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Endless Comments on Level Docs

May 7, 2009

It’s day four of doc review here. Here’s today’s batch of comments.

  • There are few things more boring in a game than talking to a whole bunch of NPCs who have nothing at all interesting to add. To add frustration to boredom, have a couple NPCs with valuable info so that I have to weed out the herd in order to find them. NPCs without valuable info shouldn’t engage (hence making them AIs not NPCs). NPCs with valuable info should be obvious to me.
  • Please write in the active voice. The player appreciates it. Search your doc for all instances of “will” and edit them out.
  • I am leaning toward the idea of an executive summary at the beginning of every doc which lists out all the key people, missions, zones, items, etc.   in bullet point form with very brief descriptions. Easy way to wrap my head around the scope of something.
  • Identical instances should use the same number on your map. If you have a collection of guards and various points, and they are all the same, pick one number for them and use that number all over the map. Different numbers implies difference in subject matter.
  • Random pick up items generally aren’t put into a level doc, particularly at specific locations unless there’s a whole cache of them or something. We can assume that there will be pick ups (med packs or whatever). Also, roaming enemies aren’t included on the map. Spawn points are.
  • Think print. I know that we’re all in the digital age now, but sometimes these docs are printed out for meetings, to send to stakeholders, etc. If your maps or artwork are too dark, then you risk losing something in translation. Save yourself that risk.
  • Do it, don’t show it, and for God’s sake, don’t tell it. I am repeating myself here, but it’s worth it. The easy way out is to have an NPC approach you and then let fly with a cutscene that covers the piece of narrative or motivation you’re hoping to cover. There is another way, and it’s not a large wall of text. Think about how you could have  your character participate in something that would convey the same thing. Do they walk in on something? Are they called to action?
  • At each location on the map, state what’s there in the number, not what action is going to be taken there.  For instance, “20.  Red Guard Soliders.” Don’t state “20. Fight Off Red Guard Soldiers,” unless you’re playing the game for me… which you are if you state it like that. Sometimes, it actually is going to be an encounter, and that’s that. However, try to consider the possibility that your way is not the only way. Don’t lead the player (or the level designer) along a particular path. I can assure you that players won’t follow your path. You must consider a variety here. State the individual locations, and then step back and look for the connections between them. This is where I often find some really good play.
  • Think challenge. When you give the player missions, ask yourself what’s so special about it. What’s in it for me other than forwarding your narrative? Do you want to make the player feel like a mailman or a bad ass? Think of running a race where you are the only contestant. Ultimately, people want to feel like they got something out of it, and to do that, you have to let them achieve something in a way that feels like they have fairly earned it. So, just giving a reward for nothing won’t work. Let me struggle a little it, then let me take my earned rewards for that. The rewards are validation for something I know I deserve. Another thing along these lines – players are well educated in this stuff nowadays. They can see the potential in a mission, and they expect it to be good. If you fall short of those expectations, they feel robbed. That’s not an aesthetic to shoot for.
  • You don’t have a text parser. I’ve seen a lot of this, “Tell the so and so…”, “Talk to X and say Y…” How precisely do you plan to do that? Worst case scenario, you’re planning to present the player with a menu of choices. This = playing the game for me, though. Think of other ways to communicate things, whether through item exchange (ex. if I have the item and give it to you, you know that I did the mission in question).  PS – it’s sad that we don’t have full text parsers anymore.
  • Be specific. Don’t tell me I need “to infiltrate the camp.” What do you mean by infiltrate? Scale the wall? Go in disguise? If there are multiple paths, I need to be aware of them, and so does the person scripting this stuff.

See also:

Still more comments on level docs

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2009 12:09 pm

    This is all really good advice. Having worked with a team on a failed (launched… but failed) MMO I can’t emphasize enough how each of these bullet points should be taken to heart.

    This would probably be asking for trouble, but it would be really cool if you could reference existing games that display some of these problems. Or perhaps even ones that get it right. Some of the side quests in Fallout 3 come to mind as extremely well written and thought out, succeeding despite the wooden character performance courtesy of the Gamebryo engine.

  2. May 7, 2009 4:35 pm

    I’m new to your blog, but I take it you are reading through all the “Level Docs” your students have turned in? This is a new concept for me (level docs, not students), though I have a pretty good idea what they are from reading your comments. Is there any chance you could post an example Level Doc?

    Or maybe I should look in your book, which I just purchased for Ian’s Game Design Concepts class this summer. 🙂

    • May 7, 2009 8:23 pm

      There’s actually not a sample doc in the book. Maybe I will get my act together over the summer and get an intern to put some samples together. All mine are for actual games, and I would need to go through hoops for clearance. I recommend periodically nagging me to do it so I remember. 🙂

      • May 8, 2009 7:20 am

        Now that would be an awesome thing for Collector’s Edition games. Better than a trinket or director commentary, you could have the original design doc! I don’t really see why it would hurt once the game is actually sold, but then again I find that game dev is amazingly secretive business. “Someone might steal my time-warp jump-heal mechanic idea! Oh no!”

      • May 8, 2009 1:39 pm

        While this is probably not a proper sample doc, it’s real and is fun to read anyway.

        http://www.melonflavored.net/random/GrimPuzzleDoc_small.pdf

        Tim Schafer released the Grim Fandango puzzle design document a bit back. I couldn’t find it on his website again, but I reuploaded it to my own webspace. I promise it’s not a virus!

      • May 9, 2009 4:58 pm

        Periodic nagging … check. 🙂

        Ari: Very interesting Doc (the PDF). Thank for linking that.

  3. May 8, 2009 1:24 pm

    On your last bullet:
    “Be specific. Don’t tell me I need “to infiltrate the camp.” What do you mean by infiltrate? Scale the wall? Go in disguise? If there are multiple paths, I need to be aware of them, and so does the person scripting this stuff.”

    How do you walk the fine line between making sure the player is aware of multiple paths, yet also making sure you aren’t playing the game for him/her? You said don’t lead the player on a path and this point sounds like it could potentially contradict that.

  4. May 8, 2009 3:28 pm

    This applies for play-by-post roleplays as well, and is very good advice!

    Do you mind if we republish this over on RolePlayGateway?

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