Spyro, the break is much less jarring than seeing a “loading” screen come up. The Spyro the Dragon levels still have to be divided into sections between these non-loading screens, however, meaning that the gameplay in those levels is still limited to a certain amount of space. A good designer, of course, can take the memory constraints and use them properly to create levels that are fun and challenging to play while also fitting in the space available. Again, the designer must take the limitations of the hardware and embrace them.
  13. 410 Chapter 21: Level Design Half-Life is another interesting example of level division. Here the team at Valve wanted to create a more seamless experience for the player, but were still using the limited Quake technology. Quake had featured thirty or so levels, each of which took a significant amount of time to load. In Quake the levels existed in sep- arate universes from each other; never would a monster chase the player from one level to another, never would a player return to a previous level. The programmers at Valve came up with a system where, if the levels were small enough, they could be loaded in under five seconds. They also made modifications so that monsters could track the player across the boundaries between maps. The level designers at Valve were able to make their levels very small, much smaller than a standard Quake level, but then created a great quantity of them. The areas between two lev- els contain identical architecture, such that the player can run across the border between two of these levels and, aside from the brief loading message, not even know he had crossed a level boundary. The result is a much more seamless experi- ence for the player. Evidently the team still felt the need for story arcs in the game, since text “chapter titles” appear briefly on the screen at key points during the game. But since the programming and design teams were able to create a near- seamless level loading system, the design team was able to separate the game into these storytelling units wherever it felt best, instead of where the technology dic- tated. The ideal for an immersive game like Half-Life, of course, would be to eliminate these load times entirely. Someday the technology will exist to cache in new level data as the player gets close to needing it. Until then, designers trying to create seamless environments must strive to keep the loading as short and unobtru- sive as possible. Level Order The order in which the levels occur is also important to the overall flow of the game. Perhaps big shoot-out levels should be alternated with more strategic or puz- zle-oriented levels. If a game places all of its strategic levels early in the game and then crowds the end with more action-oriented episodes, the game may seem unbal- anced. At the very least, the designer should know how the order of the levels will affect the flow of gameplay, and should be aware of how moving different levels around will affect it. For example, if a game has thirty levels and six boss monsters, one logical way to place these adversaries in the game would be at the end of the fifth, tenth, fifteenth, twentieth, twenty-fifth, and thirtieth levels. The bosses cer- tainly do not have to be on those precise levels, and each can be shifted slightly forward or backward in the level order without causing any serious problems. If the bosses were placed one each on the last six levels of the game, this would be obvi- ously unbalanced. It would seem strange to the player that after twenty-four levels of no-boss-monster gameplay, suddenly he has to fight one every level.
  14. Chapter 21: Level Design 411 The goal of the Unreal level designers was to create some cool levels, not necessarily to make them fit together as a whole. The way the game is broken up into its different levels and the order in which those levels must occur differs from game to game. For a game like Unreal, as with the Doom and Quake series before it, the designers were only instructed to make some cool levels, with little concern for story (since none of these games really had one) or which events should happen before which other events. Some thought was put into at what point certain adversaries would first appear in the game, and hence the earlier levels were more restricted in which creatures they could use. Similarly, of course, the earlier levels had to be easier and the later ones had to be harder. But for the most part, the level designers just tried to make the coolest levels possible, almost working in a vacuum from the other designers. Certainly they would see each other’s work and this might inspire them to make their own levels better, but none of the levels really had to match up thematically with the levels that came before or after it, and the lack of a story meant that this did not adversely affect the game. In a game such as Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, however, the story plays a much larger role. In order for that story to work, the levels need to support it. Hence, for a more story-centric game, a great deal of preplanning is done by the game’s design and story teams as to which story events need to happen in which levels. In what sort of environments should those levels take place? What types of adversaries will the player fight there? The order in which the levels appear in the game cannot be changed as easily as in Doom, since that would radically change the story as well. In order for the entire game to flow and escalate in difficulty appropriately, the type of gameplay found in each level must be planned ahead of time. The levels do not need to be planned down to minute detail, however, as this
