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Possibly the Last Set of Comments on Level Docs

May 9, 2009

But we all know there’s still going to be more…

  • Names: There is a special dictionary in hell that contains over-used names for places, people and things.
  • Tradeoffs: we often include prisoner’s dilemma style tradeoffs in games. Short term gain vs. long term gain. The challenge is to create appropriate tradeoffs, where by not taking something now, you reap more rewards later. Make sure you deliver in the long term.
  • Quest because you can: Think in terms of asset creation. Taking your broken weapon to a weapon’s dealer so he can fix it is pointless, particularly if the broken weapon doesn’t work in the first place. Just start me with no weapon and have me connect with the weapon’s dealer afterward.
  • Your idea = money: It’s a hip idea to have characters fight with everything under the sun. However, each of those items will require its own set of combat data and possibly animations in order for it to function in the game. Each of these things takes time. I would rather you pick 20 weapons for me and make ’em wonderful. A flotilla of weapons that are indistinct from one another isn’t exciting to me.
  • Referencing things: When you reference things from earlier in your doc, include context. So, instead of saying, “… if the player has completed option 3a at 7”, say “… if the player has aligned with the Turret Guard (3a) at the Castle (location 7).” It might seem obvious in your head, but not to others. Give it a year, and you won’t remember what you were talking about either.
  • Knowledge beforehand: As I go through the game, I am collecting knowledge about stuff I may need later. If I go to a shop, and they never have any healing potions, I am not going to think to go back there after combat when I need them.
  • Determine your standard action set before you start your level design doc, and then stick to it. Ask yourself questions like this: can players merge items, use items, give items away, trade them? Can they dig, hide, spy? Don’t wait for the special case where you feel you just have to use it. Go in knowing what you can do and maximize that action.
  • Always assume worst case scenario: What seems easy and obvious to you is not always easy and obvious to players. As an example, assume that there’s a big encounter where I’m tasked with attempting to save a group of individuals while fighting off the horde. Assume that I save everyone. Assume that I save some. Assume that we all go down. Account for it in your design.
  • Be wary of player patrols: If you ask me to patrol an area, it sounds kinda interesting at first. However, what you’re really saying is, “Walk back and forth here until you hit the random number on my predefined trigger. Try to entertain yourself until such time occurs.” If this is something you want, figure out a way for me to a) hire an NPC to do it, b) let me use a funky device to do it or c) let us just have at it now.
  • The real reason you shouldn’t use numbers: Things change. Let’s say that you write about “Quest 2” all over your doc. At some point, you might add in a quest between 1 and 2, thus resulting in a new numbering of quests (or an awkward old numbering). When you revise your doc, trust that you will miss at least one reference (usually the one where you referred to it as something like this – “in the second mission” – which the search/replace didn’t catch. If you refer to them by name, you can reorder them any way you like, anytime you like. Besides, it’s tedious to renumber everything.
  • Beware the pronoun: When you’re referring to a world and the interactions of characters, its best just to reference everyone by title or name. Pronouns leave things open to interpretation sometimes.
  • Live the potential: So, you’ve created a level that has the potential to be scary. Let’s call it a dungeon where cells have been carved into the rock and prisoners are inside. Lighting is low. It seems potentially hostile. The feeling of possibility is palatable here. However, it will all fall away if you don’t play with that, push it and add to it. Initial feelings of fear have a very, very short shelf life. They abate if you don’t continuously feed them. Every second that passes safely eats away at this fear and makes it into a dark but safe place to be.
  • Your Game <> Gallery: I didn’t come to your game to look at your pretty locations or to admire your artists’ ability. I will, of course, but then I will wonder what I do here. If you don’t have an answer to that, your game will feel empty. Consider WoW for a second. There are plenty of places where the game’s beauty stands out to me, and where I am truly impressed by what I’m seeing both from a player and a developer’s perspective. However, I know that in 2 seconds, I can turn around and have multiple positive, forward-moving things to do. That’s the essence of good level design.
  • Setting up traps: If you set up a trap for the player to walk into, think about how its integrated into the design overall. If it feels like the designer trapped the player by tricking him or her into complicity in something, that’s usually not good. If someone else in the game set me up to take a fall or be framed for something, that can feel maddening (initially) and then provoke a strong desire to set things right (a good thing).
  • Don’t penalize the player for freedom: You’ve made the world. When they see a set of guards go by, and walk into a room, don’t penalize them if they don’t follow the guards and go another way instead. Don’t lock the door never to open it again. You gave them this freedom, so don’t penalize them for taking advantage of it.
  • Types of Items: You don’t generally need to specify which items you’re going to be finding at a particular place. If they’re random items, you can say that. Most games (digital and non-digital) use drop tables which provide a certain number of random items within a certain range of power and probability. Yeah, MS Excel.
  • It’s my game, and I want to be the hero. I paid for it. In a scene where there is a crisis, please don’t send an NPC in to save the day. You stole that from me. Let me deliver the killing shot at least. Standing around watching NPCs take out people in my game is about as fun as watching someone else play Gears.
  • Listen to me, oh unlearned ones. People in thine video games dost not talk like this. It maketh the reader freakin crazy-ith.
  • Remember that this is a game, not a movie. This sounds obvious on the way in. Once in, though, it’s easy to fall into the trap of controlling the action through repeated follows (no!), cutscenes and narrative sequences. Voila, a movie.
  • Use a font we all know and love. If you use some funky font in your doc, and the stakeholder you send it to doesn’t have that font, hello courier.

