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Short vs long levels in platformers [roundtable]
In the latest podcast, DrFink mentions being worried about 3D Land's reportedly short levels before the game came out. And I think it's an understandable worry, that I shared. We probably all subconsciously equate "short" with "less", whatever it is that's being discussed.

But that's always been an unwarranted knee-jerk reaction when it comes to pretty much any form of entertainment, no? Shorter books aren't necessarily "giving you less" than longer books. And as anyone who's listened to Oasis back in the day would agree: sometimes shorter would be better.

I think the same holds true for Mario games.

Shorter levels can alleviate tedium and frustration: I love Kirby Mass Attack dearly, I really do. And the game gets really challenging, especially if you try to get gold stars by not getting hit once. But the levels are very, very loooong, and whatís more, they do not have checkpoints. That means that if you try to perfect a level and keep failing, you may have to play for several minutes just to get back to the point where you failed. And if you fail again, you do it over again. Now ďminutesĒ may not sound like a lot, but letís say you always mess up 5 minutes into a level. ALWAYS mess up. If you wind up having to start over a dozen times, which has happened to me, then thatís over an hour down the drain. Worse: itís over an hour of playing a segment that you donít find especially difficult, capped with one second of inattention/lack of skill/still havenít figured out what youíre supposed to do. Youíve long ago stopped finding the early part of the level engaging. You might even start making mistakes at points you used to find easy. Itís a very annoying downward spiral.

Things get even worse when thereís a collectathon aspect involved. Jett Rocket is another game with long levels, and tons of doodads to collect everywhere. But lose a life (and hey, in a platformer, not only it can happen, but it probably SHOULD), and you have to collect everything over again. In some cases, you may want to mitigate the problem by actually doing the hard platforming sections first, so as not to lose as much progress if you fail, but a) Iím not sure itís very good design to have players get around these problems that way and b) itís not always possible, as sometimes moving into a new section of a level means you canít go back.

Shorter levels can be challenging too. The only difference really is that starting over is much less frustrating. No one would accuse BIT.TRIP RUNNER of being too easy, for instance. And its levels are quite short. Yet it took me over 20 hours to finish off its 36 levels, because death can occur just a few seconds into a level. But because you get back to playing almost instantaneously, and because you can make back the progress in a few seconds, the prospect of starting over is much less daunting. As a result, the game can get really addictive: you wonít want to stop playing until youíve succeeded. And which level is the most reviled in that game? Hands down level 1-11, which happens to be the longest in the game...

I have more arguments, but I've gone on for long enough already. I'll post more after you guys have had a say.
And I had originally intended this to be a short poll, haha.

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Posted: 11/21/11, 19:58:35  - Edited by 
 on: 11/21/11, 19:59:25
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Short is totally fine with me. Super Mario Bros 3 is the best platformer of all time and the levels are pretty damn short.
Posted: 11/21/11, 20:22:25
I think it depends. As long as a game has a good Checkpoint system, I don't mind a game that has longer levels. I loved Donkey Kong Country Returns, and I think its levels felt substantially longer than a typical Mario platformer (it's been a while since I've played it). With DKCR, Retro presented a world that I really enjoyed being in. I never minded having a lengthy level. My problem with the game came from absurd difficulty spikes throughout the game and a poorly implemented control scheme. The length of the levels though? I liked having them fairly long. It kind of hammered home the idea that you were on an adventure for me, and it also allowed Retro to do some interesting things with the level design. Would the game's set pieces have felt appropriate if the levels were much shorter?

Regardless of whether levels are long or short, I think the most important thing is that they need to be developed, both on a macro and micro level. Levels should work on their own, but they should also work together. If a level leaves a player "wanting more" then it's incredibly important that other levels give the player whatever he's looking for.
Posted: 11/21/11, 20:29:35  - Edited by 
 on: 11/21/11, 20:30:45
I tend to prefer shorter stages, but there's definitely a threshold on either side. They can't be too short, nor too long, they need to be just right. Nintendo usually gets this oh, so right.

One really long level that stands out is 1-11 (I think) in Bit.Trip Runner. Totally uncalled for and potentially rage-inducing due to its length combined with its difficulty.
Posted: 11/21/11, 20:32:06
I'm fine with short levels, as long as there are a hell of a lot of them and/or they are challenging. Then again, long levels give off a different feel, which is better in some instances (like in exploration-based games).

One notable example for me was Wario: Master of Disguise. (Has anyone on the planet played that game besides me?) It's so un-Nintendo (and un-Wario) in so, so many ways, one of which is the absolutely massive levels. I also remember that Duke Nukem: Zero Hour had really long levels with no checkpoints. But it actually served to up the stakes and raise the player's tension quite a bit.

So I don't think there can be a definitive answ... fuck, you specified platformers! Ah, well. I still think either approach can be justified through game design. My instinctual preference is short and sweet, though. Pop song > Prog rock song. Most of the time.