  15. 412 Chapter 21: Level Design is best left to the level designer, who can place the individual encounters, objects, or minor puzzles as they best fit the level. A mini design document explaining what the level has to accomplish in order to function within the game’s story will allow the level designer to know exactly what she must include in the level; from there she can fill in the details. The Components of a Level Once the levels a game needs have been decided on, possibly with some idea of how those levels must support the story, the next task is to actually create those lev- els. Regardless of its location in the game as a whole, the goal of every level is to provide an engaging gameplay experience for the player. When working on the lev- els for a game, it is important to constantly keep in mind the focus of the game. What is this game trying to accomplish? How important are the different aspects of the game? What will the level need to do to support the type of gameplay this game has? In addition, depending on the amount of pre-production design done on the levels, one may need to consider how this level may play differently than others. Is it a “thinking” level after an action-intensive one? Is this level more about explora- tion and discovery than building up the strength of the player character or characters? A level for the sophisticated Quake III Arena engine requires significantly more work than one for a simpler 2D game. As a result, making changes to a Q3A level is significantly more time consuming. Before level design begins, the design team should convene and break down the different gameplay components of the game, since each member must completely understand how the gameplay functions. Each level designer must understand how
  16. Chapter 21: Level Design 413 his level will use that gameplay before he starts building anything. In some games it is easy to radically change the layout of a level, such as in a tile-based game like StarCraft. If problems with the level arise, the level can be easily reworked. For a game using the Quake III engine, however, once a level is built it is very labor- intensive to radically alter it. Producers will be reluctant to invest another month of architecture construction time to rework a level because it is not playing well. Therefore understanding ahead of time the gameplay of the game and the level in question is important. One perhaps simplistic but still useful way to break down the components of a level’s gameplay is in terms of action, exploration, puzzle solving, storytelling, and aesthetics. Action Action is the most obvious component of the levels for many games, and indeed for many titles the action element is the only justification for the level’s existence. Of course there are some games that eschew the action component entirely, such as many adventure or puzzle games, but nearly all other games contain some action components, whether it consists of blasting demons in a shooter like Doom, inca- pacitating walking mushrooms in Super Mario 64, slaying mutants in Fallout, or speeding by the opponents’ cars in San Francisco Rush. Whatever your game’s action component is, the level designer’s job is to under- stand how much action the level contains and at what pacing this action component should be presented to the player. What percentage of your level should be action filled and exciting? How many battles will the player fight? Is the combat fast and furious or are there “breaks” or intermissions between major conflicts? Should the player’s adrenaline be pumping during the entire level because of a constant fear of death? Of course, the amount of action is entirely dependent on what type of game you are making, but regardless, you need to have a clear idea of what amount of conflict the player will encounter. For a game with a lot of action, the levels must be constructed keeping in mind how that action will play out. The level designer must keep in mind how the enemy AI functions and what types of maps will lead to the most interesting conflicts. What geometry will give the player lots of locations to duck and cover while dodg- ing enemy fire? How can the levels be best set up to encourage the player to figure out her own strategy for defeating the opposition? Knowing what sort of action your game will have and how that action best plays out is critical to designing lev- els that bring out the best in the action gameplay. Exploration What will the player be doing when not in the heat of battle? Exploration is a major part of a lot of action/adventure titles such as Tomb Raider or Super Mario Bros.
  17. 414 Chapter 21: Level Design Instead of just providing a bridge between different action set pieces, if properly designed the exploration can actually be a lot of fun for a player. It is often hard for the design team to see this after slaving away on a map for months. How much fun is exploring architecture with which you are already painfully familiar? Always try to keep in mind that for a player experiencing a map for the first time, the thrill of exploring a new virtual world can be quite stimulating. It may be important to con- stantly be showing your level to first-time viewers or playtesters, and getting their feedback on whether they enjoy exploring the level or not. The designer must keep in mind how the player will explore the level to know how best to lay it out. What cool piece of art or architecture will the player see around the next corner? How excited or awe-inspired will the player be on finding new areas? Making exciting exploration a part of your game goes beyond creating exciting architecture for the player. It is also determined by how the level flows, and what the player will have to do to reach an exciting new area. Being dropped right into the middle of some nice architecture is much less satisfying than having to navigate a large area of the map to finally make it to an exploration payoff. Part of making the exploration aspect of a game work is determining the flow of a level. Will the player need to explore several offshoots from a main, critical path, or will the player generally only have one way to proceed? Will the path the player must take to complete the level be obvious at first, or will the player need to experiment and look around quite a bit before they find it? Games that are very action-oriented will tend to put the player on a path which leads directly to the next conflict. Games that encourage the player to poke around may make the path less obvious. As far back as Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Miyamoto’s games have included exploration as a key gameplay component.
