Frankenstein Level Design - Postmortem
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
[This article talks about Son of Nor, a third-person action-adventure game. Released on Steam in April 2015 for PC, Mac and Linux. Developed by Stillalive Studios.]
Son of Nor has a very important place in my heart, it was the first game I got to release on Steam after all. There was a lot of work that went into it so we could have a chance to make a name for ourselves, including a Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight campaign. Fortunately, it was (to an extent) a success. Unfortunately, lots of things could have gone way better. One of those things was the level design of the first area of the game.
The process we had for Son of Nor was to first think of gameplay points that were interesting: specific environments, puzzles, powers to acquire or boss battles. Later, these would be superimposed on the well-known narrative pacing graph of Star Wars that we used as a guide. Once we had them chosen, we would decide if they worked for us and how we could connect each of these through the story. At one point our graph looked like this:
Not everything in the graph has to do with levels, but it gave us a bit of a clue of what would happen at certain points in the game, thus providing the first step to design around these ideas.
The graph starts with a low tension point or the first level of the game. That's where we introduce the players to our world, we give them context and teach them the basic mechanics. This first level is extremely important; It has to provide a hook for the player, either in story, gameplay or visuals. It must tell the player why this game is worth playing. Soon after, there's a spike in the tension, which jump-starts the Hero's Journey and provides narrative motivation for the characters and the player.
The original design of The Edge, the first area in Son of Nor (with connections to the Wind Temple). Apologies for the quality of the picture is all I could salvage from so many years ago.
Enter The Edge, the last refuge of the human race after The Great War. In other words, a corny way to isolate and control the knowledge of the player's character and the players themselves without having to resort to other narrative methods like amnesia.
This level was designed to follow the points mentioned above:
- Introduce the world: Desert world where humans are endangered and have magic powers.
- Provide context: You are one of these human mages and have been living in a refuge hidden from your enemies for hundreds of years.
- Teach basic mechanics: Moving, Jumping, Terraforming of Sand, Telekinesis.
In our game, the initial cutscene was used to introduce the player into the world. To sustain this narrative we had to make the player a person of relevance to its surroundings so that it would be required of them to interact with NPCs. These NPCs would provide more context and ask the players to do some chores that would teach them the basic mechanics.
Keep in mind that in Son of Nor we wanted to avoid disconnected tutorial scenarios or control screens popping up. We wanted the flow of the game to be narratively seamless, so the navigation flow of the level had to match our intentions.
Navigation flow of The Edge. On the left, you can see the points of interest, and on the right, you can see the navigational flow forming a basic loop.
- The player is placed in the "church of the mages" (relevancy of character). Small place and minor landmark, easy to explore quickly, has characters that give some context, not distracting from the next step.
- Center of the level with a major asymmetric landmark that can be seen from anywhere on the map and provides clear positioning for the player. This landmark is surrounded by "playground-like" sand which can be terraformed and other objects that can be moved and thrown around.
- Point of interest visible from step 2. Townspeople NPCs ask the player to do some chores that teach and/or rehearses the abilities that the player could have toyed around with in step 2.
- With the help of some triggers to ensure that players have completed the previous steps, we go on to step 4. The player is confronted by the enemy for the first time where they get to use their abilities in an aggressive scenario. if you take a look at the area, there's a second floor for the player to stand on (higher ground). This is to provide the player with an option where it's easier to defeat the enemy, in the case they think that this first battle is too challenging, or if they don't feel familiarized enough with the controllers.
- After the fight in step 4 is done, we indicate that something is happening in the "church" where the player first appeared. The design of the level allows for the player to easily find their way back, north to south and south to north with the main landmark as a helper. And if the player chooses to toy around with their abilities again, they can do so on their way to the new objective which opens up the next level.
*: The asterisk point in the map is a bit of a wildcard. An optional chore the player can do if they decide to explore at any time, again just being a rehearsal and repetition of the basic mechanics.
But things didn't go quite as planned, there were many reasons of why things changed. I can't recall all of them since it happened so long ago, but I'll try to explain how we ended with a Frankenstein First Level.
To clarify, I use the term "To Frankenstein" whenever things are randomly attached together and don't create a cohesive result. An analogy, referencing Frankenstein's Monster and how it was built of different body parts, producing a hideously ugly creature.
One of the first things that happened, and perhaps the main reason for all the chaos, was that the pacing graph got changed. To simulate movies and games that start with a bang, it was decided that our first-time user experience needed to be an exhilarating, action-packed one.
