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Level Design


Ryan Brown
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I'd like to know what sort of level design y'all prefer.

The classics were simplistic. One could hardly have too much trouble getting through them, barring incompetence. They were straightforward, yet provided extra space for exploration. They were built more for the player than the characters in the game. Snazzy looks didn't hurt, either.

Nowadays, while imaginative looks haven't changed, levels tend to be built around whatever new character, ability or playstyle is introduced, with varying results. One could fix this by making every level play the same (more or less), but you'd have to make sure that wouldn't get old.

So, would you prefer to have the level design dominate over the character or vice versa? Moreover, how would you do it, originally?

(When I say originally, I mean come up with your own ideas. Don't just link to a site or video. Think for yourselves. Put as much effort as you can into your posts, because one-liners, off-site links, effortless chatter or flaming will be reported, along with anything else that doesn't contribute to this discussion.)

Edited by Ryan Brown
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I prefer level design to be able to flow and be like, I dunno, fitting for the style of play, but also fun to play. Alternate routes are a must too, just one route gets kinda boring, and while in 3D most alternate routes are shortcuts, it's better than nothing. I tend to enjoy a mix of speed and platforming, and LEVEL SPECIFIC OBJECTS most of all. I cite Rush and Rush Adventure as good examples of level specific gimmicks, as well as SA1. You're not just doing the same thing in each one, whereas most of SA2's stages are literally the same thing in a different setting with one slight twist, though they are fun anyway.

It does depend on how many characters play though. If a level is meant to accomodate several character, then character specific areas or routes need to be employed, akin to S3&K and somewhat SA1. The last section of Speed Highway would be really bad for Tails to race Eggman as he could just fly over everything and there'd be no level interaction. However, the first section works very nicely as it can easily be edited (like is done) to accomodate Tails's flying skills. In S3&K, it's pretty self-explanatary as anyone who claims to be a Sonic fan should have played S3&K and at least sampled some of the routes that only Tails or Knuckles can get to. I would however prefer a lessening of the different playstyles, but you know :x

It also has to be just fun to play, sometimes architecture can get too realistic styled, such as Shadow's flashback stages, which just were a bit of a chore to play and at times, easy to get lost in (pity that, the concepts were great). That's another thing. I don't want to get lost in stages. In some ways, linear stages are often the most fun such as City Escape and other stuff. I would like alternate routes and shortcuts, just not get lost. SA1 did a pretty good job of this, as do most stages in the 2D games.

So yeah, in short, lots of speed, lots of platforming, routes that play with both, level specific objects to interact with that don't always have to make sense, easy to navigate (in terms of not getting lost, not necessarily in terms of difficulty, though obviously outright frustrating stages suck, no shit sherlock), and just fun to play :|

Meh, this lacks sense ._.

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Before they design levels. They need to finish the character physics programming. That way they can design levels that compliment the physics so well. They did that with Super Mario 64, and SA2. That's why levels like Final Rush, work so well.

The level design in Sonic Unleashed and SA2 are the pinnacle of design for the these kind of games. Everyone seems to love them because of this. They also need to make the levels more slopy and curvy. Like the part in Green Forest just before you hit the vine. Stuff that's really out there. And the levels shouldn't just be all about running. They should make use of a lot of actions. And shouldn't rely on "defeat enemies to open door".

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I'm okay with the current approach to level design at the moment - mostly linear speedy romps with the occasional offramp to reward twitch gamers - but I feel it's a bit overdone these days, particularly as far as Unleashed is concerned. I'd prefer the game to throw a mixture at me and yet still leave me able to discern which method is appropriate for tackling it - slower paced exploration for some moments and absurdly fast obstacle course stretches for others. Preferably without the need to make a seperate gameplay style and level set for each approach.

Sad thing is, it'd probably be easy if they just attempted to fix their camera system for once.

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Now, I have no issues with the current (Unleashed Day Stage) level design, at all. However, it's not all that innovative from the 2D days...a little depth has been added and instead of running left-right we're looking behind Sonic and get a little wiggle room...

Again, nothing bad, but it would be awesome to see something new, imo.

Perhaps, lending a page from, say, Burnout Paradise? Sonic is about getting from point A-B as quickly as possible while avoiding obstacles, taking the higher path, etc.

I know the tech is probably a smidge bit behind to handle going up to Unleashed speed with a world large enough to accompany it...but...

One large open world to explore, allowing a mix of exploration, 3D platforming, and speed, should you want to. A "level" would essentially be finding any ol' Checkpoint A, then zooming across the world to find Checkpoint B. Once you found B, you can find either Checkpoint A or B, start a Time Attack, get a better time. Bring the levels into a true 3D open world rather than the same ol' left-right path with wiggle room.

