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Level design in Sonic games


Sonikko
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Since there's no dedicated thread on level design on this forum that's not ages old, I'll open a new one.

Since Sonic Forces has been announced, I've been thinking a lot about the direction this franchise is going in. I feel like with every iteration Sonic Team has done something different, sometimes radically different, but Sonic Forces is the first game in a long time that is not doing anything "new". 

Yeah we have the Customizable Character, but his/her gameplay isn't that different from what we've seen in Sonic Colours. 

So I'd like to start a discussion specifically on level design, and how you guys think it should be, both in the 2D and 3D portions of the games.

I myself enjoyed Sonic Generations a lot, it felt really good to play. Some classic levels played really well, even if the physics were not 1:1, and some modern levels were almost perfect, Sky Sanctuary and Seaside Hill for example.

I like that they managed to combine high speed with platforming, in a way that doesn't feel forced. It was not Stop&Go like in Colours or Unleashed's level of fast, and it really shined because of that. I wish Sonic Team really took notes from Generations in the Modern Sonic gameplay, but since the Wisps are back, I wouldn't be too sure about that.

One thing that really makes me sad is that some people sees my critiques as some kind of "hate" against the franchise, when I am a really big fan. I spend most of my time playing Sonic games, and I've been a fan for more than 15 years now. I don't want to let go because I think the franchise has BIG potential, but many of Sonic Team's effort have been lackluster. 

I've actually made a couple of videos to explain these points in detail, I'll post them and if you want to, give them a watch, but most of all I want to hear what people have to say about this topic, since it's something I really really care about as a fan.

This one's about automation and physics

 

This one focuses strictly on Unleashed, I'll talk about Colours in the next one, and so on until Lost World

 

So, do you want Unleashed's fast-paced corridor-like levels, do you enjoy Colours 2D blocky platforming more, do you want more fast-paced platforming like in Generations, or would you like a new attempt at a Lost World-like game?
I myself would like something close to Sonic Utopia, with a less sandboxy level design, but with the same physics and weight to the character. It felt awesome to play and it's so fun to go back at it and find faster routes and new slopes to roll on.

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I feel that Sonic Team's approach to level design these days has little to do with what's fun and works well within the confines of any predefined mechanics, but is instead mish-mash of various ideas for 'cool' moments strung together with little thought. You're very often just taking Sonic from set-piece to set-piece with very little to do in between. I want to avoid clichés like "the levels don't flow", but the sad fact is that this explains the set up very well. Everything is so rigid because the levels are designed to give players an exacting feeling of success or accomplishment all the time.

It applies to both the classic and modern gameplay that Sonic Team are going for. If we take your example is the S-tunnels in Green Hill, we have three games to look at. In S1, the tunnels come towards the end of the level. While hard to mess up, they do require the player to roll through them at speed into order to reach the rings high up in the sky, which is made easier if they are skilled enough to bounce on some of the cleverly placed enemies up there. Both Forces and Generations aim to mimic this and fail spectacularly because both are just 'cool' set-pieces that play out exactly same no matter what. Moments like this litter the Classic gameplay in Generations, and Forces will likely be no different. Used sparingly and more subtly, they can have great results. Sonic Team don't recognise this though and seem to be of the mindset that set-piece after set-piece is good design. Game mechanics don't really extend beyond running and jumping because the levels don't need them. This is what really sets Mania apart from every other recent attempt, including Sonic 4. 

The boost gameplay and gameplay in Lost World is no different. Boosters, rails and springs forcefully send Sonic along very linear pathways with platforming rarely extending beyond QTEs (which includes homing attack chains) and hopping between slow platforms at a snail's pace. All that culminates in Sonic doing something 'cool' again. Set-pieces like chases, three-lane grind rails and three-lane quick steps areas are repeated ad-nauseum. 

When Sonic Team really try, they can produce some great results. Seaside Hill 2 in Generations uses water running to test the player's skills at handling the boost, and despite scripting offers them numerous routes to choose from. There are few ways to exploit the level design without breaking the levels in unintentional ways, but the game rarely goes into auto-pilot. Sky Sanctuary 1 is very similar. 

I almost want to redefine the terms. "Modern gameplay" referring to Unleashed daytime, Colours, Lost World, S4 and all of Generations, while "Classic gameplay" is referring to the Mega Drive titles, Mania and arguably parts of the Sonic gameplay in the Adventure series. Of course, this is needlessly complicated. But you looking at the way that the games have changed over the years should make it clear how the level layouts revolve now more around style than substance.

I don't really know how much longer they can continue to make games like this. The exhilarating feeling that blew us all away with Unleashed isn't working on us anymore, and if early impressions of Forces from the press are anything to go by, they're starting to become a bit numb to it as well. Sonic Team need to put the player back in the driving seat of the levels.  

I'll add some more thoughts tomorrow or sometime soon with thoughts surrounding other games in the series, not just the post-2008 games as there's an awful lot more to dip into

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5 minutes ago, Blue Blood said:

The boost gameplay and gameplay in Lost World is no different. Boosters, rails and springs forcefully send Sonic along very linear pathways with platforming rarely extending beyond QTEs (which includes homing attack chains) and hopping between slow platforms at a snail's pace. All that culminates in Sonic doing something 'cool' again. Set-pieces like chases, three-lane grind rails and three-lane quick steps areas are repeated ad-nauseum. 

When Sonic Team really try, they can produce some great results. Seaside Hill 2 in Generations uses water running to test the player's skills at handling the boost, and despite scripting offers them numerous routes to choose from. There are few ways to exploit the level design without breaking the levels in unintentional ways, but the game rarely goes into auto-pilot. Sky Sanctuary 1 is very similar. 

