So let's say you've done a lot of hard work fleshing out the design space of your game. Let's call this game "Dream" the game. The wonderful part about this game is that it's the game everyone dreams of making. Though the fiction for this game is vast (like outer space) you narrowed things down to a primary function centered around a core dynamic. Great!
It looks like the game mechanics of Dream are well-rounded. Also, all of the other game elements take up a unique design space with very little overlap. Needless to say, there's a lot of potential here. And that's exactly where I want to start the discussion.
Bowser on World 1-1? Shouldn't we, you know, develop some levels before the final battle?
People have a hard enough time separating what a product is/does and how they feel about it. So, I don't exactly expect people to be perfect at separating what a game actually offers (what it does) and the potential of its design. Some games have far more potential strategies, set ups, scenarios, and interactions than can be explored fully even by the millions of players who put hours into it. Other games have a more reasonable/practical amount of potential and come close to fulfilling it. And still other games fall far short of what little potential they have.
Thinking about design space is all about visualizing a game's potential; ie. how much these mechanics work well with these enemies and these level elements etc. But what good is potential that isn't realized? Not much. If you design a game like Super Mario Brothers with layered counterpoint between the player, enemies, and level elements, but you forget to put in enemies on any level, then the player will have no other option but to play a terrible version of SMB. Level design is the part of the design where most video games (products) are games (interactive experiences). Without a level/stage/challenge to play through, there's not much else to do with a video game. It is through the level design that challenges are created, interplay is sustained, and game ideas are communicated.
The only way to experience the potential in most games is through its levels. Games with level editors are a different matter altogether. With a robust level editor, the player is capable of making their own levels and capitalizing, in theory, on a game's full potential. Also, games like fighters, where arguably the main mode of play (multiplayer) gives the player the option to customize the settings and match parameters, allow players to experience a game's potential at their own pace in their own way. So, let's ignore such games and focus on games that use levels as their primary mode of play.
Remember 1-10-89%? The way I see it, the development, presentation, and communication of ideas makes up the vast majority (89%) of the interactive gaming experience. We commonly value games by how much content they offer. Whether this content is measured in hours, levels, or options, we would feel cheated if we paid full price for a game with just one small level. Heck, we feel disappointed when free games cop out or tap out delivering only a bit of content when they have potential for so much more.
Development through level design is so powerful that even a game with mechanics that are neither dynamic or very engaging can be honed into a wonderful experience. Case and point, Mighty Flip Champs! In this game, players navigate an avatar through a sort of obstacle course using the MOVE and FLIP mechanics. (Watch this video if you aren't familiar with the game). Being a puzzle game, the developers were faced with a few level design limitations. To keep the quality of the puzzles pure/good, the developers designed each level so that you can't trap yourself with a wrong move. Every choice you make right or wrong works back into the system so you can always reach the goal organically. Also, the way the FLIP mechanic is designed, you can only FLIP through the pages in one direction. This inherently makes any possible directions you can go limited to the space on your current page and the next page (if space is available). With only a handful of level/enemy elements (animal "keys", spikes, colored switches, ladder, and worm holes) the developers at Way Forward were able to design 41 very different levels that fill out the design space of the game completely. At the beginning I found myself saying, "Ok. This can get really old really quickly." Yet, purely through the development of the levels not only were the 2 core mechanics used in a wide variety of ways, but the types of challenges and the game ideas of the levels were always unique and interesting.
I didn't know how much I appreciated development until I played Mighty Flip Champs! Now, I'm thinking that variation and development are more interesting than interplay. This only makes sense. After all, variation takes into account the design of the core mechanics, which includes interplay. The power of variation, which is really the power of change, is undeniable. It's like with characters in a story. It doesn't matter so much who a character is or where he/she/it comes from. The interesting part comes from finding out what a character does and who they become after the story begins. Bad guys can become good guys. Haters learn to fall in love. Anything can happen. How these changes happen, how the situation goes from point A to point B is the meat of any song/story/or video game.
