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  • Level Design Principles: Familiarity

    [05.09.19]
    - Mateusz Piaskiewicz

  • Familiarity vs reuse of content

    It's very important to mention that there's a thin line between building familiarity and the reuse of content. Obvious reuse might raise a negative reaction, a feeling of a cheap trick that developers used to save money. This problem is very context-sensitive but being aware of the issue will sensitize you to watch for it. In general, we want to provide a bit of new when the player is already familiarized with a bit of old.


    How I add familiarity to events and levels

    In general, I want to create things that are relatable. That means that the locations or events I create are easy to understand for the player. There's no need for an extensive explanation.

    First, I'm researching given topic to get a better understanding of what I could reference in my work. I don't want to rely only on my mental models. To use familiarity, I have to familiarize myself with the topic, see how other cultures see it. I'm looking for something that is well known by players but I also look for something subtle, not the first idea that comes to my mind. Something that will make players smile and appreciate clever design.

    In another case, I was using a widely familiar concept of "magic" to justify spawning Demons in front of the player. I have shown to players how magic portals work. Players learned that Demons can use portals. t really profited on a design side, I was able to spawn enemies with larger control on combat flow and timing. That turned to more engaging and dynamic combat scenarios.

    Let's see another example: take something well known and mix it with something less usual to make it interesting and relatable. Let's take Los Angeles and make it deserted like "Bone Yard" from Fallout. For example, it can really interesting to see scavenged Rodeo Drive, flooded streets of Venice or a bandit fortress in Disneyland.

    All this effort I put to design is to get a proper response from the player. I want players to think like: "I know and understand what it is, I can build expectations" or "it feels good when the game uses my past experience".

    Lack of familiarity

    The common newbie mistake is going downtown with creativity and making something super big and fancy. That creates confusion. Imagine that we need to make a Sci-Fi door. Designers can come up with really crazy stuff but honestly, all we need is something that looks like a door, works like a door, and affords actions like a door. And players have to get it in a second. If they confuse fancy door with a non-interactive decoration, then they can miss a lot, get frustrated and quit.

    In the past, I've made a lot of levels that people didn't understand. I wanted to make fancy things but I had no idea that players need familiarity to get traction on the concept. For example, I wanted to make a bandit's hideout in a bank in a post-apocalyptic world. I iterated to the point it no longer looked like a bank. I just wanted to add a twist on a familiar building and I ended up with a bank that actually looked like a really fancy junkyard.

    Conclusion

    Next time when you'll come up with a fresh and never-seen-before layout or a really fancy and innovative concept, think how to mix it with familiar things. Just to give it more chance to get better traction with the player.

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