Exactly.

Seaside Hill modern was a very good level, with lots of actual branching paths and the level was pretty open too, for it being in a boost game.

Sky Sanctuary Act 2 opening has to be my favourite section in Generations. The way you can just blast your way through those platforms if you know your way around, bouncing on the three robots at the beginning without using the HA and then airboosting to the next platform. It feels so satisfying every time. I think this is what boost gameplay should be about. It's not my gameplay style of choice, but it does have some potential. 

I want to be able to fail, I want to be good at the game to be fast. I want to be able to blaze through every single level, but it has to be because I've mastered the game and I know every level by heart, not because there's scripted events all around.

A couple of setpieces here and there are ok, like the scripted loop where the camera turns in the middle of GHZ act 1, but ramps, loops, and hallways aren't good game design.

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This may not be too popular a stance since Colours doesn't seem too liked here, but I think Colours' level design was some of the most fun that the "modern era" gave us, even if still certainly flawed. The problem is that there were numerous "gimmick acts" and really short ones (only the first act in each world felt like a proper level), but the level design we did get especially in those first acts was quite fun. Boost was not too abundant at all which actually made it fun to use, because you wanted to make the most of it, and there was a lot of actual platforming going on. It's kinda sad that I even consider that last point to be significant, but no other Boost game (not even the Rush games imo) have much proper platforming.

It certainly was not immune to the "shallow setpiece" moments where you're not doing much, but here they actually felt like breather moments in-between other level design, rather than the bulk of the level design. People criticize it for being "blocky", which is understandable, but I personally felt there was ample opportunity to speed through with skillful play and smart use of Boost, which made this a non-issue. 

I think there was a lot of room for improvement (mainly making the level terrain more smooth/sloped and using better physics, better transitioning from slow to fast moments etc.) but I honestly think it was a better foundation for modern Sonic than Unleashed or even Generations, at least as far as 2D goes (although Generations Seaside Hill makes a very convincing case for that style of gameplay working well)

 

 

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10 minutes ago, PerfectChaos said:

This may not be too popular a stance since Colours doesn't seem too liked here, but I think Colours' level design was some of the most fun that the "modern era" gave us, even if still certainly flawed. The problem is that there were numerous "gimmick acts" and really short ones (only the first act in each world felt like a proper level), but the level design we did get especially in those first acts was quite fun. Boost was not too abundant at all which actually made it fun to use, because you wanted to make the most of it, and there was a lot of actual platforming going on. It's kinda sad that I even consider that last point to be significant, but no other Boost game (not even the Rush games imo) have much proper platforming.

It certainly was not immune to the "shallow setpiece" moments where you're not doing much, but here they actually felt like breather moments in-between other level design, rather than the bulk of the level design. People criticize it for being "blocky", which is understandable, but I personally felt there was ample opportunity to speed through with skillful play and smart use of Boost, which made this a non-issue. 

I think there was a lot of room for improvement (mainly making the level terrain more smooth/sloped and using better physics, better transitioning from slow to fast moments etc.) but I honestly think it was a better foundation for modern Sonic than Unleashed or even Generations, at least as far as 2D goes (although Generations Seaside Hill makes a very convincing case for that style of gameplay working well)

 

 

I see where you're coming from. Of the 3 boost games Colours is the one with the most platforming. 

I personally don't like it because it felt really situationary. Let me explain.

Let's take just the first act of every level in consideration, since the other ones are pretty much optional missions or secondary short acts.

In every level you have really simple 3D sections, most of them are actually automated setpieces, so the majority of the game is actually 2D. Much more than the rest of the boost titles. The worst part is that boosting during these segments won't actually increase your top speed, I've tested this countless times. I hated that!

But that 2D portion of the game suffers from not having slope physics and still has scripted ramps and stuff like that. There's the platforming sections, sure but they feel disconnected and you can't go faster by getting good at the game, it's just made to be slow. I think the level design works against the way the character moves. I always feel awkward playing Colours because I feel like Sonic doesn't belong in those levels by the way he moves.

Besides that, I don't really enjoy the Wisps, as again, they're really situationary and stop the player in place (Laser, Rocket), or slow the game down too much (Frenzy), or change it up so that it's unrecognisable (Drill, Hover). They were pretty much optional, but the main route was not as polished and thought out like the Wisps routes, so the player's choice is "you either enjoy the Wisps and play the game like that or you can play the game without them but fuck you".

They're pretty different than Super Mario powerups for example, as those enhanche the character and don't change the game.

I don't really like the 2D sections in boost games, I think that Sonic in 2D without physics doesn't really make sense. 

I respect your view though, none of the boost games are bad games per-se, I just don't enjoy some of these things. The boost does have potential though!

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Both Unleashed and Gens have some levels that I'd like the boost games to emulate in an ideal game. Seaside Hill like Blue Blood said, but there's also stuff like Jungle Joyride where you're really pushed to learn how to handle all of Sonic's moveset in a linear level. Unleashed's more difficult bits became my favorite parts on later playthroughs. If Sonic's gonna be a linear action game, at least be one that demands my attention, right?

Then there are levels on the lower end of the scale like Gens Green Hill, Planet Wisp and a lot of the parts of Colors that are actually 3D. They pretty much prove every negative argument about the boost correct. I think the style has potential that's not going to be realized if they can't even really consistently design a level.

