Monday, 21 October 2013

Studying Puzzle Design

Since discussing a game idea with my lectures I was recommended to look into the work of Scott Rogers and how he approaches puzzle design. I have been reading the book "Level Up - The Guide to Great Video Game Design by Scott Rogers" in order to further understand a more solid and sophisticated approach to puzzle design. In a lot of my work, not all, but some, it's clear that the mechanics are either non-existent or lousy so I hope to be able to learn something from this study. I have churned out all the useful information from this chapter that I feel I could benefit from further understanding for when approaching both rapid prototyping and designing levels.

Rogers tells us that "There's nothing worse than an empty level you just walk through". Players need conflict, as a designer you can throw things in front of the player both good and bad to make the player cry with pleasure and weep in sadness, mechanics are how we can do this. There are four kinds of these things to work with:

Specifically video game mechanics are object that create gameplay when players interact with them. They can be jumped on, activated with a button press, or pushed around. Some examples of mechanics include: opening/closing doors, pushable blocks, switches and levers, slippery floors, conveyor belts, moving platforms.

They look like mechanics, they often act like mechanics, but their purpose is to kill the player. Hazards can also be resembled as enemies, but the key difference is intelligence and/or mobility. All hazards have predictable patterns and limited movement. Some examples of hazards include: spiky pits, smashing blocks, blasting flames, exploding barrels, laser guided missile launching turrets.

Rogers tells us that when designing hazards it's important to make them clearly dangerous for the player. Get information from things of danger in the real world for inspiration try using shape, colour, sound effects and particle systems - anything to make it inherently clear to players that they WILL get hurt when colliding with the this hazard. Try to make a connection with your games themes and the types of hazards that would fit.

"Instant death hazards just suck" They are cheap and mean-spirited. If the player is going to die because of a hazard, let them die because of the they didn't pay attention or get the timing right. Make them realize it was their fault they died, not because the designer decided they needed to die. Death is never a good way to educate the player. It just causes frustration and sadness.

The secret to balancing great video game design is knowing this:

Difficulty = Promotes pain and loss
Challenge = Promotes skill and improvement

A difficult game does whatever it can to punish the player. A challenging game confronts the player with obstacles that can be overcome with skill and knowledge. Rogers refers to the balance between challenge and difficulty as the "fun curve." he states the actual psychological theory about the fun curve called "flow".

The key to keep players from going over the fun curve is to create ramping gameplay. A designer must build one gameplay system upon the last, teaching the player a new move and how to master it against mechanics and enemies. The gameplay elements are combined and gently intensify as the game progresses. 

Props are mechanics that don't move. Props can be placed into the level to make it feel more like a real place. They can sometimes act as obstacles or barricades that players are able to use to avoid, jump over or take cover behind. Allow players to be able to interact with your props in your world, let players knock over light items, shove around heavy ones, closely example interesting pieces of statues, bookshelves or paintings. You can use breakable props to access new areas or yield treasure. There's nothing more satisfying than breaking things to get a load of treasure, but try not to overdo it as it can turn your carefully designed gameplay into a mindless smash fest.

Crates are breakable items that yield goodies and double as platforms, but they're also overused clichés that have become a joke within the gaming industry; visually boring and, frankly, a lazy fallback for designers and artists who don't want to burn the brainpower to think up more interesting breakable objects.

Here's a list of breakable objects you can use to populate your game with other than a crate: Barrel, treasure chest, vase, urn, trash can, mailbox, newspaper stand, baby carriage, metal drum, cargo container, cardboard box, cage, lantern, lamp post, filing cabinet, fish tank, toy box, keg, hay bale, pile of skulls, dog house, bird house, tiki idol, statue, fortune-telling machine, church donation box, suggestion box, ATM, hollow tree stump, attaché case, safe, suitcase, TV monitor, fuel tank, refrigerator, oven, breadbox.

There is one more type of mechanic which is the rarest one of all. It's that mechanic that's "just for fun." This can be the player piano that plinks out a tune as you approach it or the toilet that flushes if you interact with it. Don't be afraid to include these just-for-fun props in your game.
Timing puzzles are mechanics that move. They are perfect for creating tense moments where the player has to wait for the right movement to dash through whirling blades or smashing pylons. They cause players to experience anticipation as they wait for the right moment to jump to a moving platform. A timing puzzle should have the following:

1. The hazard must have a discernible movement pattern. Back and forth, up and down, zigzag, circular, or figure of eight. It is important that players are able to track the movement of this hazard.
2.The hazard must have predictable timing. Random timing is unfair in order for the player to understand the pattern successfully.
3. The window of opportunity must be tight, but not impossible. Allow leeway for the player at the stat and close of the window's opening.
4. Use "tells" in the world to give the player clues to where it is sage to stand and where they will be hurt or killed. Players will notice these things and will learn to use them as markers for success.

Doors hold their own set of issues when designing a level. Think about how the player is meant to open a door. Be mindful of which way your door opens. Does it open in? Does it rise up? Does it lower down? Does it swing out? all of these opening actions can lead to different gameplay scenarios. Even a simple door in a survival horror game can be closed in the face of an enemy to buy the player the time to reload or escape.

The game 'Hotline Miami' features the use of doors as a mechanism for killing enemies. It makes for interesting action filled scenarios where players can potentially beat a level using nothing but a single door to knock out their opponents. In this game players also have control over triggering enemy paths with the use gunshot sounds to alert opponents - players can use this method of crowd controlling numbers of enemies in the form of 'camping' based strategy. This is the kind of thing that player stumble across overtime and learn how to use door positions and corridors to their advantages. Once players have figured this out it makes players feel smarts that plays an important role in the fundamentals of the core gameplay experience

"Hotline Miami - Online Image"
Despite their benefits it's important to consider the problems that doors can bring into your game design. Quickly opening doors can clip into the player or cause the player to get knocked down. Make sure the player doesn't get caught on doors or doorway geometry. This is particularly important is players are walking through hundreds of doorways - players will become irritated if they get caught up every time they are trying to walk through your faulty functioning doorway. The early 'Resident Evil' games use doors in quite a sophisticated way, they designed their level loading to correspond with the player opening a door. Not only did it mask the loading of a level section, but it built tension as the door slowly swung open.

Locked doors are perfect for getting players to find an alternate route in your level. However, make sure it is super clear to the player that they can't get through, the appearance needs to be obvious to avoid frustration.

"Make sure you know the answers to these questions and then keep the method of entry consistent throughout your entire game."

S, Rogers (2010). Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design. United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons, ltd. NA.

NA. (NA). Hotline Miami. Available: Last accessed October, 2013.

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