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Linearity. Emergence. Convergence pt.9

To be clear, I use the terms straightforward and open to describe level design. These types of level design are similar to linear and non-linear level design respectively. Levels are the challenge scenarios designed with a distinct goal that developers create to present specific ideas and experiences to the player. The challenge of most competitive multiplayer games is not what the designers set but what the players set with the rules and what the players bring to the match in terms of their skills. This puts multiplayer gaming outside of what I consider to be level design. Though there is a lot of design that goes into multiplayer gaming, the experience is usually open to so much variation that such gaming would exists on the extreme end of open level design if at all. 

Multiplayer games are possibly the most raw, unguided, open gameplay experiences. This is easy to see when you think about all the different kinds of multiplayer experiences you can have. Multiplayer games are open for beginners to be crushed by pros. For dominant strategies to poison the metagame. For playstyles and griefers to wreak havoc. For members of opposing sides to form alliances. For players to quit in the middle of a game and more. In multiplayer, you have your skills and nothing else. And unless you're tapped into some kind of community, you have to learn everything on your own. Learning the ropes for for most competitive games requires internalizing a staggering amount of complexity, options, and data. As much as I love multiplayer games for such openness, such freedom, and such gameplay focus, I seek better designs that minimize some of these drawbacks. 


"The feeling I get is that there is a set of core gamers that really are tired of very linear games where there isn't a lot of choice. And [Dishonored] seems to be the direct opposite. The amount of ways you can approach each situation, the different ways you can get in... the different ways you can carry out the assassinations, I think there are almost non-lethal options as well..." ~ N'Gai


The allure of non-linearity and openness is often conflated with this idea of "choice." This kind of choice isn't about the options players have within the game world; it isn't about mechanics; and it isn't about the approaches that are actually possible. This kind of choice is about fantasy expectations. It's the old "wouldn't it be cool if..." kind of thinking that players want to test out for themselves. Like kids and their uninhibited imaginations, sometimes players want to think of something cool and do it. There's nothing wrong with this idea or wanting it in games, but problems emerge when you try to combine the two. 

This idea of choice is a difficult design problem to work around for two reasons. One, there's no way a develop a game that can support all the expectations and imaginations of players. No matter how many doors you open, ultimately some players will be disappointed when they can't do something they wanted. And two, as soon as you start coding rules into a system to allow a player to do one cool idea, these rules instantly limit other cool ideas that player may have. As I've explained in this series the openness of a system works against the rules, limitations, and gameplay. This is why I originally described the squeeze as the narrowing of player freedom (viable gameplay options) and player expectations. It's important to understand that players can and mostly likely do have conflicting, unrealistic expectations about what games are and how they can work. We can't blame players for having imaginations. Players aren't game designers.  


This freedom of choice is sometimes conflated with video game exploration and the non-linearity of uncovering areas on one's own. This kind of desire stems from, I think, wanting to do things "my way" or "on my own." We probably develop these desires as kids when we start to flex our agency and control over our bodies and our little worlds. These desires align with what we've covered about intrinsic motivators and how players are intrinsically motivated by expressing their power and independence. While players can explore any facet of a game from the controls, mechanics, characters, levels, story, etc., many gamers strongly prioritize the more literal moving a character through a virtual world type of exploration. Yes, we can make virtual worlds and virtual environments. We can make them as large and as unique (randomly generated) as any gamer can want (see Minecraft).

Appealing to this sense of exploration is important for some designers, but it comes at a cost. You can't have the best that gameplay has to offer and through extremely open level design. Virtual worlds aren't games. You can have fun and make fun inside of virtual worlds, but they won't work in the same ways as games do using carefully constructed level design. If you appreciate games as art, then you understand that the majority of complex ideas and experiences artists seek to convey can only be done through the careful and deliberate presentation of ideas; for games this often requires level design. When I explore gameplay through level design, I discover new worlds and ways of thinking through the limitations of pursuing goal. Not on the side of it. Not in spite of it. 


"However you can approach [infiltration in Dishonored] entirely differently... it opens up this way... 'how do you want to play it,' 'what sort of experience do you want to have with the game?'" ~ Garnette Lee


If you value games as art and if you value gameplay for what it is, then you have to make a decision about what you want most out of your games and realize what this costs. Openness and choice in gaming essentially put you in charge. But the question is, do you trust yourself to assemble the best experience when you've never played the game before? With the freedom to do whatever you want, do you think you can walk yourself through the best series of events? As you continue to play do you think your knowledge gained of past experiences helps you make the best decisions about experiences to come? Do you trust yourself to be the author and designer of your adventure? Just because "you did it all by yourself" is that experience more valuable to you than doing it someone else's way, even when your experience is less than coherent?