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5 minutes ago, Josh said:

Both Unleashed and Gens have some levels that I'd like the boost games to emulate in an ideal game. Seaside Hill like Blue Blood said, but there's also stuff like Jungle Joyride where you're really pushed to learn how to handle all of Sonic's moveset in a linear level. Unleashed's more difficult bits became my favorite parts on later playthroughs. If Sonic's gonna be a linear action game, at least be one that demands my attention, right?

Then there are levels on the lower end of the scale like Gens Green Hill, Planet Wisp and a lot of the parts of Colors that are actually 3D. They pretty much prove every negative argument about the boost correct. I think the style has potential that's not going to be realized if they can't even really consistently design a level.

This is the only level I remember having 3D platforming in Colours and it was still pretty barebones, there could be some more in Acquarium Park, but Colours has the weakest 3D sections of any Sonic game. It doesn't help that you can skip the whole section with hover.

Also Unleashed as I said in the video, is the most rollercoaster-like of the 3 games, and I dissected exactly Jungle Joyride. Even if it was a difficult level it's because of cheap deaths and QTE's, not because of complex level design or the player's incompetency. The player is going to fail on the first run regardless of their reflexes and abilities because the game is built around trial and error. Most of the fast sections are still empty hallways and quickstep segments, which are not very fun imho.

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19 minutes ago, Sonikko said:

I see where you're coming from. Of the 3 boost games Colours is the one with the most platforming. 

I personally don't like it because it felt really situationary. Let me explain.

Let's take just the first act of every level in consideration, since the other ones are pretty much optional missions or secondary short acts.

In every level you have really simple 3D sections, most of them are actually automated setpieces, so the majority of the game is actually 2D. Much more than the rest of the boost titles. The worst part is that boosting during these segments won't actually increase your top speed, I've tested this countless times. I hated that!

But that 2D portion of the game suffers from not having slope physics and still has scripted ramps and stuff like that. There's the platforming sections, sure but they feel disconnected and you can't go faster by getting good at the game, it's just made to be slow. I think the level design works against the way the character moves. I always feel awkward playing Colours because I feel like Sonic doesn't belong in those levels by the way he moves.

Besides that, I don't really enjoy the Wisps, as again, they're really situationary and stop the player in place (Laser, Rocket), or slow the game down too much (Frenzy), or change it up so that it's unrecognisable (Drill, Hover). They were pretty much optional, but the main route was not as polished and thought out like the Wisps routes, so the player's choice is "you either enjoy the Wisps and play the game like that or you can play the game without them but fuck you".

They're pretty different than Super Mario powerups for example, as those enhanche the character and don't change the game.

I don't really like the 2D sections in boost games, I think that Sonic in 2D without physics doesn't really make sense. 

I respect your view though, none of the boost games are bad games per-se, I just don't enjoy some of these things. The boost does have potential though!

Yeah, having a solid physics-based level design approach will always be best for 2D Sonic, agreed. But I think as far as Boost 2D goes, Colours was the one that I felt was most like an actual platformer to me. I don't like the 2D sections we got in Generations all that much (and it looks like Forces will be similar) and I do think that the Boost overall is just fundamentally flawed, I don't think they can keep it up. Which is why I'm a bit surprised Forces is going back to it. From Lost World onwards I figured they'd try and move away from it to make development easier and stuff. I suppose Forces was probably in development at the same time as Lost World, though?

 

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There's a pretty big discrepancy that you might not be considering for your Unleashed video, in what physics differences there are between the original Unleashed and the Unleashed Project. Not only is the speed cap able to reach much higher peaks in the former, it's also significantly looser to control Sonic in 3D than the latter. And I feel that impacts the automation by quite a bit, tbh.

Like, the section after exiting the forest and the grind rail. In the Generations mod, it's fairly easy to hit it and doesn't really effect the game by much other than locking you on a path, but with the Unleashed version, since the handling is so loose in comparison, it's less a question of whether you want to hit it, or whether you can. Should you, you receive a line of rings to refill your meter for a rather fast depleting boost gauge over perilous water, and a short "break" from navigating in a 3D space to reassert yourself for the rapidly approaching challenge up next.

This is what makes Unleashed's 3D and automation pretty different from the later games, imo, and is sort of a formula the rest of the game follows. The automation is there, yeah, but it depends entirely on your ability to react fast enough, or navigate Sonic well enough to hit it in a 3D space to be "safe" again. The sections afterwards that rail, for example, rely on this by a good amount as well. A line of rings for, at a first-playthrough's point of view, precious boost energy, needs to be followed precisely enough to pick up, the bottleneck directly afterwards requires you to reassert yourself and thread the needle, or get flung in the wrong direction by the angle/drown on impact, and immediately afterwards is a few springs on a completely missable pathway, requiring a last-second attempt at precision in order to finish off the section and make it onto a "safe" path again. The alternate route dash pad in the same area is even harder to nail.

 

Sure, you can call this "fake difficulty" or "unfair level design", (I don't think that's inherently bad game design, as people love rhythm games on their own) but whether it's the best fit for the series overall in the long run or not, the twitch-based gameplay was pretty different from how the later boost games handled it, and sells the concept of the boost the best as-is, in my opinion.

The boost is dangerous, yet also inherent for survival, rather than being an easy speed button. The hallways are linear, but pose a decent threat often enough to be constantly engaging, rather than a tired bore to navigate. The automation exists, but more as a reward and the only reliable resting point in blistering, breakneck level traversal, rather than a crutch of bad physics and player trust. And overall, it's less about having the ability to go fast at the press of a button, and more the ability to survive that speed's potential intensity, at all costs. That, is what makes Unleashed's boost gameplay the best version, imo, even with the occasional niggles like qtes and such.

