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Designing Better Levels Through Human Survival Instincts

June 21, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[In this article, Westwood College faculty member and trained architect Christopher Totten explores how human psychology is understood by architects, how that can apply to level design, and explores games that use these techniques effectively.]

What is the difference between a good game level and a bad game level? According to American writer and philosopher Robert M. Pirsig, "quality" is indefinable, yet we have intuitive knowledge of its existence. If something is good, and therefore of high "quality", we invariably know it -- whether or not we can give a textbook definition of what makes it good.

Therefore with our game levels, as with anything in design: if the level is good, gamers will know. In game design, the particular flavor of quality we hope to achieve is known as "fun". Unfortunately for us, saying that fun is indefinable doesn't quite work.

The mysterious definitions of "quality" and "fun" are something that stump many a designer: how can a game designer determine whether their level is good?

Many will answer by saying that levels must be properly playtested, but for some companies that may not occur until the game is nearly finished -- way past the stage of initial level design. So what are the guidelines of good level design that can help us conceive good experiences from the very beginning of the level design process?

Scientists and usability experts monitor pleasurable experiences by observing the brain's production of the neurotransmitter called Dopamine, which provides feelings of pleasure and motivation when released into the brain. Controlling the production of this chemical in a player is a matter of using psychological methods to design our game environments.

A level designer at Valve once stated in an interview that "experience was key" to creating game environments, and as such they began their design processes from "core mechanics", similar to the way many good game designs begin. Designing from the core mechanic, the basic action a player takes within a game, starts the designer with a sound plan. From this plan, many basic psychological tools can be employed to support the core mechanic and create a pleasurable spatial experience: reward systems, operant conditioning, Montessori Method-style interactions, visual communication methods, and numerous others.

The basis of learning these methods and applying them to level design is understanding how they became part of our own "mental wiring". Like many things that are part of how we humans operate, they evolved from our prehistoric need to survive. Architectural theorists such as Grant Hildebrand highlight how many of our concepts of what are "pleasurable" in a spatial environment trace back to our own survival instincts.

Games already manipulate these instincts, requiring players to maintain the well-being of their avatar to continue and letting near-death gameplay situations provide dramatic tension. Game environments can provide this same psychological dramatic arc and create pleasurable experiences for players. It is therefore fair to say that understanding the spatial psychology of our own survival instincts can make us better level designers.

Architecture has for centuries revolved around creating human experiences through space. It is only in the last century, with the dawn of the postmodern movement, that it has become so heavily focused on the form of the building instead of the experience of being within. Modernists understood that a building was an environment for the creation of experiences: Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier is famously quoted as saying, "The house is a machine for living in", while Louis Sullivan expounded, "form follows function." We can take hints from their outlooks on spatial design, especially when it comes to survival. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs highlights physiological needs such as food, water, and shelter as the most necessary to humans.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Architecture is for creating pleasure by creating spaces that feel safe, while level design is about creating spaces that create a sense of danger that is pleasurable to battle and overcome. If to architects the house was the machine for living, the game level should be the machine for living, dying, and creating tension by exploiting everything in between. In this article, I will highlight level design strategies based on the psychology of survival and exemplified by classic gaming precedents and real-world pieces of architecture.

The "Problem of the Protagonist"

To better understand how to create better levels by utilizing human survival instincts, we must first understand the connection between our in-game avatar and these instincts. As far as animals go, humans are pretty lame: we have no large claws or teeth for fighting, no poisons, no scary markings, no horns, no great running ability, and no armor plating. Proportionately we are weaker than ants, which can carry hundreds of times their own body weight.

We do have one huge advantage over pretty much everything else in the animal kingdom, however: our intelligence. With this amazing ability to reason, we can craft tools and gadgets that help us do everything from hunting down a wooly mammoth for our dinner to listening to hundreds of our favorite albums during our afternoon commute.

Games take advantage of this weakness and reliance on tools by using something I like to call "the problem of the protagonist." This describes a common situation in many games where a character finds him or herself in a position of natural weakness compared to his or her enemies. This simulates humanity's own natural disadvantages against the beasts that made our pre-agricultural lifestyles a hassle.

Game avatars, by their definition, are the player's representatives in the game world, sharing their natural strengths and weaknesses. Some games even try to more concretely solidify this relationship by making these protagonists silent or allowing the player to customize their appearance. Overcoming the disadvantages these characters possess as a human's representative is a popular mechanic in many games, such as Metroid and The Legend of Zelda.

