Full disclosure: I am not a level designer. I have started the slow path to becoming one, but this article is based on my knowledge and experience in a non-gaming environment. Secondly, I am publishing this earlier than I planned because Kyouryuu mentioned this exact same thing in his comment yesterday and I didn’t want to seem as I was stealing his point.
There must be many different ways to define, describe and measure levels within a mod or game. A while back a created a large list that I planned to use as a benchmark for pattern searching within popular mods. I still haven’t completely given up the idea.
One particular aspect of mod design that interests me is the ability to build levels that illicit emotions specifically aimed for by the designer. It’s possible to separate the technical ability of creating levels and the ability to create “interesting” levels. In many designers these skills develop side by side over time but the second aspect is rarely discussed and examined – at least not amongst modders.
I tried to start a website many years ago called “The Art Of Level Design”. Its aim was to provide a central place for designers to talk not about the technical aspect; the engines, the editors, etc, but the things that are true across all games and mods.
For whatever reason it never worked and was lost in the Internet graveyard. Recently, I found a site called World Of Level Design via my referrers and it seems to have the same objective. The difference is that it is run by a real designer rather than a “wanna be” like me. I highly recommend you visit it.
Back to the subject at hand. Technical skill is easier to acquire because there are plenty of tutorials around. learning how is not the problem, it’s the why that is interesting.
So, what happens is that modders can build walls, rooms, beaches and can place enemies, weapons and puzzles within these areas but might still lack other skills that are required to make a mod great. One of these aspects is what I call Excitement Management, although I am sure it has a proper name in designer circles.
How often do new modders know what their mod will look, feel and play like when finished? Do they know how they plan to control the players’ emotions at different points within the mod? I doubt it. I am sure that many mods “just” develop until they seem finished.
Enough preamble, let’s get to the point of this essay: Excitement.
To manage how excited players feel you must be able to measure it. There are plenty of way to measure heart rate, skin conductivity brain wave patterns and probably a bunch of other ways I can’t even imagine. But how many amateur modders have access to those kinds of tests?
I suppose it’s quite easy to find a cheap heart rate monitor used for exercise that it might be possible for modders to get their friends to play their mods while wearing one but how many would really do it.
What we need is a simple method that provides useful information.
Back in my tennis coaching days we used a method called “Player Feedback”. The player would be given a simple task that had one variable; let’s say how tightly they gripped the racket. They would hit the ball back to the coach, who in this case would try and keep the returns as consistent as possible, to minimize variables. The player would hit the balls back to the coach and after each shot would shout out a number that corresponded to how tightly they were holding the racket when they hit the ball. For example, 1 for so weakly the racket would fall out their hands and 10 for the tightest possible.
What happens is that the player eventually finds a grip strength that works for them with that type of shot. It’s quite apparent what works and what doesn’t because the quality of the shot is immediately evident.
From a teaching point of view it works well because the player/pupil learns something without being explicitly told; they are part of the learning process rather than just being given the information. The more they do this type of exercise the better they become at judging small differences, making the process even better.
Now let’s take that concept over to amateur beta testing. I have never tried this so the whole thing my fail completely!
Imagine sitting down with a play tester and as soon as they start playing, you begin timing them. Then, every 30 seconds you ask “How excited are you?”. They respond with a number between 1 and 10. 1 is “falling asleep” and 10 is “I’m ready to explode”. After the first question you simply ask “now?” and so on.
At the end of the map you finish the timing. Now convert this information into a graph, something like this might appear:
Collect enough of these an a pattern should emerge.
Without doubt, different players will take different amounts of time to complete levels, they will use different routes and paths, and find different things. If you simply overlay the charts on top of each by making them all the same height and length, the time taken won’t be so important.
Perhaps the players can take these measurements themselves but somehow I doubt it. Perhaps the mod team could create a recording where they say “Now?” every 30 seconds and the beta testers has a sound recording programme running in the background but it sounds more trouble than it’s worth.
I accept that this is a very crude way of trying to record one particular aspect of a player’s experience but if this essay encourages discussion, even at the expense of ridiculing this particular idea and modders begin thinking about things like this then I have done some good.
So far I have talked about measuring the perceived excitement levels of players but what if you drew a graph and decided to build a mod around that, rather than the other way? Could this be an interesting experiment for a PlanetPhillip mapping competition?
I think it would be both interesting and fun to see how designers create levels. What are your thoughts?
What about doing this for finished mods? Would we find a pattern that these popular mods stick to? Maybe. Have the modders done this on purpose? Maybe. Is anybody interested in participating is a rough experiment?
Do you know of other methods modders can use to measure players emotions when playing mods? Could we perhaps create a list for modders to use? Would be kind fun.
Clearly, there are lots of different ways to beta test but I am interested in writing articles about ones that community modders can use. I still feel that player commentary is very useful and more discussion about these methods can only be a good thing.