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Over the years I'd say I've become a really big stickler on the quality of level design in Sonic games. I still hold the level design philosophy of classic Sonic games as the bar to strive for, and I feel few of the games since then strive to match its principles and/or offer level design that while not exactly the same, are genuinely enjoyable in their own right. (My personal shortlist includes Sonic 3D: Flickies' Island, Sonic R, Adventure 1, Advance 1, and classic Sonic's half of Generations, based off of what I've played of them. Though I'm pretty confident Mania will nail it to a T.) 

I'm largely going to share some talking points about some of the biggest problems I think the games get wrong, but will note that if we're talking level design, I'd like to link to what I feel are very good outside sources to look into when discussing level design. Retro has some pretty good threads (Sparks' 2D thread and P3DR0's 3D thread) to use as a basis. There's also a huge, huge archived thread over at the Sega Forums from the Sonic 4 sub-forum by local member Saberclaws about automation, which I feel is integral to level design quality for the Sonic series. Sonic Science, while long-abandoned and incomplete, has some really good comparisons about the qualities of the level design of the classic games, which he then compares to the faults of the level design of then-modern games (it was last updated February 2007, so it was essentially in reaction to Sonic Team's level design philosophy as of Sonic 2006). Last but not least, I can't talk Sonic level design without bringing up Zone 0, which a very through guide about each level for Sonic 1, 2, CD, and 3&K; complete with level maps of each act, tips, secrets, and other information out the wazoo.

- Level design philosophy for 3D levels is one-note and stagnant. I mentioned this in more detail in the Bad level design thread from a while back, but I think one of the most enduring problems that Sonic games have with 3D level design structure is that they seem to be made purely on one template--very linear in structure and the level is being suspended over, or surrounded by, bottomless pits. Or in other words, designers from Adventure 2 onwards looked at Speed Highway and said to themselves "Hey, let's use this level as the basis for all 3D Sonic levels going forward." These type of levels aren't bad in itself, but they seem to be the only way to design Sonic games according to Sonic Team. There is hardly any variety or an attempt to have contrasting levels to balance these levels out; compared to other 3D platformers. They become especially bad when you have these levels in level settings/locations in which they don't make sense contextually. Bottomless pits in a level like Final Rush, which is at a space station? Sure. Bottomless pits in City Escape, a level based on downtown San Francisco? Why?

- Level design philosophy for (recent) 2D levels are generic. While I think this problem is emblematic with 2D levels of the Boost gameplay overall, I think this is especially visible with Morio Kishimoto-directed Sonic games such as Colors, Lost World, and based off of classic Sonic's GHZ footage, what we're going to see with Forces. You have probably heard these complaints from myself and/or others before. Level designed being mostly flat in terrain, with little if any slopes to speak of. Platforming structure being more about timing and aiming your jumps, rather than based on speed and momentum, aka precision or "block" platforming. Level design being absolutely devoid of branching either, with only one singular route in sight and no secrets to speak of. This is level design that would probably be more fitting in a platformer other than Sonic, maybe some sort of mediocre Mario clone. But in the context of Sonic gameplay, which has mechanics that are usually designed around building/maintaining speed and playing with momentum? It's highly out of place.

- Levels are very lacking in gimmicks. Levels in recent Sonic games usually don't tend to emphasize level or even zone-specific gimmicks much in their levels, and even when they do, they are only used a few times and then tossed to the side. This alongside the lack of variety in zone structure and automation (which I'll touch on below) I think makes them come off as level structurally blending in together, despite levels being in different locations. In contrast, levels from the classic games would use several gimmicks consistently throughout zones, with Sonic CD and Sonic 3&K in particular upping the ante with having a handful of exclusive gimmicks per act (or even per timezone, regarding the former). Think of Mystic Cave, with its ceiling/floor crushing pillars, rotating trios of boxes, slowly-extending spiked steps, chute-like bridges, and vertically moving handlebars. Or the king of all bumper levels that is Carnival Night, with the red-and-white swirling barrels, giant mesh rotating cylinders, the balloons, the spring corridors, the one-direction funnels, the floating bumpers...there's probably more, but you get the point. Can you imagine these levels if they didn't have these gimmicks? Meanwhile, what does something like Desert Ruins have? There's ramps...half of an act where you're being chased by a tornado...some quicksand pools...and there's not much else. Or how about Metal Harbor? Erm...I'm coming up with blanks. Rails? That could count, but rails are a staple of the entire game, so it's not really a unique gimmick. The whole bit with racing up to the rocket under a timer and snowboarding back down to earth is unique...but's that more of a level setpiece / sequence that's part of the act, rather than a gimmick within the act. Meanwhile, Mania's Studiopolis has the TV station teleporters, the giant film projector connected to rotating platform conveyor belts, the yellow/black-striped springs, the red springy bumpers, the rising/lowering director's chairs, and so on. 

- Levels are heavily automated/scripted. We've pretty much covered this quite a bit recently, whatnot with Sonikko's video and discussion on Green Hill in Forces, but it still bears repeating. Levels frequently have way, way too much automation and scripting that take away any freedom of the player and heavily restrict the gameplay. Levels are chock-full of dash panels and springs (and while not necessarily the same thing, homing attack chains), and are filled scripted elements in slopes and level setpieces. We're even seeing this use of automation rise to really questionable level design decisions like having rows of enemies put before dash panels in Sonic 4 (those of which make the player curl into a ball, so the game is literally giving you into easy kills) and as of that Forces footage, dash panels during / shortly after high-speed scripted loops. And while its overall hard to tell what exactly the developers did, Sonic 4: Episode II's slopes operate so oddly (with reports of players gaining little speed during one act on one slope, but getting a ton of speed doing the same thing on a similar slope in a different act) that it has been speculated that the designers decided to script movement for every slope in the game as opposed to simply improving the physics engine. Said this before as well, but dash panels in particular are also guilty of having no variety either--it's largely been the same giant Chemical Plant dash panels we've been seeing for a while (as of Lost World, Generations, and Sonic 4), there are no attempts to make them look like they fit the context of the level, let alone look or behave differently--and honestly, this too is itself a form of automation.

