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Sonic Fan J

A Level Design Approach to Encourage Better Gameplay

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Recent conversations I've been watching around SSMB and conversations I've had elsewhere has got me thinking about a level design approach I feel would work in 3D level design for Sonic that would capture the classic feel while respecting the freedom of 3D game design.

Now Sonic Team and any number of third parties they have lent the license out to have tried many different approaches to trying to capture the magic, but at the end of the day outside of the Mania team managing to recapture it in 2D the closest it has been reached within the SEGA's publishing lineup seems to be the Adventure games. The adventure games have received any number of complaints though such as scripted events (my personal opinion scripted events should be a button press option for the player to engage) and linear design in SA2. Linear design though makes sense when wanting to capture the dynamism of the distances that Sonic travels and scripted events make sense when wanting to highlight the spectacle. The problem is this takes away the player's agency while playing and gameplay can get boring and redundant, when it is present at all. Sonic team seemed to have missed out on this though resulting in the Boost which took dynamism and spectacle to the extreme with gameplay being more a series of reflex tests rather than capturing the 2D magic of the classics in 3D.

So what is that classic 2D magic? A lot of people have a lot of different opinions, but at it's simplest Yuji Naka was inspired by speed running World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. and came up with a character who curls into a ball to allow for continuous movement without limited attack angles. Combining this with momentum physics and you get the gameplay that we all know and love. But the gameplay obviously only makes up half of the experience as the gameplay still has to have a level to apply it to. That other half was put together by Hirokazu Yasuhara  whose level designs are still beloved to this day. Now to the best of my knowledge his approach was to take each obstacle and ask himself what would be a challenge and what would be fun and how to mix that together. Now in the first game he had a lot of hit and miss designs but he refined that come Sonic 2 and 3 and there are few obstacles that aren't both fun and challenging while allowing Sonic to keep moving. The end result is something that I compare to a side scrolling pinball machine where you directly control the ball. It is a feeling of exhilaration that is unique to the 2D Sonic formula and has never been recaptured. But as Mario inspired Sonic to begin with lets take a look at Mario again to find some inspiration for Sonic.

As a disclaimer let me just state that I've never been a Mario player so nigh everything I say is more hearsay than any actual experience, but what I've heard is still enough to go off of and that is that Mario had to be reinvented for 3D while still capturing what made him special in the first place. Again I'm not familiar with Mario, but to my understanding that something special is precision platforming. So what in turn is it that makes Sonic special. As stated above pretty much being a playable pinball in a side scrolling pinball machine. Obviously that can't be translated into a 3D space as easily as precision platforming but that doesn't mean it can't be done. My suggestion is to look at what else in the real world allows for constant movement, the ability to move while rolling, and being able to bounce back and forth with ease with all sorts of exploration options. I know a lot of people, myself included on more than one occasion would gladly suggest parkour, and it does fit Sonic pretty well. But parkour lacks the free momentum carrying of a ball, and while it could work with the level design suggestion that I have, Sonic's traditional jump, roll, run moveset works even without it.

Taking all of the above into account the level design approach that I suggest is to mix designing a skate park with an obstacle course. Now that may seem a little unusual, but too me it more than works. If you've ever watched a Tony Hawk or Skate game then just imagine it with around Sonic Adventure speed and rolling. Suddenly you have a multiple routes, exploration, and all sorts of options for how to approach a level. Obviously as Sonic is still a point-to-point platformer you need some direction and also those unique Sonic elements and that is why I suggest to mix in designing an obstacle course. Now plenty of games have done that, and it is natural for a platformer. But mixing obstacle course and skate park design, no less consider momentum based gameplay the Sonic way, is a lot to do, but to me the Jet Set/Grind Radio is solid proof of concept that it can be done.

