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Action Adventure Level Design: Pacing, Content, and Mood
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Action Adventure Level Design: Pacing, Content, and Mood

May 27, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Mood Map

There are potentially a host of emotions you will want the player to experience over the course of the game. The main character may experience things like unrequited love, revenge, sadness, and anger. These sorts of emotional events are important to track but they are not as important as the overall emotional tone or mood that you want the player to experience.

By "mood", I mean a basic emotional concept that can be passed to the audience. So panic, fear, trepidation, awe, and excitement would be considered moods, while higher order conceptual emotional themes such as revenge, jealousy, or nihilism would not be.

Generating the mood map has two purposes. It is used to assess that the level order and content will not interfere with the emotional journey of the player but more critically it is a fundamental tool for aligning the whole development team towards creating a holistic experience.

For instance, let's say that the story of Ken Kong will go like this:

Ken fights his way across the city saving the loved ones of his crush, but it takes him so long that by the end when he reaches her, she has been bitten and become a zombie herself.

If I define the mood map like this:

Kick-arse awesomeness - farcical chaos - mounting triumph - dark comedy

  • Art will keep things bright and well lit.
  • Animation will tend towards outrageous over the top stylized action.
  • Music and sound effects will tend towards fast-paced and comical.
  • Designers will feel free to be more game-y in UI game design decisions.

By defining the moods specifically over time you will guide the whole team more precisely than you might imagine. For instance "mounting triumph" implies a growing crescendo. It is likely to encourage a ratcheting up of music intensity, increasingly outrageous level end victory animations, and a general tendency to try to up the pacing each level.

While you probably assumed that the tone of KFZK would be defined as something like "zany", the act of stating it over time has a dramatic impact on the whole development.

For instance, if I instead define the mood map for the whole game like this:

Panic - horror - increasing trepidation - tragedy

Every aspect of the game will be completely changed by this mood map:

  • Art will create darker dirtier spaces; they will light the levels with flickering pools of light and dress it with increasingly disturbing stories.
  • Animation will tend towards realism and will avoid any movements at might be construed as funny.
  • Music and sound effects will be disturbing.
  • Designers will try to keep UI and other design elements realistic and invisible.

With exactly the same game design, these two mood maps would generate utterly different gaming experiences. When the whole team embraces the mood map and diligently tries to express it in all the assets and creative decisions they make, the mood will be successfully instilled into the player.

What normally happens, though, is that every team member has a slightly different idea of what mood or tone the game should be creating, and rarely any idea at all of what mood the player should be experiencing at any given point in the game. Is it any surprise that most games fail to move people, when the development team are all communicating slightly different messages?

The mood map can be as simple as the above four stage progressions, or it can be as detailed as putting several mood chunks into each level. It is worth bearing in mind that literally no story-based game has only one mood. Even horror games oscillate between building tension and outright terror.

Once you have the gameplay types laid out and the moods defined you can see how the current level plans fit together.

(For full chart, please click on image)

In our case we have puzzle levels late in the game that are clearly going to slow the pace where we want people to be experiencing "mounting triumph." By reordering levels, or shifting ideas from one level to another, we can better support the emotional goals:

(For full chart, please click on image)

Luckily KFZK's level order is very flexible, but most games are not. In most cases the answer is to give feedback to the individual level teams to try to reach the desired mood and gameplay mix.

While the above example is probably not the best order, or even the best mood map, the point of the exercise is to try to force yourself into examining the entirety of the plan so that feedback on each level is given relative to its place in the whole experience.

Block Mesh and Prototype

The next step is to start building the levels in 3D, and I argue that the best people to do that are artists, not designers, if you want believable and interesting spaces. Block mesh should validate whether the level as planned will fit into the technical and production limitations while demonstrating that they can be compelling enough spaces.

As these levels are prototyped, inevitably things will end up being slightly different than planned. Designers will adapt their plans based on the art, so throughout the block mesh and prototype phase, the leads have to continually update the game rhythm chart and validate the levels within the context of the mood map.

By continuing to extract new mechanics that arise from the block mesh phase and staying open to level re-ordering you can continue towards a balanced game plan without restricting the creative process of the level builders.

Final plan

All the information gained by building the block mesh should have refined the game design significantly.

  • A final Mood Map has been created that will inform all asset creation.
  • New mechanics have been defined and inserted into all relevant levels.
  • Levels have been reordered and massaged to create the desired pace and mood.
  • Memory budgets have been validated.
  • Weak level plans have been cut.
  • Player abilities have all been prototyped and final metrics defined.

Once all the levels are prototyped and one level has been polished to act as a vertical slice, production can begin from a very solid basis.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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