- Levels demand moves to be used in order to proceed. The introduction of the homing attack with the 3D games has made this a long running problem, which has from Adventure 2 onwards has been frequently utilizing homing attack chains --having a series of enemies lined up in a row, placed over a bottomless pit-- to force usage of the homing attack. But it seems to have become more prevalent in recent titles as well--Sonic 4: Episode II and Sonic Lost World featured levels that demanded the use of co-op moves (Epi. II) or Wisps (LW) in order to proceed. This also occurred in Generations (Planet Wisp) and some areas of Colors, though they were significantly more minor in their implementation of this manner. The use of homing attack chains have also been said to have leaked into the 2D games as well as early as Rush, its use became especially notorious in Sonic 4: Episode I's use of constant Bubbles chains. It's become a visible worrying trend that seems to have growing in its use. For comparison's sake, neither the shields or character abilities in the classic games (save for some segments of required climbing/gliding for Knuckles for his alternate routes), or the character upgrades in the Adventure series, demanded the use of abilities in order to continue through levels.

- Levels treat the players like they don't know how to play the game. I am referring to the inclusion of warning signs for bottomless pits, and --in the case of Sonic 4: Episode II-- tutorial signs for combo moves. These things may be necessary for other genres and other franchises, but Sonic is a relatively accessible series that doesn't get particularly difficult or complex that would require them (in my view). Moreover, these warning / tutorial signs are big, glowing, floating objects that are placed at the most obvious locations (warning signs especially) and break the immersion of the gameworld completely, they come off as obnoxious and patronizing. It's like the designers are assuming the player has never played a platformer before. With that said, this (thankfully) doesn't seem like to be happening as much anymore, but I think its still important to address.

Those are the six major points I think could really stand to be corrected through dialing them down if not cutting them out completely in level design for Sonic games. There are probably more issues I have, but these are all of the big ones I could think of when I spent the past couple of hours writing this up. As I've said before, Mania looks like it's doing a great job avoiding all of these and aiming closer for classic Sonic design philosophy. While we have yet to see more of Forces, that game however looks to be perpetuating most of them, unfortunately (or even accelerating them--no pun intended).

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7 hours ago, PerfectChaos said:

From Lost World onwards I figured they'd try and move away from it to make development easier and stuff. I suppose Forces was probably in development at the same time as Lost World, though?

 

I don't think so, I think they went back to it because Lost World bombed.

6 hours ago, The Deleter said:

There's a pretty big discrepancy that you might not be considering for your Unleashed video, in what physics differences there are between the original Unleashed and the Unleashed Project. Not only is the speed cap able to reach much higher peaks in the former, it's also significantly looser to control Sonic in 3D than the latter. And I feel that impacts the automation by quite a bit, tbh.

That's true, I'll give you that. The physics were different indeed, and it affected how you can approach the levels themselves.

 

6 hours ago, The Deleter said:

Like, the section after exiting the forest and the grind rail. In the Generations mod, it's fairly easy to hit it and doesn't really effect the game by much other than locking you on a path, but with the Unleashed version, since the handling is so loose in comparison, it's less a question of whether you want to hit it, or whether you can. Should you, you receive a line of rings to refill your meter for a rather fast depleting boost gauge over perilous water, and a short "break" from navigating in a 3D space to reassert yourself for the rapidly approaching challenge up next.

This is what makes Unleashed's 3D and automation pretty different from the later games, imo, and is sort of a formula the rest of the game follows. The automation is there, yeah, but it depends entirely on your ability to react fast enough, or navigate Sonic well enough to hit it in a 3D space to be "safe" again. The sections afterwards that rail, for example, rely on this by a good amount as well. A line of rings for, at a first-playthrough's point of view, precious boost energy, needs to be followed precisely enough to pick up, the bottleneck directly afterwards requires you to reassert yourself and thread the needle, or get flung in the wrong direction by the angle/drown on impact, and immediately afterwards is a few springs on a completely missable pathway, requiring a last-second attempt at precision in order to finish off the section and make it onto a "safe" path again. The alternate route dash pad in the same area is even harder to nail.

 

Sure, you can call this "fake difficulty" or "unfair level design", (I don't think that's inherently bad game design, as people love rhythm games on their own) but whether it's the best fit for the series overall in the long run or not, the twitch-based gameplay was pretty different from how the later boost games handled it, and sells the concept of the boost the best as-is, in my opinion.

The boost is dangerous, yet also inherent for survival, rather than being an easy speed button. The hallways are linear, but pose a decent threat often enough to be constantly engaging, rather than a tired bore to navigate. The automation exists, but more as a reward and the only reliable resting point in blistering, breakneck level traversal, rather than a crutch of bad physics and player trust. And overall, it's less about having the ability to go fast at the press of a button, and more the ability to survive that speed's potential intensity, at all costs. That, is what makes Unleashed's boost gameplay the best version, imo, even with the occasional niggles like qtes and such.

Ok, so, that is true, as I remember that rail being a "safety point" in the level, but that does not justify complete automation in anyway.

