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Room For Failure: A Lesson in Level Design

When we design our game levels, we should leave some room for Failure.

Jak and Daxter Racing LevelToday, I decided to pick up where I left off in Jak and Daxter. Its a great game and I enjoy playing it. Shortly after getting back into the game, I ended up in a racing level. After trying to beat this level for the 50th time today (that may be exaggerated. It could be as much as 100 times) I began to wonder, why am I being so harshly punished for simple mistakes.

Let's put this into perspective. This level is a race through a canyon that is rigged with explosives. There are also plenty of trees to get in your way and bottomless pits to fall into. On top of the obstacles are a group of enemies that are racing to the end of the canyon to detonate the explosives. The goal is to get to the end of the canyon before them and stop the detonation.

Sounds pretty typical for a game level. But the premise does not excuse the punishment the player receives from the hand of the level designer. 

Around every corner is an explosive that if touched kills you and sends you back to the beginning of the level. It doesn't matter where you are in the level you have to start over. Often these explosives are near trees that if bumped will send you directly into the neighboring explosive starting you over.

If that weren't bad enough, taking a corner wrong often sends you over a cliff, forcing you to start over. These cliffs are often preceded by very narrow ramps that if taken wrong send you down the hole to your doom.

There are also certain portions of the level that make it possible to get stuck behind a tree or two forcing you to have to stop and turn your bike around. 

Certainly not a lot of room for failure.Like I said, I am trying to beat this level for the 50th or 100th time.

So what could be done to make this level easier for for the average game player? The average player wouldn't stick around for the 50th try at a level.Even I am about to shelve the game and try a different one.

I think the first and easiest thing to have done in this level is to add check points. The platform levels of the game have them, so why not the racing levels? Even a single check point at the center of the level would be enough to satisfy me. Surely the level designer could have added that.

Another option is to make the explosive obstacles not kill you instantly. A simple slow down bundled with damage would have sufficed to make the level challenging without punishing the player to harshly.

Now this is not the only game I have played recently that punished player in such ways. This line of design is one that is perpetuated by the "hardcore" gamer line of target. Designers might often think that they are designing for the type of player that loves such challenges. What they are neglecting is that not all players are like that.

Of course, I am now stepping really close to that dirty word of game design "accessibility". I don't think such a concept has received as much criticism in game design as has accessibility. A lot of game designers feel that making a game easier for new gamers or less skilled gamers will make the game worth less for the skilled and seasoned gamers out there. 

Sure it might if done wrong.If you force all players onto a level playing field, you will alienate some, but if you allow the player to choose the level of skill in which they are comfortable and allow them to challenge themselves at that skill level, you can make everyone happy.

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