I know, there are probably holes in this idea somewhere, and the formula we're starting to get with Unleashed works just fine...but someday I wouldn't mind seeing levels be giant masses of land with platforms and obstacles that I could take my time to explore or speed between checkpoints...

Better yet, it could easily be adaptable for different characters. Perhaps put character specific checkpoints in the sky for Tails or behind boulders or underground for Knuckles. Simple, but with lots of room for expansion. :)

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I like levels that have their own flow to them. One of the funnest things of the old games was that you never really felt like you had to come to a complete halt. You were always able to keep a decent pace without changing speed so dramatically, mainly when slowing down. Nowadays, most levels usually have you either moving too fast and have a lack of control to actually feel like you have control over where your going and what's happening, and most times when you encounter a group of enemies your mostly forced to completely stop to defeat them, or greatly reduce speed to effectively deal with them. Strangely enough, one good example in which the latter is not done in some cases is ShTH's ability to shoot and kill enemies without having to stop to much. Unfortunately, the horrid control makes any feeling of flow impossible.

I'm all for having levels built around the characters since it can fully embrace the character's abilities and makes playing through them comfortable and fun, and not to mention, adds flow. When you have characters built around the levels, you get stuff like Sonic Advance. In order for the levels to be playable properly with all four characters, they had to strip every character down to their 'bare-bone' abilities so they could play as closely to Sonic as possible, causing minimal difference in playing as any of the characters.

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As per usual, Pitfalls need to go, Boost pads need to be almost entirely removed, probably retrained to one level.

The current prevailing idea for Sonic level design within Sega is completely wrong - it's nothing more than steering Sonic between the large sections where you do nothing but hold X.

A major problem with the newer levels is the change in what the source of the challenge is. Rather than making progression a challenge, they made progression without falling into a pitfall the source of the challenge. It's basically a "Hot Wheels track in the sky". The only two outcomes for sending a Hot Wheels car down a track is it either makes it to the end or falls off. Not very interesting when you remove the novelty of it being real, and with a limited age group.

These levels need to be big areas with tones of crap in them, with all variety of separate areas ("routes" apparently isn't specific enough), secrets, enemies, vertical exploration, stage specific gimmicks, and some areas to really take advantage of the pinball dynamics that this game would obviously have.

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Now, I have no issues with the current (Unleashed Day Stage) level design, at all. However, it's not all that innovative from the 2D days...a little depth has been added and instead of running left-right we're looking behind Sonic and get a little wiggle room...

Again, nothing bad, but it would be awesome to see something new, imo.

Perhaps, lending a page from, say, Burnout Paradise? Sonic is about getting from point A-B as quickly as possible while avoiding obstacles, taking the higher path, etc.

I know the tech is probably a smidge bit behind to handle going up to Unleashed speed with a world large enough to accompany it...but...

One large open world to explore, allowing a mix of exploration, 3D platforming, and speed, should you want to. A "level" would essentially be finding any ol' Checkpoint A, then zooming across the world to find Checkpoint B. Once you found B, you can find either Checkpoint A or B, start a Time Attack, get a better time. Bring the levels into a true 3D open world rather than the same ol' left-right path with wiggle room.

I know, there are probably holes in this idea somewhere, and the formula we're starting to get with Unleashed works just fine...but someday I wouldn't mind seeing levels be giant masses of land with platforms and obstacles that I could take my time to explore or speed between checkpoints...

Better yet, it could easily be adaptable for different characters. Perhaps put character specific checkpoints in the sky for Tails or behind boulders or underground for Knuckles. Simple, but with lots of room for expansion. :)

I don't know about JUST having A-to-B missions, but definately having one big land to explore in 3D would do Sonic a world of good. You want to know what I've got in mind? Think Sonic 3 meets GTA meets Mario 64 meets Burnout Paradise. We're talking plenty of speed and plenty of action, but also tightly packed platforming, with a story that brings context to the many missions, ala GTA.

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Perhaps, lending a page from, say, Burnout Paradise? Sonic is about getting from point A-B as quickly as possible while avoiding obstacles, taking the higher path, etc.

I know the tech is probably a smidge bit behind to handle going up to Unleashed speed with a world large enough to accompany it...but...

One large open world to explore, allowing a mix of exploration, 3D platforming, and speed, should you want to. A "level" would essentially be finding any ol' Checkpoint A, then zooming across the world to find Checkpoint B. Once you found B, you can find either Checkpoint A or B, start a Time Attack, get a better time. Bring the levels into a true 3D open world rather than the same ol' left-right path with wiggle room.

Well, if you watch Zero Puncuation's review of said game, you'll find out exactly why this method wouldn't work so great.

"You can drive as freely about the city as much as you like and when you start a race all your given is a finishing point."

"The major flaw with this one is that you have to keep looking at your mini map to see if your on the right course."

-Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw

In short, it breaks flow.

