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The Metrics of Space: Molecule Design

January 15, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next

If we begin to use level geometry to reduce the amount of possible Steiner points, we are beginning to ask much more of the player. By giving them fewer options (Figure 26), we are asking the player to exercise better strategy than the other players on the map. The upside to this is that players who do well in this environment will take much more satisfaction from its successful completion, as they perceive the lack of options to be indicative of a more complex problem. To demonstrate how a reduction in Steiner points relates to increased difficulty, we need look no further than the Steiner tree problem that we see in the lower, east quadrant of the Fallout 3 overworld (see Figure 27.)

Figure 27 (Click for larger version.)

Spatial navigation problems in the early parts of Fallout 3 are negotiated via simple spanning trees where you have many possible Steiner points. This is most noticeable in the areas to the south of main Vault as this is the first (and easiest) part of the map that the player is expected to explore. As difficulty increases, though, these Steiner points are vastly reduced; this can be seen in the subway system of DC, which the player encounters later in the main quest of Fallout 3.

A Practical Implementation

So far we have examined the basic principles of graphing theory and applied this to the analysis of a number of commercial examples, but how does graphing theory stack up as a tool to concept game spaces? The following is an example of a practical implementation of the theory of molecule design created by Nassib Azar.

In this example, a molecule concept is tested, implemented, and refined in order to create a balanced, multiplayer space, which despite its simplicity, offers players with a significant amount of interesting strategic possibilities to explore.

The core idea Nassib decided to explore was a map design which had three layers of experience, represented as three concentric circles. The game space is a deathmatch style map within the default game type of Unreal Development Kit. The outer layer comprises low intensity zones designed to "feed" players into the innermost section of the game space.

For the purposes of this design, "intensity" is measured by the amount of players actively trying to kill each other within each zone. Figure 28 is one of the preproduction sketches of the map. This diagram explores how choke points, intersections, spawn points and weapon pickups could be used to increase the intensity of the play experience as the player nears the center of the map.

Figure 28

After some initial paper prototypes and feedback, the core idea of three concentric play spaces of varying intensity eventually developed into a more concrete molecule which defines the space as a whole. Figure 29 is an iteration of the early concept. In this iteration, we still have the same set of concentric circles representing intensity of play; however, edges have been added to describe how the outer sections feed into the middle.

To achieve this goal, Nassib applied the notion of Compression and Funnelling, a simple tool which looks at how forcing the player around a game space using various game elements can create heightened emotional states. In Figure 29, each edge represented additional vectors of compression on the nodes they led to. In the case of this example, the nodes represented spaces for conflict; the more the edges leading into a node the higher the compression on that node (and as a result, the higher the intensity of game experience). In this application, node size was used to represent increased compression, and subsequently, intensity of play.

Figure 29 (Click for larger version.)

Although the application of molecule design is meant to create a distinction between play experience and level geometry, Nassib chose to explore whether pure geometrical representations of space have inherent player experience value. The hexagonal attributes of Nassib's molecule prototypes were worthy of further investigation. The question was: Would the molecule translate to actual level geometry and still retain the original design intent?

The prototype molecule used to define the overall game space went through a number of iterations in the form of grey box levels developed within UDK. It was clear through prototyping that the experiment had merit; the intensity of the player's experience increases as they work their way towards the center of the map. Nodes became generic play spaces (rooms) and edges became corridors that would feed into these spaces.

Figure 30 is one of the more advanced iterations of the grey box. It shows the implementation of the original molecule into a playable space. During testing, it was found that for intensity of play to increase, the room sizes needed to increase in order to accommodate the increased play intensity.

Room sizes are designed to create the most optimal zone sizes for the desired amount of play intensity. The original molecule design translated well in this regard. Play zones became progressively larger as they player moves towards the center of the map, yet the zones are also small enough to force the players into close proximity combat, hence increasing play intensity.

Figure 30

In order to create a syphoning of players towards the center of the map, a molecule was designed to aid in the placement of various weapon pickups. There are two main molecules used to define token placement. Weapon pickups were embedded in a molecule that forced the player to move quickly towards the center of the map. Health pickups were embedded in a molecule that forced the player to explore the circular boundaries of each play zone. The differing nature of these two molecules not only adds to creating clearly defined and different movement tactics for offensive and defensive play, but also aids spreading play over the entirety of the map rather than the central most zones.

Figure 31 (Click for larger version.)

Figure 31 breaks down the graphing further. In the close up of the medium node (upper left), a differentiation is made between two different edge types leading into it. Edges 1 and 2 come from the spawn point while 3 and 4 are fed from other medium nodes. This suggests a difference in danger level and is therefore represented by expressing the edges differently. Although the initial design hypothesis suggested that there would be some type of discernable difference between edges one and two AND three and four, it took several revisions of the grey box to observe this hypothesis the real world, seen in Figure 32.

Figure 32

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