[In this extensive design article, Chris McEntee, NHTV Game Architecture and Design student -- who worked on Rayman Origins as a designer at Ubisoft Montpelier -- examines the company's core design philosophy and explores the techniques used to create the lauded platformer.]
"Form follows function" - Louis Sullivan
"Less is more" - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
"Easy to learn and difficult to master" - Nolan Bushnell
In my time with Ubisoft Montpellier, I have had the honor of working with a handful of talented designers who are experts in the process of rational design. Over the course of my internship and specialization, I have tried to absorb as much information on this design process as I possibly could.
Paired with my extensive research into the subject, I feel that I have achieved a relatively decent grasp of the core concepts and have applied them in my own levels relatively well.
Through this article I hope to provide a solid base on the idea of rational game design, as well as some personal insight and examples of my own so that perhaps more people can start to embrace the practice and produce - hopefully - more entertaining and thoroughly satisfying gameplay experiences.
Conceived by Lionel Raynaud (Ubisoft worldwide content director) and Eric Couzian (Ubisoft game design conception director), and led by Olivier Palmieri (level design director on Rayman Origins), Ubisoft developed an internal Design Academy for training their designers in the field of rational game design. While on the development team of Rayman Origins, I was able to work directly alongside Olivier Palmieri in his task of implementing rational design methods in the development process of Rayman Origins and picked up a strong understanding of the methodology from him along the way.
Rational design is all about eliminating unnecessary information, making things inherently readable, understandable and apparent, introducing mechanics in an orderly and easily digestible fashion, and preserving the learning and difficulty curves of a game, known as macro flow.
In principle, it is best to provide a player with significantly interesting and deep mechanics that are well explored and exploited through clever rationalized level design, rather than injecting the game full of one-shot gameplay mechanics to feign depth. A good mechanic, such as the portal gun in the Valve game Portal, can carry an entire game by itself with the addition of proper gameplay elements to help emphasize the usefulness and depth of the mechanic.
We try, as designers, to overstuff our games with content, ideas and objectives because we think that makes it more clever or fun. I have come to understand the meaning of the three quotes at the top of this page, and fully believe in what they preach. When we rationalize our game systems and keep things simple but deep, we can truly create a good and meaningful gameplay experience that is also efficient for the team and easy to troubleshoot through iterative play-testing. I feel that rationalization is one of the keys to success in the game design field.
The pipes and platforms in the middle of the ravine are constantly falling, meaning there is no safe spot for the player other than the top of the mountain.
For every game experience, a clearly defined objective or goal must be present; whether or not this goal strongly influences the player's actions directly is a different story, but the player must have a sense of purpose in the world they are traversing. In a platforming game like Rayman Origins, while there is a high-tier goal of "saving the world from darkness", there exist sub-objectives in every level that help to form a memorable and varied set of experiences throughout the game.
Even in a game such as Minecraft where the player has free roam to explore and build whatever he wishes, he has goals that emerge from the game system that drive his experience in the game universe, such as building a mega-structure or stockpiling resources for later use.
"…most game mechanics that don't feel deep enough feel that way because they have too many objectives and not enough meaningful skills." - Mike Stout, Evaluating Game Mechanics For Depth
Make your objectives clear and explicit, and clearly mark the path to the objective with meaningful mechanics. Simple manipulation of time and space conditions can emphasize or set forth a new objective; a falling object sequence makes it clear that the player must climb rapidly, else he will fall down a ravine. His objective: climb without stopping. This is not told to him by an NPC, this is not explicitly stated, but it is made clear by the situation he has been faced with.
Or take a different scenario where the player is in the belly of a beast, and he must escape before a column of fire burns him to a crisp; this is an objective, clear and concise, with clear consequences of failure, and gives him an immediate purpose: survive and escape. In the final section of this article, Motivation, it will become clear why the simple goal of survival works so easily in a game scenario.
Many times in Rayman Origins did we force the player to move by pursuing him with a swarm of enemies, so as to change up the pacing and keep him moving and give him a more immediate and pressing objective. The opposite is true as well; there are chest chase maps where the player must chase down a treasure chest to obtain the treasure locked away inside. While the gameplay result is the same -- the player must be fast and keep moving -- the conceptual objective feels different. The player feels a drive to catch the chest that he does not feel while being pursued by a wall of flames, but the objective is clear.
