A compositional approach to level design

[ This article was written during my thesis project in spring 2007 and then published on this blog in february 2009 ]

Introduction

The following article aims to present to the reader a new theoretical approach to strategic game level design. While the proposed theory doesn’t claim to be the theory to end all theories on level design (in fact, it is not meant to be a sole defining guideline at all, but rather a supplement), it provides a solution to a very real, and often neglected, problem:

What if there is a discrepancy between…

  • what the player thinks is possible
  • what the player thinks a specific action will achieve
  • what the player thinks is the most important object presented to him

… and what actually is?

The following scenario was related to me by a friend, in a discussion regarding the very same problem:

During a gaming session of a very popular and critically acclaimed strategy game (which will remain unnamed), the action had moved to a large, open town square, surrounded on all sides by buildings. The game in question is centered on conquest, and the players compete over the control of a number of strategic points scattered across the map.

In the middle of the square stood a large statue, and subconsciously the players attention were drawn to said statue, it being the most natural focal point, its size providing a stark contrast to the otherwise empty square.

Instead of emphasizing on this phenomena and letting the statue act as the strategic point, the point was placed in a nearby alley. While such a discrepancy isn’t game breaking in any way,  the opposite would provide a more intuitive point to control.

The solution to the above problem is fairly simple: Place the point to be captured close to the statue, or better yet, change it, making the statue the point to be captured, thus joining the most visually important element with the most important element from a game play perspective.

However, providing solutions to specific situations is a daunting task. Instead, I provide a set of theoretically anchored guidelines which in turn provide you, the designer, with a basic knowledge how to handle compositional weights and player attention in relation to level design.

The game frame

First, and foremost, we need to equip ourselves with terms in which to touch the subject, of which the game frame is the first.

The game frame (frame here being used as a single picture in a series of many) is the optical structure presented from the game world (thus sans the interface), to the user, at an arbitrary but defined moment in time. In so many words this means what you can see of the game world at a specified time.

With that defined, there’s two ways in which the game frame can be treated: as an interface, and as an image.

The game frame as an interface

The first way of treating the game frame is as an interface.

Put lightly, the interesting objects currently in the game frame are the controls with which the player interacts with the game system. Subscribing to this idea opens a series of interesting things to keep in mind while working. We can now treat the interactive objects on screen, as normal controls, and thus apply design theory, as follows:

  • Constraints – Minimize the the possibility for wrongful interaction by the player.
  • Feedback – Use the game frame and the relevant objects within to give the player feedback.
  • Mapping – Be aware of what knowledge (expectations, subconscious knowledge, and past experiences) the player brings into every novel situation, and make sure not to contradict said knowledge.
  • Visibility – Make sure the relevant objects are distinct, in such a way that there is no confusion concerning what parts of the game frame are used for interaction.

The game frame as an image

The second way of treating the game frame, as an image, is used to enforce the previously described concepts, especially the concept of visibility.

A good rule of thumb to keep in mind during this passage is the fact that the human perception system can handle roughly 7 or 8 separate perceived groups before it gets confused, and needs to actively process the display.

  • Weights – Use contrasting elements (color, texture, size, detail level, etc.) to rank the objects in the game frame according to game play relevance.
  • Perceptual grouping – Minimize the amount of perceived perceptual objects by the use of grouping.

Similarity – Use a uniform style for every object of a specific type.

Proximity – Be aware that objects placed close to other are grouped together.

Closure – Compose the game frame according to a skeletal structure by letting objects of similar contrast (weight) compose the extremes of said structure, and also, combining this principle with those of similarity and proximity increases the chances of the figure being grouped as one.

  • Forces – Compose with diagonal lines in order to create a focal point in the game frame, if the game frame can be prioritized in such a way that one object is more important than all the others.

A few examples

The following picture is a very crude and early version of a level design for an upcoming game, utilizing some of the described theories. The art presented is simply quick 10 second sprites drawn to be able to differentiate between different hexagons.

level

However, it does serve its purpose: A very simple, yet demonstrating application of some of the explained principles.

  1. Diagonal forces (in the shape of avenues) draw the attention to the center of the screen, focusing on the top victory point, it being the most intrinsically weighted object.
  2. The two red hexagons signify victory points, which are to have a high contrast against the actual level, due to their significance to the outcome of the match.
  3. The not so important forest hexagons form a circle around the main area of game play, closing it in, emphasizing the centralized action.

Closing statement

The purpose of this proposed theory is to increase awareness of how a player subconsciously interacts with the game frame. Let us return to the original problem:

During a gaming session of a very popular and critically acclaimed strategy game (which will remain unnamed), the action had moved to a large, open town square, surrounded on all sides by buildings. The game in question is centered on conquest, and the players compete over the control of a number of strategic points scattered across the map.

In the middle of the square stood a large statue, and subconsciously the players’ attention were drawn to said statue, it being the most natural focal point, its size providing a stark contrast to the otherwise empty square.

Instead of emphasizing on this phenomena and letting the statue act as the strategic point, the point was placed in a nearby alley. While such a discrepancy isn’t game breaking in any way, the opposite would provide a more intuitive point to control.

It is my opinion that had the designer responsible for this level been aware of the complex of problems, the situation that arose could have been detected, and avoided before the game shipped.