As per usual, Pitfalls need to go, Boost pads need to be almost entirely removed, probably retrained to one level.

If you remove pitfalls you can hardly even call the game a platformer anymore since there'll never be any penalty for missing a jump aside from the inconvenience of having to take slightly longer to reach you destination. Without pits Sonic really has nothing more than to just run. I can assure you that pretty much most of the platforming sections would easily be able to be bypassed by just running down into the lower area. Jumping would really serve very little purpose in actual level progression and mostly be there for filler content.

Edited by VirgoTheCougar
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In short, it breaks flow.
I wouldn't be so sure about that. Saints Row 2 does an especially good job of this kind of concept, particularly because you only need to take a quick glance to know which intersection to turn at next - which is kinda handy considering some of the sports cars come close to rivalling Unleashed's sheer speed factor, and infintely more controllable too. Paradise on the other hand is one of the worst built minimap systems I've ever seen in a game with cars in it, because nothing really stands out - you HAVE to pay very close attention to your turning indicators (which in themselves are dimly flashing street signs on the FAR CORNERS OF THE BLOODY SCREEN TO DRAW YOUR ATTENTION AWAY FROM THE ROAD), almost inevitably causing you to crash on every second turn you have to make. It doesn't help that turning sharply is nigh impossible without wiping out, though with the realistic car physics I suppose that's to be expected.

Execution is the deciding factor, grasshopper. The concept is just a forethought.

EDIT: Christ I can't believe how many spelling errors I made in this post. Fixed hopefully.

Edited by Blacklightning
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All I want out of Sonic levels is straight on dynamic. I want to be stimulated and on my toes. I want to feel something new every with stage I progress. Sure, elements like exploration, flow and speed can certainly aid that, but they don't make or break it. Another important aspect is individuality. I enjoyed Sonic Unleashed, but the problem is that most stages don't feel like something new. In the older games, each zone had an irreplaceable spark of character, but in games like Unleashed or 06, one could just retexture most of the stages to have the same environment and no one would be any the wiser.

As per usual, Pitfalls need to go, Boost pads need to be almost entirely removed, probably retrained to one level.
I half agree. As with most series, certain elements translate to 3D better or worse than others. Pits seldom work well in 2D, but I'd find it hard to play through a 3D Sonic level without them. I mean, they shouldn't be abused like Sonic Heroes did in several levels, but they make for a necessary obstacle in 3D games because they're a threat and you can see them coming much easier. As for boost pads, there are a lot of places where they're pointless and abused, but there are important and necessary uses for them, i.e. the turns when being chased by the semi in SA2. But beyond that sort of thing, I think they could be better if they just gave you a quick burst in the direction you're headed rather than guide you like Mario Kart does.
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Ah, great way of saying it, Gamenerd. Absolutely, not all A-B missions, just the general inspiration for "levels"...

Perhaps, Burnout Paradise wasn't the BEST example...still...like Blacklightning said, it's all execution.

Side note: Burnout Paradise is a racing game, Sonic is an action platformer. Burnout Paradise had you EASILY annoyed at times because you were racing people who knew the way to the finish line, while you had little guidance. In Sonic, you wouldn't have that burden of beating the other racers to get there, unless a flow-breaking time limit is placed at standard (HOWEVER, just give us an option of turning off the time limit or only turning it on to Time Attack as a counter and not a limit and boom, easy solution. :))

Open world would be awesome for Sonic, but it's not without flaws, absolutely, and I'm not just talking about technology...how big would the world be? Would you be given a GPS/mini-map/bread crumb trail system/giant floating arrow? No guidance and find the next checkpoint yourself?

...Hmm...or...

Giant beacon in the sky (Think Mirror's Edge Time Trial).

You find Checkpoint A (Mini-map system, GPS, or just exploration, dunno), and Checkpoint B lights up on the horizon, a beacon of brightly neon-colored light shoots into the sky; Tails or some random announcer/hint person tells you your objective: race to the checkpoint. Then it could even get more creative, perhaps you activate Checkpoint A, and you could be given an option not unlike Knuckles SA era levels...find the beacon'd hint checkpoints to get clues on landmarks visible to find the checkpoint, or just run around and find the hidden checkpoint without help.

Different variations on the missions, easily defined finishing points (How could you ignore a giant beam of light in the sky?), and once you found the best path, you can go back and try to set the best time for some sort of medal or something for a special reward.

Again, free-roaming Sonic has lots of potential, imo, but it has to be done right to be worth anything. :/

Edited by Roffles
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Meh, I still think the best option for Sonic is to stick to concrete levels, rather than this free-roaming jazz. A hub or two is nice, and I certainly won't fault the levels for being more than a straight line, but an entire game based on an open area just seems like it'd be too directionless to really make use of his abilities.

