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Level Design Vs. World Design - Clever Levels/Areas vs. "The Big Picture" [roundtable]
I was thinking about this after listening to the RFN telethon segment about Metroid Prime. I think Metroid Prime is one of those rare games where not only is the level design impeccable (that is, individual rooms and smaller areas are smartly designed), but the world design is also very notable (that is, how each individual area works together to create a larger game world). While the world does not have that "beehive" mentality to the point that Super Metroid did, there are at least areas in the game where elevators provide access from one area to another, easily allowing the player to jump from area to area. (Something like Other M, on the other hand, seemed to more blatantly isolate its areas, with one central hub that connected them). When you find a particular area in Tallon Overworld that gives you a backdoor of sorts to other areas, it's kind of a revelation, and that's the kind of stuff that really gets me going in those kinds of games.

I think nowadays, for the most part, we get one or the other. While Nintendo isn't alone in this regard, I think they have seemed to put more emphasis on level design. What I think we've seen in their latest games is that they are the absolute BEST at creating levels. Whether you're flipping gravity around in Super Mario Galaxy, or figuring out a devious puzzle in Skyward Sword, it's hard to argue that Nintendo isn't at the top of the industry in this regard. I think Nintendo has practically perfected the idea of a well designed "level" or "dungeon" or whatever you want to call it.

However, when you "pull the camera back" on these games, so to speak, it's very evident that despite this exceptional level design, the world as a whole is not the most cohesive. Levels in Super Mario Galaxy, Galaxy 2, and Super Mario 3D Land have little rhyme or reason. Nothing really ties these levels together (though I suppose SMG is given some slack due to the fact that the game takes place in space). The Metroid Prime games, moving from 1 to 3, put less emphasis on a "beehive" style world, and more emphasis on isolated areas that have little to no interaction with one another. Skyward Sword is a huge example of this design mentality, as the three main areas do not have any relationship to one another. You couldn't hop in a river and float down a waterfall to another area. You always had to warp back to the sky via a Bird Statue and fly to another area. You even had to do this if you wanted to reach another warp point in an area you were already in.

Conversely, I think we see in some games (specifically non-Nintendo games) we see the opposite. While I don't have much experience with a game like Skyrim, on the surface it looks like a huge interconnected world, but possibly at the expense of deliberately designed areas that test your skills (please correct me if I'm wrong). Obviously, this is a different kind of game than what we usually get with Nintendo, but it is at least an example of possibly sacrificing level design to create a huge, open world. In Pokemon Black and White, the design of the map is very circular in nature. While yes, Pokemon is usually a pretty linear adventure, with roads that lead from one town to another, I think it felt more deliberate in Black and White. You don't even have anywhere on the map, really, where you make a choice as to where to go next. You can't really say "I'd like to go west", only to be stopped by a Snorlax in your path, forcing you to revisit that area later. You just kind of work around the giant ring that is the game's map.

It's encouraging to see something like New Super Mario Bros. U's world map, which seems to make an effort to make sense of all of the wacky levels that populate the game. I think DKCR did a pretty good job at this as well, at least towards the end of the game. The levels had really good design, but the world map (and some of your interaction in the levels) really hammered home the idea that you were in a PLACE, and not simply a mish mash of levels. I hope that NSMBU puts a lot of emphasis on this, and isn't just a superficial addition to appease fans.

Do we have any games in the near future to look forward to that don't sacrifice great level design for a connected world, or don't sacrifice a connected world for great, deliberate levels? What kinds of games do YOU prefer?

As much as I love Skyward Sword, Mario 3D Land, and many others, I miss having that "world" to visit and call home. I miss the moments we had in Super Mario World, when you find a secret exit that leads to a lake, and then play a difficult water level. I miss the moments in Metroid where you find a secret path, only to loop around to some area that you had visited a hundred times, never realizing what was right under your nose. I miss being able to dive into the river near Gerudo Valley, only to follow it as it empties into Lake Hylia. I LOVE that kind of discovery, the kind that makes you feel like you're in a world, rather than a collection of levels. It was maybe my biggest problem I had with Wind Waker. I think it's cool that Nintendo creates clever scenarios to disguise the lack of world cohesion (outer space, a giant ocean, to name a few), but I'd really like to see them get back to a game that puts a little less emphasis on the smaller, moment to moment stuff, and more emphasis on "the big picture."