You brought up books, though, and I do feel that short stories have an entirely different focus from novels. Plot over characterization. Same thing with movies vs. TV serials. So I guess the gaming analogy would be gameplay/variety vs. immersion/exploration?
Posted: 11/21/11, 20:41:03
Anand said:
You brought up books, though, and I do feel that short stories have an entirely different focus from novels. Plot over characterization. Same thing with movies vs. TV serials. So I guess the gaming analogy would be gameplay/variety vs. immersion/exploration?

Well, yes and no.

I mean, short levels doesnít prevent exploration as far as Iím concerned. I guess long levels have more ďspaceĒ to hide stuff, but I have to wonder if itís necessary. And again, in many exploration-based platformers with long levels, just like in Jett Rocket, you lose the stuff you found when you die, usually. Some have checkpoints, sure, but it can still be really infuriating.

Hell, perfect example of this: people bitched about the purple coin challenges in Super Mario Galaxy. Why? Because of this very same problem: miss one or die, and you have to start over. And I would guess people also bitched about the 100 coins star in SM64, too.

And you know, as much as I like Yoshiís Island, itís pretty much the only ďMarioĒ platformer I havenít replayed in its entirety. Iím not 100% sure why that is, but I would guess that the more pick-up-and-play-and-accomplish-lots nature of the other games, which this game with its more plodding pace doesnít have, gives them more replayability.
Posted: 11/21/11, 20:56:50

To answer your question, short. But many. Gotta have MANY if it's going to be short.
Posted: 11/21/11, 21:21:52
I'm going to stick up for longer levels. I find short levels are usually much less memorable. As fun as Mario 3 is, there's very few moments in the game that stick with me as much because they're over so quickly. Compare that to Super Mario World where there's tons of specific levels I could elaborate on in detail.
Posted: 11/21/11, 21:31:00
@Jargon & @Simbabbad

Yeah, I'll have to go with Super Mario World personally. The levels are a bit more engaging and there's more time to enjoy the incredible music.

Though, in SM3DL, I prefer shorter levels. I like them in this case. So I dunno what that says.
Posted: 11/21/11, 21:41:03
Mostly, I meant pacing, I guess. Long levels give the game a different pace than short levels. Yoshi's Island is MEANT to be a totally different type of game than Mario. Yoshi's Story is not the same game, but it does have similar pacing, due to the level construction: wander around, find stuff.

Banjo-Kazooie and -Tooie are interesting examples, too. Kind of a sprawling take on Super Mario 64. Where would SM64 even fit in? Maybe it can't really be called a 'platformer'.

I wonder when long vs. short is decided, or even if it is explicitly decided. I always wonder about those kinds of structural things, like the perspective of a book. Do creators go down a checklist of important aspects before starting something or just start churning stuff out and let the material lead them?
Posted: 11/21/11, 21:51:20  - Edited by 
 on: 11/21/11, 21:52:44
Simbabbad said:

Posted: 11/21/11, 21:56:35  - Edited by 
 on: 11/21/11, 21:57:05
Hmm. I'm not sure.

I can tell you that in Adventure Island II, I'm like "oh..that was it?"

I mean, how short are we talking here?
Posted: 11/21/11, 22:52:16
I like long levels when the game is very well designed. So basically, I like long levels in Mario games. I want to work to earn my next star/shine/flagpole/etc.

But in most anything else short is fine, because few developers have enough skill to keep a long level consistently interesting.
Posted: 11/21/11, 23:33:00

Adventure Island PUNISHES you, though. If the levels had been longer, there would have been a generation of gamers jumping off of office buildings.

Especially when you're on that blasted skateboard.
Posted: 11/22/11, 00:04:50

DKCR is a good example of long levels with rewarding design.
Posted: 11/22/11, 00:11:34

Well yeah, haha. This is Adventure Island II, sequel to Adventure Island one which, as you said, PUNISHES you. But did they scaled it back TOO much? Thats a REALLY short board..
Posted: 11/22/11, 00:23:37
@DrFinkelstein Well yeah, Mario isn't the only example. I'm just saying, most levels have one or two gimmicks and if you don't have a developer who can do a lot with one or two gimmicks, it's best to move onto the next level. Mind you, tons of developers start rehashing all of their gimmicks in "new" levels anyway.
Posted: 11/22/11, 00:29:36

I think when you/we look behind the curtain, it takes the fun out of whatever game we're talking about.

Why do you do that? Just enjoy it!
Posted: 11/22/11, 00:41:30

There's fun in analyzing a piece of art/entertainment and looking at what makes it work or not. Sure, you can enjoy a game and "just enjoy it", just like you can turn off your brain and "just enjoy the movie". But an appreciation for movie-making techniques, clever editing, etc., while it may make some popcorn movies less impressive/fun, can make other movies that much more enjoyable.

The same applies here.
Posted: 11/22/11, 00:46:07
@Mr_Mustache I don't even get the reference in this case. How am I looking behind the curtains? The length and variety of a game is kind of in my face.
Posted: 11/22/11, 00:48:41
Simbabbad said:
Three words:

Super Meat Boy.

This. Never look back!
Posted: 11/22/11, 01:04:32
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