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Still More Comments on Level Docs – Take this book and flee!

May 6, 2009

I am still wading through my proofing of level docs. So, here’s some more comments. Please note that these comments are only my opinion, and there are other ways to do these things. When you get a gig at a company, they may already have their own way, or you might get to make one up.

  • “Take this book at flee” sounds odd and it is. However, when it’s in a level doc as a mission, here’s how it might look – the player is sent to talk with several NPCs who provide him (or her) key information. At that point, since there’s nothing else to do, the player is expected to leave. Sometimes, people rush this by having something tragic happen right then. Stop pointing players at herds of NPCs to convey information about your backstory. Odds are, it’s not that important (Doom, anyone?) or that you’re overlooking much better albeit more challenging ways to integrate this information. Do, don’t show. For God’s sake, don’t tell.
  • When you’re making maps, resist some urges:
    • Don’t fill everything in. Trust that your map will fill itself out in due course as your narrative/missions progress. A game never comes to you all at once. It takes time.
    • Don’t make a work of art. It’s a scratch map. MS Paint can do the trick. If you spend hours on your map, odds are that time could have been better spent (unless you happen to also be an artist and this work will be used by marketing or the dev team later on as an asset)
  • Give your missions names, not numbers. You will change them, add new ones etc. The numbers will grow to be confusing.
  • On your map, leave room between your numbers. I generally start with even or odd location #s. It always, always, always fills in.
  • Cut your text in half. Whatever it is, if it appears or is said in game, cut your first draft in half. Text on the page = eternity in a game.
  • If you have multiple maps in a single document, please use this structure for each map. Don’t group your maps together:
    • Paragraph explaining the map…
    • Which is pictured next and annotated with numbers
    • Numbered breakout giving a description of what’s at the given number.
  • It’s okay to leave things hanging in your early docs. I have plenty of TBDs that I highlight yellow. Don’t force it. Of course, you’ll need to clean it up at some point.
  • Don’t force the player. One thing I’ve seen a lot recently centers around an issue I think we, as designers, have a lot of difficulty with – trusting the player. So, to illustrate, imagine the player has just started the game and something happens (conflict is critical early on to provide direction). Immediately, we force the player into one direction or another, maybe even through prompts. Don’t do that. If there are two places you really want to me to go, trust that I will eventually get there. Telegraph it some. Have the NPCs with me run there. Trust, tho. I just got into this game, and I want to have a look around first. As a bonus, if you give me quests that hadn’t even occurred to me, you’re playing the game for me.  I should have a clue about the quest before it shows up in somewhere. How might I do this differently? Well, I suppose I’d telegraph where I wanted the player to go by sending people running in particular directions. Also, since I ultimately control the AI, I can have people approach the character when she arrives at a particular location.
  • Cool idea x 1: If you have a cool idea for something that happens at a particular location that requires animation, unique art assets and code, just stop. It’s not worth it almost always. These are things that we reserve for boss fights. Try to think through your desired mission actions and reuse. The 7th circle of hell is reserved for designers who require “special case code”.
  • Level docs are all about covering exceptions. Know that if you say, “The guard tells the player he cannot enter,” that I am going to try to enter. What happens? Think about all these things. For every path through the game, there are 1,000 possible paths that you have to consider and shut down or allow.
  • Think like a game and not a book or a movie. I’ve read a number of things where the player goes to a location and then X, Y and Z happens upon their arrival (ie. people walk in from another area). However, the gameplay isn’t stopped at these points. So, if I were the player, I’d just keep heading on toward my grand plan while your X, Y and Z apparently carries on without me.  If you want me to see it, you better stop me, or find some way to draw my attention toward it. The latter is preferable because anytime you steal control, you risk blowing immersion.
  • Don’t give me a choice if you’re not really giving me a choice. If you are going to allow me two or three possible things, as a player, I think it’s because there must be something else I can do here. For instance, let’s say I can barricade myself into an area. If this is a possibility, can I escape? If my only choice is to face what it is I am barricadeing myself from, then just let us have at it. You deceive the player when you give them a choice that doesn’t matter. It will be perceived as a waste of player time.
  • Be clear in assigning of quests. When you assign a quest in a doc, note it well, and it might be great to do it in some way that can’t be missed. “STOP ALL EMAIL Quest Assigned,” is one possible way to do it. I’ve seen people highlight quest opening and ending texts with the same color.

That’s enough for this post. See also:

More comments on level docs

Comments on Level Design docs

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Anaël permalink
    May 7, 2009 2:50 am

    Hi Brenda, these are really great for the novice. I’m totally glad I found your blog (I think it was via @BoardgameNews). I’m a screenwriter in animation trying to switch to being a game designer (board, video and else). So any tip is always welcomed.

    Thanks for the generosity of these posts!

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