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level design lesson: miss and hit

(also in korean.)

let’s talk about player psychology: predicting what the player is going to do and then designing around that. catacomb abyss, a 1992 first-person shooter by gamer’s edge (the sequel to the earlier catacomb-3d by the id bunch), displays a fairly keen sense of design intuition.

the very first chamber the player encounters contains a striking example. the game begins in the courtyard of a “towne cemetary” under a darkening sky. the courtyard is symmetrical except for a small nook in the left front that leads to a seeming dead end, pictured above. as the player enters its vicinity, though, a zombie – the player’s first opponent – pulls itself from the ground and lumbers towards her.

what is the player likely to do, confronted with an enemy (that she’s never encounter before) with no tools at her disposal except a shoot button (that she hasn’t yet had the opportunity to test yet)? the player’s probably going to fire wildly. most likely at least one of the player’s “magick missiles” will miss the zombie; even if she’s a good aim she doesn’t know that the zombie only takes one shot to kill, and will probably have fired a few. what are the odds that an inexperienced first-person shooter player – and catacomb abyss being one of the very first in the contemporary tradition of first-person shooters, the player is unlikely to be very experienced with them – will, her first time through the game, kill her first opponent with no wasted shots? not good. the odds are far better that at least one magick missile will miss – and hit the wall behind the zombie.

the wall in that screenshot is, in fact, a “weakened wall” that can be destroyed by a single shot from the player. in catacomb abyss, these destroyable walls aren’t used only to hide secrets: they’re also used to mark transitions between level areas and to pace the release of enemies. they’re almost like doors. it’s essential that the player be aware of their presence and capable of recognizing them when they’re encountered. this first one the player is likely to find by accident, because of the way the fight’s been staged. the next time she destroys one, though, it won’t be by accident.

if any wall in the game could be a destroyable wall, it would be easy to make them almost impossible to find. the designers[1], though, are quite good at differentiating destroyable walls from “solid” walls. in this cemetery area, they’re quite consistent: all the walls that can be shot are windows and bare walls that are almost always surrounded by vine-covered walls – just like the wall in the above screenshot. look at these three examples of other destroyable walls in the same area of the game. in all cases, they’re noticiably different-looking than the walls around them, and they wear the same windows-and-bare-walls textures. (a deliberate choice: a window suggests a surface that can be smashed through, and a bare wall surrounded by vine-covered walls plausibly suggests a wall that’s newer, and perhaps less sturdy, than the ancient, vine-covered walls they stand beside.)

the player, of course, isn’t perfectly predictable, and there’s always the chance that this first encounter will resolve differently. (watch how the video linked above plays out, though.) but the designers anticipated that case too: when the player approaches the first destroyable wall, the message bar on the bottom of the screen, normally used to describe what part of the game world she’s in (“antechamber to the haunt of demons”) changes to read “weakened walls.” in fact, most of the destroyable walls in the early parts of the game have similiar messages attached (“you feel a breeze,” etc.).

we won’t be able to predict what every player will do in a situation, at least without forcing the player to take a particular action. but we can anticipate reasonably well what the player is likely to do, given what verbs we’ve supplied her with and how we present the scene. and allowing the player to discover something means she’ll buy into it more readily than if we just show it to her. in the cemetery courtyard, notice how the small enclosed area and the limited player verb set (“move” and “shoot”) mean that as a very last resort, the player should be able to find the solution pretty quickly by brute force (meaning “shoot everything.” the player can’t survive the encounter with the zombie without discovering she has a shoot button).

as a supplement, vgmaps.com has overhead maps of catacomb abyss’s stages. you can see the one in question, the towne cemetery, on the top left.

by the way, i’ve put a new “donate” link in the sidebar (i took the previous one down when paypal froze my account for actually using it to transfer money, stealing over two hundred dollars of donated bucks. the new one’s run by amazon, and let me encourage you to use it! i’m working on a flash game and two books and any donations will help me keep this roof over my head, that of my pet, and that of her two pets.

[1] the credits screen says the game was “designed by greg malone,” but it’s ambiguous whether this is “design” in the sense it’s used in games today, and to what extent the level design work was split between the programmers: mike maynard, jim row and nolan martin.

6 comments

  1. Darius K. wrote:

    I loved the Catacomb Abyss. By sheer amount of time I spent in the game it was probably my favorite FPS of the era.

    9/6/2010 at 5:23 am | permalink
  2. just curious but are the books on game design or are they fiction?

    9/6/2010 at 1:20 pm | permalink
  3. Django Durango wrote:

    Seconding Elijah’s question. If one of them is on game design, I will buy the fuck out of it.

    9/6/2010 at 2:14 pm | permalink
  4. auntie wrote:

    one is fiction, the other’s not. but it’s also not the game design textbook i am someday going to write.

    9/6/2010 at 6:22 pm | permalink
  5. jupstin wrote:

    Does that mean that you never got the $5.00 I donated when you were making redder? definitely let me know

    9/7/2010 at 2:48 pm | permalink
  6. RobertP wrote:

    I’ve nothing constructive or interesting to add, but I’d like to thank you for digging up design lessons in classic games and publishing them online.

    I’d be happy to contribute something besides a thank you, as soon as I have my own (reliable) internet connection. I’m curious to see the books you’re working on.

    9/13/2010 at 2:39 am | permalink

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