The Challenge; Don’t Frustrate or Confuse

I know it’s been a while, and for that, I apologize. Work is hectic as we continue to expand the company and our areas of attention.

Level Design has been an interesting area of design of late. We’re creating a game where the player may backtrack to anywhere they’ve formerly been, and use items they never previously possessed. Areas are being constructed with this in mind at all times. There’s something very comforting about returning to familiar locations and interacting with them in new and unusual ways; possibilities and secrets lie all around.

The fine line in level design is challenging the player, not frustrating them. It’s very easy to baffle the player and make it very hard for them to progress, but that’s not we want to do as game creators. We want to confront the player with different types of problems and make them think in different ways. Once players have learnt a new ability, it’s up to us to create escalating situations where this ability is tested in different ways. Herein, lays the challenge.

Looking back at old platform games, you can easily see how ability can be stretched in varying ways. Even though they only had Run & Jump as their main mechanics, they were forced to stretch the challenges based around these two base abilities, so, players merely worked out when to run, jump or both, nothing more. A static environment taught the player the basics of the distances & heights of jumps, and, where run was needed to gain distance. As the game progressed, the safe jumps then became jumps over dangers, making the jump that much more meaningful. Once danger was identified, there was the introduction of moving platforms over dangers, not only was jumping crucial, timing also became a major factor too. Nothing has changed now, other than there are so many more mechanics to deal with, so keeping things clear and diverse is a challenge in itself.

I love the simplicity of teaching the player new elements, and Nintendo’s Miyamoto is awesome at this. I always distinctly remember how I learned about collapsing platforms in Mario. First, I was introduced to a new coloured platform, it was visually different to everything else in the scene. When I jumped on it, it shook for a second, and then fell. This may seem basic, but what Miyamoto told us, was a few things. The RED coloured platforms, after a second of standing on them, would shake and then collapse. You could not mistake this platform for any other platform, so when presented with a new scene, you could read how the mechanics play out, before you even start to play the area; this is crucially important. A couple of screens in, now the red platform hovered over a spiked pit. I’ve never been presented with it before, but I already know that staying too long on the red platform would drop me to my death. So my tactic would be to jump on and off the platform quickly. A few screens passed, now there’s a huge spiked pit with lots of red platforms and the occasional green one. Before playing it, I can read what’s going to happen; I must keep moving over the red sections and pause at the green ones (if needed). Once I get through the screen, I feel satisfied because I solved something without help, even though Miyamoto had actually told me everything beforehand. It was gaming by numbers.

There’s something to be said about simplicity. There seem to be a lot of games that present you with lots of abilities, but then only really focus on a couple of them. Mario took your abilities and stretched them in new and varied ways, continually. This makes a lot of sense, not only in learning the player and allowing them to solve problems themselves, but also the amount of time developing the game. If you have mechanics that you’ve spent time creating and tuning, it should all be about creating the situations in the environment to use them rather than frequently being forced to learn a lot of new mechanics.

Players need to be drip fed new mechanics, and spend a decent time with each of them, before a new one is presented. It’s all about getting the player familiar and comfortable with their abilities. Once this is attained, you can create complex multi-component challenges that player’s can read and understand easily.


About Haydn Dalton

Creative Lead 30 Years Developing Games

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