Level Flow

If you ever say one of my games is too formulaic, I’ll thank you–especially if the game is level-based.

The Argument

When designing a game, there are two primary formulas I establish first: an Over-Arching and an Individual Level formula. With these guidelines, the game designs itself. Yes, sometimes people complain that a game feels formulaic, but this is usually AFTER they have praised the game.

Once a development team establishes their formulas in the beginning (based off of their game pillars), designing the levels becomes a no-brainer. Other aspects of the game begin aligning with these formulas as well, such as enemy, item, boss, narrative and mechanic designs.

Over-Arching Level Formula

This formula establishes the ground work for all levels in a game such as: level progression, spacing of bosses, narrative branching, new mechanic introductions, and anything to do with level design that is not contained in a single level.

I first noticed an overarching level structure when studying one of my favorite games: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. I noticed that the individual structure of a level alternated between Traversal Challenges and Combat Challenges. I then looked at the boss battles, and noticed they had a similar structure.

Level Boss Encounters:

  1. Traversal – Scale a wall before being pushed into spikes
  2. Combat – Defeat multiple waves of enemies
  3. Traversal – Dodge the giant spike wheel
  4. Combat – Defeat a fire-breathing dinosaur
  5. etc.

Looking at my favorite game of all time, FF3 (aka FF6), they follow a formula as well–and it’s so simple.

  • Their Over-Arching formula is to focus on each character, then obtain that character. (yes, there are some secret characters that deviate from this formula)

Once the player has obtained all of the characters, a narrative event causes the player to lose them. The formula then repeats a second time, except this time the player has more choice in which order they obtain the characters. The game’s over-arching flow is about acquiring new characters; with each character representing a chapter.

  • Narrative driven games use “chapters” like action/adventure games use “levels”.

Individual Level Formula

The formula that establishes and unifies each level. All levels of the same type should use the same formula.

  • If the Over-Arching Level Formula dictates different types of levels, (traversal levels, combat levels, puzzle levels, etc) then each level type needs to have its own formula.
  • Some levels have branching paths that act like individual level formulas within one level (for example: stealth path vs. combat path).

Traditionally, individual level formulas are pretty straight forward. Their is a crescendo of difficulty/excitement that reaches a climax at the end (traditionally with a boss encounter). Because the goal of each level should always be to teach the player something, the climax should also revolve around exercising what they learned.

  • I believe that fun is derived from learning, even it’s learning about a new enemy type or environmental hazard.

IPM (Introduce, Practice, Master)

Many individual formulas revolve around IPM. The Legend of Zelda series is famous for it. Introducing the player to a new mechanic, having them practice it throughout the level, and then prove they have mastered it against a boss who can only be defeated by the new mechanic.

  • Many games will lock the player in a non-threatening room that they can only escape from by using the new mechanic. This is usually at the introduction step.


The best artists know that embracing the rules of form, perspective, color-theory, proportion, etc. is only the first step. The real art comes from elaborating and deviating from the rules.

With formulas, once you have everything set, then you can start deviating to add surprises. Once the player is in a rhythm, any alterations will become more memorable (if used sparingly).

  • Portal 2 does this exceptionally well. The game is fantastically-formulaic and toward then end **spoiler alert** when Wheatley takes over and puts the player through tests, his “super-easy” test is hysterical, partly because it plays off the player’s expectations for a level.
  • Other games use deviations to catch the player’s attention for a narrative twist. Like destroying the obvious path and suddenly throwing the player into an unknown and dangerous situation.

Wrap Up

When designing a game’s flow. First plan out an over-arching formula, then plan out individual formulas, then deviate a little to highlight memorable moments in your game. Then presto, you have an awesome game with awesome flow.


Immature AI

While working on a mobile game with wireless multiplayer, the design team was concerned that the mode was a waste of resources. Stats showed that too few people played similar games online. Even if someone wanted to play, the chances of them finding someone else to play with at that time were slim-to-none. I suggested we have a couple AI players always online to support this mode. The game has no method of communication, so no one would know they weren’t real people. This idea was shot down as being deceptive (i’m not arguing there) and that people might be able to tell they were not playing against real people.

That night, when I went home to play Halo, I pondered what would make a believable AI. Is it a fair mix of mistakes? A variable delays in reactions? Is it simulating communication? I was then sniped by some kid for the 90th time AND IT CAME TO ME!

Make the AI an immature jerk!

When massive amounts of players have the ability to create content, you will always find penises, boobs and sexual references everywhere. Game companies spend millions on filtering inappropriate content, most of which is user-generated. Have you ever seen the warning “Online interactions not rated by the ESRB”? We all know why they display that. If you want to create an AI whom no one would question their humanity, make them swear, perform inappropriate jestures and act like a tool.

Here is a pseudo code for a believable first person shooter AI:

Target Player
Shoot at player until player is dead
Move to player
Run function (Tea Bag)

Here is pseudo code for a believable RTS AI:

If main base destroyed,
Print string to chat “You’re all gayz!!!”
Run function (Rage Quit)

I encourage you to read about the Turing test, and how programs are able to fool people into believing they’re human through spelling errors, flirting and acting crazy. In a sense, this says something about a general human feeling; that we expect the lowest common denominator from our fellow man–or at least from our anonymous fellow gamer.

