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Critical-Gaming Pikmin Course: Week 3

In class everyone sat on weighted outdoor chairs that had little swivel desk tops build right in. Today, one of the chairs was moved outside of the covered "gazebo" area. Before class started, the professor asked if anyone could bring a chair over to him so he could sit down. One of the students got up, quickly walked over to the chair, picked it up, and somewhat slowly carried it back over to the professor. The professor thanked him, and class began.

This week's lecture was all about Pikmin's level design. As Professor K explained, there are two design elements that make the level design in Pikmin very unique. He called one Pikmin's Random Nature, and the other is something that readers here at Critical-Gaming already know as folded level design.



Remember when I described how the classroom was practically outside? This week's lecture certainly benefited from the unique setting. Pro.K told us all to find a spot of grass nearby and take a good hard look at it. At first, I only saw grass and dirt. But my eyes were very quick to notice small movements beneath the shade of the grass. In fact, the whole ground was teeming with activity. Ants carried around little bits of food. Spiders scurried out of their way. And tiny flying creatures would reposition themselves every so often.

The professor explained that the level design in Pikmin has a nature of its own. In a way, at the start of each battle the Avatar, Pikmin, and Enemy units coexist in a closed ecosystem. And like the example of peering beneath the grass, there are a lot of subtleties to how the units interact and appear.

For example:

  • Small Female Sheargrubs can emerge from the ground and push the Avatar unit around. Though they do no harm, they can throw off your aim.
  • Male Shearwigs can be unearth when digging up yellow marbles. If you're not with your Pikmin to defend, they can do a lot of damage in a short period of time. 
  • Mitite, a parasitic creature, can erupt from cracked eggs instead of the usual yellow nectar.
  • The boss Enemy unit Raging Long Legs will occasionally drop down on the battlefield on a particular level.
  • The explosions from a Volatile Dweevil, rock attacks from an Armored Cannon Beetle Larva, and stomps from a Raging Long Legs can damage Avatar, Pikmin, and Even units alike.


Beyond these random occurrences and dynamic effects, the positioning of Enemy Units, players starting bases, yellow marbles, and even the arrangement/types of rooms and hallways in a match are randomized. Though the random level generation isn't as varied as in a game like Spelunky, it's just enough to make every battle different forcing players to explore the level experiencing that "peer beneath the grass" kind of discovery.

Pro.K explained that this random nature in Pikmin's level design helps keep players focused on the specific scenarios and conditions of the matches instead of processing a large amount of knowledge/data. I mentioned how the item boxes (Mario Kart), penalty items (Mario Strikers Charged), and even the random items in the Super Smash Brothers series have a similar effect as the Cherries in Pikmin. You may not know what you're going to get and it may not be exactly what you want, but being able to use what you're given effectively is one skill that makes good players even better. In other words, the skill of adaptability is stressed over the skill of knowledge in Pikmin because of the ration between fixed/known factors and randomized ones. The professor was surprisingly familiar with all the games I mentioned and agreed wholeheartedly.



Next, Professor K talked about how space was used in Pikmin's level design. He essentially explained a few basics about the top down perspective and how Pikmin uses 3D space, graphics, and hit boxes. These are all ideas that I've already detailed in my series on 2D/3D game design.

Then, the professor explained Pikmin's folded level design in terms of the dynamics of space and time. I feel that the way Pro.K defined the folded level design is worth summarizing here because the examples that were discussed are particularly illustrative of Pikmin's design.

Pro.K told the class that there are many different types of level design, but for RTSs in particular the top down, 2D perspective is the primary dimension of space. In StarCraft, a war strategy game (the professor emphasised again), there is only one win condition; destroy all of your opponent's buildings. To attack buildings or to defend your own, you typically need units. It stands to reason that you need to leave your base and attack to have a chance of winning in StarCraft. The basic spatial/level dynamic of StarCraft involves sending units out and about the map pressing forward when you have the advantage and only retreating when you don't. The same dynamics and basic unit movement patterns can be found in Advance Wars as well.