What do you guys think? Do you prefer constantly being engaged with clever levels and ideas, or would you be okay sacrificing a little bit of that with more emphasis on how the levels/areas, on the whole, relate to one another? Or can we still see a game that doesn't sacrifice one for the other?

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Posted: 11/13/12, 22:16:41  - Edited by 
 on: 11/13/12, 22:17:16
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I might even say it has the beehive mentality that Super Metroid did, although I'd have to look at maps of both to refresh myself. But one of the things that I loved about Metroid Prime is how huge and interconnected the whole world was (unfortunately this was less so in 2 and even less in 3.) There was a specific point early on (I guess this is a bit spoilerish) where you could see the crashed frigate across the water but couldn't travel that way yet, and I was thinking "I must need some power-up before I can go there". But that was only half true. You actually end up getting there by taking some small tunnel in the wall in a completely different area, which leads to this huge tree, and that leads to... more stuff, and then you're there, from the other side. And I was like...

I mean that is non-linear progression right there.

I'm not sure that I like the Skyrim example, at least in respect to Metroid Prime, because Metroid Prime wasn't just about being interconnected, it was about the exploration / progression actually being meaningful, something that I kind of missed in Oblivion.

I wonder what a Mario game utilizing Prime-like progression would feel like? Some would say the castle in Super Mario 64 was a bit of that, though not to the same degree at all. Even though I love Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, I think they could benefit with a 64-esque castle hub. Better yet, put some real gameplay in the hub.

Actually an interesting (if sometimes flawed) combination of both Metroid-like progression and fully fleshed out "stages" are the Mega Man ZX games. There was sort of an "overworld" and "stages" but they all kind of blended together and connected in various ways. It'd be cool to see more developers try something like that.
Posted: 11/13/12, 22:29:45  - Edited by 
 on: 11/13/12, 22:31:36
@Zero I think Banjo-Kazooie actually informs us a little bit of what a more open ended Mario game would be like. Banjo-Tooie, also had some of this stuff going on. I think you could be in one world, find some area that you had to look for, and all of a sudden you're in this one area of another world that you've already been to. I think there was some connection between the dinosaur world and another, where some caves in one world led to some caves in another. It really made you feel like the world was alive.

I think they could do something like this with Mario, but it may be tough. They could have linear areas like in Super Mario 3D Land, but every now and then maybe yo ufind a fork in the road. Perhaps finding a secret area would loop you around back to somewhere you had already been to, and you're free to run around and explore. You could still have a map to back out to and warp to any level you want, but there'd still be that connectivity between the various levels.

I guess it wouldn't be unlike the Great Cave Offensive in Kirby Super Star except more linear and way easier to wrap your head around. Just one long platforming game that isn't as much divided into levels on a menu screen.
Posted: 11/13/12, 22:54:38
Really?! I don't remember this in Banjo-Kazooie. I'm not saying you're wrong. Maybe I'm just saying I have a terrible memory.
Posted: 11/13/12, 23:16:40
Yep, I don't see any reason why good level design has to trade off against good world design. Nintendo have pulled it off to some extent before I believe, even if they've regressed of late. OoT/MM/TP had some pretty well integrated worlds (even if the divide between dungeon and Overworld was still stark). And Metroid Zero had a brilliantly designed map.

It is possible to pull off both, but it takes work.
Posted: 11/13/12, 23:29:20

It's because the main examples are in Banjo-Tooie. The original didn't have nearly the setup Tooie had, but even so, things done in one level did affect other areas outside in the hub world in Banjo-Kazooie, which was definitely cool.
Posted: 11/14/12, 00:10:40
I know a lot of people didn't like OoT's Hyrule Field, but I still think that that game has one of the best game worlds ever. Loot at how much there is do to! Look at the variety of environments! And despite all that, did anyone ever use the map in that game?
Posted: 11/14/12, 00:52:33

LOVE the map.
Posted: 11/14/12, 01:11:06
As I discussed in this thread, I think Sunshine is actually the blueprint for the kind of connectedness you want in Mario. I almost think they would have had everything connected if the technology was doable at the time. Instead of building on adventurey connectedness, they went in the complete opposite direction in Galaxy. That is great, but I'd love to see a return to it at some point from Nintendo.