The only problem I see is a matter of approach. Sonic team as they are now focus on building levels to highlight Sonic's speed instead of designing levels to challenge the player to use Sonic's abilities to go fast and maintain momentum. It is why I suggest taking a level design approach to reexplore gameplay and remember that the game is supposed to challenge and reward the player, not be a highlight reel for Sonic on different backdrops. We all love Sonic highlight reels to be sure, but I'd rather have a replay option that lets me see my feats rather than prebaked highlights. To me the solution is to rebuild from level design instead of gameplay as gameplay already exists and for Sonic can always be simplified, and so I propose mixing the design mentalities of skate parks with obstacle courses with a heavy dose of Sonic flavor to start from. But as I'm biased to my approach I'd like to ask everyone else what they see as the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach, and how you might go about it either with my approach or your own. Let's here some ideas and remember to have fun.

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1 hour ago, Sonic Fan J said:

I'd rather have a replay option that lets me see my feats rather than prebaked highlights.

This makes me imagine a Sonic version of Overwatch's "Play of the Game". I think it'd be an interesting way to encourage tricks beyond scoring them, although would require figuring out what would qualify as a highlight. They could make it an optional play after the ranking screen, maybe also offering a gallery of such moments. Social media already encourages sharing moments like that, so I imagine skilled players would enjoy being able to share smaller clips like that instead of a pre done scene everyone playing the level sees.

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I think one of the biggest level design issues that 3D Sonic has struggled with is that levels are still designed as a series of hallways rather than as full 3D spaces. Even when there are multiple paths, they're usually entirely separate from each other aside from where they begin and end, meaning that the only decisions you have to make in a level are a few binary choices of which paths to take. The different paths built into the level shouldn't exist entirely separately from each other; they should be part of the same playable space, interwoven with each other, with naturally-occurring opportunities to move between them rather than just specific branching points.

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42 minutes ago, Diogenes said:

Even when there are multiple paths, they're usually entirely separate from each other aside from where they begin and end, meaning that the only decisions you have to make in a level are a few binary choices of which paths to take.

Part of that is loss of the punishment where you end up falling off of the good path or the reward of managing to escape/exit a slow lower path...

Stuff like that ends up also making the good path the only one to take as well as not really requiring anymore skill to get through.

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On 2/7/2020 at 1:14 AM, DryLagoon said:

This makes me imagine a Sonic version of Overwatch's "Play of the Game". I think it'd be an interesting way to encourage tricks beyond scoring them, although would require figuring out what would qualify as a highlight. They could make it an optional play after the ranking screen, maybe also offering a gallery of such moments. Social media already encourages sharing moments like that, so I imagine skilled players would enjoy being able to share smaller clips like that instead of a pre done scene everyone playing the level sees.

Another similar thing is the replay highlights in Mario Kart 8, slow-mo and finish line shot and all. If something like that could be implemented, it could lead to some pretty cool moments.

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I think the best way to handle 3D sonic gameplay would be to take the basic principles of this idea but put sonic in a giant playground map. Not levels, but instead zones that have many intertwining areas. There have been some pretty good posts regarding this kind of idea before. 

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One giant problem with the 3D Sonic games we got (whether they did this deliberately or due to some technical issues), is they never really allowed for backtracking...which in turn had a very negative effect on stage design as you're not really allowed to make stages that allow for exploration.

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20 minutes ago, StaticMania said:

The 2D games don't really allow that much backtracking either

Lol, wut?

It depends on the stage design, but in the 3D games, the camera alone prevents it.

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No, he has a point. Most 2D Sonic games have points of no return laced throughout the level and there's not a whole lot of reasons to backtrack anyway. The levels are designed to be replayable so if you miss something you're encouraged to try again next time. 

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I've seen this skatepark concept discussed in the past already, and I agree with it... but IMO it's not that simple.

Shaping a level like a skatepark alone won't solve the issue, it would be a step in the right direction though. There are several problems in the translation from 2D platforming to 3D platforming... in Sonic especially.

In 2D games, often you find a long slope, and you decide to roll and let the terrain play for you. It's not automation, because you can interact whenever you want, it's just something that the physics, the gameplay and the level layout allow you to do. You may hit a couple of badnik and destroy them.

Now, let's imagine the same scene, but in 3D.

