Here’s a crash course on Disorder’s level design. Specifically, about how we teach the player the main mechanic and rules of the game.
First, let’s go over our goals for the introductory area. The level design of Disorder was initially inspired by games like LIMBO, Braid, and Super Meat Boy. These three games have a few things in common when it comes to teaching the player:
- They do NOT pause gameplay to tell the player button inputs
- Their level design puts the player in a situation where they have to learn
- They create a safe environment for the player
- They respect the player
Let’s go over #1 and why pausing the game to tell the player how to do something is the worst thing you can do.
When you take control away from the player you’re really ruining the experience! This person just bought your game, they’re excited to play it, and you’re putting your hand out and saying STOP! LISTEN! READ THIS! 99% of players will end up skipping through this pop-up and won’t actually learn what you’re trying to teach them. Players learn better by doing, not by seeing. Make the player do what they’re supposed to. You can achieve this through #2.
To see level design putting players in a situation where they have to learn, look no further than our introductory level. The immediate thing you learn in Disorder is the game’s main mechanic: switching between a “light” and “dark” world, an action which the player controls. By the time the player has reached the introductory level we’ve already taught them the controller/keyboard inputs that the game uses, so next is to let them teach themselves where to use these controls.
The player begins with a wall in front of them. There’s not much room to move around. They can try running and jumping but they cannot pass through this wall until they use the “switch” button. By isolating the player into an area where there’s only one way to solve a problem we teach them several things: what the “switch” button is, what it does, and when they’ll need to use it to get past obstacles.
So now comes creating a safe environment for the player to learn. In this introductory area, it’s important that we don’t let the player fall to their death. This early in the game, players are still very vulnerable—they don’t feel comfortable because they’re still trying to understand the rules. By giving them a safe place in which to experiment, you’re making your game more accessible. If a player was allowed to die due to their failures during this introductory area, they might get discouraged and make assumptions: the game is too difficult, too frustrating.
Therefore, in the next section of the introduction I’m keeping the environment safe and continuing to teach them about switching. By switching and dropping down, the player learns that there are exactly two states of the world: “light” and “dark”. Switching between them can literally take the ground out from under your feet. I make the player switch a couple of times to really drive the mechanic home.
Before moving on to #4, let’s finish up the rest of the introductory area. First, I repeat what was done with the wall at the very beginning. Here, the player has to teach themselves to crouch and “crouch-walk” to progress. Following that is an area that provides a safe place to learn that certain spaces won’t allow switching while the player is inside.
Now if you’re still worried about the player getting “stuck” and not knowing what to do, there are ways to teach them without interrupting the experience. For example, we have a small ledge where we want the player to jump then switch. Most players end up experimenting, and eventually solve this tiny puzzle. However, on occasion we have players that get stuck and try to backtrack. We alleviate this problem by having a hint fade in after a set amount of time. We do NOT pause the game or stop the player. We also make sure that this hint disappears once the player understands what they need to do and executes it. This hint will not appear if you solve this puzzle on your own. It’s our way of giving the player a little nudge without grabbing the controller out of their hands and doing it for them.
And that’s a perfect example of the all-important need to respect the player. What does that mean exactly? Well, to me, respecting the player is about valuing their time and communicating to them on their own level. Ok… that’s still a bit vague. Basically, by using the above techniques, the player will learn the rules of your game much better than outright telling them what to do. Make the player learn by doing, and the experience will be more rewarding for them; they’ll feel like they actually accomplished something. Players are smart! You just have to give them the opportunity to show how smart they are. If your player is getting stuck then it’s your duty as a designer to make a more elegant design. Remember to respect the player or they’ll all end up sounding like Rodney Dangerfield.