In Sonic Unleashed the player's constantly fighting against the character itself, since it controls very loosely and sometimes it's really unresponsive. I had to die something like 40 times before being able to drift on that Skyscraper Scamper curve in the beginning, and that's not because I could not drift correctly, it's because the outcome would vary too much each time. 

Anyway, this still doesn't justify that even if it's one of the last levels in the game, and it's a very hard level for sure, the difficulty comes mostly from the loosely handling character and not from the terrain or hazards. Most of them are cheaply positioned too, giving the player little to no time to react.

This is why Generation's mod reveals how shallow the level design in Unleashed actually is. Once you're not fighting to control your character anymore, you're left with stages that almost play themselves. This is the very reason I chose to go with Jungle Joyride, since it's one of the last stages in the game, but many other are even worse. Windmill Isle, Savannah Cittadel, Rooftop Run, every 3D section is very barebones and most of the gameplay happens during the 2D ones.

Besides that, you seem to be forgetting that the quickstep sections were very long in the original game, and I just wished I could skip them some times, like you do with a cutscene, because there's nothing to differentiate them one from the other, and the mechanic itself, as I said in the video, is very shallow and does not offer much.

Unleashed liked to throw rails at the player too, and they posed no threat at all, except for deciding which one was the right path to take. It's basically quickstep all over again, so. SA2 did rails well, since they were affected by slope physics and you could actually fall off them if you didn't balance right. From ShTH and on rails became the way we know them now, and I don't like it, that's something else that has to go.

Lost World did rails in a different way, and I liked that approach, even if it felt more like a Donkey Kong game than a Sonic one, but that game as a whole screamed "Nintendo clone", so.

3 hours ago, Gabe said:

Over the years I'd say I've become a really big stickler on the quality of level design in Sonic games. I still hold the level design philosophy of classic Sonic games as the bar to strive for, and I feel few of the games since then strive to match its principles and/or offer level design that while not exactly the same, are genuinely enjoyable in their own right. (My personal shortlist includes Sonic 3D: Flickies' Island, Sonic R, Adventure 1, Advance 1, and classic Sonic's half of Generations, based off of what I've played of them. Though I'm pretty confident Mania will nail it to a T.) 

I'm largely going to share some talking points about some of the biggest problems I think the games get wrong, but will note that if we're talking level design, I'd like to link to what I feel are very good outside sources to look into when discussing level design. Retro has some pretty good threads (Sparks' 2D thread and P3DR0's 3D thread) to use as a basis. There's also a huge, huge archived thread over at the Sega Forums from the Sonic 4 sub-forum by local member Saberclaws about automation, which I feel is integral to level design quality for the Sonic series. Sonic Science, while long-abandoned and incomplete, has some really good comparisons about the qualities of the level design of the classic games, which he then compares to the faults of the level design of then-modern games (it was last updated February 2007, so it was essentially in reaction to Sonic Team's level design philosophy as of Sonic 2006). Last but not least, I can't talk Sonic level design without bringing up Zone 0, which a very through guide about each level for Sonic 1, 2, CD, and 3&K; complete with level maps of each act, tips, secrets, and other information out the wazoo.

- Level design philosophy for 3D levels is one-note and stagnant. I mentioned this in more detail in the Bad level design thread from a while back, but I think one of the most enduring problems that Sonic games have with 3D level design structure is that they seem to be made purely on one template--very linear in structure and the level is being suspended over, or surrounded by, bottomless pits. Or in other words, designers from Adventure 2 onwards looked at Speed Highway and said to themselves "Hey, let's use this level as the basis for all 3D Sonic levels going forward." These type of levels aren't bad in itself, but they seem to be the only way to design Sonic games according to Sonic Team. There is hardly any variety or an attempt to have contrasting levels to balance these levels out; compared to other 3D platformers. They become especially bad when you have these levels in level settings/locations in which they don't make sense contextually. Bottomless pits in a level like Final Rush, which is at a space station? Sure. Bottomless pits in City Escape, a level based on downtown San Francisco? Why?

- Level design philosophy for (recent) 2D levels are generic. While I think this problem is emblematic with 2D levels of the Boost gameplay overall, I think this is especially visible with Morio Kishimoto-directed Sonic games such as Colors, Lost World, and based off of classic Sonic's GHZ footage, what we're going to see with Forces. You have probably heard these complaints from myself and/or others before. Level designed being mostly flat in terrain, with little if any slopes to speak of. Platforming structure being more about timing and aiming your jumps, rather than based on speed and momentum, aka precision or "block" platforming. Level design being absolutely devoid of branching either, with only one singular route in sight and no secrets to speak of. This is level design that would probably be more fitting in a platformer other than Sonic, maybe some sort of mediocre Mario clone. But in the context of Sonic gameplay, which has mechanics that are usually designed around building/maintaining speed and playing with momentum? It's highly out of place.