Getting stars in Mario 64 was a completely different kind of satisfaction than getting them in Galaxy. Things like finding the owl in the tree in Whomp's Fortress just made you feel like anything was possible in that world. I suppose being a kid at the time probably helped in that regard too, but I really think you could make a huge game full of stars with no distinct levels and really capture that again.
Posted: 11/14/12, 02:16:48

Note to self: look for owl in tree in Whomp's Fortress.. What else did I miss?
Posted: 11/14/12, 02:20:18
Great thread!! Spectacular. Possibly the best thread EVER to grace the negative world. Nice job.

I was thinking about this after listening to the RFN telethon segment about Metroid Prime. I think Metroid Prime is one of those rare games where not only is the level design impeccable (that is, individual rooms and smaller areas are smartly designed), but the world design is also very notable (that is, how each individual area works together to create a larger game world). While the world does not have that "beehive" mentality to the point that Super Metroid did, there are at least areas in the game where elevators provide access from one area to another, easily allowing the player to jump from area to area. (Something like Other M, on the other hand, seemed to more blatantly isolate its areas, with one central hub that connected them). When you find a particular area in Tallon Overworld that gives you a backdoor of sorts to other areas, it's kind of a revelation, and that's the kind of stuff that really gets me going in those kinds of games.

Yes, that's why Metroid Prime is the best game of all time. I have nothing else to add, but I read the whole thing.
Posted: 11/14/12, 02:42:12

Sorry, yeah, I should have clarified:

Banjo-Kazooie is a 3D platformer that encourages exploration to a greater degree than Mario


Banjo-Tooie does have moments here and there where they surprise you by having you walk from one world to another (as every area exists on the Isle o' Hags).

@Jargon I think you bring up a good point.

Sunshine has:
a.) A 'world map' in which all of the major areas in the game exist.
b.) Superficial connectivity - you can see one major area from another. For example, you can see Pinna Park from other levels in the game, hammering home the idea that you are indeed in a place that has its own spatial relationships.

I think the part where Sunshine loses me is possibly its overusage of 'warping' into the main worlds. They go so far to establish Delfino Isle as a place, but then to get to the major areas in the game, you're typically jumping through warps, going through pipes, or looking into the sun. It's a very small difference, but it's not that same kind of feeling where you walk from one place to another. In a Zelda game for instance, when you see a mountain in the distance, chances are you can simply walk all the way there. Perhaps Mario doesn't need that much cohesion in its world design, but I kind of feel like little things like that add up in the long run.

I love the part where Mario goes to Pinna Park, I believe, from a cannon. I instantly get that physical connection from area A to area B. Rather than going to a warp to get to Bianca Hills, maybe you could simply follow a road that goes there? Maybe it's a silly commentary on my part, but I like any opportunity where I can feel like I, as the player, have traversed the environment to find something new.

What I would love for Nintendo to do is to KEEP certain things from Sunshine - that is, seeing areas you've been to (or will be eventually) in the distance. I also love the idea of being able to zoom that map out to see where you are in relationship to the other areas in the game, and in turn, how these areas relate to one another. I think they could TOTALLY do that, while still maintaining the more linear gameplay from Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D Land. I've wrote a lot about that though so I won't keep going into it though.
Posted: 11/14/12, 07:24:08  - Edited by 
 on: 11/14/12, 07:33:27
Good points.

