For the second installment of my GDE posts, I’m going from the fourth dimension and going back to the original three. OK, in other words, I’m going to talk about the dimension of space… positioning. Your player, stage objects… you get the point. Along with time, it makes up the space-time continuum that you’ll see utilized in just about every action game (if not all… I can’t think of any super-unique exceptions). Obvious as it sounds, its important, so let’s get into it.
Like I said, most of us can’t get away with making something like an action platformer without thinking about this; if you have a short-range sword, it should make sense that you have to position yourself close to the enemy to hit him with said weapon. Of course! But as I’m sure many can attest, level design and the like are not typically so straightforward. Slapping down a few changes in elevation and a couple marching lines of enemies probably won’t get you too far into making a well-polished game.
Don’t throw your gameplay elements against the wall and hope they stick. Understand how each one will influence the maneuverability, movements, and patterns of the player. Ultimately, how do different elements influence where a player wants to position himself? And not just single elements, but the collaboration of a level as a whole.
One of the first things to consider is what is the player capable of? How high can they jump? How fast can they move? This ultimately dictates how a player can position himself, and with that in place the whole “positioning” thing kind of dictates itself in a way; the idea is to make sure you are paying attention to what it dictates. Think about the different situations that happen (sometimes simultaneously) within a game, and the different zones they create.
Neutral Zones: Essentially, they keep you out of trouble but don’t necessarily help you. If the player wants to make progress, they have to keep moving and take some chances. In other words, they have to move out of the neutral zone at some point.
“Sweet Spots”: These are the positions a player wants to work himself into. It may be so he can attack an enemy or dodge an incoming hazard. You might even call them opportunistic spots. Player’s should not be able to abuse sweet spots. If they can easily ride them for the vast majority of a level, then you may have a problem.
Danger Zones: These are the areas where the player might find himself open and vulnerable. And obviously, they will want to move out of them.
Simple enough. Each object may create its own zone. Some “sweet spots” and danger zones between objects may overlap. But this dynamic is what can really enrich gameplay. Remember, think about the big picture.
So what are some basic concepts we can apply to get the most out of level layout?
Mix the Sweet with the Danger: As I said above, maybe one situation’s sweet spot will lie in another danger zone. Or maybe an object’s sweet spot AND danger zone are in the exact same position! Fuse different elements together to forge robust level design. Of course, exercise moderation when adding a lot of detail, but don’t be too afraid to try something new and maybe a little crazy.
Creatively Neutralize “Sweet Spots”: Sweet spots may be a necessity and a large part in a player’s success, but don’t let them get away with too much. Get a little vindictive, like punishing them for hanging out in a particular sweet spot for too long. Maybe the platform the player stands on crumbles after a short time, or the enemy will release some kind of area effect attack that makes the player move out of the sweet spot.
Trick the Player into Danger Zones: Goes along the lines of the previous. Maybe a boss character has two attacks. One attack is easy to avoid, but may push the unaware player into a bad position to get hit by the second. Or a very basic implementation is to put an extra life in a less-than-ideal position for the player. There are some obvious applications here, to be sure, but remember: be creative!
Think carefully about how you, as the game designer, will position and manipulate zones, and facilitating transitionshink about how your level layout (1) forces the player to make transitions or (2) prevents the player from making necessary transitions. Use elements like strong winds or conveyor belts for extra movement effects. Let enemies and hazards shift and transition zones from danger to neutral to sweet and back again (a window sequence, if you will, as I discussed in GDE #1). Think about the pace and urgency you want your game to played with, and how that influences the player’s footwork.
Maybe this is all a bit basic for your tastes. But you have to start at the foundation if you want to build a really exceptional game. Clever gimmicks or strong customization won’t get you very far if the player can’t handle simple positioning (and timing) tasks or finds themselves bored with bland level design that keeps them in “neutral gear” the entire time.
Sure, this is probably only one way to “quantify” the gameplay of any particular action genre. The point is, get an idea of how you are going to manipulate the space-time continuum (in other words, physics) in your game, and the consequences of such implementations. Understand the root of your game before you get too deep into some of the other details.