The game immediately puts the player in a high tension scenario with no build up that has a steep subsequent tension drop.
This created issues with the map. It had been designed to have a low-tension flow where the player would gather information slowly to later re-use in a high-tension scenario. But we also didn't have time or budget to redesign, remodel and reprogram the whole level from scratch. So we just ended slapping a new piece of map that would create the illusion of tension while we throw tutorial stuff on your path culminating in a BIG BANG.
This BIG BANG, which we compared to the destruction of the Normandy in Mass Effect 2, was for Son of Nor the destruction of the human town. Now, this also threw the progression of the story out the window and cornered us narratively. Humans have been isolated for hundreds of years, they are not friends with other races if their town is destroyed, how do we provide context?
The best solution we could come up with at the time was some good ol' time travelling, in addition to premonitions and visions here and there. With these narrative tools, we could totally destroy the first level at the beginning of the game and then just go back, you know... because it was all a dream or something. And then just have the player go through that level again, this time with the chance to explore it, but without people screaming for help and dying left and right in excruciating pain.
"Uhm guys, we need to make this game last a bit longer so we kinda have to make smaller maps bigger"
So we just slapped another piece of level on top and screamed: "It's Alive!!!".
The final version of the map (top-down). You can see the added tutorial area to the left and the extended section at the bottom which gets loaded after the tutorial is over.
Here a list of problems that the "Frankensteining" of this level created:
- The pacing of the level became irregular.
- The navigational flow was all over the place.
- It was easy to get lost in the new map extension section.
- The story changed drastically to accommodate the level changes.
- Excess of lore exposure at the beginning was potentially confusing or overwhelming.
- Presentation of chaos without intrinsic motivation to stop it. "Who are these people, why do I care?"
- All these narrative changes made the story way more complex and we didn't have the means (budget, time and resources) to properly convey all of it to the player.
To be a 100% honest, I'm not sure if at the end the original design would have been way better. And I can't tell if this level totally sucks or it's just ok, but I can tell for sure that other levels that had a consistent design and gameplay goals throughout production are definitely way more enjoyable.
What is the takeaway of all of this?
Let's take the most obvious one out of the way first. Having more development time, better production planning and more resources are always a good. It allows for changes like these to happen without creating too many new problems or at least allows for more chances to detect them and fix them. Unfortunately, not all developers get to experience this perfect scenario.
Due to our Kickstarter promise that the product would be ready by a certain date, we had limited time. This was something we took very seriously since we had the deepest respect for our backers, the people that made all of it possible. We also had a limited budget which didn't allow for a lot of reiteration, and at the same time, we had to follow the guidelines and goals our publishers and partners had.
The next and perhaps most important takeaway is, that no matter how tempting it is, try to self-contain problems. Don't try to solve issues by changing something else that is somewhat unrelated, it will only open a can of worms. Instead of messing with the overall story of the game, we should have edited the flow and pacing of the levels to fit our needs; or maybe we should have given a different, more dramatic, perspective to the events that were already planned within.
Finally, Always analyze, reanalyze and prioritize the objective of your level and what it communicates, especially if it is the first-time user experience. It had been decided that it was a better idea to impress players with action, explosions and things happening all over. But what good does this do? If players are faced with challenges that are caused by our failure in the communication of gameplay features and controls, rather than being faced with actual skill and mind challenges, then it's more likely that players will feel frustrated and angry at the game prompting them to quit.
"Am I the main character, or a shish kebab?"
I hope this post is helpful for anyone who reads it. I don't think that everything I've said applies to all kinds of scenarios, it all depends on the variables and context of the development of each game. Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts and feedback, I would love to make this a learning experience for me as well.
If you are interested in playing Son of Nor, you can find it on Steam, compatible with PC, Mac and Linux, with Oculus Rift, Emotiv Epoc and Tobii EyeX support.
During the development of Son of Nor, we released dev diary videos every week. Here's one where I talk a little bit about the first level of Son of Nor. It's super corny and I do this weird "youtube voice" but most of them are very insightful and kinda funny. You can check the entire dev diary playlist here.
Note: In this post, I mentioned that we used the Star Wars narrative pacing graph as a guide. It worked for us really well because we were developing the game in a "classic linear narrative" style. But there are some that believe that using this scheme is flawed, you can read more about this in the Gamasutra article by Jacek Wesołowski.