- Levels are very lacking in gimmicks. Levels in recent Sonic games usually don't tend to emphasize level or even zone-specific gimmicks much in their levels, and even when they do, they are only used a few times and then tossed to the side. This alongside the lack of variety in zone structure and automation (which I'll touch on below) I think makes them come off as level structurally blending in together, despite levels being in different locations. In contrast, levels from the classic games would use several gimmicks consistently throughout zones, with Sonic CD and Sonic 3&K in particular upping the ante with having a handful of exclusive gimmicks per act (or even per timezone, regarding the former). Think of Mystic Cave, with its ceiling/floor crushing pillars, rotating trios of boxes, slowly-extending spiked steps, chute-like bridges, and vertically moving handlebars. Or the king of all bumper levels that is Carnival Night, with the red-and-white swirling barrels, giant mesh rotating cylinders, the balloons, the spring corridors, the one-direction funnels, the floating bumpers...there's probably more, but you get the point. Can you imagine these levels if they didn't have these gimmicks? Meanwhile, what does something like Desert Ruins have? There's ramps...half of an act where you're being chased by a tornado...some quicksand pools...and there's not much else. Or how about Metal Harbor? Erm...I'm coming up with blanks. Rails? That could count, but rails are a staple of the entire game, so it's not really a unique gimmick. The whole bit with racing up to the rocket under a timer and snowboarding back down to earth is unique...but's that more of a level setpiece / sequence that's part of the act, rather than a gimmick within the act. Meanwhile, Mania's Studiopolis has the TV station teleporters, the giant film projector connected to rotating platform conveyor belts, the yellow/black-striped springs, the red springy bumpers, the rising/lowering director's chairs, and so on. 

- Levels are heavily automated/scripted. We've pretty much covered this quite a bit recently, whatnot with Sonikko's video and discussion on Green Hill in Forces, but it still bears repeating. Levels frequently have way, way too much automation and scripting that take away any freedom of the player and heavily restrict the gameplay. Levels are chock-full of dash panels and springs (and while not necessarily the same thing, homing attack chains), and are filled scripted elements in slopes and level setpieces. We're even seeing this use of automation rise to really questionable level design decisions like having rows of enemies put before dash panels in Sonic 4 (those of which make the player curl into a ball, so the game is literally giving you into easy kills) and as of that Forces footage, dash panels during / shortly after high-speed scripted loops. And while its overall hard to tell what exactly the developers did, Sonic 4: Episode II's slopes operate so oddly (with reports of players gaining little speed during one act on one slope, but getting a ton of speed doing the same thing on a similar slope in a different act) that it has been speculated that the designers decided to script movement for every slope in the game as opposed to simply improving the physics engine. Said this before as well, but dash panels in particular are also guilty of having no variety either--it's largely been the same giant Chemical Plant dash panels we've been seeing for a while (as of Lost World, Generations, and Sonic 4), there are no attempts to make them look like they fit the context of the level, let alone look or behave differently--and honestly, this too is itself a form of automation.

- Levels demand moves to be used in order to proceed. The introduction of the homing attack with the 3D games has made this a long running problem, which has from Adventure 2 onwards has been frequently utilizing homing attack chains --having a series of enemies lined up in a row, placed over a bottomless pit-- to force usage of the homing attack. But it seems to have become more prevalent in recent titles as well--Sonic 4: Episode II and Sonic Lost World featured levels that demanded the use of co-op moves (Epi. II) or Wisps (LW) in order to proceed. This also occurred in Generations (Planet Wisp) and some areas of Colors, though they were significantly more minor in their implementation of this manner. The use of homing attack chains have also been said to have leaked into the 2D games as well as early as Rush, its use became especially notorious in Sonic 4: Episode I's use of constant Bubbles chains. It's become a visible worrying trend that seems to have growing in its use. For comparison's sake, neither the shields or character abilities in the classic games (save for some segments of required climbing/gliding for Knuckles for his alternate routes), or the character upgrades in the Adventure series, demanded the use of abilities in order to continue through levels.

- Levels treat the players like they don't know how to play the game. I am referring to the inclusion of warning signs for bottomless pits, and --in the case of Sonic 4: Episode II-- tutorial signs for combo moves. These things may be necessary for other genres and other franchises, but Sonic is a relatively accessible series that doesn't get particularly difficult or complex that would require them (in my view). Moreover, these warning / tutorial signs are big, glowing, floating objects that are placed at the most obvious locations (warning signs especially) and break the immersion of the gameworld completely, they come off as obnoxious and patronizing. It's like the designers are assuming the player has never played a platformer before. With that said, this (thankfully) doesn't seem like to be happening as much anymore, but I think its still important to address.

Those are the six major points I think could really stand to be corrected through dialing them down if not cutting them out completely in level design for Sonic games. There are probably more issues I have, but these are all of the big ones I could think of when I spent the past couple of hours writing this up. As I've said before, Mania looks like it's doing a great job avoiding all of these and aiming closer for classic Sonic design philosophy. While we have yet to see more of Forces, that game however looks to be perpetuating most of them, unfortunately (or even accelerating them--no pun intended).

Great, great post. Thank you for writing this, I enjoyed reading it a lot.

About the level design in 3D games:

I agree but most of Adventure 1 was designed like that aswell.

Actually, the first game that tried doing something different from that is Unleashed, but that's only because the bottomless pits on the side were replaced with fancy buildings.

About the modern 2D games:

That's exactly it. I'm not against platforming in a Sonic game, but it has to be done in the right way. It has to be integral with how the character handles, it has to be built around momentum (This is why I love some parts of Generations, they seemed to understand that). I don't like Colours for that very reason, since it's 80% 2D and the whole game is built like that. 

2D Sonic is not about waiting for platforms to move or jumping on square blocks (except for Labyrinth zone but I don't think anybody actually liked it). 

This happened a lot in Lost World too, and the 2D stages were the worst portion in the game. This is happening again with Forces even if they were able to do much better in Generations. But that has to be because this game is being directed by the Colours/LW guy.

About the levels demanding moves:

Wisps are the worst offenders, and I really want them gone or heavily redesigned, they stop the player to a halt, they change the game too much and it doesn't feel part of the whole, it feels like many small obligatory minigames  and I've never been a fan of those.

I think they are there because Sonic Team feels like the main gameplay, may it be boost or Lost World, is not deep enough or not engaging enough, so they have to literally change it up.

