Design Roundup #6

articlesheader Design Roundup #6


Wheel of Time Bits

wheel of time header Wheel of Time Bits

I was never a big fan of The Wheel of Time series, but I liked the actual game quite a bit.

The notable parts:

— The title largely revolves around the player’s armament of Ter’angreal, ancient artifacts that grant magical powers. They’re grouped together into numerous categories — offensive projectiles, homing attacks, shields, immobilizers, summoners, magic nullifiers, etc. — and encompass gameplay modifiers that are usually presented via inventory items.

WoT 2010 10 02 01 27 56 42 Wheel of Time Bits

The tutorial does a good job of introducing the player to various facets of the game.

Many of the Ter’angreal are also only used to solve in-level puzzles, while others are strictly limited to multiplayer.

— Many of the enemies have an annoying habit of instantly sidestepping incoming projectiles. It looks awkward, wastes precious ammo, and often forces the player to aim at the ground in order to cause splash damage.

Aside from this odd quirk, the enemies themselves are quite varied. They have drastically different amounts of health, fire numerous types of projectiles, can deflect or absorb the player’s attacks, and even possess special abilities such as teleportation.

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A rather dramatic entrance by one of the more powerful enemies.

— The vast amount of Ter’angreals makes it difficult to properly use them in fast-paced battles, but when the interface doesn’t get in the way, they work quite well.

Here’s an example:

I entered a small arena where I encountered a magic-wielding boss. I immediately threw up a magic-dissipating field, activating it just in time to dissolve a barrage of incoming projectiles.

As the field’s timer began to count down, I queued up a Reflect Ter’angreal and activated it when the field wore off. It batted back an approaching Soul Barb, a homing Ter’angreal that damages its target whenever it attempts to use any of its own weapons. The Soul Barb struck my foe, and I went on the offensive with a Decay.

Decay is useful for boss battles as it homes in and damages enemies over time, but it’s also quite slow. My opponent was able to bring up her own magic-nullifying shield before the projectile reached her, but since the dissipating fields work both ways, she was unable to counterattack.

I used to the time to retreat and heal up, and as her field was about to expire, I launched a Freeze. The projectile reached my opponent right after her shield went down, encasing her in a solid block of ice. I immediately threw out an Earth Tremor, an area-of-effect Ter’angreal that causes continuous damage, and started blasting away with other offensive spells. My immobile target screamed as the ice slowly melted, and victory was mine.

Of course at other times you round a corner only to be hit by 2 Fireballs and die instantly. It’s a flawed system that encourages quick-saving/loading, but when it works, it does a good job of making combat feel like a magical duel.

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Another clever puzzle that requires the player to place some Explosive Wards on a barrier and then blow it up. This will flood the sewers and allow access to a brand new area.

— Many of the Ter’angreal are also used exclusively for puzzles. They’re placed very deliberately so that there’s never much experimentation, and the puzzles themselves are usually straightforward, e.g., using a fire shield to walk across a furnace, but there’s a handful of more interesting ones as well.

One of my favourites revolves around getting across a vast chasm between a rampart and a fortress.

The rampart contains an opening that provides a view of the fortress, complete with a metal shield adorning one of its walls. The shield can be struck with a projectile, creating a loud sound that summons the guards. Once one of the sentries is visible, the player can use the Swap Places Ter’angreal to teleport into the fortress while jettisoning the enemy back into the isolated rampart.

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Two enemies (one lurking in the shadows) about to duke it out in Shador Logoth.

— The overall level design is quite good with interesting environments that take advantage of 3D to loop in on themselves. Progression is still fairly linear, but with enough twists and turns (and optional passages) to feel fairly open while still guiding the player.

There’s some scripted sequences here as well, but they’re pretty sparse and clunky when compared to something like Half-Life.

— WoT contains a large amount of destructible objects, traps, climbable areas, lever/pressure plate/key based puzzles and a handful of scripted triggers that collapse floors, walls, etc. When combined with the aforementioned puzzle-Ter’angreals, these components make for pretty interactive levels that help breathe life into the world.

As an interesting side note, Balefire, the BFG of WoT, can disintegrate various props that are not part of the architecture. These objects do not regularly react to weapon use, imbuing Balefire with an added sense of power.