  18. Chapter 21: Level Design 415 I once saw someone criticize Shigeru Miyamoto’s games as being all about exploration, and therefore not very good games. The observation that exploration is the focus of the later Mario was a correct one. The mistake was in asserting that this is not a fun part of gameplay, as millions of Mario fans will refute. The chal- lenge lies in making exploration entertaining and rewarding for the player, something Miyamoto’s games do expertly. Puzzle Solving Sometimes progressing in a level involves more than just finding a path to the next area. Instead it may involve figuring out what needs to be accomplished in order to open a certain door or how a large obstacle can be cleared out of the way. Perhaps the worst examples of this are the “switch flipping” puzzles found in many first-person shooters. In these games, for no particular reason, the player needs to navigate through a large section of the map in order to flip a switch. This action opens a door which leads the player to another area where another switch is in need of flipping. And so it goes. This switch may instead be a key or any other object that opens a door or any other type of device that blocks the player’s progress. This is the simplest form of a puzzle in an action/exploration game. Here the focus is mostly on the player exploring until he finds the puzzle, with the solution to the puzzle then being trivial. In the case of the switch, once it is found all the player needs to do is flip it. More sophisticated variants on the switch/door combination can be situations which require the player to actually figure something out in order to progress. Per- haps a laser beam needs to be refracted around a series of corners in order for the player to progress. In order to refract it correctly, the player will need to move sev- eral reflective plates. The player must understand the simple physics of the situation which govern how the beam will behave when reflected in different ways. The focus here shifts from just finding the puzzle to finding it and then figuring out how to manipulate it correctly. The player’s gaming experience is enhanced by this puz- zle instead of it merely delaying the end of her game. Determining how much emphasis your level will have on puzzle solving is important to keep in mind, espe- cially within the context of the game as a whole. A sure way to frustrate the player is to suddenly throw a bunch of arbitrary puzzles at her after the entire game up to that point has been more action-oriented. Storytelling Setting is a big part of storytelling, and levels are a vital component of establishing the setting for a game. Therefore, levels are an integral part of telling a game’s story. If the story is more than something tacked on to an already completed game, it only makes sense for the game’s levels and the story to work in synergy. Depending on
  19. 416 Chapter 21: Level Design In a historical game such as Gettysburg!, the gameplay is very much tied to a particular story from history. the type of storytelling that the game is employing, it may be necessary for the player to meet and converse with characters in the levels, such as in Half-Life or in almost any RPG. Setting up the levels to support the appearance of these characters becomes very important. In some games it is obvious that the levels were designed from the very start with the story in mind. For instance, in Myth: The Fallen Lords, the player’s goals for a certain level are directly tied to the progression of the story. In a historical wargame such as Gettysburg!, the battles the player fights have to be tied to the story, since it could hardly be a historical simulation otherwise. Knowing the story goals for a given level prior to constructing that level is cru- cial to communicating the story effectively. The story should still be loose enough to allow the level designer to be creative in making the best level possible. There are still concerns about gameplay, about balancing the right amount of strategy, action, puzzles, and exploration, and since it is nearly impossible to balance these components before the level actually exists, the level designer needs to not have his hands tied by an overly restrictive story. Indeed, it may turn out that the story needs to change in order to accommodate the gameplay needs of the level, but having an idea of what story needs to be told on a particular level is essential to designing that level so it fits properly into the overall narrative. Aesthetics How a level looks and sounds are probably the driving factors behind many level designers’ work. I certainly would not dispute that a level’s appearance is crucial to its overall success. At the same time, however, the aesthetic component becomes a
  20. Chapter 21: Level Design 417 problem when how the level looks becomes the designer’s primary concern, a situa- tion which usually has a detrimental effect on how the level plays. Suppose a level designer spends a lot of time creating a massive, gorgeous cathedral for a level, and the appearance of that cathedral is constantly at the forefront of his mind. What if it turns out that the cathedral is hard for the player to navigate, the AI agents easily get confused when trying to pathfind though it, and the whole structure is a bit more than the engine can handle, resulting in the level running slowly? If the cathedral looks great and its construction sucked up a lot of man-hours, who will want to cut it? It may translate into some fabulous screenshots on the back of the box; too bad it will not be any fun to play. A big part of the level designer’s job is to balance the appearance of the level with the other requirements of that level, as I have listed above. There is always an achievable middle ground where the level looks good, plays well, renders quickly, and suits the needs of the game’s story. Level designers spend a lot of their time learning the “tricks” of a given engine or level editor. What can they do that will use the fewest polygons while still looking good? Often the solutions they come up with are not necessarily “real” but rather “faked.” Of course the whole purpose of creating levels for a virtual world is creating “fake” content, so a level designer need not worry if an effect is achieved by “faking” something. If the player cannot tell it is faked, if he cannot see behind the magic curtain, that is all that matters. One of the principles behind all special effects is to create something that looks like something it is not. The level designer’s job is to make the player see something that looks like something it is not, giving the level what Unreal level designer Cliff Bleszinski would call “schlack,” a shiny and fancy coating over an otherwise unin- teresting level. The visual side of a level can have a big impact on the other concerns of a game’s level as I have listed before. For instance, in order to make a level playable, the textures on a level should be laid out in such a way that the player can see where he should or should not be able to go. Instead of wondering if a particular slope is too steep for her game-world surrogate to climb up, a different texture can serve as a visual cue to the player as to which slopes are passable and which are not. Lighting can be used to conceal secret areas, or a big puzzle in the level may be figuring out how to turn the lights on. If certain special areas are supposed to be rewards for the player’s diligent exploration, making those special areas look impressive is essential to maintaining the player’s interest in the level. A lot of time can be spent on the aesthetics of a level. The amount of time is directly proportional to the complexity of the engine and level editor being used as well as the desired visual effect of the level. In fact, it may be the case that all of the gameplay and story elements of the level can be set up first and then the visual appearance can be tweaked for weeks to come. Lighting can be endlessly adjusted, textures can be shifted or switched for other textures, and polygon faces can be



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