If there had to be a trade-off, I suppose I'd favor level-design, because you only play a game in moments, you don't play "the big picture". But I agree that, ultimately, a game is better if it works both ways.
Posted: 11/14/12, 18:39:04
Excellent thread. The way the worlds connect is really one of biggest draws to the Metroid series that I have (and probably why MP3 didn't last as long with me, the world felt too segregated). That sort of layout is fantastic, and IMO Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion (despite its linearity through most of the game) and Metroid Prime are the best examples of this. I honestly wish more games would do this: mae me feel like I'm i a full, interconnected world, particularly anything 2D these days.
Posted: 11/14/12, 20:42:38
Wait, you thought Wind Waker lacked exploration or discovery? To me it was just one big exploration-fest and that's why I didn't like it that much.
Posted: 11/14/12, 20:54:06
@anon_mastermind I think it had more exploration than most Zelda games, but by giving each square its own island, it felt more like "fill in the grid" than anything else. Not that I'd want a huge open sea without structure necessarily, but there were very few... secrets?
Posted: 11/14/12, 21:25:25
IMO the sea is an amazing concept when you're playing the game for the first time and you're just sailing from island to island, easy stuff, you can see your destination in the far distance and you take in the scenery and music. The day-night transitions, weather effects, it's all beautiful.

But then when you're trying to 100% the game or do the Triforce fetch quest it gets annoying, because like Zero said it feels like filling a grid and it becomes a whole lot of sailing, changing the wind direction and overall nothingness and boredom.
Posted: 11/14/12, 21:29:20
I understand the appeal and the virtues of having a cohesive world, believe me. But even if it is very well done, and even if it does not come to the detriment of the design of the individual levels, I wouldn't want that in every game, you know? Sometimes, I just want to jump in and out of a game. In those instances, I pick some old school game with discrete levels and go to town for a couple minutes before stopping. In those cases, having to wall-jump up some clocktower to reach the eagle that brings you to the level per se is a chore and a hindrance.

Designing a cohesive and interesting world is a feat, for sure, though. And when I'm in the mood for it, I really appreciate it.

But sometimes, I wish I could select the level in a damn menu.

I do think more can be done to make discrete levels feel more connected and make a game feel more like it has its own world, though, without taking the "seemless hub world" route. Do Re Mi Fantasy on the VC is a perfect example of how little touches can help you accomplish that. For instance, if one level has you ascend by jumping from moving platform to moving platform, once you complete it you see your character in the world map take a ski lift. Then the next level has you sliding downhill, and the world map once again reflects that.

It's a one-two punch of the map acurately reflecting the content of the levels, and the levels unfolding in a coherent way (you make your way up a mountain, you then slide down).
Posted: 11/14/12, 22:31:40
@Guillaume I think in the context of Mario, I agree with you. It's just that until NSMBU, Nintendo hasn't made any effort to really create that 'world'. Not since Mario Sunshine really. And that's something I kind of miss. I wonder if NSMBU will strike a good balance of this, but it's something I always like to see push further.

We've seen in the first level of NSMBU that there are notable landmarks in the background, like the diagonal mountains and Peach's castle. I'd really like to see that throughout the entire game, but I'm getting the feeling that this won't be the case. Touches like that really make me feel like I'm on an adventure, rather than merely going through a level selection. I do think the map stuff will go a long way to help with that feeling though.

At least with more adventurey games like Metroid and Zelda (and even Pokemon), anything they can do to hammer home the idea that "This is you, and this is your relationship to the world" is a good thing. There were some things I liked about Other M, but I never really got a sense of the scope of the space station. Little things like camera pans from outside a window or something like that would've been really appreciated. I think there was one moment where you went through a morphball track that actually showed you a bit of the outside of the station, and honestly that was maybe my favorite part of the game. And at the end of the game, you basically happen upon a 'path' that connects the areas a little bit, and it would've been so cool to have something like that earlier on. Maybe a series of maintenance tunnels that connect each of the worlds together.

As much as Link and Samus are the stars of their games, I feel like the worlds themselves are also kind of the star of the games. When the world starts to get more isolated and you lose that connection with it, then I think it feels like something's missing.
Posted: 11/15/12, 00:20:12

Peach's castle was in the background of NSMBW (and maybe the original?) as well.
Posted: 11/15/12, 00:26:26
@Jargon That's why I'm kind of led to believe that in NSMBU, they just do that for the first level. It'd be really cool if they expanded on that later.
Posted: 11/15/12, 01:04:16
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