Objectives are all about what the player perceives as the purpose of his existence in the game world, and the feelings which the designer wishes him to associate with this experience.
While the simplest way to access this golden collectible is by using the nearby bumper, players can choose to use the helping hands move on the safe ground directly under it, and stack their way to the same height.
Atomic design, like the unimaginably small particles after which it has been named, is a very low level in game design wherein the designer examines the small influential factors and finds clear ways to harness their power in the pursuit of creating a learnable, balanced, fun and exciting experience.
One of the core principles of atomic design is considering at all times the required skills and inputs for a given in-game situation. By breaking down the number and difficulty of inputs and the complexity of the skills involved, it is easier to rationalize the way in which challenges are given to the player, keeping them from being stuck in a sequence which he cannot escape from due to the level of complexity required that he has not yet obtained.
Inputs such as holding down on the left analog stick and pressing the attack button, in that order, can actually be more difficult than a designer would instinctively think. Many players confuse the order of the inputs, or have a hard time simply managing two things in sync.
When we start to realize that some of our gameplay mechanics may be harder to execute, we think more critically about the frequency in which this mechanic is required, and find ways to best combat the barrier for entry. This is an example of breaking down and analyzing a mechanic which is the basis of atomic design; once we have deconstructed our mechanics into their base inputs and parameters, we can start to combine raw inputs to build new mechanics from scratch. By building mechanics in this way, we can more easily control the inherent difficulty to execute it and be better prepared for level design and defining the game system.
A game system refers to the balanced relationship between all the gameplay and mechanics of a game; the game system is, in essence, the game as a whole. Gameplay by definition is a group of mechanics that are related to the same subject, such as, for example, navigation, shooting or swimming. Mechanics are challenges that evolve in difficulty depending on the implementation of proper atomic parameters.
A game mechanic is a challenge based on a specific input and skill which can be altered by atomic parameters to increase the inherent difficulty of the challenge. To successfully define a mechanic, we must first define a skill to associate with it, so that we know what shall be challenged. A player skill is not the same as a character's skill or in-game abilities; player skills are something separate from the game world entirely, and are based on physical, mental or social actions that, when translated into proper inputs, allow the player to overcome a challenge.
It is important to note that a mechanic by this definition is a challenge, and if no challenge is present, such as initiating dialogue with an NPC or accepting a choice within an interface, it is defined as an action instead. Mechanics are the critically important tools for developing good gameplay, flow and learning.
Physical skills are some of the most common skills challenged in games; they relate to pure physical endurance, timing and split second reaction times. The only limitation when given a physical challenge is the actual ability to execute the mechanic in the way required. Some examples of physical skills include quick reflexes, good timing, gauging of analog controls and understanding of the metrics of various mechanics, precision and endurance.
Social skills challenge the player's ability to communicate and work together with other players; this is definitely important in a large multiplayer experience such as a massively multiplayer role playing game, but even in a couch multiplayer game like Rayman Origins, social skills can be useful and even challenged from time to time. Social skills include things such as cooperation with another player, leadership of a group toward a common goal, communication between players to either co-ordinate an action or debate on what to do next, known as negotiation.
An interesting use of the players' social skills in Rayman Origins is what has been called the "helping hands" mechanic, where one character can raise their arms like a pedestal for another player to jump on, who can in turn perform the same action for a third and so on.
In this way, through some social coordination between players on the couch, they can collaborate and create a stepladder to reach higher places without having to follow the otherwise predetermined path of the level.
Players who do not wish to exert their social skills and prefer approaching the problem in the default fashion have the choice to do so, but it is good to provide options for multiple player types.
Mental skills are brought into play for the more puzzle oriented experiences in games; things such as logic, memorization and association can be challenged and exploited to create a very complex puzzle.
Mental skills are not only limited to puzzles, however; similar to social skills, in multiplayer games like real time strategy, mental skills like management, tactic and strategy comprise a large portion of what the player is doing during a match. Mental and social can be combined in this scenario, as a player not only has to analyze and manage his own resources, but also consider those of his allies, and cooperate to defeat the opposition swiftly.
