As I promised, the following is an account on the polish passes for Improvisation #1.
Polish Passes for Improvisation #1
- Title, Text, and Information: A simple spell check took care of a lot for this polish pass. However, I decided to add three specific text blocks to the level to help inform the player about a few troubling parts of the level. 1) How to use the jump pads. 2) Where the goal is located. 3) How players must grab the tip of the giant rotating triangle at the top right of the stage. Though I wanted to do without these communication crutches, I realize that it's better to inform the player and reduce a large amount of stress then risk confusion, frustration, and quitting. I updated the description to include this blog, the difficulty of the level, and the name Kandinsky in case people can't remember the title.
- Graphics. With the limitations of the coloring system in LBP, I was forced to compromise my original vision. Instead of flat, specific, colors to decorate the stage, I used a lot more multicolored textures and patterns. In general, I tried to use the warm colors (yellow, orange, red) to demote grabable surfaces. I also colored the floaters near the "end" of the level to match the circles that they're emitted from. This way, it should be even more clear that lining up the red or yellow shape makes red or yellow floaters appear.
- I took special care to go over every shape and use the corner tool to clean up the haggard edges I had cut when I quickly built the foundations of the level. This tool is gold. Every player needs to learn to use it.
- Finally, I turned the big circle at the top left of the stage into glass so that the circle orbiting behind it can easily be seen.
- Lights/Camera. Improvisation #1 is a platforming level unlike any other I've played. Considering the variety of shapes and spaces for their positive and negative influences, I had to specifically position cameras throughout the entire level. 24 to be exact. Each camera was carefully tuned to show the player the areas directly relevant to platforming as well as the areas they should go next. By angling the camera toward the main path and eventually to the goal, the player is gently guided by an invisible hand.
- Sound. Checking the sound design was more of an artistic endeavour than a mechanical/functional one. I mainly let loose when setting the note value for each sound object like I do when improvising on the piano. I may have lost count, but I'm sure I have more than 390 individual sound objects in the level. Through play testing I found that there wasn't enough left and right hand balance when playing alone.So I went back and added more bass (left hand) notes around the level. With 2-3 players, the improvisation flows nicely as the different styles and skill levels of the platforming create music.
- I wanted every significant path and every way to play/platform to reward the player musically. For example, while swinging on the pink wench, by rocking back and form, players can create a little unique melody. Rewarding sounds is a part of the sound design and gameplay design.
- Finally, I changed the big floater near the end of the level to make a sound when the player gets near. In this way, when emitted, the floater creates a cue for the player to jump and grab it, which eases a lot of frustration.
- Flow. I designed the level from the start to have a lot of flow between each section. Though experiencing the flow may require some advanced platforming techniques, the player never has to wait for the level to set itself up. From the very beginning to the very end, the player is submerged in music and action. Even when falling all the way back down, with a little skill, you can get right back up to the top of the level in a few seconds. Also, with all the different platforming/musical paths to take, you're never playing the same game/song twice.
- Points & Secrets. I went over the entire level and added point bubbles to encourage the player to experience many of the unique platformings paths and possibilities in the level. As long as you see points, you can platform to it. That's how Mario did it. That's how I did it. And it's worked out pretty well so far.
Those are all the polish pass I discussed in the original Designer's Workshop article. Since then, I've come up with a few more, some of which are specific to LittleBigPlanet.
- Check Points: I think everyone can learn from the example I set in Improvisation #1. Though I didn't put a single hazardous element in the entire level, I still added 3 checkpoints. I did this for a few reasons. 1) Especially in LBP, players will always find a way to kill themselves. The game is just too emergent to eliminate death altogether. 2) If the player ever fell to the bottom of the level, they always have the option of trying again and teleporting back up.
- So, if your level is more dangerous than Improvisation #1 by any degree, then you need to be sure to place check points that demark gameplay ideas.
- Level Boundaries: Make sure that you take extra precautions to seal off the "level from the level." What I mean by this is, we're given a very large space to create a level in. If you don't use all of that space, be sure that the player can't escape into the "no man's land." Remember, LBP is very emergent. Just because you don't think players can slip through the cracks doesn't mean they won't.
- Also, if you have an "elephant graveyard" of spare bits and broken bobs hanging out in your no man's land, then be sure to delete them. There's no point in wasting server space or prolong the download times. Just because it's electronic doesn't mean we should be wasteful.
- Multiplayer Possibility: In LBP there's no way to make a level for single player only. Even if you were clever enough and cruel enough to design a device that senses the extra weight of additional players and drops everyone do their continual doom, multiple players can still get in the door. So, if multiple players can get in, then it's good to take a pass over the level to see how it holds up to multiple players. Does multiplayer break certain challenges? Does it make things more interesting?
- I found that the center of the level in Improvisation #1 tends to separate players and push them past the camera limit. This is one of the reasons why I put a checkpoint gate on this center structure. It gives everyone a chance to meet back up.
- If you need help gathering additional players to test your levels, try these techniques.
- Publish your level and hang out in it online. People will randomly drop in and you can observe how they take to your level and even ask them questions.
- Play online with strangers until you get in a party of 2-4 players. Then you can either ask them to follow you, or leave and see if they join up. If they do, take them straight to your level.
- Awkward Layered Geometry: In LittleBigPlanet, haphazardly layering up objects that exist in different planes can create awkward control issues. The game AI that automatically switches the Sackpeople between lanes gets confused when the platforming possibilities are too close to each other intersecting in every direction. Go through your level and see if there are any awkward lane switching areas. Switching back and forth from fly and stand mode in the create mode is the best way to test.
- With Improvisation #1, I had to add a wafer thin piece of glass in front of the loopy section on the right side of the main rotating piece in the center of the level. Before, when players MOMENTUM JUMPed, they would get caught up in all the different nooks and crannies. It was also difficult for players to get out of these nooks because the auto lane change would suck them back into another cranny. After I added the glass cover, I cut a hole in the top so players have a clear entrance and exit. Problem solved.
- Playtester Suggestions Pass: If you're lucky enough to get playtesters that take the time to comment on your level and make suggestions, you should make a special pass in consideration of what they had to say. This doesn't mean take all or any of their suggestions. But, as a general rule of thumb, honest playtesters are usually right. If you don't have a really good, design based reason to ignore their suggestion, then you should probably accept it.
That's it for Improvisation #1. I'm a bit surprised I made it out so quickly from start to finish with such results. I guess I owe it all to the process. The level has been very well received so far. John Davison even mentioned it on the Black Friday episode of 1upYours.
"There was one I saw today where someone was taking Kandinsky paintings and turning them into LittleBigPlanet. And trying to like go further than just the cosmetic. He was using custom soundtracks... trying to evoke the spirit of the painting through the level. Like really treating it like an art project." ~ John Davison
I'll continue to update this page with the discourse surrounding the level as it develops.
Thanks to anyone who has played Improvisation #1, mentioned it, or read anything about it.