Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Elements of Game Design - Environment

The design of a level starts with function; what is the purpose of this level? Or rather what is the player's purpose, their objective, their goal as well as their ability must be taken into account.

For example: If the player can jump high then there should be reason and room for such exercise; why give them a big jump if they can't utilize that? So, you would maybe put in ledges or gaps to leap across. This is something that is considered at the early stages of game development; the reason for a large jump would have been determined early on and so levels would be designed accordingly.

Forms follows function – Louis Sullivan

Form follows function is an old rule of architecture, considered a simple truth, this is arguably the basis all architecture is grounded on. However, this is related more with the world we live in as oppose to the imagined worlds of gaming.

The principle is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose. “ - wikipedia

Mad Photoshop skills.
The reason for this being more related with the real world is that gaming environments need not necessarily adhere to the laws of physics that our world does. Also things like resources, manpower and time hold little cause for concern in games. i.e. a one-hundred foot tall crystal palace is entirely conceivable given the context, whereas in the real world it is quite fucking bonkers.

Hence you can construct a grandiose area that supports the games intentions while delivering a compelling experience due to limited restrictions. Limited restrictions being memory and deadlines though given the current state of equipment, memory doesn't seem to be a massive issue; that is if you don't go over the top and know to pace your level; don't clutter expensive assets etc.

Out of place
At any rate, there are certain attributes and techniques a level designer will use when creating a level, here are a few:

Silhouette: This not only serves as one of the best designing tools but also takes purpose in the actual game. Team Fortress is a very good example of this as by just looking at the characters you can tell who they are, even from across the map which means a player can easily identify who it is.
Team Fortress character sheet

Function: As explained above.

Storytelling: This is pretty much the same as function however it has more purpose. The level should tell a story all in itself. For example: In Modern Warfare 2 you shoot your way through a favela in Brazil. Just by looking at the scene you can tell that it is a deprived area; shanty town, broken/stripped cars and other vehicles as well as trash and junk all over the place - a real shit hole.

Going back to function and silhouette for a second, some of these buildings have a 2nd floor, windows and doors as well as some other chest high walls here and there. The player, in the heat of a gunfight can instantly concur that:
  1. enemies are likely to poke their heads out of these windows and file out of the doorways and
  2. these holes (windows) and chest high areas could also be used as a viable source of cover.
    This is what a player needs; to be able to compose a plan within an instant in order to succeed. Good use of silhouettes helps the players mind to work faster, composing plans on the fly.

Other techniques such as space and light, immersion and consistency are also employed. Immersion and consistency going hand in hand in importance. Nothing breaks a game more than to think 'yeah right' as your mortal man just jumped 30 feet to the ground and didn't seem to bat an eyelid. That said, there are certain levels of unlikelihood we as players will accept; like taking 10 bullets in the chest and still being alive or after taking said bullets in the chest only to hide behind some cover for a few seconds as the wonders of nature heal your Swiss cheese meat and potatoes.

Bulletstorm developers (People Can Fly & Epic Games) take the piss out of the Call of Duty franchise

Something that broke immersion for me in the much acclaimed (and boned over) Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (among many other things) was the part where he climbs out of the train in the mountains. He has been shot in the side, yet still manages to climb up this derailed train that's hanging over a cliff in the freezing cold weather only to then trudge through the snow in nothing but his jeans and jumper fighting off the bad guys.
During all of this he is bleeding profusely from his gut which would make him cold from blood loss, then factor in the freezing conditions of the mountain and you'd have one dead Nathan Drake. Not only that but if you've ever had even just a bruise on your side, even the simplest act of lifting your arm becomes a tad painful, let alone going for a little climbing exercise.

However that is more of a storyboard error than level design. An example of an immersion breaking design flaw would be for example, in a shooter; you have guns that shoot lead and grenades that blow shit up. Right, so you've blown up that lovingly placed crate and it's now pencil shavings. However, that wooden door over there, no matter how much you unload into it or how much explosives you use, it doesn't leave a dent.

Some games that boast destructibility, like Black, also fall short on this. What broke the immersion for me in this games was that everything I could blow up and smash to pieces seemed almost too planned out. Especially the cars that you can blow up. They were never out of the way, or down some alley; no, they were always in the center of somewhere, where enemies would ALWAYS run to. Whenever I saw a car I just waited for the fuckwit ensemble to merry it's way over there, oblivious to the fact their mother and sister are the same person, to then fill their organs with the finest of German engineering.

On top of that, despite supposedly EVERYTHING being destructibility, there was a wall in a house, made of buggered plaster and withered planks that was surprisingly invincible. A 3 inch thick wall stopped bullets that go through stone like butter. This broke my immersion, because for having so much fun in this game, blowing shit up, an enemy was behind this wall where I felt particularly clever with the idea to exploit said destructibility by shooting through this weak wall and killing him without a face to face confrontation. Denied.

It's key for level designers to work with the storyboarders, this allows for a more streamlined, immersive experience when handled properly. Thinking like the player helps here; should I put more cover here? A chest, more enemies or a puzzle etc. A map that goes from A to B appears easier to design, as you are guiding the player through and so testing this would be easy. However a sandbox game or an open world must be far harder to populate. Is there anything truly memorable about the streets of GTA, or the arid lands of Red Dead Redemption? Only that they look pretty. Compare that to then something tailored like scaling Mt. Olympus on the back of a titan in God of War 3. 

Here is an environment I particularly like:

It's Warsong Hold from World of Warcraft. The story behind it is that the evil bad guy sent some of his minions to strike fear into the hearts horde members in the capital. The horde built this in the bad guys lands as a response - 'the Horde fears nothing.'  
What made this particularly cool was that it is the first building of this kind you see for the horde. This base is the start of the content and so to turn up here, see this great black stone keep with fire and spikes jutting out of the country side as YOUR base inspires you, the player. It represents intimidation, dominance and immovability - which is what the Horde is. Now, many of the Horde structures in World of Warcraft employ this architecture including the rebuilt capital of Orgrimmar which has been there since the start. 
It tells a story in itself whenever you see it, that the horde started out with wooden and clay structures, as if to fall down at any moment and now the massive black stone structures of superiority. 

As for this particular place, you can tell that it is in a quarry, however there are also cobwebs all over the place. Instantly you know what's going on. The Horde are mining resources yet now they've come under attack by a spiderlike race and need to defend. The first several quests have you clearing out the immediate area from all foes. They put you straight into the action; no 10 minute walk to the quest area, it's right here, right now! This was a brilliant set piece by Blizzard to get the expansion going. 

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