If that's so, they should just scrap it and go for something more deep in substance.

About the levels treating the players like they don't know how to play:

That's also an issue, but I was glad I could turn those signs off in Generations. Besides it also comes from cheaply designed levels, since a player should always be able to tell which empty space is safe and which one isn't. 

There's no point in having "bottomless pits warnings" plastered all over the place if the level is well designed.

 

Ultimately I feel like the levels don't differentiate them too much one from the other. If you take one level structure, change it's aesthetics up, it could belong in any zone. There should be some element of novelty in each zone, something that sticks out and is memorable.

The levels in the boost games feel like they're made out of pre-composed layouts switched around.

 

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Everything I would want to say has been covered well enough above, but I wanted to add that it is the lack of unique zone identity that really grinds my gears, when zones have no unique elements and just feel like a set of interchangeable obstacle courses which you could reskin as any other level in the game.  I really value a sense of place in a game rather than feeling like the area is an artificially-structured platformer created just for my benefit; obviously, that's precisely what they are, but if you're going to commit to the illusion of place by giving it city or jungle graphics or whatever, you should follow that thought in the level design as well and make it feel like a real place which only becomes a playground through Sonic's irreverent and adventurous spirit.

As an example, I would argue that, even without level-specific gimmicks, clever use of level design and a zone's stock graphics can be used to create memorable areas.  Consider the area of Angel Island Zone Act 2 near the end in which you zig-zag between the left and right sides of an enormous waterfall that flows down through the level; in fact, Angel Island Zone is good on making waterfalls feel like a proper part of the space even when they're nothing but a background element, with water pooling at the bottom and attention drawn to the structure by having you cross over them on narrow platforms with frequent gaps.  The obstacle course, the platforming has context, and is more memorable for it.  It becomes a set-piece without having to code anything new.

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I agree, you can build a memorable level even without a gimmick. Level structure is key, I think we all remember the swinging platform in GHZ 2 or the crossed paths in Chemical Plant.

Also, I mean, using a specific setpiece to give some personality to the level is ok, as long as the whole level isn't one giant setpiece connected by quickstep sections and rails.

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Automation is why I don't like modern Sonic. I liked Generations for the old stages reimagined, but the gameplay, even with Classic Sonic, felt too automated. And Modern Sonic acts in Generations, well, they were beautiful, but I don't like the gameplay so much. In the end it's a matter of moving forward and pressing the right button in the right moment. And collecting rings in a 3D space is really annoying.

I think Sonic deserves much more than that. And he will get it. On Sonic Mania :D

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On 5/23/2017 at 1:00 AM, Sonikko said:

Great, great post. Thank you for writing this, I enjoyed reading it a lot.

About the level design in 3D games:

I agree but most of Adventure 1 was designed like that aswell.

Actually, the first game that tried doing something different from that is Unleashed, but that's only because the bottomless pits on the side were replaced with fancy buildings.

I think Adventure 1 has elements of it, but they are far more downplayed compared to the other titles. Bottomless pits, for one, were far less frequent--you had Sky Deck's second half of the level in the giant shifting pilot room, the sewer section or most --if not all-- of Casinopolis as a level, Red Mountain's lava segment, the "At Dawn" section that follows Speed Highway, and so on. Routes in that game I think were also more open and had more breadcrumbs / shortcuts (if not fully independent alternate paths) compared to later titles too.

(On a side note, talking about level design for 3D Sonic is something of a puzzle. I think there can be arguments that can be made that making decent 3D level design for Sonic is much harder than it looks; but I also think that a huge chunk of that narrative is also smoke and mirrors to excuse the fact that the majority of 3D Sonic levels we've gotten since the jump to 3D are largely uninspired and mediocre at best.)

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2 hours ago, Gabe said:

I think Adventure 1 has elements of it, but they are far more downplayed compared to the other titles. Bottomless pits, for one, were far less frequent--you had Sky Deck's second half of the level in the giant shifting pilot room, the lava section or most --if not all-- of Casinopolis as a level, Red Mountain's lava segment, the "At Dawn" section that follows Speed Highway, and so on. Routes in that game I think were also more open and had more breadcrumbs / shortcuts (if not fully independent alternate paths) compared to later titles too.

(On a side note, talking about level design for 3D Sonic is something of a puzzle. I think there can be arguments that can be made that making decent 3D level design for Sonic is much harder than it looks; but I also think that a huge chunk of that narrative is also smoke and mirrors to excuse the fact that the majority of 3D Sonic levels we've gotten since the jump to 3D are largely uninspired and mediocre at best.)

Designing a 3D level for Sonic is harder for sure, but it can be done, and it has been done the right way in the past. There's no excuse for the uninspired, as you said, level design we've been getting for a long time now. 

Even if 3D Sonic goes in a different direction than 2D Sonic, there's so much room for improvement. For the boost formula Seaside Hill should be the minimum quality objective, for the standard 3D action-game formula Kingdom Valley Act 1 was well designed even if the rest of the levels were very bad, or something along the lines of Silent Forest Act 1 in Lost World with less automation and some acceleration physics, some actual slopes and it's a good level.  There's much to learn from the Adventure games too, the levels you mentioned from SA1 were good ones for example.

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Sorry for the double post but...

I was playing through Colours to record some footage for the next video, and man was it a boring afternoon.

The game is way worse than I remembered, I can't count how many times I fell off a platform because Sonic controlled like a piece of butter. It controls even worse than Heroes if possible. How did they manage that?

I honestly think Lost World is a much better effort than Colours ever was.

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