Game Developers Conference Day 1 – 2

Conferences, Game Design and Development, GDC 2011

The following talk is “Motivating Players in Open Worlds” by Joel Burgess from Bethesda Software. Open world level design is different from other level designs as “open” player agency makes it feel like the world is reacting to the player’s action. Games are getting closer in mastering story telling. Player’s choice is the core of the “gaming” art form. The unpredictable player are shady characters as they are trained to defy direction and to find ways to confound the designer. There is a contract between the player and designer. The number one rule is that the player is in control. All of the designer’s move is done backstage and the player needs to feel separate and alone. “The best work goes unnoticed.” Players trust the designer to fulfill their expectations and to see the story naturally happening in front of their eyes.

Next part of the talk is setting up the fun. As level designers, we need to make sure the player is entertained. Some environmental techniques are to included recognizable landmarks that the player sees in an area where they want to go towards. When they go towards it, they will also see other nearby landmarks along the route. Designers can also take control of the player’s camera to show them the various landmarks and new enemy types when they arrive to a new area. Players also tends to gravitate to things that move in the environment like streams. Within the environment, use the player’s prior knowledge on using objects like a sign post. They will naturally go up to it to find out what information is written on it. Audio is a crucial tool as it is using the player’s senses. This can direct the player to points of interest in the environment like a crackling fire directs them to a fire pit. In order for all of this work, the player needs to have self motivation and goals.

There are five goal types. They are explicit goals, player determine goals, emergent goals, goals of opportunity and out-of game goals. Explicit goals are stated to the player, player determine goals are not stated but is established by the player, emergent goals are created by the rule of the game. Goals of opportunity are snap decision by the player because they did not know about it but been made aware of it and will observe it. Out-of-game goals are like achievements and trophies that help deliver very gamey goals. It assist in keeping the 4th wall. The components that make up a goal are the perceive risk/rewards, commitment and inherent interest. Players tend to gravitates towards what they are good at. They also only gravitate towards goals they have time for and towards their own gameplay.

Designers are not powerless towards the player. We need to find the most interesting thing for the player from point A to point B. There can be deliberate distractions from A to B however the designer needs to be comfortable with the story that the player wants. Never spend too much time in the boredom level too long as it made cause the player’s interest level to hit zero. Now on to dealing with empty areas. These areas needs to be more valid and interactive. This involves the “iconic Rope bridges”. There should be a consolation loot for the player to cause the player to explore the area. The item is non-critical to the story and gameplay but helps give the world a more hand crafted feel. When the player does visit this optional area, they feel validated. Final Fantasy did this a lot with their Phoenix Downs.

GDC 2011 Level Design Deliberate Distraction

Empty areas of an open world are vast and involves Points of Interests (POI) Density. There are many options like dead bodies, a city/town, a fire, a house, etc. There is a time associated with each POI, the amount of time to build each one and also the designer’s desired POI density. Using a vertical “chuck” of the estimate to figure out what to appear in that chuck. It is needed to extrapolate against time in scheduling the POI. Of course the POI density depends on the type of game. Fallout ended up to be 30% larger than Oblivion and new POI needed to be created for that area. The level designer wants to have the player have a relationship with the world and flows through the goals. The set-up needs to be fun. Interface driven goals are hard to design for so include hidden goals like alternative paths. On the non-critical paths, the rewards needs to meet the expectation of the player otherwise they will frustrated by the amount of work they put into exploring the non-critical alternative path.

GDC 2011 Level Design Fallout

The next topic is “Level Design: The Design Conduit” by Neil Alphonso. According to Alphonso, level deign is the manifestation of the gameplay rules in one space. It is based on the 4 pillars, team and objective based gameplay, mingle player, SMART, and customization and persistent leveling. The use of team work is to help the player to use the time in which tan objective can be completed in. Cinematics within a level works the same way in any mode of gameplay. Having “command post” along the path for the objective to make it flow better for the player. Mingle player is use of rubber banding. It is dependent on time and progress to manipulate the timing of the spawn. This can help manipulate the bots value (ie 1 – 100) to change their accuracy so the difficult can be higher on more collaborative modes (ie co-op). Priority scripting allow the bots to prioritize their combat tactics.

GDC 2011 Level Design with out level

SMART is smooth movement over random terrain. The terrain changes to different movement cost for the player in order to get to their objective. The game Alphonso is working on , there is no invisible collision as it is based on the player’s height. During the development, the bots would use the smartest path and go in 20 directions because it will alter their perceive path. Customization is a huge part of his game to help the player feel more in-tune with their character. As they level up, the player can purchase abilities that can affect the various challenges in the game. Also, story is second to gameplay as story is created from the objectives.

GDC 2011 Level Design Interest Level

The final talk in this series is  “What is means to be a Level Designer” by Jim Brown from Epic Games. Level designers build worlds, integrate story and construct encounters. There are 4 types of level designers. They are theory designer, construction designer, art designer and detail designer. Theory designers use paper design and focus on systems rather than specific items. Construction designers spend time building physical spaces. Art designer set the mood with visuals and often create their own assets and shaders. Detail designers focus on fixing bugs and on optimization. Usually focus on the last stage of development to finish the last level of polish before shipping. There are also sub-types of designers like intuitive and systematic designer. Intuitive designer go with their gut on implementation and watch to see how the player adapts. Systematic designer starts with a stub idea, test it and evolve it base on the reaction on direct feedback and results.

GDC 2011 Level Design Description

So what exactly is a level designer? It is hard to document and list their attributes. The job is run through the designer’s passion. They take the engine to make it pretty to create an experience that is special, fun and memorable. That is the core experience. The level designer helps to initiate the relationship to create the experience between the player and the game. In meaningful design, always place the player first. Never forget who “you” are making the game for. “A game is a series of interesting choices.” said Sid Meier. For a level designer, making a game is a series of interesting choices. Be remembered by the game as it can leave an imprint on someone’s life as it could change it.

GDC 2011 Level Design Quotes

That is it for GDC 2011 Day 1! There was a level design after party that attended. There I met with Jim Brown, from Epic Games, and asked him questions about various aspects of level design. He told me about his experience and that sometimes some levels come to him from his sleep. He also gave me some really neat insight on Bungie’s design test. I found it useful as it can prepare me when I do apply for a design position. Afterwards, My friends all went to Mel’s Drive In diner to have dinner. Everyone really enjoy the various summits and tutorials that they all attended. Apparently the AI Summit was really good an my friends learned a lot. There is still one more day of Summits and Tutorials! Stay tune for Day2 where I will be attending Better Game Writing in a Day.

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