Author Topic: Let's discuss the art of level design over a nice cup of tea and some biscuits  (Read 6150 times)

Sendy

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I'm hoping others will use this thread to talk about level design in the context of VVVVVV in general... Whether it be aesthetics, routing/overall map planning, scripting, psychology, difficulty curve, etc...

Here are some general strategies I tend to employ when trying to make levels look nice. Take them with a pinch of salt because they're just a look at how my design process works. I'm not a professional, haven't studied game design, and am running entirely on absorbed wisdom and instinct.

SYMMETRY

Most people think of symmetry as building the room such that one half is a mirror image, or perhaps something fancy like rotational symmetry. This does produce very striking screens but isn't a good overall gambit to use in every room, unless you're using it as a design gimmick. But I tend to think in terms of smaller, more local symmetries.

For example, suppose you have a region of screens which use little tunnels to give access to larger chambers where the action takes place. Keeping these tunnels in a 'house style', by giving them all the same proportions (for example, 3x3 or 2x3 are good choices to accommodate  :viridian: ). Keeping this pattern going as much as you can, and deviating only when GAMEPLAY would benefit from it, gives the space a much more 'designed' and unified feeling. Now the tunnel is not just something for the player to pass through (functional), but it has a visual identity which creates in the imagination all sorts of subtle connotations which add richness to the player's experience.

Suppose I had decorated all my tunnels with backing, and wanted to add a little window for detail. I'd consider the following: Placing the windows at every intersection. Placing the windows exactly halfway between every intersection (and yes, I'd COUNT tiles, not do it by eye!). Placing the windows every x tiles. Etc... What this boils down to is that human brains like patterns, and if it sees them, it feels it's in a space created by other human brains. If you break a pattern in a certain place, it should be for a reason - i.e. to aid gameplay, to punctuate the space, to draw attention to an area, because of a limitation of the graphics engine (i.e. avoiding tile errors), etc... Creating the same embelishments and visual themes over a series of screens groups them together into a 'graphical style' and gives them unity. This is vital for creating the sense of different areas on a larger map, especially when graphics changes are limited (perfect example here, look at the map for Hero Core... it's composed out of black and white blocks, yet has areas with distinct visual identities).

Another way to look at symmetry is in terms of small areas of a larger screen. Instead of making the symmetry apply to the whole room, you might balance things, so for example, the spike in each platform is in the middle, or that there are the same number of columns of space between each platform or formation... Instead of using the middle as a basis for visual accent, using an approximation of the 'golden section' also works beautifully.

Something else related to symmetry is alignment. I saw one user VVVVVV screen which consisted of two horizontal hallways. One had vertical enemies in it, the other had bunches of 2 spikes evenly spaced out... But because the guardians in one hall and the spikes over them in the other hall were ALMOST BUT NOT QUITE aligned, it looked sloppy to me. Here was a perfect opportunity to create a pleasing visual pattern, and it was neglected, chipping the presentation. Had the enemies and spikes coincided in the same columns of the screen, more of a subtle narrative would be created for the player, because we're noticing the correspondence between the spikes and the enemies... Roughly speaking it's saying something like "first it was spikes... this time it's enemies". It's very subtle, but it's there!

DISORDER

I'm not suggesting every level needs to be a regimented, perfectly measured affair, with everything all lined up and in the middle of it's context, because that would look just contrived if overdone. Generally, if you want an area to look man-made, you err more to the side of symmetry, and if you want to create a cave or other natural phenomenon (such as a caved-in building), then creating jagged walls and throwing caution to the wind will be a good tactic. It's only really by playing with these two visual forces that you can really create a story or journey in a level, because when you get a good balance between both sides of the equation, they feed off of and compliment each-other, playing with the expectations of the player.

Another form of creative disorder is deliberately and cunningly disobeying symmetry to good effect. For example, you might have a room which is mostly full of wall, but with a tiny room in the top right-hand corner. Provided it's displayed in a way that makes it's intent clear, this sort of symmetry breaking is pleasing because it breaks monotony, and creates a unique experience. With the right room name it may even be vaguely amusing... And of course, the composition of the tiny off-center room would have to be considered in it's own right.

Another example is rooms that are perfectly symmetrical apart from controlled changes made to one side. A good example being that the spikes are in different places on one side. This kind of device creates visual interest (the brain enjoys looking for patterns and breaks in them), and provides a way to structure the gameplay (the spikes being in a different place may force the player to take a longer route, make things harder/easier, or change some other variable of gameplay).

CONCLUSION, WITH HACKNEYED MAXIM

As they say, rules are there to be broken, but, as the old cliche continues - you need to know them fairly well in order to break them effectively!
« Last Edit: August 30, 2011, 05:08:25 PM by Sendy »

TheoX

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Well said! 

I'm not... really in the mood to create my own wall of text right now so I won't provide a very insightful reply, but I definitely think there is importance in thinking out the patterns and design of your level.  It's usually a good idea to have your own little "design scheme" that you follow when making your level, though that might come naturally to most people.

You'll probably like my level when it's done.  I'm putting a lot of thought into the look.  :)

PJBottomz

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Love the title (although, I prefer very unhealthy flavored water [aka. Soda])

Anyway! I think that it's important to have rooms that look good, and rooms that challenge. But combing them together can be a pain in the ass. :victoria: I can't tell you how hard it is to have aesthetics and deaths match. I usually base my background around the enemy scheme of the room, but it can end up looking like shit. If I choose to make the background look better and match the enemies to the background, it's too difficult to get by. It seems that combing good and evil really DOESN'T work.

And speaking of aesthetics, I really believe that backgrounds are MAJORLY important to a level. Like, in, "The Lost Place" (my BETA level), I try to make the backing appear as the walls and windows of the space station, so it doesn't look like you can hop into the background and fall through space (oh, but that would be a great feature!).

