Straightforward and open level design exist on a spectrum. One of the reasons why I'm using these terms instead of linear and emergent level design is because the spectrum between the poles of straightforwardness and openness is continuous. This means that there is a smooth range of variation between straightforward level design and open level design.
In part 6 and 7 of this series I explained what happens to products that merge gameplay design with straightforward and open design. It turns out that the natures of these three types of design align in some ways and conflict in others. One key conclusion from the analysis is that open level design makes video games harder to develop, harder to keep clean (feedback), and harder to maintain a balance of skill-based play. Compared to straightforward design, open level design works against what games are and how they work.
All hope for open level design is not lost. There is a type of level design that combines the pros of straightforward and open level design while taking none of the cons. This type of design isn't a simply a balance between straightforward and open gameplay design found somewhere on the spectrum. The solution is a type of level design that truly represents the highest form of video game level design. It's powerful, flexible, and something that I've been talking about since the beginning of Critical-Gaming. The convergence of straghtforward and open level design is layered level design, and Super Mario Brothers has been doing it since 1985.
Layered level design is a general term that describes a particular way a level creates density and variety of distinct gameplay challenges. This density is only achievable by including optional challenges, otherwise the level design would be classified as linear or straightforward. One method of creating layered levels involves designing straightforward gameplay challenges that are "stacked" on top of each other so that the player can experience the layers simultaneously or organically by moving back and forth between them. Another way to do layered level design is creating a level that presents distinct challenges based on what players bring to the challenge (co-op, powered up, etc.). This can be achieved through various kinds of locks and sequence breakable level design. For this article series, we'll focus on the stacking of straightforward challenges to create layers.
The core, mandatory challenge of Super Mario Bros (SMB) gameplay is maneuvering around environmental obstacles and enemies by JUMPing and engaging with gravity. We call this platforming. While some environmental elements are destructible and several enemies feature back and forth interplay, killing enemies and breaking bricks is mostly optional. Layered on top of this gameplay are the optional challenges of coins and secrets. Let's focus on the layers of environmental obstacles, enemies, and coins. In the image below depicts a section from level 1-2 in SMB. I've separated the layers to show how straightforward the challenge would be for players (see the colored lines).
Separate these layers are straightforward and a bit dull. In each layer, there isn't much to do outside of the lines I've drawn. It's important to understand that because these layers are straightforward, that these strategies (indicated by the lines) are also clear. When the layers are stacked together, players will understand their basic options which will significantly help them understand how these options fit together and support countless emergent possibilities. This understanding also builds more knowledge skills, which allows players to stress more of the entire DKART skill spectrum. Remember strategy, interesting choices, and gameplay is about making informed choices from evaluating the risks and rewards of potential gameplay actions.
Put these layers together and the challenge and gameplay exponentially increase in potential. Now, instead of overcoming each layer one at a time, the strategies cut into each other. In the image above, the red strategy line starting on the left is quickly broken up. Instead of just JUMPing across the stalagmite like obstacles, a coin block gets in the way. Players can go over and skip the coins or accept the challenge and fall into the gap. Inside there's a Goomba. If you try to ignore it, getting the coins is more difficult and risky. If you try to squash it or escape the coin block floating above makes that strategy more difficult. This is what I mean by level challenge density.
The section highlighted by the green dotted circle on the right is even denser. The smaller space makes squashing the Koopa more difficult. Without fire balls to eliminate the Koopa, they'll eventually walk to the left and turn back around for a second pass. If the layers were separate, this emergent u-turn wouldn't happen. If you kick a Koopa shell backwards, it'll also return as a threat. Going underneath the floating brick formation it is likely you'll JUMP over the Koopa and grab one of the coins placed at the bottom of the loops that hang over head. This is the first non-secret area in the game that features naked coins (coins not inside ?-blocks) and the first place where players can collect coins by punching the blocks from underneath.
The point is there is a lot to the design space of SMB and the layered level design creates scenarios to highlight the design in a clear context. By being influenced to do multiple things at the same time in the same space, players are never devoid of options. When engaging the mandatory challenges or an optional challenge, the players is likely to uncover new, well tuned emergent experiences because the layers that make up the level are straightforward. This is the kind of option rich, complex, dynamic, dense gameplay that gamers desire in open games. But instead putting great stress on the number of options players have moment to moment or struggling to create large environments without boundaries, layered design can convey challenge, context, and player options that dynamically ripple forward from relatively few gameplay elements. With layered level design there are still countless combinations of possibilities to explore, but they are presented in a much clearer context that allows us to understand how they came together, fit together, and are unique from each other.