Samus Aran enhances her abilities with tools to become more powerful than her foes

Of Zelda, Shigeru Miyamoto once said that he envisioned it as a game where you began as a young boy in the forest who must gather items and become an accomplished adult. When the player has reached this stage, they can return to areas that were once threatening and feel that they are not afraid of them anymore. In the time between being the inexperienced child and being the accomplished and powerful adult, the player will feel the dramatic tension of nearly losing their (or more accurately, their character's) life many times.

In Hyrule, Zebes, and many other designed digital worlds, players find themselves in environments that act as both safe havens and dangerous wildernesses; using the dichotomy to their advantage and overcome their own disadvantages if possible.

The Sizes of Game Spaces and Human Emotion

Now that we know how games put players in the role of a simulated weak human, we can understand how the relationship of this character to its environment helps us create better levels through our own survival instincts. The first and most simple element of this relationship is the size of the space relative to the size of the player character. Like real life, the size of the space someone inhabits can generate feelings ranging from absolute comfort to crippling fear, in the case of claustrophobia. In games, the size of spaces can serve to create or alleviate tension, or set the stage for dramatic encounters. When discussing the size of game spaces, they can be split into three simple groups:

1. Narrow Space

A small enclosed space where the occupant feels confined and unable to move. These spaces create a sense of vulnerability in the player's inability to properly defend themselves. These spaces are a staple of survival horror games like Resident Evil and Dead Space, the latter featuring areas where the player must crawl through confined ventilation shafts where no weapons or items may be used while Necromorph monsters make watch the player from nearby.

Narrow hallways are a staple of survival horror games like
Resident Evil

The ability for these spaces to cause tension is clear: if something happens in them the player has little or no way of escaping the threat. In a narrow passage an enemy can literally become another wall of the space, diminishing the size of the space with each approaching step. This effect can be exacerbated with enemies and games specifically designed to elicit actual fear in the player, such as zombies or predatory aliens in horror games.

2. Intimate Space

Players controlling Mario can reach everything Peach's Castle, making it a very pleasurable space to inhabit.

These spaces are neither confining nor overly large. While they can be large in overall scope, everything in the space should be immediately accessible to the player and within reach of their avatar and their inherent abilities. In a space like this, the player can feel as though they are in control, and that is the true importance of these spaces. One such example of this type of space is the hub environments of the 3D Super Mario games. In these spaces Mario can run, jump and utilize his other acrobatic moves to reach the limits of the space.

These spaces don't necessarily have to be devoid of enemies either. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, the designers wanted to utilize stealth gameplay in such a way that the player felt more powerful than their enemies. For this style of game they coined the term "predator gameplay."

One of the elements of the game that assisted in the player's feeling of power was the level of control they had over the game's environments. Even in the largest rooms of the asylum, Batman can jump and swing from the highest structural elements and maintain his vantage point above his enemies. Fitting the character of Batman, players have incredible freedom over spaces that would be overwhelming and dangerous in other games.

Players can feel as though they are Batman because they have control over their environment, giving them the ability to terrorize their enemies.

Perhaps one of the most important elements of these spaces is that they can expand over the course of a game. As players receive new abilities, such as in the previously mentioned Zelda or Metroid games, the space of intimacy becomes larger. When Samus acquires the space jump she can reach higher ledges, when Link gets the hookshot he can cross wide chasms.

3. Prospect Space

While this space is the exact opposite of narrow spaces, it produces a somewhat similar effect. Coined by architectural theorist Grant Hildebrand, Prospect Space describes a spatial condition that is wide open, within which the occupant is exposed to potential enemies. The idea that this type of space is unpleasant originates in ancient times when humans would have to cross open wilderness to reach food, shelter, and safety, facing the threat of predators and the elements. The fear of these places is called agoraphobia. The people that suffer from this disorder feel uncomfortable in open spaces with few places to hide.

In games these Prospects take on a few different forms. One type of Prospect is the Boss Room. Boss Rooms are typically wide-open places for staging elaborate encounters with strong enemies. One of the classic examples of these spaces is the Boss Rooms in the Mega Man series.

Boss Rooms in
Mega Man often feature little or no elaboration or places to hide from the attacking Robot Master.

The other popular form of Prospect Space is that found in action games, where players are vulnerable to enemy fire. In games where players can exchange gunfire with one another, it's common for open areas, especially those viewable from higher elevations, to function as Prospect spaces that must be traveled through to reach goals or hiding places.

The relationship between Prospect Spaces and the hiding places that they occur between is a very important one to game designers, and it is the second important element of the human survival instinct that can educate level designers.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Jean-Michel Vilain
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Excellent read.

