Game-play: Challenge and Choice

There are two types of game-play approaches in level design:

  • Progressive Success Rates
  • Win/Lose scenarios

Progressive Success Rates

Winning is more of a percentual state rather then a clear binary state.

Your win state depends on how well you perform:

  • You can either do it 5, 10, 20, 46 or 100% based on how good you are at controlling the scenario. This means that the scenario is crafted to test you on critical skills and to punish you accordingly in a constant fashion.
  • If you fail all the way up to 100% you are forced to repeat the scenario and practice the same skills as before. Again and again until it becomes muscle memory.

Sounds familiar? That’s because it is. It’s the foundation of every linear video game out there and it implies that you need to “git good” before you can “master it”.

The downside to this approach is that repeated failure leads to similar results. There is no emergence coming out of this and you can’t “outsmart” the game because it’s not about being “smart”, it’s about mechanical control over the tasks you are being handed.

There will be no circumvention of tasks in these scenarios since the progression has to be controlled by design, and circumvention would break the flow.

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This is where the whole “I want to finish the game” talk comes from. By assigning a completion state to a video game it becomes a consumable entity that can’t exist outside it’s designated life cycle. All the experience is encapsulated inside a linear structure that cannot be circumvented in any meaningful way without breaking the actual flow of the game.

That’s why we get linear levels that do everything they can to stop the player from having original, genuine ideas about how to solve problems. Often this might also happen as a consequence of heavy narrative subtext.

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And if there are any genuine ideas to, they need to be curated and “by design”.

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To all extents and purposes the player “must” experience the game as it was designed and the job of the designer is to ensure that no deviation from this plan is possible.

The good part is that if done properly it can lead to memorable, set piece driven experiences that will leave the player in awe.

  • “Wow that game had really good level design”

But at the end of the day you only get to enjoy your dose of dopamine once you manage to finish it. If it’s too hard to might quit and as most industry specialists would tell you, people have hard time finishing games.

So if you decide to quit at 60% of the game you are going to miss out.

This also doesn’t take into account play styles and player typologies, being forceful in it’s nature. All players need to reach the same level of skill. A form of video game socialism if you may.

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It’s, in a way, not so different then sports. It’s a competition.

Binary State

On the other side of the spectrum you have the Binary Win/Lose scenario methodology:

  • In this scenario you either win (100%) or lose (100%) but you get many more ways of going around the lose state.
  • Map progression doesn’t tie in into your win percentage, because wining and losing becomes binary and percentages lose their meaning.

So you can afford to have less linear progression in your maps, since player positions become unpredictable.

With unpredictability the focus of the designer changes from restricting access to set pieces and clever progression gating, towards a better distribution of tropes trough the map in order to ensure maximum amount of player/environment interaction, choices, options.

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What you want here is to ensure that players have options rather then restrictions. Meaningful options if possible.

By meaningful I am referring to either:

  • Varied
  • Effective
  • Convenient

Anything that allows you (the player) to feel “smart”.

This “smart”-ness comes from the systemic nature of the game, the ability of human beings to spot patterns in any system and from the clarity of the feedback that these systems reflect towards the player.

Providing convenient and yet plausible options to the player is however a very hard thing to do since it’s implies that your are feeding the player with world embedded affordances, and their convenience needs to remain a secret.

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One of the tenets of level design as I learned it was:

  • “The best design is invisible. If all goes right nobody is going to notice it’s there. If all goes wrong it’s all on you.”
  • “The player is always the hero of his game, not the designer. Everything you do needs, say and try to telegraph needs to remain invisible to the naked eye. The player needs to feel like he has figured it out by himself”
  • Often on the basis of this tenet discussions such as “this feels too gamy” have been sparked.

This is harder to achieve then it seems.

The game becomes less about overcoming mechanical challenges, and more about circumventing conventions and coming up with creative solutions.

You no longer have to “gid good” because in the narrative of the game you are already “good” and that gets reflected in how you solve problems.

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This leads to a high degree of agency on the behalf of a player, without necessarily forcing him to do anything out of the ordinary.

Thing about it this way:

  • You are given a bag of tools and the challenge is matching any given situation with any given tool just to see what effect it might produce.

Everyone is capable of play and creative expression, you just need the right tools to get into the flow.

It’s like painting a picture, but the brush strokes are your decisions. The level designer becomes more of a facilitator then a director of play.

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I bring this up because there have been some discussions around twitter about the nature of game like “Animal Crossing” that don’t serve the player a large amount of heavy challenges but do give him tones of options in regards to how to solve a problem, don’t require a large amount of skill to master but somehow manage to get a large amount of followers

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This comes into stark contrast with games like “Doom Eternal” where the experience is curated in such a way that you feel obligated to try to play it the “right way”.

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However like all good things there are no black and whites here, the best solution is often a blend of the these two approaches as you want still want immersion, challenge and good guidance in your game.

My best example is Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

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Written by

As a level designer I am not a creator, I am a facilitator. Lead LD @MachineGames. #Leveldesign. All my opinions are my own. @notimetoulose.

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