There's a slope... ok, what's at the side of the slope? Is the slope flat or half-pipe shaped? There are walls at the sides? There is a pit at the sides? It's all the same or there are differences if you roll on the right or on the left? (such as, the right side is all flat while the left side has some bumpy spots that will make you jump and uncurl, maybe). And there are a couple of badniks off course: the slope is large and the badniks are small, you have to aim at them in order to destroy them, while in 2D you just roll and all happens itself.

You can put automation, some rails and scripted events, but then you take away the controls from the player, who's not free to interact at will anymore.

Then, 2D Sonic makes big use of the vertical axis... that's because in 2D games, you see what's above and below you regardless if there's a solid platform/block that would obstruct Sonic's sight: you can see through them as long as the space after them fits in the screen. In 3D you can't, if there's a wall, a terrain or a ceiling, you can't see what's after it, and this affects the way how the levels are designed.

Lastly, in 2D it's easy to give the sense of direction to the player (usually, go right), while in 3D, unless you use an automated camera system, it's extremely hard (but not impossible) to design a level where the player don't get lost and always knows where to go.

If you design the levels like a skate park, you will face all these new problems and maybe some more too. My point is, I like this approach, but it's almost an utopia that's almost impossible to recreate... in fact it's not a problem of just Sonic, it's the whole 3D platforming genre that has never reached that point where the developers managed to recreate the same feel of playing in 2D but in 3D instead; 3D Mario plays nothing like 2D Mario, and when it comes close to it, it relies on 2.5D just like Sonic (Mario Galaxy 1 and 2) or 3D with limited depth, fixed camera on the side and eventually dissected ground to let the player see (Mario 3D Land/World). Else, they use different exploits, such as deviate the game's goal from point A - point B to sandbox with NPCs and missions, or collectables.

The perfect 3D platformer didn't happen yet, I'm not saying that it will never happen, but knowing how hard it is to evolve the genre, I'm not even sure if it's even worth trying. I mean, earlier I said that 3D Mario plays nothing like 2D Mario, though it's still good, it's still successful. Sega is trying to make 3D Sonic play like 2D Sonic, and because of all those promlems I listed above, they put all those automations and limitations to the gameplay. Maybe trying to recreate the feel of 2D Sonic in 3D Sonic is not the correct way, maybe they should aim to make a "Sonic 64" where the core concept of the series is redesigned to work in 3D instead, even if the result is vastly different. It's not an easy goal either, but compared to following an utopia, at least this has been done already by other series, and it's possible with some effort.

In the meanwhile, Yooka Laylee did the opposite of this, for the better I add, and series like Kirby never did the jump to 3D (aside of some minor spin-offs/minigames) because they know it's insanely hard to make it work (especially for a series built around the concept of simplicity, with all the complexity added by 3D gameplay that I listed in this post).

 

tl:dr

I like the idea of the skate park, though I think that it alone is not enough to improve Sonic. Sega has either to reinvent Sonic to work in 3D, or to make a revolutionary innovation in the platforming genre as a whole and recreate the same simplicity, intuitivity and freedom of 2D platforming in 3D without relying on limitations/automations, something that's almost impossible to achieve, especially with the actual cast of developers.

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4 hours ago, Wraith said:

Most 2D Sonic games have points of no return laced throughout the level

As I was saying, the 3D games doesn't allow ANY sort of backtracking right off the bat because the camera is not designed to allow for it...whereas in the 2D games it's due to the stage design.

4 hours ago, Wraith said:

there's not a whole lot of reasons to backtrack anyway

Ever heard of 'exploration'?

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1 minute ago, Tarnish said:

As I was saying, the 3D games doesn't allow ANY sort of backtracking right off the bat because the camera is not designed to allow for it...whereas in the 2D games it's due to the stage design.

Backtracking just doesn't really suit a game with a lot of forward momentum regardless of the dimension. 

1 minute ago, Tarnish said:

Ever heard of 'exploration'?

Yes?

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5 minutes ago, Wraith said:

Backtracking just doesn't really suit a game with a lot of forward momentum regardless of the dimension.

So Sonic should always be just a linear hallway simulator?

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5 minutes ago, Tarnish said:

Ever heard of 'exploration'?