Will Buck
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Very enjoyable, interesting to see how a little background in architecture would be of great benefit to level design

Abel Bascunana Pons
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One of the best articles i've come across so far with excellent references everywhere. Thanks for sharing Christopher! =)

Anna Kozar
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Nice article :)

But somehow it makes me sick... Why being so technical about game design? Great results can be achieved by just using your logic, not historical notes of hard human survival. If we all will follow this logic, all games will look the same (somehow they already do), so for me a number one challenge is to learn building a good gameplay out of conditions provided by the game's storyline (which has to be very good and logical).

Mihai Cozma
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You should try Minecraft if you haven't done so already. The worlds in that game are randomly generated, however the elements described in this article are described in there. The fear of monsters when you discover a huge dark cave, the need to create high buildings and secure courtyards to separate from monsters and the need to light everything up so the monsters cannot spawn (which in turn makes you built small enclosed space that are easy to be lit), or maybe very tight and dark tunnels, all of these are in the game, crated randomly at world generation or built by the player. In the light of the Minecraft game, I think the article is not necessary trying to influence our level design thinking, but merely trying to explain why we feel good about the games designed in that way and why in games where the level design is the actual game (like minecraft) we tend to follow the same principles, even in an unconscious fashion.

Alan Jack
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The cognitive dissonance that comes from pulling apart the magic of the human condition and exposing the underlying rules and functions and predictability is common. I went through a stage of it as well, but as designers its vital that you understand not just that something IS fun, but WHY it is fun so that you can work to advance that for your next work, otherwise your only reliable way to work is to repeat yourself!

A colleague of mine who shares you view once pointed out that we rarely think about this kind of academic thinking when we're working, and its true - we're more likely to "just do it" than to consider each and every rule we have when designing, but the truth is the knowledge is still there, working in the back of our mind. Having read this article, I probably won't remember the terms "refuge" and "prospect" space in a year's time, but on some level I'll still remember to consider the fundamental aspects of it when designing a level!

Christopher Totten
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Great discussion guys.

@Anna: I actually held off on the idea of talking narrative for this article, but I could certainly go on and on about how narrative can influence the spaces of a game. To be honest, this article is part of a much larger body of work that I've compiled that I would eventually like to publish in book form. This would potentially be a chapter from that piece. I always go back to the idea of "am I designing this game from a story or from a mechanic?" then work from there making all the pieces feel good.

I wouldn't say that this is necessarily a way to make all games look the same, but it can give us something to think about as we design the spaces in which players will enact our specific story or set of mechanics, if your style of game supports them. These specific spaces may not be for every game.

@Alan: You're absolutely right about how you work vs. how you think about academic stuff like this. I have been doing some basic prototypes for a game I'm working on and put a lot of these concepts aside to get the work done.

I think the academic stuff fits in when we test prototypes through playtesting and focus groups. As we see people fail to have the intended experience from the level, higher-end level design concepts can become our "tool box" for how to move to a more positive play experience.

For example, I realized that in one part of a level, where I wanted players to fall back from one enemy encounter and turn around to find a new batch of enemies invading a once friendly area, players weren't turning around and in fact had no idea that there was even a possible enemy entry point. Remembering a concept I've lectured about called "overview", a method of giving players holistic visual previews that is used often in Shigeru Miyamoto games and I.M. Pei's architecture, I have a way to fix the problem. :)

Mark Venturelli
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@Anna. This argument against knowledge is something that always surprises me at a site such as Gamasutra. Really? Let's not study things, because if we do "all games will look the same"? Frankly.

About the article: good, refreshing read. The game examples are a little shoehorned in, but it's always good to have an insight on related areas of knowledge such as Architecture! Thanks for posting this, Christopher.

Jon Ze
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Anna, all of your logic *is* just historical notes.

What difference does it make if you use only logic you've learned thus far, or if you research beyond your own understanding? It's all just data waiting to be interpreted.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Why being so technical?

Every art has its rules: Bad directors/painter/musicians dont know the rules or use them wrong. Good ones know the rules and use them well. And finally masters break them cleverly to play with our expectations, or discover new rules altogether. I applaud every game or level designer who work on understanding the rules of game/level design.

As for the article, excellent read. Demon souls seems like a textbook example of all of this, with the alternance of prospect/refuge/ in most worlds (like world 1-2 with the dragon), the intimate space that is the nexus, the use of narrow spaces (tower of latria) or huge open spaces (swamp) to create a malaise. Im going to pass this around the studio!