Design for the Player’s Butt

If ALL technology converges so that every app, media, program, everything, is in every location and on every surface–if Jesse Schnell’s gamification is realized 1010%–the player’s butt will always have control over the design.

Although the content of this article applies to all software and media, the focus is on gaming.

Aside from the obvious, “if your butt says you need to pause the game, you pause the game”, it’s about location. Certain games work better when your butt is on a couch verses when your butt is on the go.

People have expectations for spaces and the games that occupy them. The big three for games are the Relaxation Space, Work Space and Mobile Space. To a lesser extent, education, family, community and dining spaces.

  • The mobile space currently covers the most ground and will eventually break apart into other spaces.


Relaxation Space: Player’s butt is where it wants to be.

Relaxation space expectations:

  • Privacy (not mandatory, but expected)
  • Comfortable place for the player’s butt (couch, chair or bed)
  • No social pressure, dress code or conformity.

Couches have been around a lot longer than computers and if an apocalypse happens, couches will outlive most technology. Everyone has a relaxation space where they can unwind and escape. This is where the primary entertainment hub is located; big screen TV, surround sound, gaming consoles. When the player is in this space, they are ready to be exposed to their highest quality of entertainment. Your big budget, high quality games and media thrive here, and will always be in demand.

  • There has been a reduction of games in this space lately as the mobile and work spaces have grown.
  • This space will increase again, especially as mobile and work spaces become fully saturated with premium content. The growth won’t be massive, but more gradual.
    • As more people are exposed to high-quality content through new spaces, any desire to continue gaming will lead them toward their relaxation space. As long as people primarily regard games as entertainment instead of work, they will gravitate toward the space that supports entertainment the most.

Time is valuable, but relaxation-time is always in greater demand than any other type of time. I liked CityVille, but I’m not going to play it on the couch–there is way too much waiting time. CityVille is meant to be played at work, when you are multi-tasking and discouraged from focusing on a game.


Work Space: Player’s butt is busy.

Work space expectations:

  • Schedules
  • Multi-tasking
  • Social pressure, dress code and stress
  • Need to be alert

The only people who will not have workplaces are the crazy rich or the super lazy. The first image that comes to mind for work space gaming is someone playing FarmVille at the office. Yes, an office is a work space, but so is a kitchen, workshop or hospital. People have work spaces at home or outdoors. The basic work space expectations remain the same even when no computer is present.

Facebook games thrive in offices. Zynga games even more so because they support the ideas of the space: Multi-tasking, schedules, being social and being alert. Offices have computers, so Zynga has thrived on Facebook, and their move to smart phones should be profitable because their are many other work space environments that can only be reached by phones. A landscaper won’t have a laptop, but will have a phone. What is to stop a construction worker from watering his friend’s FarmVille crops while they let concrete settle?


Mobile Space: Player’s butt is on the go (and could be anywhere).

Mobile space expectations:

  • Short chunks of time
  • Need to be ready to shift attention
  • Hands may not be free

Mobile games are a catch-all for many spaces because mobile-devices (smart phones and hand-held consoles) are the only game-compatible devices that can access certain spaces. Having designed games for Nintendo DS and iPhone, one of the main design constraints in play-time. It could be less than a minute between bus stops or hours on a train–waiting in line at the grocery store verses at a theme park.

Right now, the most successful games in the mobile space are designed to support the lowest-common-denominators. What is currently referred to as “Mobile” will break apart as technology annexes more spaces.

Technology has an easier time accessing spaces where people spend greater amounts of time. For example, one space that will separate from the mobile space is the long-travel-time space. Airlines have begun introducing game-compatible technology to their flights (a slow introduction) for some time. Going back to the “player’s butt” premise, the player’s butt is stuck in one spot next to strangers for several hours (and may have to deal with motion-sickness). This space has different rules than killing time between classes/meetings.


Where’s the Money?

Right now everyone is gold-rushing Facebook and Mobile because they granted access to new spaces. Just like the gold rush, the only groups that made big money were the ones who got their first and the ones who sold the pick-axes.

If you’re looking to make crazy money, identify which spaces will become available for “mining” (sticking with the gold-rush analogy).

  • There are theories on which spaces will become available, but that information is only available to partners of Play Eternal upon request.

Game Industry Resumes vs. The Real World

Scripting a boss battle sounds like potential insubordination to a regular HR lady. (By the way, EVERY place I have interviewed/spoke to has an HR lady, apparently there are no men in the field of human resources.)

Biggest difference:

Game studios want to see a big fat list of shipped titles. The resume should read like a Gamestop shopping list. However, that list will only bore a non-game industry employer.

  • I have two resumes, one for game jobs and another for non.

To non-game industry people, everyone thinks you’re either a programmer or a 3D animator. On a real world resume, definitely list things like “great analytical skills”. To me, that sounds so blah, but I’ve been told by HR friends that that is THEE statement to have on your resume, that employers will respond with “where have you been all my life?”

