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Level Design Principles - Familiarity

I recently recorded a podcast about one of the core design principles I use every day - the familiarity principle. You can watch the video and also go through my notes.

Hello fellow level artists and designers,

I recently recorded a podcast about one of the core design principles I use every day - the familiarity principle. You can find it here:

For all of you that want to go through the text instead of listening, here are some rough bullet-point notes:

What is a design principle

A design principle is usually a simple word like “Simplicity” or short sentence like “Less is more”. These words are containers for something usually bigger, some kind of design wisdom, like a good practice or a set of design rules.

How to use design principles

Principles can be used to make a better design decision or validate ideas. When thinking about, let’s say a principle called “Simplicity”, it brings multiple questions to my mind like “Can I simplify this space?” or “Is there something I can remove from the layout?”.

Principles do a great favor in helping with team communication. With clearly defined principles in the team, communication is way more efficient. When we talk about “Familiarity”, every team member is on the same page with what is required, what should be tested and so on. This may lead to better team productivity and eventually better game quality.

How does familiarity work?

By injecting familiar experiences, designers can bring positive memories. Familiar faces and facial expressions, sounds or spaces give players the “I know that!” moment. That feeling is similar to a positive result of pattern recognition, feeling of finding a solution or having an answer to a question. It sets players in a more positive, excited state. In psychology, we could say that the player is getting a reward. Not literally a treasure or badge but a positive feeling that makes him want more because it feels good.

When players are in a positive state of mind, they are less worried about the unknowns, more in control, willing to take risks and being more creative. What’s more, positive players are more immune to failure and frustration.  It means that if familiarized and positive players will encounter a bumpy experience or frustration, they will approach it with a more forgiving mindset, due to their positive past experiences.

When a player is neutral or negative about the game, frustrating moments can hit the experience stronger because there’s no relationship established between players and the game. This attitude may reflect in play time, game score and review or willingness to come back to the game.

What is familiar for one player, might be confusing for another

For one player, familiarity might bring positive memories but for the other one, that experience will be neutral or - in the worst case - it can confuse and bring misunderstanding. Designers need to be aware that the familiarity principle always resonates with a certain percentage of the audience, not with everyone. Designers need to prepare special things just for newcomers.

Familiarity is everywhere

Familiarity gives players a well-known starting point so they can be more confident in the face of upcoming unknowns. That’s why it makes sense to hire a famous actor to your game, reference a well-known cultural event or license popular music for your game’s soundtrack. A lot of creative products are built on already established and familiar motifs.

Mark Rosewater calls that “piggybacking” - using players' existing knowledge to make our job easier. For example, games can reference military uniforms, vehicles, locations or architecture. This also applies to game design. We can use what genre has already established, for example, certain rules or controls mappings. This will give players a head start.

I’ll quote Mark Rosewater again - “never fight human nature”. When genre conventions are well established and liked, or the player is very familiar with something, changing that is risky. It sounds limiting but think about this in that way: by knowing this rule, you can intentionally break it to consciously innovate.

Familiarity vs reuse of content

It’s very important to mention that there’s a thin line between building familiarity and the reuse of content.  Obvious reuse might raise a negative reaction, a feeling of a cheap trick that developers used to save money.  This problem is very context-sensitive but being aware of the issue will sensitize you to watch for it. In general, we want to provide a bit of new when the player is already familiarized with a bit of old.

How I add familiarity to events and levels

In general, I want to create things that are relatable. That means that the locations or events I create are easy to understand for the player. There’s no need for an extensive explanation.

First, I’m researching given topic to get a better understanding of what I could reference in my work. I don’t want to rely only on my mental models. To use familiarity, I have to familiarize myself with the topic, see how other cultures see it. I’m looking for something that is well known by players but I also look for something subtle, not the first idea that comes to my mind. Something that will make players smile and appreciate clever design.

In another case, I was using a widely familiar concept of “magic” to justify spawning Demons in front of the player. I have shown to players how magic portals work. Players learned that Demons can use portals.  t really profited on a design side, I was able to spawn enemies with larger control on combat flow and timing.  That turned to more engaging and dynamic combat scenarios.

Let's see another example: take something well known and mix it with something less usual to make it interesting and relatable. Let’s take Los Angeles and make it deserted like “Bone Yard” from Fallout. For example, it can really interesting to see scavenged Rodeo Drive, flooded streets of Venice or a bandit fortress in Disneyland.

All this effort I put to design is to get a proper response from the player. I want players to think like: “I know and understand what it is, I can build expectations” or “it feels good when the game uses my past experience”.

Lack of familiarity

The common newbie mistake is going downtown with creativity and making something super big and fancy. That creates confusion. Imagine that we need to make a Sci-Fi door. Designers can come up with really crazy stuff but honestly, all we need is something that looks like a door, works like a door, and affords actions like a door. And players have to get it in a second. If they confuse fancy door with a non-interactive decoration, then they can miss a lot, get frustrated and quit.

In the past, I’ve made a lot of levels that people didn’t understand. I wanted to make fancy things but I had no idea that players need familiarity to get traction on the concept. For example, I wanted to make a bandit’s hideout in a bank in a post-apocalyptic world. I iterated to the point it no longer looked like a bank. I just wanted to add a twist on a familiar building and I ended up with a bank that actually looked like a really fancy junkyard.


Next time when you’ll come up with a fresh and never-seen-before layout or a really fancy and innovative concept, think how to mix it with familiar things. Just to give it more chance to get better traction with the player.

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