In Pikmin, Pro.K explained how space is multiplied compared to StarCraft because of the "find and retrieve" folded level design. The space in a Pikmin level is traversed once as the player moves out from one's base (just like in StarCraft/Advance Wars), and then it's traversed again as the Pikmin carry objects back to the base. What's significant to note here is not that the space is passed over more than once. It's that the dynamics of the gameplay change depending on whether you're coming or going.

Pro.K asked the class if they could think of any folded examples or scenarios outside of gaming. One student raised her hand and answered with the classic Indiana Jones scene where he travels down a hall avoiding traps, switches his bag for the golden object, and must run back through the hall to avoid getting crushed by a bolder. Everyone laughed. Someone answered with Ocean's 11 because they had to figure out a way to get into the vault and make it out with all the money undetected. Someone else quickly followed that example with the Italian Job. The professor was pleased with our responses and asked us if we could think of any examples that weren't movies. I raised my hand answering with whenever you have to go upstairs to get a heavy TV. Going up is easy and quick, but going down is slow and dangerous. Someone else mentioned how being a good waiter requires understanding how a restaurant space is folded. The professor seemed really interested in this idea, and told that student to talk to him after class about the possibilities of investigating waitering for his final project contribution to understanding the RTS genre.

The professor said he was surprised that no one mentioned how the chair he requested at the beginning of today's class as an example of folded level design. He shruged and went over all the different ways that going to a target and retrieving a target are dynamically different in Pikmin. When going to a target you are...

  • free to maneuver and dodge about effectively. Being able to control the Avatar's movement with the analog stick and how the Pikmin move with the C-stick gives the player a lot of control to avoid obstacles. 
  • free to take any path available to reach a target. In other words, you can approach a target while on your way to the opponent's base, on the way back, or when you stumble across it from some other direction.
  • forced to command the Pikmin and direct them to the target, which obviously requires the Avatar unit and the player's attention.

When the Pikmin begin to carry the target back to their Onion/base (the crease of the folded desgin) the dynamics change. Going back...

  • you are free to leave your Pikmin. They can pathfind their way back to the Onion on their own.
  • Pikmin take the shortest/straightest path possible back to the base making them predictable which and easier for the opponent to intersept.
  • Pikmin can't defend themselves while carrying and object.
  • Pikmin move much more slowly when carrying an object.
  • If the minimum number Pikmin required to carry an object is compromised, the rest of the Pikmin carrying the object become vulnerable.


These folded level Pikmin specific design features also compound with the dynamics that are present in more traditional strategy games. For example, the reason why the containment tactic in StarCraft or the end game (trying to capture your opponent's HQ) in Advance Wars can be so difficult is simply because of the dynamics of space; namely reaction and travel time. Basically, when you use your forces to try and fight the opponent all the way at the other end of a map, you enter a situation where it takes your units the longest time to get from you base to the confrontation while the opponent has the least amount of travel time from their base. Simply because of the difference in travel time, it'll take the player trying to contain the opponent in their base much longer to produce specific units and use them in battle. In Advance Wars, when moving close to your opponent's HQ and surrounding factories, they can build specific units to counter your forces. As long as the opponent has enough money and factories to work with, the end game of AW can be very frustrating. And when you push quickly into your opponent's base, chances are you won't have any nearby properties captured to help heal your units. At this point, your forces can be whittled away very quickly even when you have powerful reinforcements along the way.

In Pikmin the closer the action is to your base, the more quickly you can respond with help (like in StarCraft). This is especially important to understand when you consider the dynamics of folded level design. Pro.K explained that the intricacies and dynamics of Pikmin's folded level design is something that most people can't fully grasp intuitively. This is the point in the course where some diagrams and calculations are needed. I kid you not, one student almost fell out of her chair when she heard that we would need math to help us understand Pikmin. I don't know is she particularly disliked math, or she thought analyzing the game in such a way was unnecessary. The class ignored her upset and moved on.

