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Designing Invisible Walls: Thoughts on Level Design part 2

I'm writing here about the Game Design of our first iPhone Game. It was also the first puzzle game I worked on. This second part is about the thorny question of difficulty.

In my previous entry I wrote about the definition of game rules and what it could induce in a game production. Let's now talk about something more design oriented: coherence and inconsistency in game balancing.

Designing difficulty is never easy for several reasons.

  • When you work on a game, since you know the exact mechanics you are never surprised. It's hard to understand and imagine the discovery state of a player.
  • I'm used to saying quite often “Hey guys, we are the best *insert game name here* players of the World!”. We’ve solved TURN rooms you couldn’t even imagine. Yet we're designing a game for newcomers, not for hardcore progamers.
  • When you’re working on a puzzle game, you try to make something that the player will find difficult and rewarding to solve. It’s all about measuring the right amount of difficulty. If it’s too easy then it’s boring, if it’s too hard then it’s depressing.

To design difficulty, you have to follow specific rules. If you go blindfolded you’ll hit the wall, there’s no doubt about it. Game Design is now "serious business" since the video game industry has achieved a certain maturity.

I'd like to share and suggest 3 things that I learnt about Level Design on TURN:

Progression: one small step for the dev, one giant leap for the player

Baby steps

You’ll want to teach the player each and every move, but you’ll have to introduce them one at a time. It’s easier to learn digits before numbers.

Sometimes during development, you design complex things that look cool, and you forget that the player will have to endure a rough progression before seeing the whole thing. Yeah, falling dominos are great to enjoy, but placing each single domino to build the course could prove tremendously boring.

Try to decompose each and every action the player will have to make. You can and you have to use and define small bricks if you want the wall to be solid. For example, in TURN, a brick could be “push the crate” or “rotate the room so that a stone roll in that corner”. Think small, because that’s how the newcomer player will think too (well, if they’re no Rainman).

Teach them how each brick is useful and could be used before using them in a complex structure. Because there’s no chance a player would be able to understand something if you directly put them in a situation where this thing is hidden among others.

Misdirection: wrong way is wrong

Wrong way

If the player is driving the wrong way, tell them immediately that they are wrong. Otherwise you will create an outstanding frustration. Imagine that after a collision you are driving the wrong way in a racing game, but the game only tell you so at the end of the race “Too bad, you’ve done a mistake 5 minutes ago, you lose.”

In a puzzle game like TURN, that means you'd have to design each room so that if the player makes a move that forbids them to solve the room, they must be killed / blocked in the next two moves at the most.

A badly designed room means you don’t know where you failed, and therefore you can’t really progress. That’s something you want to avoid at all cost. One of the main purposes of puzzle games is to induce the player into thinking they're growing wiser and wiser, not to tell them “you’re dumb, noob!”.

Objectives: long term objectives are chimera

Long term

You have to show reachable objectives. Although the problem you present the player with is complex and needs many moves to be solved, you have to clearly highlight some main goal.

That could be different things like: “to access this door you have to put the crate here” or “if you break this crate you won’t be able to solve the room”. That’s something the player will have in their mind during the whole completion of the puzzle. That’s why you have to be very careful on the visibility of such objectives.

The best way to achieve “friendly” difficulty is to continuously add elements on a basic thing, without too much disruption. It’s like the Simon game. If the player has gone from the first series of 3 moves they will surely be able to remember a series of 10 or more. But if you directly ask them to remember a big series without the previous steps, the results will be terrible.

Even if it could seem strange, the actual difficulty depends on the location, the same problem in two different levels doesn't have the same difficulty.

 

As a little side note about iOS specific development:

By the way, the iPhone gaming platform has also some specific constraints you have to know and understand. They are quite nicely summarized in that article on Slide to Play. While many designers blame and hate working with constraints, as a producer I praise them since they are useful to avoid the irrelevant.

Hope this has been of any interest to you, critics and remarks are welcome.

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