In deciding which skills we want to challenge and to what degree, we must break down the mechanic into its inputs and atomic parameters involved.
Inputs can be tricky when underestimated; many times a designer will take for granted the difficulty of a set of controls or an input type that is physically uncomfortable or difficult for a player. All of this must be taken into consideration when defining the inputs for each gameplay mechanic, and the difficulty of the input must be factored into the way the mechanic is challenged in the level design.
Factors that determine the inherent difficulty of an input include the number of buttons that need to be pressed simultaneously, or in sequence (and if in a sequence, how much time allowance is there between button presses to register the input as a success), the use of an analog stick along with a button input and the accuracy involved in the input itself. Take the most complex move in Rayman Origins, for example: the tornado attack jump. This is an move that requires four specific inputs:
- Holding down the right shoulder button to initiate sprinting
- Gauging the analog stick in the direction the player wishes to move
- Pressing the attack button
- Pressing the jump button immediately after
This level of complexity makes successfully executing this mechanic quite difficult in comparison to a simple sprint and jump, so if the designer is to challenge this mechanic he must take into consideration that it is difficult to execute, so perhaps the challenge itself might be slightly more forgiving to compensate.
Every mechanic contains at least one atomic parameter which upon alteration will influence the amount of challenge associated with the mechanic at that particular moment in the game. One mechanic can share multiple atomic parameters, though -- each having their own weight of significance on the challenge, but never in the same aspect as the others.
To fully explore the use of an atomic parameter, it is useful to study five differing values for each relating to difficulty: No influence on difficulty (simply written as ˩), easy, normal, hard, and impossible (simply written as ∞). By exploring the non difficulty case and the impossible case, we can more easily understand how a situation is affected when this parameter is either in full effect or no effect; if an enemy's scale fills the entire screen, then the atomic parameter for accuracy when shooting is ˩, simply because there is no possibility of missing.
This allows the designer to think of other ways to challenge the player to compensate for the ˩ of the accuracy parameter, such as forcing the use of stronger weaponry or having good timing based on a window of opportunity. Similarly, when a parameter is in ∞, such as an enemy having infinite health, it forces the player to take an alternate strategy for defeating them. With these five values, it is also important to quantify the parameters significantly, either in terms of metrics, percentages or times; there is no such thing as a vague atomic parameter.
As mechanics are defined by skills and inputs, and skills and inputs are influenced by atomic parameters, in almost all cases multiple parameters are adjusted when gauging difficulty of a sequence or element. A useful method of analyzing the relationship between all of these factors is to create a skills versus inputs matrix which plots skills along one axis and inputs along the other. At the crossing cells, the related atomic parameters can be found. As they relate to player skills and not in-game actions, atomic parameters should always be factorized; if the parameter includes some form of syntax from the game context to define, then it is no longer a proper atomic parameter.
An example of a skills versus inputs matrix. This is a good way to clarify the relationship between each input and how a skill is challenged by it.
Atomic parameters, while applicable to gameplay ingredients, can also apply to level design patterns. The earliest level design patterns presented in game should be the easiest combination of atomic parameters; the player must get past the initial hill of understanding the mechanics in an easily achievable environment before moving on to more complex and challenging sequences. By simply adjusting one atomic parameter, the difficulty of the same sequence could be changed drastically.
While many atomic parameters are injected in a static fashion, they can also appear dynamically to change up the rhythm or difficulty in an unpredicted and exciting way. One of the best examples of this form of atomic parameter in Rayman Origins is the King Lum collectible which, upon collection, will temporarily turn all Lums red and give the player twice the points when a Lum is grabbed. When the time runs out, the Lums return to their normal passive state. This alters the window of opportunity in which the player can complete a sequence filled with Lums that might have otherwise been in a ˩ state.
It does not only have an effect on the number of Lums collected and the speed at which the player does it, however, as narrowing the window of opportunity also increases the player's input frequency to a level that he might not be comfortable with, and could potentially result in more accidental deaths. Atomic parameters are very small factors, but playing with them can have a large impact on the game system.
