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As level designers, we can carefully build a vocabulary of game mechanics and shape what the player knows about the environment -- and when they know it. When the player pushes a button to call an elevator, they expect the elevator to arrive. Imagine their surprise when the elevator suddenly comes crashing down with a group of screaming scientists on board! Players come to your game with a vast amount of knowledge and expectations that you can use, as a designer, can use to your advantage.

Brett Johnson, Blogger

July 16, 2001

10 Min Read

As designers, we strive to immerse the player in our world by providing a series of interesting and exciting events. In order to do this effectively, it can be very helpful to understand and develop the expectations of the player.

At the start of a game, we can make some basic assumptions about what the player knows. These assumptions can be based on everything from movies, books, and other games, to the way things work in reality. When a player hits a button to call an elevator, they expect the elevator to come to them so they can get on. If they jump off a high building they may take damage or die. If they stay underwater too long they may drown. The player comes to your game with a vast amount of knowledge that you can use.


In order for the designer to use the player's expectations to his advantage, it is important to establish some core game mechanics at the beginning of the game. The player should know what types of objects they can interact with and how they do so. Does opening a door require a "use button" or do they open automatically? Can you use non-player characters? If so, how and in what ways? Things that can hurt the player, like falling, lava, poison, and heat are important rules for the player to know about. These examples may sound simple enough, but its essential to confirm the players expectations if you plan to manipulate them later.

There are a couple of ways that designers commonly use to establish the core game mechanics. In some cases, the designer can teach the player these mechanics as they play through the game. This has the advantage of allowing the player to jump right in and learn as they play. Another option is to create a separate tutorial where the player can learn the basic mechanics without the danger or distraction of the being in the actual game. This has the advantage of making sure the player is prepared enough to really enjoy the experience when they're ready to start the actual game. A tutorial may also be a good idea if the designer is introducing new game mechanics that player may not be familiar with.

As designers, we can carefully build a vocabulary of game mechanics and shape what the player knows about the environment, and when they know it. For example, when the player pushes a button to call an elevator, they simply expect the elevator to come to them so they can get on. This would be normal. However, you could imagine their surprise when the elevator suddenly comes crashing down with a group of screaming scientists on board. We get the element of surprise mixed in with a bit of humor creating a memorable experience for the player. More importantly, we've expanded the player's understanding of what can happen in this environment.

Once there is a basic understanding of how the world works, the designer can further expand on the player's vocabulary and expectations to create new and interesting scenarios. An example: The player walks by a few large grates in a floor, looking down in the first few and seeing nothing of interests. After a while, they come to believe that the grates are a static part of the world. The designers usese this opportunity to take advantage of the player's disregard for the grates. At a grate just a bit further along, a monster comes crashing up through the grate to attack the player.

The designer might enhance this scene in a number of different ways. Perhaps there was an eerie sound coming from the grates that drew the player to look below under every grate. Perhaps they found an NPC hiding under a grate and chose to look for more. After we take the player by surprise, they may now choose to be more cautious about grates. Maybe they'll be ready for combat whenever they walk by a grate. We've expanded the player's vocabulary with regard to how grates work in the world. Players may become more aware and alert about things that may seem "normal" in the environment. Think about the tremendous value we've just given to a simple grate! Designers can use this heightened sense of awareness to make even the simplest things more interesting; a door that is slightly ajar, a ceiling tile that is out of place.

Think of this little scenario: In one part of the game we introduce a simple hallway. In a section just after the hallway, we introduce monsters that drop down from certain types of ceiling tiles. Later, we introduce monsters that can break through closed doors. Now, can you imagine the feeling the player will have when they arrive at a long hallway that has the same grates on the floor, the same ceiling tiles that monsters have been known to drop from, and some doors where monster may be waiting to bash through? Think of the suspense that can be created in the player's every step. This ability to manage and manipulate the player's expectations is a powerful tool for a designer.

If it is quiet, even a well-placed sound effect can be startling to the player. The designer could use any combination of these events or they could choose to layer them. Perhaps the designer chooses to only introduce the grates and the ceiling tiles forcing the player to walk along the walls for safety. This would be a good time to introduce the monster crashing through a door across the hall! Perhaps none of the above happen and a completely new monster runs down the hallway, stirring up all of the other monsters. Ultimately, it comes down to the designer's personal goals and preferences how they want to develop the scenario.

