23 Jul Why it takes us weeks to design a 3-minute level
It’s Monday again, so time for another post!
This week I want to talk about how we approach level design. I think it is one of the hardest parts of game design, and it shows: It can take us several weeks to design a single 3-minute level in Momonga.
Codename Iron Man
The past three weeks I have been working with Yorick and Fabian on one of the boss stages of Momonga, a level with codename “Iron Man” (check out this post to see why we use codenames). In this level, Momo finds himself trapped in an underground dungeon, surrounded by rubble and with no way out. Fortunately there is an ally nearby: Guaka the Molerat. The two of them team up and try to find the exit to escape the underground dungeons of Xio.
Above: Concept art for Guaka the Molerat. More on this hombre in a later post!
The Iron Man level is the last level we need to design for the story mode. When we have this one nailed, we have 9 handcrafted levels that are all unique in form and flavour. Together they tell the first episode of the Momonga story. It will be a major milestone when we have it done, and we have been working on this last level for three weeks now. This week I hope we can finish the design and start on the visuals.
An Unexpected Friend
Iron Man is the toughest design so far. Because it is the last level of Chapter 2, we want to do something special with it. So we came up with a twist to the traditional boss fight system: instead of killing a boss, he helps you out. The goal is still to make a level that has the adrenaline of a boss fight – except this time we’re not killing big things.
The core experience is at the heart of level design. In this case I asked myself these questions:
- Why is Momo here?
- Why is Guaka here?
- How do they complete the level?
- How do they interact?
- What are the intrinsic differences between the two characters?
- What is keeping them from reaching their goal?
We started off with the idea that the dungeon was collapsing, and that Guaka would help Momo get out of the dungeon. We had a small brainstorm, and came up with a couple of ways that Guaka could help Momo out:
- Grab Momo and throw / swing him to progress
- Dig tunnels and lead the way
- Show where the exit was
- Help him push buttons and activate triggers
- Get to places where Momo could not come
- Carry him on his back
- Take him for a ride in his minecart
…and we had plenty more ideas. Based on these concepts, we sketch out pages and pages of little ideas and see what sticks.
The issue with all of these concepts is that none of them really “clicked” with our existing mechanics. For example, for the throwing option, we would have needed to introduce a brand new game mechanic. Players would have to time a tap and launch Momo at the right time. Not a bad mechanic at all, but it is level six in the game and we were not nearly close to exhausting the “regular” flipper mechanics yet.
Above: The cannon timing mechanic: Each pillar would give you a rotating arrow. Tap to launch, and off you go to the next pillar – or into oblivion. Note that the visuals are only for functional reference 😉
With the cannon mechanic scratched, we were looking for other ideas. We thought of crumbling ceilings, avoiding rocks, and other interesting rooms to explore.
Above: Some of the early rooms we designed for this level
Nothing really fit the bill. It was not bad at all, but it simply did not provide the experience that we wanted to achieve. Then we did a small test: What if we could add a second ball? Maybe one that was larger than Momo, but not too much larger. This creates the multi-ball effect you get in most self-respecting pinball cabinets. If it would work, we would have a pretty exciting mechanic right from the start, without introducing new controls or leaving the pinball mechanics.
Above: As a temporary placeholder for Guaka, we use a big Momo (you can see the real Momo trapped between the rocks in the top left)
Above: The new design of the first area where Momo and Guaka have to escape the dungeon. Lots of work still to do, but the fundamentals are here.
Throwing Away Designs
By the time we had the multi-ball idea, we had a library of small rooms, big rooms, and all kinds of ideas for interesting mechanics. We threw them all away and created rooms specifically for the multi-ball effect. We emphasize the differences between Momo and Guaka, which is basically coming down to big vs small, strong vs fast. Together you try to find the exit and continue the adventure.
To prove the point: we recently checked the Momonga trailer on YouTube. Just about all of the shots you see in the trailer have been thrown out or completely reworked. Only one shot stayed the same!
Sure, we could have gone for the first idea that popped to mind. The game would probably be out by now. But I believe that good design determines the success of the game. Unfortunately, the only way to get there is through experimentation and testing. For us, pinball is a completely new genre and we have to invent the wheel with every new level. We are starting to learn what works – but even now, we often have to go back to the drawing board. This is a small price to pay, because we want the experience to be the best it can be.
Because after all that is what we are aiming to build – a game experience to remember.
What’s your take on this? Do you agree that experimentation an integral part of the design process? Or is there a better way? Let us know in the comments!