[In this Gamasutra design feature, original Lara Croft/Tomb Raider creator Toby Gard here outlines a process for designing action/adventure gameplay that will satisfy the needs of both your player and your game's story, in the first installment of a multi-part series. To read Part 2 of this feature, click here.]
Different people have different approaches to delegating design responsibilities.
I have seen creative directors who seem to have no vision of their own but merely act as filters through which their team's ideas are strained.
I have also seen creative directors who form a rough image of what they want in their heads and then delegate the design to their team after loosely describing it to them. Inevitably the team then repeatedly fail to deliver his expected "right" solution.
A better approach than searching for mind-reading designers, is for the creative leads to express clearly both what they want and where the flexibility is, so that their team can know how to take ownership without getting lost in the creative wilds.
I believe that balance is achieved when an unwavering core vision is delivered to the team (based on the whole team's input and feedback) and then responsibilities are delegated with clearly defined parameters for success.
This first article describes stage 1 of a process that does just that, based on the methods that I have found the most successful.
The process attempts to balance to a healthy amount of creative freedom and ownership for a level team, while keeping a structured vision in place by defining what details are essential to work out first and communicate to the team and what parts are better to be delegated with success criteria.
The steps that the entire process describes can be just as useful for an individual designer regardless of the level of delegation expected to occur.
Since every project has its own needs and team structure, this process is unlikely to translate exactly for you. However, many of the concepts can be adapted for just about any story-centric game.
The first step in the clear communication of vision for level design is delivering the Level Flow Diagram.
There are four sources from which the high level design plan should be drawn:
Like any good scene or chapter from a book, the conflict and resolution of a level should be born from the main character's motivations. This is why the character's motivations should always be clear to the player or they will feel lost and directionless.
These motivations translate into game objectives such as "find the man who killed your lover" or more simply, "kill Boss 5 of 10". The strongest objectives are ones where character and player motivations are in alignment.
It is not enough to simply state the objective or motivation of a character if you want to create alignment. You also need to make it matter to the player if you want them to become invested in it.
For instance, showing through cutscenes that the main character hates a boss enemy, while letting the player know they must kill that boss to progress, results in a much weaker alignment than giving the player reason to hate that boss enemy.
If that boss enemy betrays the player after the player has come to trust him or if he takes something from the player (for instance by killing an NPC that the player has come to care about) then the player and the character will both have a real reason to hate him.
The time it takes to setup player motivation is why it is so hard to align player motivation and character motivation in an opening cutscene.
Often you have no choice but to state the character motivations right at the beginning, in which case the player will only have an intellectual rather than emotional alignment with him or her.
To strengthen that alignment through the game, the motivation "I want to bring my girlfriend back to life" must be completely linked to the player objective "Kill the Colossus."
If the objectives are not directly related to the motivation (for example, if you spend most of your time being waylaid by endless rat killing quests) then the player will lose sight of the meaning behind their experience and their alignment with the main character's motivation will erode along with their interest in continuing to play.