— Shadar Logoth is a destroyed city haunted by a deranged evil. It’s notable for its unique enemies that attack the player and his foes, as well as a monstrous boss called Legion. Its main attraction, however, is the Mashadar fog.

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The deadly fog homing in on the player.

The first time I played the game, I started anxiously looking around when I heard some soft hissing. I couldn’t spot anything coming down the hallway facing me, so I decided to hunker down and wait in ambush in case an enemy appeared.

That’s when the screen became a white haze and my character started screaming in pain.

I scrambled around, desperately firing off Ter’angreal and trying to get away from whatever was hurting me. That’s when I realized what was happening: the puffy mists I passed earlier on weren’t just an ambient decoration, they were a vicious threat!

The ethereal fog snaked out of its hole and coiled around me, mindlessly following my character like harmless prey.  My panicked counterattack actually hit the fog, forcing it to retreat, but there was no way to actually kill it. Soon the hissing filled the air, and I ran as the fog followed.

— Shador Logoth ends in an interesting mission that takes place in a large arena. The level is filled with numerous Ter’angreal and a never-ending onslaught of enemies, and its main goal is simply to survive until daybreak.

The main character is joined by a handful of NPCs, and although the powerups don’t seem to respawn (requiring a lot more exploration than in a typical Alamo standoff), the gameplay is similar to current-day multiplayer modes such as Gears of War 2′s Horde.

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A helpful Ter'angreal that lets the player snatch some extra ammo during the assault on the White Tower.

— Following the brutal assault on the White Tower, the player is tasked with recovering her arsenal of Ter’angreal and retrieving a special artifact in the citadel’s vaults.

The mission makes sense within the narrative as well as the gameplay, and provides a nice change of pace from the intense battles that preceded it. The level lacks enemies of any kind — except for an end-boss — and is filled with traps and puzzles that take advantage of various Ter’angreal such as Seeker and Levitate.

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A mirror-image fight at the end of the puzzle-filled Vault.

— The Ways are a series of stone walkways floating in a dark void that serve as shortcuts throughout the land. In one of the levels, the player character is forced to traverse them in order to pursue the antagonist. In the process, she encounters the Machin Shin.

Staying within the Ways for an extended period of time summons this infinite wall of ghostly heads that scream and whisper as they approach. It’s a very striking event, and one of the most memorable parts of the game.

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The Machin Shin approaches.

If the “Black Wind” envelops the player character, the small amount of lighting in the level — including the Light Sphere Ter’angreal — is subdued as she is slowly killed.

The Ways are also used as a clever framing device. The player must periodically exit the ways to avoid the Machin Shin, each time facing a new challenge. These mini-levels force the player to find a way to re-enter the gateway, or simply survive long enough for the the Machin Shin to recede.

— The second last level is another Alamo standoff, but this time the player is forced to protect injured NPCs. An interesting twist here is that the map is filled with portculli that the player can control, effectively funneling the enemies while setting up traps.

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The final seal being delivered via a Portal Stone.

A neat touch is a lever that opens up a floor grate above a pool of acid, and a Whirlwind Ter’angreal located just beside it. This allows the player to toss in various enemies while staying out of harm’s way.

— The audio in WoT definitely stands the test of time. The majority of the sound effects are very fitting, and the unique soundtrack (here’s a taste) does a great job of enhancing the atmosphere.

design, games

Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 2

smbasheader Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 2

In my previous post, I took a look at the various level designs lessons gleaned from Super Mario Bros. 3′s first world. A lot of them naturally dealt with introductory tutorials, but I wanted to take a slightly different approach with this article.

Super Mario All Stars 3 chomp Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 2

The elegant introduction of new mechanics is still present throughout SMB 3. In this example, the first appearance of a Chain Chomp is marked by two columns that indicate its range and allow the player to safely observe its behaviour.

SMB 3 is filled with great levels, so I decided to pick out a bunch of clever, fun or simply unique moments from the game that originated with its architecture. I skipped over a lot of possible examples trying to keep the list down to 30, but I think I came up with a good collection that complements the original post.