Game industry vets understand that there are many different games out there and developers wear many hats in this industry. Especially with design. Not saying anything bad about other disciplines, just that a designer’s daily tasks can change drastically depending on the project. A non game industry interviewer asked me what my daily tasks were as a designer; I said I wrote a lot of documents and made sure the game was fun. As a designer, I’ve designed levels for Transformers, wrote funny lines for Mixed Messages, analyzed touch screen input and named almost every hair-style in Guitar Hero. My daily tasks changed monthly–and I liked it that way.

There is no industry like the games industry. Ok, maybe there are similarities in film and television. It is an industry of allure–games call to people, making big promises of fame and self-expression. People don’t join because it is a stable job (it isn’t). It’s not a career, it’s a life-style. How do you put that passion on a resume? That is the biggest thing game industry interviewers look for in potential hires: PASSION.

Marketing AardbloxX

AardbloxX http://www.batcountryentertainment.com/games.html

The video games industry is a passion industry. People get into and stay in this industry because they have a passion for games. That passion does not evaporate when one loses their job. A group of friends laid off from Vicarious Visions formed their own studio, Bat Country Entertainment, pretty much the next day (or day of). Being laid off at the same time, and being passionate about games as well, I joined my friends and offered to handle marketing their first game: AardbloxX

This was the marketing plan I came up with. (I’ve never done anything with marketing before.)

There were two phases to the plan, pre-launch and post launch.

Pre-launch included 1) Making a goofy YouTube commercial, 2) Twitter/Website activity, and 3) Goofy Valentine’s Day e-cards. The game was scheduled to launch right before Valentine’s Day.

Post-Launch included a media blitz. 1) Start with our local news paper (the Times Union), 2) Get as many websites as possible to review AardbloxX and echo those reviews across twitter and facebook, 3) Distribute a general press release for anyone to pick up.

The Takeaways:

YouTube Commercial – Success! We received positive feedback on the commercial and were able to use it when describing our game.

Twitter (@BatCountryEnt) – Tough! The goal was at least one twitter post per day and it is easy to run out of material. We did gain more followers than expected.

Valentine’s Day Cards – No go. Game stayed in submission longer than anticipated.

Local News Paper – We spoke to a reporter ahead of time who seemed very interested in interviewing us but when the game shipped, he didn’t return our e-mails.

Reviews – Pretty Good. We made it onto a couple people’s radar and founded some great contacts. We already knew some reviewers ahead of time and met a few new ones. The reviews created noticeable spikes in sales (and trial versions).

Press Release – Lesson Learned! There are numerous press releases every day and I wanted ours to stand out. Little did I know that media people will not read a press release if it is not in the standard format. Trying to be more unconventional in this area backfired and we had to create a new press release.

Main Takeaway:

It’s all about who you know. While marketing AardbloxX, we made connections with fantastic people and gained support for our studio. Connections are win-wins for everyone involved and create more opportunities in the future.

PAX East 2011 – Best Panel

Penny Arcade Expo 2011 at the Boston Convention Center

The most informative, intellectual and entertaining panel that I attended at PAX East 2011 was “Start Your Own Damned Company”. It was also one of the most creditable and organized panels. A friend (nick-named “The Sheriff”) talked me into seeing it last minute.

The overall topic revolved around what it takes to start your own studio/company. The panel was mostly Q&A; audience members wrote their questions on cards, and handed them up to the moderator who only presented the gems to the panel.

The panelists were direct with their answers and backed them up with experience. There were moments where they did not agree and they debated their points to the benefit of the audience. As an industry vet, I say that they were all correct, and their disagreements shed more light on the idea of what the most generic potential-developer needs to do in-order to ship a game. The truth, and most important take-away from this panel is: If you are serious about making a game and/or starting a company, start moving toward your finished product. Simple right? Spot on, I say. Start making it (paper prototype or start programming), if you need help, find people who can help you (look first in your backyard and zoom-out until you find someone).

Another key point that I want to echo is find a mentor and find a community. Even if you’re an industry vet, mentors are helpful and they can hold you accountable. A community is a definite–local communities are even better; keep them in the loop with what you are doing and listen to their suggestions. Communities lead to connections, support and a more polished product.



Extra Info:

  • This is based on my opinion, I only attended a handful of panels.
  • I was on the Play Eternal panel that filled in for a Sat. 2pm slot (it went well).
  • PAX East Schedule and overview of all panels. Look for Sunday at 4:30.

GDC 2011 – Game Incentives

Game Developers Conference 2011 in San Francisco.

More cities, states and countries are trying to attract game developers. I had heard about Texas, Rhode Island, Michigan and a handful of other states offering incentives for game developers in the form of tax breaks and loans. I spoke with the representatives from the Georgia Game Developers Association who were thrilled that their state attracts many talented students with game industry ambitions, but wants to see more of them stay in Georgia after college.

At the Scotland Booth at GDC, I spoke with a delightful lady who worked for the Scottish government. She described Scotland’s desire to attract and retain talented, tech-savvy individuals. Holland and Germany (who also had booths) echoed her intentions. I also spoke with a man from Chile whose country paid his way to GDC and has offered more monetary incentives if he is able grow his company.

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