Flow is a mental state proposed by psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in which the person is at one with themselves and the task they are performing. They seemingly transcend time and space and effortlessly succeed in a state of peacefulness and serenity. This state of flow undoubtedly is extremely relevant to game design, and one might even go so far as to say it is the closest we can get to objectively defining the term "fun". Csikszentmihalyi breaks down how it feels to be in a state of flow:
1. Completely involved in what we are doing - focused, concentrated
2. A sense of ecstasy - of being outside everyday reality
3. Great inner clarity - knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing
4. Knowing that the activity is doable - that our skills are adequate to the task
5. A sense of serenity - no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego
6. Timelessness - thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes
7. Intrinsic motivation - whatever produces flow becomes its own reward"
Csikszentmihalyi suggests that a human brain is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information in a second, and to listen to a person speaking and process what is being said, it requires about 60 bits per second already. When a person is in a state of extreme concentration and flow, he is devoting all of his brain power to the task at hand, leaving himself without the processing power to think about how he feels at the given time. Csikszentmihalyi even suggests that the person's existence is temporarily suspended during the true state of flow.
In this sequence, the harmful roots are undulating, closing and re-opening the path for a short window. The player usually has all the time in the world to wait for the proper timing, but once the King Lum is in effect, they must move speedily through, risking the possible death due to bad timing.
In the realm of games, there are a number of things a designer can keep in mind so as to help catalyze the process of reaching a state of flow. By providing challenges that constantly adapt to the increased skill level of the player, they are always kept on their toes, but understand that they have the tools to overcome the challenge.
For this to happen, it is necessary to provide clear goals for everything; if the player loses sight of the purpose of a sequence, they might get confused, lost or even bored. With clear and immediate feedback for success and failure, a player can very easily perceive the consequences of their actions and adapt their play strategy accordingly. Good signs and feedback will be subconsciously understood, requiring less active brain power from the player, leaving more for concentration on the challenge itself. This process of maintaining difficulty and interest is known as the macro flow.
A diagram depicting the relationship between skill, challenge and the state of flow based on the original by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Macro flow is the constant rise in difficulty to compete with the player's increasing skill level, maintaining the balance between boredom and anxiety. Macro flow refers to the entire gameplay experience from the beginning of the game until the end, and having a good macro flow will likely result in constant interest and intrinsic motivation on the part of the player throughout the course of the game. Maintaining a good macro flow requires proper management of a number of important factors:
1. Learning - how the player is introduced to the gameplay elements and mechanics, and how a designer ensures that the player understands enough to be challenged.
2. Difficulty - maintaining the level of challenge based on the rationalized minimal required skill level at a given point in the game.
3. Pacing - managing the ebb and flow of the game, creating moments of tension as well as moments of relief and calm progression; proper pacing aids in avoiding boredom, and exposes the player to different emotional experiences every step of the way.
4. Variety - breaking away from the game's norms and allowing the player to experience something fresh and exciting, as well as challenging their understanding of new inputs and challenge types.
5. Motivation - understanding different player types and what motivates them, and implementing numerous motivators in the environment that will lead the player to an eventual state of flow and intrinsic motivation.
The rational level design process allows for intelligent distribution of gameplay elements to keep all of these factors in constant balance so as not to upset the macro flow. A more in-depth breakdown of the rational learning process and managing difficulty will be discussed in a later section, as well as the concepts of variety and player motivation.
The article Darwinian Difficulty: How Throwing Players In Headfirst Can Work proposes a contrasting method of teaching and in the process, a different macro flow structure. In it the author describes the technique of throwing the player into the game with the full level of difficulty presented at the start; through constant attempts to overcome these ridiculously demanding challenges, the player slowly gains strength and understanding of the mechanics at his disposal, and learns to better cope with the dangers of the wild he has been thrown headfirst into.
What this results in is a constant level of difficulty throughout the experience, and as the player becomes more and more skilled, the difficulty level starts to decrease slightly in relation to the player's obtained skill level.
The player must deal with constantly sliding downwards on the flowers as well as the walls, and try to do it in sequence to collect all the Lums before the King Lum timer is up.
Micro flow is short intense periods of flow that happen frequently, as well as the constant adaptation of the game's challenges to the player's increase in skill level. It is perpetuated by repeated successes in rapid succession, which provides positive emotional and tangible feedback encouraging the player to continue in the micro flow; this is known as a virtuous cycle. Through positive reinforcement they become more intrinsically motivated to play the game, and by playing well they are rewarded with more positive reinforcement.