The lines in the images above depict optimal strategies. The freedom and emergence of actual gameplay is much less focused. Sometimes players will hesitate at every JUMP. Some players will fall into the stalagmite like formations on the left side of the images above. Players will miss jumps and lose powerups by getting hit and countless other possibilities. As I begun to describe above, the density of SMB's layered level design in particular allows for these "sub-optimal" emergent possibilities to feed back into the core gameplay experience. JUMPing for and missing the coin block may put you in danger of a Goomba when you land. Kicking a Koopa shell backwards instead of forward will result in a new hazardous situation that may influence you to maneuver in a new way. By avoiding Koopa you may stumble upon the hidden Starman secret. Using the high amount of control that comes with straightforward design, developers have packed SMB with interesting challenges and discoveries in ways that will be encountered as long as players keep playing, challenging themselves, and embracing curiosity.
Normally, sub-optimal play in very open or emergent gameplay systems falls flat and fails to ripple forward to develop into interesting gameplay situations. And even when they do, it's often hard to understand the "story" of how things fell into place. These flat, confusing situations that players are uninformed about is what I mean when I say that open games have a greater "noise to sound" ratio and less "water tight" experiences. Another way of putting it is that in very open games there are so many situations that don't click, don't clearly convey information, and don't add up to anything meaningful or significant. They're simply the result of your actions and the system.
What layered level design can do is it build a rich context for the "noise" and turn it into music. Now where have I heard of this before? Where has a comparison between music design and level design been made? Oh yes, that's right! My Mario Melodies series. Four years ago I started my foray into understanding game design by breaking down the level design of Super Mario Bros. Though I hardly had the language that I do now, I did my best to explain how SMB worked. I coined the term counterpoint in level design to describe the dense type of layered level design I detailed in the paragraphs above. It's a kind of layered design that's very dynamic and cohesive giving you a lot of options that are clearly presented, yet you never leave the well designed, gameplay experience set by the core, mandatory challenges.
Layered design elegantly solves the problem of the ridged, fixed presentation of linear games by providing the player with optional challenges to pursue. It also smooths over some of the inherent jumps in the flow of information or the repetition of the experience by giving the player some control over what they experience and when. Remember the flow zone theory? Such an optimal mental state is much harder to achieve with straightforward or linear games. Without options in the gameplay there is no variable, player controlled difficulty. Without this, if players just don't click to the particular difficulty level of the game, they're likely never to find their zone. But with more open design comes flexible difficulty. Yet, achieving this openness through straightforward layers helps players make informed decisions about the challenges, which is key for players finding their zone. For there are many ways a gameplay challenge can be difficult from setting a high game speed, creating small timing windows, forcing complex controls, hiding information, etc. But it's much harder to design games that are as informative as they are difficult.
Layered design elegantly decreases the chaotic, sub-optimal possibilities that make gameplay experiences less tight by building the emergent foundation upon layers of straightforward layers. By starting off simpler and cleaner the emergent possibilities are easier to understand. The layered design makes more options more meaningful because of the clear context in which they occur. What gamers want from open level design are options that are meaningful. No illusion of choice. And no illusion of function. With layered level design, the concentration of challenges allows for more player actions to ripple forward in time. As you interact with one layer in a unique way, you will inevitably affect another in a unique way, which will then affect something else in a unique way.
Playing skill-based, challenging video games inherently involves a lot of repetition. As we learn, and fail, and fail to learn the complexities of a game we repeatedly engage in gameplay. A dense, layered gameplay experience that informs players and gets more clear as they delve deeper is a great quality because it meshes well with the repetition of gameplay. In Mario's case, the forward rippling effects of even the smallest gameplay actions create experiences that are usually different every time you play without relying heavily on random elements. On top of this, any slowness of progress due to the slowness of player learning can be smoothed over somewhat if the player decides to play it safe and take the easy road through the game. In other words, it's hard to be bored or overwhelmed when you have a lot of control over the difficulty of your experience.
So from the nature of linearity, layered design takes the focused, direct, clear conveyance of the gameplay challenges, and it retains a great amount of control over when, where, and how the audience receives information. From the nature of emergence, layered design takes the countless possibilities and unexpected situations. Therefore when gameplay is most important, layered design takes all the pros and none of the cons of linear and emergent systems. This is why layered level design is most effective form of level design.
Do realize that games don't need to have such dense layers like Super Mario Brothers to be great games or to take advantage of layered level design. After analyzing the extreme versions of straightforward and open design, I wanted to present a game that represents the extreme end of layered design. Instead of 3+ layers in Super Mario Bros (counterpoint), you can do a lot with just 2 layers. There is much more to uncover about layered level design. And I plan to do so soon.
In part 9 I wrap up the series by addressing a few lingers issues and making some final clarifications.