Anyway, looking at the levels in the 2D games, it's not so much distinct and separate paths as much as it is a sort of mesh, not just tunnels A, B, and C, but an actual area, as in two dimensional, that has a bunch of stuff in it and a vague direction to follow. So the way I've been thinking about level design for 3D Sonics is, you start with a thick path, then you fill it with thin paths. The thick path is the overall path of the level, plenty wide enough to add things into it, and is generally solid ground itself, not an infinite void. The thin paths are more specific bits, smaller and winding through the thick path, and in general staying within the thick path. The key about staying within the thick path is that you're free to leave the thin paths at almost any time; they aren't completely cut off from the rest of the level aside from their start and end. As a quick example, imagine a generic city level, with the main path being a Main Street sort of thing. You can generally stick to running along the road, but, there's a spring on one side that you can use to reach the roof, a store you can cut through on the other side, maybe an alley or a side street, maybe even a sewer running underneath it. But, you can also jump back off the roof, dash out of a number of exits to the store, and pop up through several manhole covers. And maybe there's stairs in the store that'll take you to the roof. So in the same way there's a 2D area with "stuff" in it, there's a 3D space with "stuff" in it, rather than separate paths.

Now that I think about it, it's sort of like the last part of Speed Highway on steroids.

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Now that I think about it, it's sort of like the last part of Speed Highway on steroids.

That should have been the model 3D Sonic followed and expanded upon. But they didn't, and look where we've landed.

So, I agree.

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That should have been the model 3D Sonic followed and expanded upon. But they didn't, and look where we've landed.

So, I agree.

And Red Mountain. The first part of that seems very non-linear to me, although it does suffer from bottomless pit syndrome.

Come to think of it Sonic Adventure got lots of things right; each level had linear and non-linear bits, you go through the stages multiple times in different ways like Mario 64 (but with different characters instead of different missions), and the Adventure Fields, whilst sometimes being mind-numbingly boring, bring context to what you're doing and make the world you're exploring feel real. If they blurred the line between Adventure Field and Action Stage (no loading screens - the camera just follows you into the level), made various interconnecting bits between levels (like maybe a pathway that leads straight from Emerald Coast to Speed Highway) gave each character reasons to at some point revisit levels and complete them with a different route as part of the story, intergrated the secondary objectives (Missions B and A) into the main mode and intergrated the missions from SADX into Story Mode, we could've had something pretty special. Oh, and obviously fix the camera and the glitches.

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I believe big levels would be fine, but not so big that you get lost in them and forget where it is you're headed. And if you're going to explore, there should be neat goodies to find, like powerups, emblems, unlockables or other stuff. I usually explore for the sake of doing so, finding something cool would make it all the more enticing and rewarding.

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I believe big levels would be fine, but not so big that you get lost in them and forget where it is you're headed. And if you're going to explore, there should be neat goodies to find, like powerups, emblems, unlockables or other stuff. I usually explore for the sake of doing so, finding something cool would make it all the more enticing and rewarding.

While we're on the subject, I think hidden rooms, if you're just going to put rings in them, should always have lots of rings so they're worth the effort. Not just three or four.

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As long as everything doesn't look the same, getting lost should't be a problem. Just go somewhere high up to get your bearings.
Alternatively, throw in a minimap. As long as it isn't too distracting or revealing, that'd work too. A combination of both would be nice though.
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I always liked the idea of multiple exits in a story mode of a Sonic game. There are plenty of alternative routes, but they all take you to the same level ending. I'd love a bonus stage ending which leads onto a different level for avid explorers.

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What about environments? I think we can all agree that we've been to the same kinds of places in Sonic games (tropical spots, icy places, molten areas, ruins, cities, etc.)

Where can Sonic go next that's, I don't know, different?

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I just think they need to use the level styles and mix it up a bit more sometimes. There have barely been any icy cities (Ice Paradise just had a city skin), and there's yet to be a flooded city either (think Perfect Chaos arena, but a whole level). Or a construction site, there's not many of those (I am kinda thinking like stage 3 of Streets of Rage 3 though, badass level).

Or have a crazy as fuck level that's ridiculously surreal, akin to a special stage, but a normal level with strange things going on. Possibly the carnival style cliche for the game.

Oh yeah the 2D games need to stop having ruins in the sky and ice zones. In the Advance and Rush series, in total there are FOUR of each. Jesus christ mix it up a bit. The casino/carnival thing was okay as at least each had many things different, even if it got a bit strange (Toy Kingdom WTF).

I dunno, just mix it up a bit is all I say. I'm tired of seeing the same settings over and over these days. At least Rush Adventure had new surprises like the steampunk Machine Labyrinth, Coral freakin' Cave, and Haunted Ship.

And a highway zone for Rush 3 please ffffffffffffffff the style of gameplay is perfect for a highway stage. Then again I just want something awesome to top Speed Highway really :P

Edited by Semi-colon e
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