Luis Guimaraes
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When you have to convince others about the reason you made design choices. Being so technical makes it easier.

Christopher Totten
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To pull from architecture school: the technical stuff is what you quote at juries :)

Jitesh Panchal
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I agree, excellent article with amazing references! Demon's Souls come to my mind too - as a perfect reference here! It messes up with players psyche to create a very immersive and scary experience with great sense of pride upon completion!

Chris Sykora
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If something is logical, it should be technically sound. Right?

I don't want to collapse a fantasy world but at one point game design loses its magic becomes all about the numbers and in some cases becomes just a job. It's not just "I have this really cool idea for a story" or "I have this great idea for a gun". Most designers live in excel sheets balancing out numbers. It is extremely technical and in many cases you would benefit from an extremely technical background (which is why a lot of designers are also engineers).

This is a perfect article. There is an incredible amount of information that taps into something that is hardwired into us... but we don't think about. Very good read.

Christopher Totten
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Chris your comment made me think of my current role as a project manager vs. my roles in artistic capacities. I think I spend the most of my "productive" days in e-mail clients or on Google Docs!

Mark Venturelli
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@Luis the only thing that "convinces" others of design choices is observing the actual implementation.

And whoever thinks anything in this article is "so technical" is a complete moron.

Luis Guimaraes
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Some people are good at sounding like they know what their talking about.

Christopher Totten
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They may have meant something along the lines of "complex" or "theoretical" when they said "technical" maybe?

Also fun story about implementations: I used to have a professor that would scold us for presenting "talkatecture." He used this term to mean when we could come to him with ideas for our project along the lines of, "So imagine the perfect A+ project. Do you see it? That's my building!"

Though I think that the theory is important to both pull from in the midst of work and in design meetings when things are still in the conceptual phase. The proof is ALWAYS in the pudding so to speak, so it is important to make sure that if these concepts are described on paper or in a meeting that they come through in the design.

Mihai Cozma
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Excellent read.

Another use of this refuge/prospect spaces pair comes to my mind in games like Commandos for example, or Thief series or even Splinter Cell - generally stealth games. The idea that where in the prospect space enemies have a clear advantage over the player, but the refuge space is not only that. If you manage to draw the enemy inside the refuge space (the shadow space), you are way more powerful than him there, feeling like a predator. So the game is centered around taking the battles to your safe territories instead of enemy's safe territory.

One more example that might not be so obvious can be found in the Hitman series. There are little refuge spaces there, but there is another kind of refuge in the game: the costumes. The same area can be dangerous if enemies or civilians recognize you, but the very same areas are safe as long as your character is wearing a disguise and he's not doing anything out of ordinary.

If you think of another examples of these spaces that are not so obvious, I would be glad to read about them.

Jan Kubiczek
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one could also say that the fun aspect of hitman is disguise. ;-) but youre alluding to some else that i find very important - the close link between action and space. the op kind of said it, but the best level design maybe nothing without the right implementation of a mechanic. and it may be the other way round.

Todd Williams
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Great article. I love deconstructing elements of game design and analyzing them, and this article has added a whole new arsenal of things to look at, so I'm very grateful.

Like Anna mentioned, I find that thinking about game design seems to come from an innate sense of what works, but when I analyze my own designs, I find that much of what I've implemented is stemming from everything I've read. As any creative mind will tell you, your own work is constantly being influenced by everything you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell, even though you might not know it until you've finished your project.

Jan Kubiczek
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youre right i feel that there is no such thing as creativity. there is just what youve seen and how you combine it. ;-)

nick compton
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Great read! I enjoy how you pointed out that not showing a player the threat can actually scare them more. I also enjoyed your thoughts on space and their break down. I think its amusing though that a person can tell you all day why a level is no fun, however the moment you ask them why it's fun they have no response. I guess we are just a negative world.

Terry Colgate
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Fascinating article. Play a TW match in Soldat sometime. It demonstrates pretty much all of the spacial technics here in 2D.

ben coleman
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Well done. It hits on so many points that I have been integrating into my work for years, but have never broken it down on paper. Thanks for the insight!

Josh Foreman
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Great article. Really enjoyed it. Passed it around to my whole department.

Kevin Nolan
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I also liked reading this. I especially liked Intimate Space and Shadow - in many ways they are the opposite of each other. One man's Shadow is a monster's intimate space, and vice versa. And with the flick of a light switch you could turn one place into the other!

Rob Allegretti
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A great read. Interesting analysis of everyday psychology.

Gabriel Verdon
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Amazing article. I've been looking for something this in-depth regarding 2D level design for a while.