The Skill That Was Vague

It has been roughly one month since I last made a post on the subject of The Turtle Who Had Wings, and while I’d like to say that we’ve made great progress, the reverse is true – I’ve made little progress of note.

The Turtle Who Had Wings Logo (Placeholder)

I expected this to happen when I reached the first point where everyone must truly fend for themselves – the point at which someone on the project must learn the vague, vague skill known as level design. Level design, as I’ve made clear in several of my previous posts, isn’t an easy thing to do in the slightest. Unlike most other steps in the game development process, there are no guides of any sort on this topic, aside from some extremely vague ones that speak of design philosophy in general.

But I think I now have a general idea of what direction level design will be taking at this point. Basically there are three types of levels that will be in the game – maze-like levels, arena-like levels and platform-like levels, making three types in all (I’ll refer to those as M levels, A levels and P levels, respectively for the sake of simplicity).

Before I explain what each of those mean in this context (although their general meanings are obvious), I feel I must explain how I reached this conclusion. Simply put, I want the levels to make sense. Not just from a gameplay standpoint, but from the vantage point of an average person living within the world of Hephaestus (the name of the planet the game takes place in, if you’ve forgotten). I want the levels to be laid out in a manner that makes it easy to believe that the areas the player must traverse are areas where people may go to for recreation, or perhaps actually live in, or maybe even areas that are off-limits to the civilized population.

In most games, though, large concessions are made for gameplay purposes that result in the level not making much sense in terms of people living there. Could you imagine living in any iteration of a city in the Sonic franchise that is a level and not a hub? I don’t think I could live in the cities shown in City Escape or Rooftop Run. Wonky architecture, bottomless pits, random jumps and rails scattered all over the place that no human could ever find any use for, roads that curve in ways impossible for vehicles to traverse and, in one case, roads that merge with the roofs of houses before continuing for several uneven roofs and becoming a road again. No, I’m fairly sure that nobody in their right minds would live in such a city.

Yet I’m sure most people don’t even acknowledge how little this makes sense when actually playing the games. Indeed, there may be those who see my thoughts on this subject as unnecessary, as those cities do not actually exist and one must not worry about the logistics because it is just a game.

But I do worry. After all, there is only so much disbelief one can suspend. Plus, I am indeed legitimately curious as to whether or not one could put together a level for such a game while being entirely realistic in layout.

Which is a big part of why I chose simple concepts like the M, A and P levels. As I examined the levels that are in the game and their context to the story, all of the levels in the game can fall under these categories.

Hedge Maze Aerial View

M levels would be levels that are portrayed in-game as natural areas. Natural mazes can, in fact, exist, so it’s not too much of a stretch to then make, for instance, a forest, cave or volcano level that is maze-like in terms of layout. M levels would focus largely on traversing the area. Enemies will appear all over the place, but, like in Zelda games, they are generally not the main concern, they are merely an obstacle to traversing the area. These levels would, as a result, be mostly corridors of sorts, but that makes sense if going through an area such as the aforementioned places. Why would there be large rooms or wide, open spaces? Sure, there could be some, but having more than a few would just feel… artificial.

Blackreef Pirates Arena

A levels would be any sort of level that takes place in a place in an area that normal people would be expected to traverse in their everyday lives. City areas, parks, buildings and the like would fall into this category. I’m sure we’ve all played the sort of game where you have to kill all enemies in a room before proceeding before, and this is essentially that sort of game. In the case of this game, though, being blocked from continuing regardless will be a rare occurrence (just don’t expect a good score if you skip ahead and don’t kill things).

Russia Parkour Jump

P levels are a very specific set of levels that take place is what are, for all intents and purposes, floating platforms. There is understandably very little of this in the game, as this can only really apply to things such as jumping across roofs and a few other gimmicky levels that are mostly at the beginning of the game. These levels have few enemies due to AI complications and the story justification for these levels. The challenge will be in making it past some very difficult gaps.

Looking at the level list, it’s not very difficult to figure out which level is of which type:

Acero Beach (P)
Massive Park (A)
Resonance Hall (A)
Mt. Diztroya (M/A)
Afterlife City (M/A/P)
Island of Chaos (M)
Tower of Chaos (A)
Yo DOGS I Heard You Like Towers 3 (M/A/P)

Forest of Happiness (M)
Thunderclap Range (M/A)
Occidens Settlement (A)
Dark and Stormy Dam (M/A)
Island of Protection (M)
Tower of Protection (A)
Borealis Settlement (A)
Cascadia Valley (M/A)
Yo DOGS I Heard You Like Towers 1 (M/A)

Orientem Settlement (P)
River of Flames (M)
Island of Peace (M)
Tower of Peace (A)
RAEGin’ Base (M/A)
Vertexville (A)
Yo DOGS I Heard You Like Towers 2 (M/A/P)

It makes a nice, clear list of 5 M levels, 8 A levels, 2 P levels, 5 M/A hybrid levels and 3 levels mixing everything.

That said, looking at how most of these level design concepts work to begin with, something else worried me. Specifically, the Sync system. Switching constantly in levels that focus on traversing instead of combat, based on my own playtesting, is more of an annoyance than anything. As a result, I’ve messed around with how that works. The Sync system no longer even counts the time nor penalizes/rewards people for their timing if done without any enemies around. While it sounds like a minor change, it has big effects and I hope I can catch more weaknesses in my mechanics before finishing the game, since every little change counts.

I recently picked up a few more lessons from other games about the design of my own in addition to what I have discussed for most of this post.

Neptunia Victory Dungeon Screenshot

One of said lessons came from one of the failures of Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory. While the game is well-designed in a lot of areas, one of the more glaring problems with the game is that the way the game’s dungeons were created severely limits the layouts for most dungeons. Most of them are outright meshes instead of created from parts, so all of the layouts for every dungeon of any given type is exactly the same with very minor changes each time, usually involving paths that are blocked off in the most obviously-artificial way possible.

It would be smarter, but take more work, to basically have an artist create the pieces one would use to then create a level rather than the levels themselves, so as to allow easier tweaking of levels and the ability to create levels from the same parts that are also completely different. It is never a good idea to make assets in such a way as to make areas that similar, and it really pulled me out of the game despite the Neptunia series being the sort of series in which that sort of thing really doesn’t even matter from a practical standpoint, only being of benefit to the player if they quickly remember all of the simple layouts. Needless to say, I will avoid this issue as much as I can with The Turtle Who Had Wings.

Kingdom Hearts 3D Screenshot

Another lesson was learned from what is honestly the closest I have ever seen to another game using the Sync system. Kingdom Hearts 3D [Dream Drop Distance] uses an enforced version of it with its Drop system, in which you must move through what’s essentially two separate stores while being forced to swap between one story and the other over and over, effectively giving you a time limit for each attempt to progress through each one. This has very interesting implications regarding the Sync system. But that’s a topic for another post that I will not be writing until I experience it more.