For our next question, @Jeremy_LaMont asks:
5. How do you change your approach when you want a player to PAY ATTENTION or GO HERE DIRECTLY versus "It's okay to wander around"?
Steve Gaynor - I definitely tend toward allowing as much "it's okay to wander around" time as possible. But if you really, truly need to direct the player to one specific point (for tutorialization or whatever) it's all about generating focus.
This is what a lot of my talk on "Narrative Techniques for Storytelling in Level Design" is going to be about at the LDIAD tutorial at GDC this year. There are a number of best practices: Use spotlighting and silhouetting to highlight important objects, remove any extraneous interactive objects from the surrounding area, arrange the player's path so they walk head-on into the important part of the scene, and many others.
You basically want the important stuff front-and-center and clearly visible, so the player will be aware of it and engage with it willingly, instead of being "forced" to do so by the designer.
Joel Burgess - There are many ways you can communicate urgency cues subtly, like choosing appropriate music, incorporating funneling elements into your layout or minimizing elements that may distract the player. Sometimes it's not enough.
Level designers everywhere understand the discomfort of watching players examine a light fixture while a lovingly scripted scene plays out a few feet off-screen.
The first thing to do in these situations is to determine whether you should actually do anything at all. Timers, UI prompts, cutscenes and other devices can help direct attention, but know the difference between a player that needs guidance and one that simply cares more about that cool light fixture. Being lost and confused as a player can be frustrating, but heavy-handed level design is always frustrating.
Neil Alphonso - My main tool for this is density, which can take many forms: it can be density of objects, density of movement, or density of interactivity, and that's just to name a few! I find it a good way to subtly tell a player that they're in an "important" place. But this method is used to maintain a decidedly indirect method of directing a player; how heavy-handed you can be with directing the player is more down to the game or creative direction of the entire game, rather than how it is handled in a given level. It's why essential events are often conveyed during cinematics or with UI.
If you give the player the chance to miss what you deem as critical information, chances are that many of them will indeed miss it! This isn't because players are unobservant, but more because you never know what distractions a given player might have when they're playing the game.
Our next question is from Full Sail graduate @MrDonaldYoung:
6. How often should you create situations for the player to go off the golden path, and is it worth the extra resources to do so?
Steve Gaynor - It's absolutely worth it. The soul of games is interactivity, and interactivity means that no two players are going to have precisely the same play experience. The more variance you can add between two players' experience of your game, the more of a personal connection they'll feel -- "I decided to go here, I decided to explore this extra space, I found something that other people didn't."
Having as minor a crit path as possible, and as much optional space as possible, gives the player much more to dig into and think about and own for themselves. If you think of the production cost of non-crit path space in terms of "look how much content we're building that the player might never see!" you can easily talk yourself into making everything mandatory, every player's experience the same, so no one "misses" anything. But if you think of the inherent, intangible value of the feelings of self-direction, investment, exploration and discovery that optional spaces provide the player, the overall experience is improved much more than you can easily quantify on a spreadsheet.
Joel Burgess - My personal preference is to include non-essential content whenever possible. This rewards players who explore, but it also helps make the world feel less artificially focused on the player and her story. Luckily for me, about 90 percent of any Bethesda game is off the golden path, so we're used to spending resources on non-essential content. That's part of the feel of our games, though; your situation may vary.
Seth Marinello - The basic answer is as often as possible. The more opportunities for players to have a unique experience, to feel like they found something special, the more important the game will be to them.
When laying out a level for Dead Space I try to include two kinds of optional content -- "treasure pockets" and "beta rooms." The first is simply a reward for exploring; if I have a long hallway, for example, and the alpha flow only takes the player halfway down it, there should be something interesting at the far end, even if it is a pickup. By rewarding pushing the boundaries of the space, you can turn a dead end into a discovery.
Beta rooms are exactly what they sound like, a space that is both unique and separate from the alpha path of the level. I try to make these rooms build out the world more, make it feel inhabited -- this is why I tend to build in human spaces like quarters, bathrooms, and laundry facilities to our sci-fi levels.
Our next question comes from video games journalist and translator @andymonza:
7. Replay value vs. cinematic sequences (usually from heavy scripting). Is it truly possible to make the two coexist in the same experience?
Jim Brown - Absolutely -- but it means that the designers have to give up on a bit of their control (which is not necessarily a bad thing!) and you have to have reliable systems (flexible scripting, strong AI, smart world building, etc.) in place to keep the experience fresh. Gears of War: Judgment uses S3 (Smart Spawn System) to randomize enemies and change spawn locations in every encounter, Left4Dead uses the Director to control pacing, Skyrim has a matrix of possibilities that avoids repetition in world encounters -- and these are just a few examples. Each of those titles still makes use of cinematics and scripted sequences, albeit less frequently than other titles.
In my personal opinion, this is an incredibly great thing as it puts the control back in the hands of the player, and allows them to make the game story more uniquely their own. Even The Walking Dead has a heavy use of cinematics paired with high replay value because they don't tie their players down to one single path that must be adhered to.
Neil Alphonso - If the cinematics are skippable, then yes!
The key issue is that cinematic content isn't flexible, because it borrows so heavily from what is a passive form of media. The mechanics of what makes film work and what makes games work are fundamentally different, and trying to marry them at a base level often ends in tears. As replay value most often comes from mechanical depth and variety, this can truly be an odd coupling!
So is it possible? Yes, but in a traditional triple-A sense this is a hard battle to justify fighting. But sometimes, traditions are made to be broken!
Seth Marinello - Cinematics are an important part of most narrative-driven games still, but they are inherently counter to the idea of flexible gameplay solutions. Some studios have invested in creating branching cinematic moments to try and maintain a sense of agency but this tends to be expensive and not always successful. As designers and storytellers I think this energy is better focused on finding ways to convey the same information in a more player-driven manner, and when that is impossible to use cinematics as a bridge between gameplay moments. Whenever we can, we try to make scripted moments be in response to some event outside of the protagonist's control. That way we don't have the character making decisions without the player's input.