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May Time Be With You: Level Designing Rogue Leader
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May Time Be With You: Level Designing Rogue Leader

March 23, 2002 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine what you would say if you heard someone asking you to create a game using the Star Wars license. Most likely, you would say, "cool!". Think of all the awesome levels you can create with X-Wings swooping at Darth Vader or blowing those pesky Rebels out of the sky with your rickety old Tie Fighter. Come on, it's going to be fun and I'm sure we'll be able to sneak in the baby Ewok clubbing bonus level somehow! Great huh? Just as you're wiping the drool off your chin, the same person tells you that the game you're going to design is a launch title for a new console system and it's going to be out for the holidays. Yikes! " How much time do I have?" you ask. You see a sadistic smile as the words "Nine months" form. The room starts to spin. Sweet unconsciousness overwhelms you.

After peeling yourself off the floor, you open your eyes and reality starts to set in. That's exactly how we felt when we were getting ready to design Rogue Leader for the Nintendo Gamecube. Because of the Gamecube's technical capabilities, we knew we had the rare opportunity to make the Star Wars game we wished for when we were kids. Yes, we were all thrilled and excited to see what kind of Star Wars game we could create using the power of the Gamecube but at the same time, we were also concerned about the tight development schedule. As level designers, we had to ask ourselves, "Are we going to have enough time to plan, design, implement and properly play-test all the levels AND ensure that they're all fun?"

One initial impulse might be to rehash a bunch of old level ideas, throw in some fancy new graphics, slap the Star Wars sticker on the box and start booking that trip to Rio. However, we at Factor 5 take games very seriously. We felt that our mission was to create THE definitive game worthy of the Star Wars license and the classic trilogy films. It wouldn't be enough to simply cobble together some objects, heightmaps and mission objectives and call the end result a game. We wanted to create a game capable of making the player forget his surroundings, one capable of totally immersing the player in the Star Wars universe. Toward that end, we knew we would need to infuse our game environments with tremendous amounts of authentic Star Wars detail. But how did we intend to do this and make a fun game with the clock ticking away? What worked? What had to change and what didn't work as well as intended? Here, we will try to shed some light on these questions by delving into the experiences we had while level designing Rogue Leader. Hopefully, by the end, you will have gained insights into how we were able to maximize efficiency in the level design process and deliver a game of uncompromising quality and (dare we say) "fun".

Initial Game Design

The decision to base our game's story arc on events from the classic Star Wars films seemed natural to us. The attack on the first Death Star seemed like a logical place for our game to begin, while the destruction of the second Death Star brought our game "full circle" to a logical conclusion. Also, we knew players wanted relive classic Star Wars battles such as the Death Star attack, the Battle of Hoth and the Battle of Endor and closely following the original trilogy storyline gave us justification to recreate them. Therefore, the background story and basic structure of the game was already in place and all we were able to focus on filling in the gaps, expanding on the source material and making it relevant to the interactive experience. We didn't have to explain who the good guys or bad guys were or what was going on. If you had seen the movie, you knew to shoot the Tie Fighters and to shoot a proton torpedo into the Death Star's exhaust port. We didn't have to spend precious development time coming up with an elaborate background story and presenting that to the player. Where there were gaps between the movies, we found it much easier to come up with scenarios that bridged them than to have to spend time developing a new story.

The background story and basic structure of the game was already in place because of the movie -- we were able to focus on filling in the gaps.

Because of the fans' familiarity and obsession with the movies, we understood immediately that from a quality standpoint, the levels that were based on actual movie sequences would have to stand up to serious scrutiny. Not only would they have to have the right Star Wars look, the gameplay had to recreate the feel of the original trilogys' epic battles. For example, in the Battle of Endor, we wanted to recreate the "oh my God" feeling you had when you first saw the first swarms of Tie Fighters filling the screen. We wanted to make sure that wherever the player turned, he would see that he was not merely in a dogfight. There would always be a Tie Fighter to shoot at, a fellow Rebel fighter to help or a capital ship to avoid. We wanted the player to experience the desperation and futility of the Rebels as they realized that they were in an Imperial trap. Since the level was essentially outlined by the movie sequence, we were free to focus our efforts at recreating the classic Star Wars feel and expanding on the movie experience.

The Compromise between Movie and Game
The classic Star Wars movies gave us a great foundation to base our initial level design upon. However, we quickly realized that certain movie sequences did not translate directly into good gameplay. For example, having Darth Vader chase the player like he did in the movie wouldn't be much fun since the player can't do anything but dodge his shots. In the movie, Vader came from behind and took out rebels until Han came down and knocked his wingman into him. Not all that fun if you think about it. We wanted the player interacting with Darth Vader and his wingmen in the game so we allowed the player to brake and shoot at the Tie Fighters as they flew over.

In other cases, we had to find a compromise between movie authenticity and fun gameplay because we had specific game difficulty and playability requirements. A good example of this was the "Death Star Attack" level in Rogue Leader. Since it was the opening level of the game and we definitely wanted to make sure it was a fun yet approachable level. We never wanted to frustrate novice players at the beginning of the game. However, we didn't want to make it too easy and mislead hardcore gamers into thinking that the rest of the game lacked challenge. Therefore, we tried to ease the player into the level by slowly ramping difficulty throughout the three distinct stages of the first level. This led to the second problem which was how to ramp up difficulty while maintaining the look and feel of the climatic battle over the Death Star. After studying the movie sequence, we were able to break the level down into three sub-levels. We decided that the first stage of the level would consist of static, non-threating objects. The second stage would introduce the player to dogfighting against Tie Fighters. The third stage would bring together an obstacle element with a simplified form of fighter combat. By the end of the third stage, our goal was to teach the basics of the game without the player realizing he had gone through something like a training level.

For the first stage, we added gun turrets and made them barely miss the player so that we could threaten him without actually shooting him down and possibly causing frustration. The player's psychological reaction to seeing and hearing laser fire whizzing by him was enough to produce the tension that we wanted to recreate from the movie. In the second stage, we cranked up the difficulty a little by allowing the player to destroy Tie Fighters moving on splines. Initially, we thought this would be simple enough for most players. However, after watching some non-gamers try out this stage, it was obvious that some people weren't able to destroy all the mission critical Tie Fighters in the allotted time. Still, just because some people couldn't do it didn't mean we should dumb things down for more experienced gamers. Therefore, we decided to add an alternate winning condition where the player would still win if he was able to take out at least four Ties by the end of the time limit. If he destroyed more, that was fine too. If not, he could still proceed to the third stage of the level. Basically, this compromise allowed the novice player to get past what would have been a possible "gamestopper".

The trench run was the most difficult stage to design because we had to ramp the difficulty, keep the look and feel of the movie and provide fun gameplay. If we were to simply have the player fly down the trench like Luke Skywalker did in the movie, the game would be pretty boring. Instead, we decided to pay homage to Atari's old vector-based Star Wars arcade game and include an obstacle course in the trench. Obviously this wasn't in the movie but it generated a similar amount of tension and suspense that was in the filmed sequence. This led to the decision to use obstacle sections which allowed us to create and tune an obstacle course in a very short amount of time.

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