Scripted Events

Scripted events are a great way to teach the player about how the world may function and add to the overall experience. It can be quite amusing to use a NPC to demonstrate what happens if the player misses a jump, carelessly runs out into a wide-open area, or stumbles across a trip-wire. All of these examples quickly teach the player something about how the world functions. NPCs can also be established an important part of the game and their functionality can become an important part of the player's vocabulary. NPCs can commonly be used to provide player direction/goals, open doors, provide clues, develop the story, heal the player, serve as a hostage or an escort, join the player in combat, and even, at times, provide a good bit of comic relief. Each of these examples can be used on its own or in combination with other functionality to create interesting game scenarios.

Scripted world events can also be used to introduce new game mechanics and thereby further expand on the player's vocabulary. For example, we can introduce regular barrels to the player that look fairly normal with a basic metal or wood texture. Later, we can introduce a similar shaped barrel that is visually different from the others. It could be painted red or have some warning labels on it. This "different" barrel could be explosive when destroyed. We can even introduce this type of barrel in a scripted event. Perhaps a battle is scripted where an enemy throws an explosive toward the barrels. Maybe the scenario is setup so a monster or group of monsters runs out in front of the barrels to attack the player. Any missing shots fired by the player could detonate the barrels. As you can see, there are a number of ways to introduce the exploding barrels. Once we've established that the barrels are explosive we can show the player how to use this to their advantage. Player's can be taught to shoot at barrels to kill monsters with the radius damage, (which worked quite well in Doom). Through a bit more scripting we could make nearby pipes explode or have other parts of the world take damage from the blasts.

For example: The barrel explodes, the pipes burst, the room shakes, and parts of the ceiling come crashing down. Maybe the designer would want to expose a secret area where the pipes had once been.

The player may now be inclined to shoot at all of the explosive barrels in hopes of finding another secret area -- or simply because blowing things up can be fun. The designer can also use this to his advantage. For example, lets have the player drop from a vent in the ceiling into a dark room. He soon notices that the room is full of explosives. Detonating anything in this area would mean certain death. How about we send in one tiny little monster to further cmplicate the situation. The player must be careful to not miss or use an overpowering weapon or they'll detonate the room! This can be particularly effective if the player has just gone through a large battle with a very powerful, explosive weapon; they'll likely still have a large weapon still in hand.


Establishing numerous forms of resolution can also be a valuable part of the player's vocabulary. Resolution can provide a sense of closure that can be used to let the player know when they are ready to move forward or when they've accomplished a certain goal.

If we place a complete set of objects (let's use a set of armor as an example) in each thematic region of a level or game, the player will feel as though they have achieved a certain sense of resolution when they find each part of the set. Not only can this be used as a way of rewarding the player for exploring the areas thoroughly, but it also implies that they are ready to progress forward. The player has been taught that if they are missing a certain part of a set, there may be other parts of the world that they have not explored. We can further elaborate on the player's expectations by providing some extra bonus that comes with having a complete set. It could be a good thing, a bad thing, or perhaps even a humorous thing. It's up to the designer to make the choice and carefully craft the experience.

When done with care, the designer can literally plot the expectations of the player on paper and clearly identify each point of resolution in the game/level. This tends to make it easier to actually see how the game will progress and allows the designer/s to make adjustments to refine the pacing of the experience. This also makes it easy to identify possible problem areas that may need some excitement, point of interest, or purpose in the game.

Understanding the player's expectations can prove to be the most powerful tool a designer could have. By carefully building a vocabulary of game mechanics we can keep track of what a player knows and when. Once we understand the player's expectations of how the game environment works, we can use this to our advantage to create interesting and exciting scenarios and provide a memorable game experience.

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About the Author(s)

Brett Johnson


Brett Johnson is game designer at Gas Powered Games. His credits include Half-Life, Team Fortress Classic, and the up-coming Dungeon Siege. Contact him at [email protected].

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