Pro.K promised that he would keep things simple for now, so he created a simplified Pikmin battle scenario. B1 and B2 represent the bases of player 1 and 2 respectively. T is the target that both sides want. The distances are measured in seconds it takes the Avatar unit to travel moving at the constant, maximum speed.

In the figure above the target (T) is equidistant from B1 and B2 of a distance of 30 seconds travel time. To illustrate the dynamics of space through folded level design and the find and retrieve dynamic, the professor moved the target (T) a distance of 5 seconds travel time closer to B1. Now if each player's Avatar unit left their bases (B1 and B2) at the same time, B1's Avatar unit would reach T in 25 seconds while B2's Avatar unit would reach T in 35 seconds.

Now consider that both players reach T with a small force of Pikmin and in the ensuing skirmish all of the Pikmin units are wiped out. If player1 leaves T, enters B1 to gather Pikmin, and returns back to T, the round trip would take 25*2 = 50 seconds (assuming it takes no time to gather Pikmin for simplicity). Likewise, it would take player2 35*2 = 70 seconds to make a round trip back from B2. In this way, the folded or cyclical design of the "find and retrieve" folded level design has a multiplying effect on spatial challenges. For each second of travel time you move T closer to your base, you extend your opponents round trip time by 2 seconds while reducing your round trip time by 2 seconds.

It's important to remember in Pikmin that Pikmin are the units that get things done. When carrying objects, their movement is much slower than the Avatar unit's speed. For the sake of a simplified example, Pro.K told us to think of the Pimin speed when carrying an objects as half of the Avatar's speed. Now, you can see that for every second of travel time (distance) you move a target away from your opponent's base, it'll take the opponent twice as long to move the target back. This means every bit of distance you gain toward your base can be effectively multiplied by 2-4! 

The professor reminded us that his scenario was an extremely simplified example that didn't take into account how multiple Pikmin can carry objects faster, the different speeds of the leaf/bud/flower Pikmin upgrades, the increased speed of the Ultra-spicy sprays, 2D non-linear paths, Pikmin pluck times, etc.

Because of the localized commands, the interplay possibilities bloom in Pikmin. The biggest pro of going to a target is the high amount of control and adaptability the player has. These advantages can be traded for the power of multitasking when retrieving a target or multiple targets. Unprotected activities can be attacked and countered. If one's forces are spread thin, they are at greater risk to large, focused attacks from the opponent. Also, the more you multitask, the more your Pikmin will travel back to your base. Because the commands are localized around the Avatar unit, at some point you'll probably have to go all the way back to your base to recover your army. When you travel back, you naturally give the opponent and opportunity to push forward against you.

These are all topics that will be covered in detail in the next week's lecture on micro management.

That's it for week 3. Wow, did you read it all?


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Reader Comments (4)

How can you not read it all?
Very interesting notes, I have never really thought about how much impact the target's proximity matters in a situation like this.

Great website you have here. I am loving the frequent updates. :)

May 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott

@ Scott

I'm glad the article kept your attention all the way through.

Thanks for the kind words. I've been updating as frequently as I can. Some of my articles as of late take a lot of work to put out. 5-7 hours each perhaps?

Damn...I never thought about that factor in Pikmin. Folded levels are fascinating!

My concern now is that you get this meta-stable situation, where one player can ride his/her initial advantage all the way to least over one target. But then you take into account the multiple targets that the game demands...hmm...

May 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPi

@ Pi

The meta/macro game is the topic for week 5 coming up shortly. Like you said, multiple targets makes riding a small advantage to victory a lot harder. Also, the counterpoint between Pikmin, Avatar, and Enemy units mixes things up so much, that you'll almost never find yourself in a situation as clean as the example above.

It's about to get real interesting real quick.

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