But, try to do this with spikes and it's very difficult. Usually, I can re-route it above to where it will have open space surrounding the spikes, but then it throws off the whole look of the room (this is just my OCD talking, when the patch is coming up, it'll fix this and [yay!] no more worries!).

And another thing: Useless rooms are okay to have if you just need a filler, but too many of them can really pose a challenge. And before I begin to sound like a hypocrite, I am planning on filling most of my linker rooms with scripts, so that they at least have SOME value.

And speaking of linker rooms, I feel that the more walking there is, the more frustration there is. If it's not the butt of the jokes in the storyline, it's pretty stupid to have in the first place.

And so I can keep talking and waste you time, I think it's very interesting when people have a few challenge-less rooms and two or three REALLY difficult rooms. It makes it seem like the entire level is difficult. I love difficulty illusions!

And before I wear you all out, I'm done. :viridian:

</hellish wall of text>

Dispensers Heal

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It's also a good idea to have trinkets as vital objects and to place them in the most masochistic of challenges for fake difficulty tactics.

Oh, and make Viridian obsessed with Trinkets.  :vermillion:

PJBottomz

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Yes, everyone loves to torture Viridian with unfairly placed trinkets.

Sendy

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It's also a good idea to have trinkets as vital objects and to place them in the most masochistic of challenges for fake difficulty tactics.

Oh, and make Viridian obsessed with Trinkets.  :vermillion:

Yeah, the sad thing is that most otaku level designers want you to endure each and every obstacle they've commited to RAM, regardless of how difficult or mind-numbingly boring some of these challenges are... Using trinkets as compulsory 'move the plot on thingies' can do some clever stuff, but usually it's just a case of enforced linearity which harms the gameplay.

A similar thing happens in Super Mario World ROM hacking, when noobish level designers make it so that you have to beat each switch palace the moment you discover it, or the next level you go to play has you falling into a pit where a !-block bridge should be. Of course, the kicker is that each switch palace is usually some kind of kaizo-style p-switch run or some other kind of challenge which should be optional.

Sometimes, it's just good to give the player choices.
« Last Edit: August 31, 2011, 02:55:40 PM by Sendy »

SirBryghtside

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It's also a good idea to have trinkets as vital objects and to place them in the most masochistic of challenges for fake difficulty tactics.

Oh, and make Viridian obsessed with Trinkets.  :vermillion:

Yeah, the sad thing is that most otaku level designers want you to endure each and every obstacle they've commited to RAM, regardless of how difficult or mind-numbingly boring some of these challenges are... Using trinkets as compulsory 'move the plot on thingies' can do some clever stuff, but usually it's just a case of enforced linearity which harms the gameplay.

A similar thing happens in Super Mario World ROM hacking, when noobish level designers make it so that you have to beat each switch palace the moment you discover it, or the next level you go to play has you falling into a pit where a !-block bridge should be. Of course, the kicker is that each switch palace is usually some kind of kaizo-style p-switch run or some other kind of challenge which should be optional.

Sometimes, it's just good to give the player choices.
If you download an impossible Mario hack, though, it's pretty likely that you'll want the challenge.

Think about the Golden Spiral - it's near-impossible, but the option here is playing or not playing. Although the difference here is that the idea behind it, and indeed VVVVVV itself, is that persistence is key - try enough times, and eventually even the worst player will get it done. And that's something that everyone should keep in mind when designing.

Sendy

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Right, I happen to love very hard levels as well, provided they're intelligently built... I still think it's a good idea if the most difficult 5% of a level/game is made optional for the player - no matter what the average difficulty of the level as a whole is.

IIRC Golden Spiral did this to good effect - I balked at a couple of the trinket challenges, gave them about 200 deaths and moved on! If the trinkets were compulsory, I probably would have never finished and enjoyed the level. And yet now I have the option to go back and try and 100% the level... Therefore I'm pretty sure that in most cases, having the hardest parts of the game be optional is a superior design choice, if it can be taken.

A good example of this is in the puzzle game DROD. When designers create monsterous puzzles that lie outside of the difficulty curve, they are thrown off of the beaten track and flagged as optional/secret.

Incidentally, I'd love to see someone get the trinket in "Weep like a Widow"... Some of the chicanes in that spike tunnel are painful to even LOOK at  :D

PJBottomz

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Seriously. I think there's a fine line between difficult and impossible.

... Oh look, there is...

Difficult

Impossible

Wow, that line IS fine! :viridian:

Sendy

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Seriously. I think there's a fine line between difficult and impossible.

... Oh look, there is...

Difficult

Impossible

Wow, that line IS fine! :viridian:

 :o




...





 :-X






...








 :D  :P

PJBottomz

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Finally! One of my jokes has made an actual laugh!

Honestly, that cracked me up just typing it.

FlamingBanana

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You all just left the biscuits lying around, so I ate them. Seriously, you didn't look like you wanted any. Sorry.

I was hungry!

Dispensers Heal

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You all just left the biscuits lying around, so I ate them. Seriously, you didn't look like you wanted any. Sorry.

I was hungry!

Someone ate all my trinkets...  :violet:

No, it wasn't Flaming.

PJBottomz

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It was probably :vitellary:. He's always taking trinkets to test them, probe them with a nail, see if they crack when thrown into a ceiling fan, etc...

FlamingBanana

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I didn't notice this had been moved to the main VVVVVV forum, but apparently it has.

Anyhow, Sendy pretty much says it all...Except for one thing.  :vitellary:

ALWAYS HAVE A PLAN IN MIND.
Always have a general idea of what you want your level to be like before you make the level.