Methods and Styles of Developing Content
There are different ways a video game can develop its content. Here are a few to look out for.
- Some developers try to expose the player to as much of the design space as possible. Through the different scenarios that the player must over come in the level(s), players obtain a deep understanding of the mechanics, and the core dynamic(s). Usually when you beat these games, you can't think of an additional level that would significantly add to the overall experience. (Mighty Flip Champs!, Flywrench, Super Mario Brothers, I wish I were the Moon).
- Other games are focused on communicating complex game ideas through function beyond the simple use of a mechanic in a simple situation. More complex ideas are built up of smaller ideas. Because function communicates ideas/meaning, levels in such games best communicate their ideas when they build the player up to the complex idea step by step. We commonly recognize this process as an integrated tutorial. The Zelda series is a perfect example of building complex ideas through smaller actions. Every room, puzzle, and challenge in a great Zelda game is designed to make the player more aware of specific details to develop specific ideas/strategies. Some examples include, when you walk in the sand you can't dodge around as well. If you can't get close to the enemy, you have to figure out a way to attack it from a distance. If you can't reach that item, you have to find a way to make it come to you.
- Theme and variation is a type of music where an important melody is presented and then presented again each time altered in some significant way. (Listen here or check out these Mario melodies). Sometimes the difficulty of the melody increases. Sometimes the style changes. But ultimately, the musical piece works from a limited set of material. The analog for video games is when a game takes a limited set of game elements (most likely interactive game elements like powerups/enemies/level elements) and creates a set of levels out of these elements. Without adding any new elements into the mix, the developers are forced to develop various challenges and express their ideas purely through the arrangement of the elements. Super Mario Brothers is a great example of this. With a fairly small set of enemy and level elements, the developers created 32 levels for Mario to conquer. Tetris Attack's puzzle mode and Mighty Flip Champs are also great examples.
- The opposite approach involves introducing new elements into the levels frequently. The levels in Super Mario Brothers 3, New Super Mario Brothers, and Super Mario Galaxy frequently add new elements to keep things interesting. Compared to the puzzles in Mighty Flip Champs!, Tetris Attack, and Tetris DS, World of Goo can be described as frequently introducing new mechanics and elements around the core dynamic (gravity/physics).
Some Questions To Consider
What if you have a very intricate design space, but your levels only expose the player to a small part of it? What if you give the player the freedom to "play how they want" and they do the same thing over and over to win thus missing out on a large part of the design space? What if there are only a few ways the player can interact with the game world, yet by playing several levels the player actually experiences a lot of the potential in the design space? If a game tries to convey an larger, more complex idea how does the game lead the player into understanding this idea?
If a game is mostly about gameplay with little to no story/narrative elements, then exposing the player to as much of the game's potential as possible is a good way to maximize the content. For gameplay and interactive narrative elements alike, there's a natural order to things. There's a craft to it. Because games are interactive, thinking of level design as organized tutorials and tests is a good way to go. We can't run before we walk, and we can't walk before we crawl. So, it's necessary that one learns the easier, simpler steps/concepts before attempting anything more difficult. How a game teaches you and how it helps you understand is developement.
Some video games (like movies, TV shows, and works of literature) run into issues because the creators don't want to make something too obvious or too easy. When the proper steps aren't taken to lead the player in the right direction of thought or to train the player with the proper skills, solutions to challenges can seem quite random and out of the blue. A particular boss battle in Metal Gear Solid 4 comes to mind. If you've played the game, you probably know exactly what I'm talking about. What's sad about when games cut out these critical steps in the development of their own content is that they cheapen the journey for the player. Whether you're reading a story, watching a movie, or playing a game actions are very important in how they communicate meaning and tell stories. For a video game especially, action and function helps give the game context.
Considering a game's variation and development will help you focus in on what a game is actually doing. But, just because you develop the steps and create the content, doesn't mean you're in the clear. Balance and Pacing are two parts of variation that are very closely related to development. Don't worry. We'll get there one step at a time.