Outside of Sonic CD exploration in Sonic is rarely about going back and forth within a level; like Wraith said, you explore mostly by trying different routes in different runs. It'd be nice if the 3D games could be loosened up enough that you can at least see where you're going in the odd case when you do want to backtrack a bit, but in general the series wants you to stick with the path you've ended up on and keep moving forward rather than break the flow and fight the level to go back.

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In the 3D games we got, you can't even have a simple puzzle like 'Seeing a closed gate, finding a timed switch down along the path that opens it, and having to speed back before the gate closes again'...the 1 time we got something like that was in Adventure 2 Pyramid Cave, but only because they actually programmed the camera to behave like that in that section.

You can't even go back on a single loop because it's usually filled with dash pads...

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Like Wraith said, backtracking and exploration has never been relevant to how you play the 2D games, so I don't understand the relevance in trying to enforce that. 

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5 hours ago, Iko said:

Maybe trying to recreate the feel of 2D Sonic in 3D Sonic is not the correct way, maybe they should aim to make a "Sonic 64" where the core concept of the series is redesigned to work in 3D instead, even if the result is vastly different. It's not an easy goal either, but compared to following an utopia, at least this has been done already by other series, and it's possible with some effort.

This is the basic thing that I advocate for.

I think the biggest problem with even the best version of 3D sonic gameplay we've seen, is that the gameplay is designed like the 2D sonic gameplay with 3D environments molded around it rather than a fully 3D gameplay. And I know it's hard, because sonic was designed originally in 2D and he by his nature tends to push forward and onwards at high speed along a linear path, even if there are multiple routes. It's hard to capture that essence without massive levels. In a sense, even though the boost games didnt get the feel right with the momentum physics, they did express what sonic ultimately wants to do outside of rolling, or at least the way sonic has been portrayed in most popular media.

So the best thing to do is to recontextualize the character and the concept. Not changing what he is.... but instead of the "gotta go fast" marketing and emphasis where he has to be blasting forward along a linear path all the time, try to emphasize more of sonic's agility and platforming skill rather than his pure straight line speed. Emphasize him moving acrobatically up, down, all around environments. The best example we have of this ironically is in a 2D game, with Sonic CD. Not only that gameplay template as inspiration for 3D design but also how sonic moved in the animated cutscenes. He didnt just blast forward all the time, he skillfully navigated obstacles and moved in a variety of ways, often using the environment to his advantage while finding ways to keep up his pace. That's what 3D sonic gameplay should be about at its core. Maintaining flow, while having the freedom to travel anywhere. And it's also why building huge island zones as big playground maps would be the most natural fit. This "flow" is a primary component of the gameplay feel of the classic games and why they are so repayable but I think the potential is even greater in 3D. In sonic 3, as you moved through the zones, if you notice the backgrounds and the environments change. You start out at one point in the zone and what you see in the distance, you ultimately come across later whether it be in act 2 or in a later level...although the trek isnt as visceral because you're locked onto a 2D plane. In 3D this feeling would be fully enhanced because the interesting thing you see in the distant background, you can actually see yourself moving to. You can point to wherever you want to go and just go.

 

I wish I could talk to ST about this sometimes.

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What if you designed levels focusing mainly on going uphill or downhill and spread secrets in between? Have the seperate paths intersect in some way, and use a mission structure to encourage the use of multiple paths in the level. By having the level so focused on inclines, you have a natural endpoint that could have a more nonlinear way to approach it.

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10 hours ago, Tarnish said:

One giant problem with the 3D Sonic games we got (whether they did this deliberately or due to some technical issues), is they never really allowed for backtracking...which in turn had a very negative effect on stage design as you're not really allowed to make stages that allow for exploration.

I used to enjoy trying to go through City Escape in reverse. I used to be able to use the super bounce glitch to get to the board section without the board. A lot of it wasn't intentional game design, but depending on the level it is possible to go backwards for some parts without glitches. Plus the treasure hunting levels which were made with exploring in mind.

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You know, we can pitch all of the ideas we want but I think we'd find more success if we identified what are the (perceived) problems of 3D Sonic games so we can actually identify what are the actual issues that need to be addressed. 

Control and level design are kind of the big offenders here. 

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