Micro flow is short intentionally, so that the player can experience it more frequently and easily recognize it as a strongly rewarding experience. By doing so, the designer can use similar signs and feedback among the many varied challenges in the game and help promote micro flow more frequently and easily.
In many game systems, difficulty tolerance is increased when entering a successful chaining of inputs, so as to promote flow and help the player to maintain their flow more easily. Another way of inducing flow is by making the series of inputs required form a rhythmic tempo; this helps to condition their reflexes, as humans can feel rhythm quite easily and apply it with little effort.
In his article, How to Make Difficult Fun: Donkey Kong Country Returns, Matt Arnold raises an interesting point about what he calls "conquerable mini challenges", which are small but satisfying challenges along the critical path separate from the macro challenge of reaching the end of the level. These micro challenges can be likened to the aforementioned definition of micro flow.
In Rayman Origins, catching a King Lum and successfully collecting a full series Lums before the song stops can be seen as a mini challenge. What is interesting about these mini challenges is that they provide the player with frequent opportunities to demonstrate their skill in varying situations, and receive very satisfying positive feedback in doing so, potentially reducing the impact of failing the macro challenge and being forced to start over.
Also interesting is the fact that while the player might have to repeat a large part of the level when he dies, he is given a second chance to master the mini challenges along the way that he might have failed in his first run. This provides him with time to practice useful moves, demonstrate his skill level and ultimately, reap greater rewards and positive feedback before the final satisfaction of finishing the level. These mini challenges are essential for giving the player a sense of accomplishment every step of the way.
Games such as Super Meat Boy, which, in comparison to Rayman Origins or Donkey Kong Country Returns, have little to no mini challenges, provide the player with very small levels, making each one feel like its own mini challenge. The experiences are short and difficult, but the controls in Super Meat Boy are so tight that the player is constantly perfecting their ability to complete the level, which is rewarding in its own right.
Accessibility and Difficulty
"All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth." - Nolan Bushnell
In is essential for all players to properly learn how to play the game in a gradual way so as not to be initially overwhelmed or be fed too many similar tasks to repeat and quickly shut off the game out of boredom. As mentioned in the previous section, this is the goal of macro flow.
Take the introduction of a simple gameplay element, such as a flower bumper in Rayman Origins. This gameplay element will automatically rebound a player along a defined trajectory once landed upon, and if the player performs a crush attack onto the bumper (down on the control stick and the attack button), the increased downward force of the character will allow the bumper to propel him twice as high.
This is a complex concept to teach a player, as the gameplay element not only has one behavior to learn, but two different behaviors, and with different methods of execution of varying difficulty.
A level designer cannot simply put a flower bumper in the player's critical path in the first level and expect him to instinctively crush on it and fly to the only available safe platform on the screen; first, learning of the crush attack must occur, as well as learning of the initial behavior of the bumper.
Only after the player has these two pieces of information can he infer what the result of a combination of the two might be.
The way that this learning process needs to happen is through teasing the player with the existence of the gameplay element in a safe manner, then teaching the player how it is used and allowing multiple areas to practice safely before finally posing them with a master challenge to prove their understanding. These three stages can be described as exposition, validation and challenge, and they are the three stages of teaching a mechanic or gameplay element that need to be properly implemented throughout the entire gameplay experience.
With a successful crush attack, the player will continue through to the bumper, exposing the secondary trajectory of the gameplay element, with a large bundle of Lums as a reward. The enemy on top of the bridge is a subtle way to indicate the significance of the bumper, as he is keeping the player away from it, with the intention of stirring their curiosity.
According to Sheri Graner Ray in her article Tutorials: Learning to Play, there are two distinct styles of acquisition when it comes to learning mechanics in a game: explorative acquisition and modeling acquisition. Explorative players tend to press every button on the controller until they know exactly what their character can do, and then they explore and learn to play the game as they go along.
Modeling players need information beforehand to truly understand what they are getting themselves into before delving right into it. Understanding the distinction between the two can be extremely useful when preparing a method of teaching in the early stages of a game, to be certain all players are able to grasp t