Or would you rather share that responsibility with the developers? Do you trust the game designers? Do you trust the actual creators to put you in scenarios where your choices work toward the whole in a deliberate context? Do you trust designers to increase the difficulty of level challenges to climax around player skill through balanced risk-reward challenges? Do you trust a developer to know just how much freedom you should have before pulling you back on track? Even if some developers get it "wrong," I trust them every time.


I trust this guy (Miyamoto). He's hard at work for me. 

The transformed "me" that I come to know after stepping up to the challenges, embracing the squeeze, building real skill, and coming out on the other end of a rich world of functional possibilities is the "me" that I want to meet; that transformed "me" standing along side the developers. I want to meet them and see from their perspective when I play games, not the perspective of the me that expects the game world to bend around my common, shallow, repetitive, vague, and uninspired expectations about what the game should be, and what the developers should have done. 


In the opening of this series I said that I would explore the topics of linearity and emergence in a straightforward manner while exploring the many ways the topics branched. This may seem like a contradiction until you realize that the topics converge on everything we know about game design. After individually explicating the topics of gameplay, mechanics, variation, design space, interesting choices, dynamics, balanceemergence, and others I was able to leverage all of this knowledge into this article series. Linearity and emergence are foundational topics, and so this blog has come full circle.  

Convergence is about how parts come together; how options, mechanics, events, and possibilities come together to convey a cohesive whole. Like great stories, the complexities introduced into a gameplay system through level design should converge in the end. Now that we're on the same page, and you understand just how powerful layered level design is, we can push ahead into the next level of level design.

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Reader Comments (4)

This needs some more context.
You have positively reviewed several randomly generated games in the past (Spelunky, Shiren, other roguelikes). I would say Tetris and many other puzzle games are also randomly generated, and those are some of your absolute favorites. I understand that hand designed levels are better, but is randomly generated bad?

Also, you mention Minecraft as the only example, which reminds me of our discussion on linearity post 7. Yet your criticism here is of its randomly generated nature, rather than its open ended goals.

Is this post mostly against Minecraft? I can't imagine too many other games with randomly generated content that are worthy of this post.

July 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Rosander

@Bryan Rosander

I do have a great appreciation for random elements in games. I didn't think I said anything against randomly generated levels in this post. Though I think hand designed levels are better as well, I do enjoy some games with randomly generated levels.

I don't consider Tetris to have randomly generated levels as far as level design goes. Rather, it's a challege in a fixed level that gives you a random sequence of pieces to work with.

Though I don't think Minecraft is much of a game as far as level design and skill-based challenges go, it's still a neat product. It's one of my favorite games that I don't want to play, as I often say.

The problem I have with Minecraft is that the player makes up the goals for him/herself. It's really a lot like Animal Crossing in that it's a virtual world with its own rules and you do whatever you want to have fun inside this world.

My problem is for open games, by putting the player in charge a designer gives up too much. At least too much of the things that i like most about games and gameplay.

Does that help clear things up?

It just needs to be more clear who and what you are criticizing.

The only game you actually mention is Minecraft, so that provides the context. Is this the Skyrims, Dragon Age, Borderlands, Grand Theft Auto IV and so on? Bioware's choose to be good or bad story segments, multitude of sidequests, and gigantic worlds?

Obviously, you aren't criticizing everything in them if they are your targets. I do remember a quote from someone who said that they aren't able to devote as much care to individual parts of the world when they make the world so large.

Can you lose in some way in Animal Crossing? Like if you can't pay back your loan or something? What consequences does it have?

Also, I see a lot of people playing Minecraft on Custom maps. There is one map with a minimal amount of resources on an island. You are meant to stay only on the island and play hardcore. Growing a tree to get the basic wood for tools, workbench, and a toolbox is much more important.

There is another map in the sky, where you have to travel across the floating continents and get to the nightly outposts.
There are other levels with finding keys, dungeons, and so on.

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Rosander


There's no criticism here about Minecraft. I listed it as an example of a game with large virtual environments that can be explored. It's an example of a game that satisfies the desires of gamers who like to explore.

The point is, all design decisions come at a cost. There's give and take for every decisions, and openness generally comes at the cost of control, challenges, and the kind of complex ideas that are conveyed through gameplay.

For large open games, it's not about working with the limitations of development resources. It's about understanding that the very design of openness has limitations.

There's no way to lose in Animal Crossing in terms of the overarching goal of paying off your load. How you make money and what you decide to do is up to you. Because of the real-timed design of the virtual events, sometimes you can lose out on opportunities. Unless you sell something or throw it away, there really aren't any consequences.

I'm aware of the custom maps and custom games people are making inside of Minecraft. Some are platforming challenges. Others are puzzles. Others are multiplayer battle arenas. The point is, the players had to decide to play by these new rules or code these new conditions into the system to turn it into a game. It takes a lot of play added structure to put gameplay into such an open system. Out of all the videos I've seen, I wouldn't call any of the custom game maps good.

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