See also:

Endless comments on level docs

Still more comments on level docs

More comments on level docs

Comments on Level Design docs

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill permalink
    May 10, 2009 1:24 am

    I’ve enjoyed the monumental list of pointers so far in this ‘series’ of entries, but just wanted to point out this:

    “Tradeoffs: we often include prisoner’s dilemma style tradeoffs in games. Short term gain vs. long term gain.”

    The traditional prisoner’s dilemma always seemed to me to center around rational individual “greedy” decision-making vs. altruistic cooperative group-based decision making.

    • May 10, 2009 8:28 pm

      Thanks, Bill. I think it’s the same either way you look at it, for the most part.

  2. May 10, 2009 1:01 pm

    And for the love of god don’t use Comic Sans!

  3. May 12, 2009 7:53 pm

    I’m not sure about ‘let me be the hero’. Sure, I’ve seen it when a designers pet NPC comes up and starts doing all the fancy things that the design scheme does not let me do in the least (often leaping between buildings without stopping, is one).

    But at the same time, is the player the actual hero/protagonist? Does the player actually want to change things, or just wants to watch events as if at a movie?

    Trying to design for someone who wants to change the scene and someone who is just wanting entertainment, will probably make your brain implode. Perhaps some sort of points you can spend if you want to grab hold of a scene…

    Points you can spend to grab hold of the scene, should you want to grab it as a player. But

  4. May 20, 2009 7:10 am

    Any chance of getting a list of “over used names”? I’m not being silly or anything, you use “Castle” in another point further down, so my list of “over used” must be entirely different 🙂

    I’d also find it funny, maybe do a post where you solicit suggestions 😀 Do it in Comic Sans too, to prove a point like jcaskey said 🙂

    • May 20, 2009 7:17 am

      I like that idea, Andrew. You showed up about 10 mins too late for today. I’m writing that post now. I’ll run something similar later on this week.

      On the overused names… you know them when they show up. Usually, they are blatantly inspired by LotR, Star Trek or Star Wars, or they sound like a classic 1970’s series star – Jake Manly. Names that are horrifying: Castle of a Thousand Pains, The Forgotten Lands (number 1 most annoying overused name), The Lost (usually in reference to a group of outcasts), The Outcasts (see the Lost)…

      • May 20, 2009 2:33 pm

        Ahhh, yeah, all of those. “Dungeon of Fear”, “Dragons Den”, “Pain Valley”, hahaha, it’d be more funny but so many games do use them, oops!

  5. May 20, 2009 6:23 pm

    You have to remember that’s largely to do with cultural contamination – you’ve been exposed to all these names before. If you were a child encountering the game for the first time, dragons den would ring true (or to be exact, the game would define the name ‘dragons den’)

    It’s not that these names can’t be used, but the author has to fight against cultural contamination and somehow invigour a ‘child like’ engagement, atleast to some extent.

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