Improving Level Design: Architecture, Zombies and Nintendo Power

November 6, 2011

If you’re going to GDC China and have any interest in level design, make sure you pencil in some time for Chris Totten’s talk, Designing Better Levels Through Human Survival Instincts, which should get props alone for rolling architecture and lighting, zombie games, level design and a technique called the “Nintendo Power” method into a heckuva interesting discussion.

His method is simplistic and sensible, firmly grounded in the architect’s mantra of “form follows function.” (He hails from an academic background in the subject, after all.) In the hour-long preview he presented at a IGDA Washington, D.C., meeting in October, Totten reviewed the design methods used in two of his recent projects: Dead Man’s Trail, an Oregon Trail-styled survival game where successfully raiding zombie-flooded towns is key, and a Lovecraftian-titled game with Tim Burton overtones called The Nightmare Over Innsmouth.

Chris Totten previews his talk at IGDA's October meeting.

The Power Trip’s Over
Throughout their rise to mainstream popularity, zombie games and media have become something of a “power fantasy,” Totten said. Disenchanted with overpowered protagonists mowing down waves of zombies in a blaze of bullets and gory glory, he and his student design team of Westwood College took a different approach—making the player feel weak.
In Dead Man’s Trail, a player’s party thrives or perishes based on the supplies they can scrape from towns that have been abandoned by humanity but overrun by zombies. While it’d be ideal to loot the entire town, the longer players dawdle, the larger of a horde they’ll eventually draw. The goal is to get in, complete missions (taking out zombies that stand in the way) and get out.

The obvious way of making the player feel weak would be to overwhelm them with brainthirsty enemies. Dead Man’s Trail does implement ever-expanding hordes to “teach helplessness” to players, but it also tries to rely more heavily on the placement of zombies throughout the level. By using zombies to corral the player into tight spots, where fleeing is sometimes the only option for survival, Totten turns zombies into “moving architecture” as the fleshiest, gushiest and most aggressive kind of wall there is.

Blending zombie horde rushes with such precise placement is an interesting, anxiety-inspiring concept and one that seemed to work well in the barebones white-block demo level Totten presented, as his avatar was squeezed across areas ranging from narrow hallways to wide-open areas, escaping through gaps among the enclosing zombie ranks.

Drawing Design from Nintendo Power 
Balancing a level’s design so that it inspires fear and helplessness in a player but still gives them a viable way out and chance at survival seems like it would be an overwhelming task in of itself. But that’s where the Nintendo Power method, making a guest appearance from 1980s/1990s, comes into play.

Most gamers will remember the magazine’s colorful maps of game levels that had break-out bubbles pointing to where various secrets, strategies or items were hidden. Totten suggests using this approach to help plan the pacing in levels. He used it to plot where “moving architecture,” a.k.a. zombies, would close in. It’s a weird but wonderful idea–using enemies to guide a player through a level.

Shade, Shadow, Survival
Is it possible to fall in love with a game after just seeing a skeletal white-block demo of it? Because I’m pretty sure that’s what happened with the quaintly creepy The Nightmare Over Innsmouth, which looks like someone threw Professor Layton backdrops in a blender with the grim helter-skelterness of Tim Burton. The word “love” might be a little strong, but The Nightmare Over Innsmouth immediately falls into my “I’d play that” category.
It takes a different tack to the fear and helplessness approach, with the demo focusing more on using lighting, heights and slightly warped architecture.

Rather than revolving around creating enclosed spaces, as Dead Man’s Trail does, it seems to use a bit more open areas—or “prospect space” as Totten calls it—where the player can survey a potentially dangerous area from afar and plan their moves accordingly before they advance. The demo opens with the protagonist scrabbling across rooftops and balancing on bare ceiling beams over heights that are startingly dizzying. Even though you’re safely on the other side of the screen, as soon as the game camera pans over the rooftops, you can’t help but think “whoa-mygod, I hope I don’t fall.” As Totten said, height is both “useful and threatening.” (But really, just imagine what that an effect like that could be like after the game is finished!)

After a dashing escape through a spooky courtyard, the demo ends with a cliffhanger as the protagonist takes a leap of faith into the unknown. This was a relatively simple concept made memorable with well-executed lighting, architecture and spacing that brought a lot of style to a literally grayscale world. Totten detailed many of his design decisions and motivations as he progressed through the demo, and afterwards cited a lot of interesting examples of architecture in FPS that I wish I would’ve written down more details on (But I guess I can’t give hiswhole talk away).

A Man with a Plan
I’m always fascinated with interdisciplinary approaches to games, so Totten’s hybrid of architecture and psychology was very interesting. But another key takeaway came from good project management. As with everything in life, planning ahead and performing quality assurance on your project in the early stages is key. Totten stressed the importance of white block demos in the development process, as they allow developers to see what mechanics work and what don’t and nix these issues early on, thus saving money, time and the painful process of rehashing a mostly finished project. Nintendo Power mapping is also helpful for initial blueprinting purposes.

I wish I would’ve thought to ask him this afterward but since I’m still thinking about it I’ll ask the Interwebs (and maybe Chris will answer, too!). Is white-blocking or making skeletal mock-ups of games and demoing them early a common practice in the industry? Do game companies, big and small, test games that early on or does much of this stuff usually wait til QA?

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