Hey folks, thanks for checking in! This month, we’ll fill you in on some details of how we here at Team Unchosen tackle Stage Design and establish Game Flow in Mecromage.
Chris and Jeff have been creating levels for one of the four geographical regions in Mecromage and vertical slice test experiences. Josh has been jumping around shoring up game structure and asset deployment philosophy between intermitted graphics grinding sessions. As we’ve incorporated team feedback (Josh’s insight has been invaluable in this process) and the levels have evolved, a few standards have emerged regarding Stage Design and Game Flow. Our current focus on the ‘Fire Zone’ region provides horizontal and vertical game experience samples that should be representative of another two zones and stage classifications we have in mine.
There are three main classifications of stages the player will experience in Mecromage. The Standard Stage is paced as a largely linear experience with one main objective and one hidden bonus objective. Exploration Stages are slightly larger experiences where the player is expected to explore and problem-solve to achieve multiple objectives in one area. The Challenge Stages are smaller encounter zones that are focused on setting up and following through on the boss battles as well as chapter concluding challenges players expect from a quality gaming experience.
The Standard Stages are the primary levels of each region. They give the player freedom to take different routes to reach the conclusion, and they reward him for testing the apparent boundaries. They may contain rooms accessible via “push up to enter” doors, loops and branches that merge back into the main level flow.
“This design style reminds me of my experience when first playing Half-Life 2. I would often think an area was open-ended, and I wouldn’t know for certain which way to go. Then, I’d find myself pushing a boundary, and I’d see that the level was really linear and that I had only been perceiving it to be open-ended. So there’s a security blanket there should you need it, but you’re not smothered by it, and you have a lot of choice in exactly how you progress. I think that’s part of what makes that game fun for me.” -Jeff
The Exploration Stage is something we hadn’t tried before, and it required some trial and error before we got what we were looking for. It’s not required to explore to complete the game, but it offers more story, upgrades and power-ups, and opportunities to increase player skill with the hero’s utilities. We’re presenting it as a mini adventure area with a central hub location offering branches of exploration that loop back into the hub. The player decides if they want to explore all of it stage at once, just a piece at a time, or not at all the approach is respected in our design.
“The Exploration Stages take us back to what made Castlevania 2’s open world adventures unique. It’s a huge inspiration for us, but we’ve identified plenty of drawbacks like intense backtracking and grinding. We’re confident these zones offer a balance of adventure minus the too often tedious fallout. These experiences remind me of action RPGs like Diablo and Torchlight, were you as the player are searching for an object or series of objects within a cave or dungeon experience. I love that this zone isn’t overdoing or forcing exploration on the player, but allows the more adventurous type plenty of rewards and fun if they choose to delve deeply.” – Josh
Challenge Stages exist because we know there is usually the calm before the storm, a suiting up compilation before a final battle, an anticipation key before the follow through in animation. Instead of dumping main bosses encounters at the end of a standard level (that’s what mini bosses are for) we’re sort of transplanting the boss room/wing to it’s own stage. This puts a greater weight on the power and purpose of the player’s transportation vehicle. Through player’s ship navigation as well as the transitions between stages give the player a chance to pause, reflect, and set their grit to the task of destructing the big baddies. By having these relatively small stages split out, we also ensure the approach to these boss battles will be appropriate and meaningful story experiences for the player.
“Challenge stages are pressure cookers to establish a baseline skill level with the tools at one’s disposal. The player must react quickly in stressful situations or be able to identify the best path through a gauntlet of terror. These areas give me joy- not only from their old-school designer-vs-player mentality, but from knowing many will suffer the flames of their oppression!” – Chris
Here’s a glance at what these levels look like at after their basic layout is set and before we get into skinning them with the art assets. At this point, the levels have their collision regions defined (the ground, ceiling, walls, and platforms); placeholder enemies exist, to a degree; and some ideas about the background, lighting, and color scheme are present, though not set in stone.
We’ll approach the game flow in two ways, today. One is the progression the player makes from within the stage experience; we’ll call this the Micro Stage Flow. The other is the larger progression the player makes through the selection of stages and challenges; we shall deem this the Macro Stage Flow.
By establishing the Macro Stage Flow as developers we can ensure the player’s experience in the game world will be consistent and diverse. Reoccurring themes in game flow mechanics are approached similarly to combat mechanics, we want to give the player a chance to learn, execute, and finally feel a sense of mastery over the mechanic as they experience and understand it more.
Essentially we’ve created three progression regions with similar progression structure. These are analogous to the three acts common to storytelling. Additionally, we’ve added a fourth region, where you start from and may find yourself checking in on from time to time. This region represents the over arcing story and game progression feedback for the player.
Though there are pathways that open up through the completion of stages, the player will not be forced to approach the Macro Stage Flow in a linear fashion. There will always be choices the player can make in defining their path to completion. This is in keeping with our studio name, Unchosen Paths.
Through the defining of the Macro Stage Flow we’ve given ourselves and the player tools to ensure diverse adventure whist their ship sails through the clouds. For the Micro Stage Flow we utilize a development tool we call Dev Block Maps. These could be easily mistaken with retro maps you might find in a strategy guide. They help us communicate intent, production needs, and pacing for a given stage.
No matter how elaborate or extensive player experience of a stage may be, spending an extended play session wandering caves in repetitive situations will inevitably become numbing. Instead, we want to offer a variety pacing through diverse path choices, as well as environment, story, encounter, weapon, and utility interest points. As developers we’re overtly laying out the path flow options and interest points in our Dev Block Maps to ensure that we are nailing a satisfactory pace of awesome for the player to experience in each stage, while also enabling responsible production choices.
As you can see, through Dev Block Maps we can tell if the Micro Stage Flow is too stagnant or not, if the concentration of interest points is too dense or sparse. We can see the whole game and pace the individual levels with knowledge of the others by referring to our Macro Stage Flow structures. This critical thinking approach means that our levels will have diverse but familiar structures, allowing a stronger game personality to shine through.
As a bonus, this blocky map style can server as the basis for the in game maps we hope you’ll be delving into soon!
– TEAM UNCHOSEN