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design, games

Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 1

smbasheader Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 1

I recently decided to play through the All-Stars version of SMB 3 without using any Warp Whistles.

smb3title Super Mario Bros 3 Level Design Lessons, Part 1

SMB 3's playful title screen has Mario & Luigi messing around with a bunch of enemies and powerups. The sequence is fun to watch, but it also serves as a great preview of numerous game mechanics.

I suspect that the majority of people who replay the game are familiar with the secret and use it to skip to the last world. This also means zooming past a plethora of well designed levels. It’s been my habit as well, but this time I resolved to experience SMB 3 in its entirety.

A lot of small, geometric stages later, here’s an overview of what I found to be the most notable points in the first world:

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smooth transitions header Segues

Videogames are filled with transitions: loading new levels, initiating scripted sequences, obtaining special powerups, etc. These are often accompanied by the familiar wipes, fades and cuts of the film industry.

The effects themselves mask pit-stops necessary for resource (re)allocation. The segmentation also creates a natural variety and lets developers work on separate parts of the game that are only later stitched together.

In short, these transitions are functional. However, they are not smooth.

segue, n.

  1. A quick and uninterrupted change to the player’s avatar or surroundings that often facilitates new gameplay.

The above definition is rather nebulous, but it’s based on a simple concept: a smooth flow keeps the player immersed. Segues do this by removing the awkward parts of transitions that break immersion, namely disorientation and helplessness.

GTA IV Segues

Some of GTA IV's more hyperbolic praises were attributed to its seamless world and the ability to carjack any vehicle...

Disorientation can take place quite easily as the camera cuts to a different point of view, or a different scene entirely. All of a sudden the player is expected to parse the change — to keep up with the fast-forwarding presentation — while filling in the gaps. Humans are quite good at this, but it’s a somewhat taxing effort that’s easy to get wrong.

Helplessness is strictly rooted in ignoring player input. Videogames are inherently interactive, and taking away control to show a transition strips the player of engagement. Plus, it’s never fun to wait on a loading screen.

Of course many videogames are quite abstract, but for the most part the medium tries to simulate various facets of the real world. There are no “bumpy” transitions in everyday life — aside from maybe losing consciousness — so it makes sense to limit them in videogames as well. That’s not always possible, but if the choice is there, it should be an easy one to make.

Fable 3 Segues

...while Fable 3's most common criticism seems to be its anything-but-smooth hand-shaking minigame.

As hardware, technical design, and production methodologies have advanced, so has our ability to implement segues. Vehicle sections now take place in the same maps as on-foot action, level geometry gets dynamically streamed in, scripted sequences play out as the player explores the environment, etc. These are almost universally praised as they make for some very memorable moments, but smooth transitions have been around for a long while.

Here are just a few of my favourite examples:

1). Spy Hunter’s Boat Segments

Spy Hunter Segues

Spy Hunter was famous for giving players the ability to drive into the back of a moving truck. This was done at full speed without any camera wipes, but it wasn’t even the game’s greatest segue. No, that honour goes to the car-to-boat segments.

These had the player race through a dockside garage only to emerge in a different vehicle without slowing down for a second. It wasn’t the most realistic transition, but like many moments in Spy Hunter, it perfectly emulated the craziness of action-movie sequences.

2). Metroid’s Morph Ball

Super Metroid Morph Ball Segues

The Morph Ball has been a staple of the Metroid series since the inaugural title, and has always been an excellent example a segue.

Turning Samus into a diminutive sphere is effortless and presents the player with an all new moveset. The morph ball’s abilities also grant the player new options for combat and exploration, and switching between the two modes is quick and easy (even in the somewhat underrated 3D sequels).

3). Lost Odyssey’s Intro

Lost Odyssey Intro Segues

Lost Odyssey’s FMV opening depicts a dark and epic battle. As the presumed hero fights his way through the ranks of bizarrely armed soldiers, there’s a brief pause in the action. The camera pans around, and a menu pops up! All of a sudden the player is in the game, and it’s waiting for his input!

There’s a slight hitch here, but it’s barely noticeable and makes for a fantastic intro. Sadly, the rest of Lost Odyssey is a veritable catalogue of awkward segues.

What are some of your favourite examples of smooth (or bumpy) transitions?