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  • Level Design Patterns In 2D Games

    [09.26.19]
    - Ahmed Khalifa

  • Pace Breaking

    Pace breaking refers to purposely changing the dramatic arc of the game from one scene to the next. It is commonly used to either increase or decrease tension, in order to make players more invested in the overall experience. Audio and visual cues are some of the most powerful tools to convey Pace Breaking to the players. Layering is one pattern commonly coupled with Pace Breaking as the presence of multiple elements tends to generate natural tension, especially when creating a harder challenge [24], [25]. Safe Zones, on the other hand, can be used to have the opposite effect and break the pace to reduce the tension [24], [25].

    A common feature that creates Pace Breaking is the introduction of a hazard of conspicuous difficulty. Whether it is considered a boss fight or not, recognizing that they are in the presence of a bigger threat usually draws players attention, increasing the tension. The previous figure shows the difference between normal gameplay and boss fights in Final Fight (Capcom, 1989). In the transition to the boss fight scene, the game changes the scenario and background music, it then reveals an enemy bigger in size, wielding a weapon and with a different health bar, all which indicate this to be a new, harder challenge.

    Decreasing the pace of the game can lead to interesting results. It can be used to give players time to relax and enjoy other aspects of the game, such as new environments or abilities. In other times, it is interesting to give players a moment of peace right before an intense scene to generate a climax (the calm before the storm) [35]. The above figure shows two examples of Pace Breaking to reduce players tension. In L'Abbaye Des Morts (Locomalito, 2010) shown in the left image, players are given time to relax after a sequence of stressful challenges and enjoy the scenery of the night sky. In turn, Mega Man 11 (Capcom, 2018) introduces a completely empty room right before the climax of a stage, the boss fight, as shown in the right image. This creates a calm sequence right before the height of the dramatic arc for the level.

    Pace Breaking can be a powerful tool to introduce players to a new experience, feeling or mechanic in the game [36]. In Super Metroid (Nintendo, 1994) when players acquire a new power-up, it is common for them to have to make use of such in a very simple scenario to proceed. These usually come right after a climactic moment in the game, as the power-ups in Super Metroid (Nintendo, 1994) are usually given as rewards for beating hard challenges. The previous figure shows a similar approach in Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars (Anna Anthropy, 2011). In the left image, we can see a regular level from the game, where the players have to use their laser to capture the other characters. Meanwhile, in the right image, there is the introduction of a level where the players are trying to reach the other characters before they break free and become stronger enemies. This change of pace breaks the normal gameplay of the game, that requires reaction and dexterity, to introduce a level with a run against the clock (timer) challenge.

    Another example of Pace Breaking are levels designed to have choke points [4], [5], [28], arenas [29], or collision points [26]. These take players from a space where they have more freedom to move and escape hazards to a tighter space where interaction with hazards is usually unavoidable. The previous figure shows this concept in Mighty Bomb Jack (Tecmo, 1986). On the longer section of levels, as shown in the left image players control their avatar in a long corridor collecting power-ups and collectibles, while avoiding hazards. Meanwhile on the bonus stage, as in the right image, players are trapped in a small room where hazards are much harder to avoid while having to collect all bombs to proceed.

    Discussion and Conclusion

    In this post, we introduced 6 level design patterns extracted from observing multiple 2D games. These are meant as conventions that can improve player experience and not requirements to create a quality game. The formalization of these patterns contributes to creating a universal language for developers, helping knowledge share and expansion.

    The patterns are presented in this work individually, but it is common for them to be used in conjunction. Layering multiple hazards can create tension, resulting in Pace Breaking. Locked doors can foreshadow future branches to pursue. It is important to experiment around these patterns and not be restricted by them, as the solution to a design problem might require such.

    Level design patterns are generally used to have a positive impact on the gameplay experience. But it is worth noting that consciously subverting such concepts can provide a unique experience. For instance, Syobon Action (Chiku, 2007) and I Wanna Be The Guy (Michael "Kayin" O'Reilly, 2007) use the element of surprise in their level design. By presenting features common to famous 2D platform games, players are caught off guard with their unexpected behavior, such as having deadly traps where power-ups would usually be and having enemies spawn on top of the player character with no prior warning.

    The level design patterns show in this work are not restricted to 2D games. They were presented as the result of studying 2D games, but all are applicable to 3D games as well. The definitions are not restricted to 2D space, changing the context does not invalidate their application. Zombie hordes on Left 4 Dead (Valve, 2008) are a result of Layering and create tension with Pace Breaking. The concept of open world games, such as Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar Games, 2010), is an extrapolation of the Branching pattern. Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, 1996) constantly uses coins to guide players and foreshadow to instigate player curiosity.

    The patterns in this post can have a more technical application as well. They can be used as guidelines to procedural level generators, as part of fitness functions for search based generator, as training sets for machine learning algorithms or to guide towards having intentional level generators.

    Ultimately, level design patterns have always been used in games. Having guidelines on how to improve the player experience is a very valuable tool. A formal taxonomy facilitates wider dissemination of these concepts, stimulating expansion and contribution, helping improve level design practices.

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