Level design

This topic contains 16 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by rnlf rnlf 1 year, 2 months ago.

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 17 total)
  • Tijn
    Tijn
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    #127

    I don’t think we can talk about Doom without talking about its level design. This classic image sums it up pretty well:

    A lot of Doom’s levels seem to revolve around a central hub-like area, which you visit several times as you’re progressing. This makes for interesting exploration, as you can’t reach every area of the level at first and you have to discover where to go in order to access the rest.

    Is it really that different from modern games though? I’m sure the image above is a bit of an exaggeration. I haven’t played that many FPSes (or “shoot em ups” as we used to call them in the 90s) in recent years to be honest, but the few I have played all seem to feature bits where you have to explore and discover how to progress, just like in Doom.

    What are some examples of how great and different Doom’s level design is, in your opinion? Or maybe it’s not all that different, really?

    rnlf
    rnlf
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    #128

    I didn’t play any of the recent block buster FPSs, but in most that I have played, you seem to pass through each area at most a few times, and usually only when you’re solving a puzzle. Most seem to be more linear in many respects. Probably because they have a stronger focus on the story.

    Tijn
    Tijn
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    #130

    Yeah, an overarching story seems to be way more important in more modern games than it is in Doom.

    I’m only realising this now, but I suppose the type of game that Doom is developed into more multiplayer-focused games (Quake, Unreal Tournament, Counterstrike, Overwatch). These games have more in common with Doom I feel than titles with a big single player campaign such as Half-Life or Bioshock or Far Cry.

    I think Doom was somewhat popular to play over LAN at the time, but I’m not sure how feasible online multiplayer was back in 1993. Does Doom even support multiplayer over modem or something?

    wan
    wan
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    #131

    I have mostly played recent AAA FPS so I can tell what this kind of picture mocks. Typically with licenses like Battlefield & Call of Duty the single player campaigns have mostly turned into 2H-long, action-packed experiences you can play in a single sitting, featuring bigger and bigger technical achievements and spectacular effects to give an action-movie feel… While at the same time feeling completely hollow with little difficulty involved.

    The reason is simple though: these SP campaigns are mostly an intro to the actual game, i.e. its multiplayer mode.

    Most of the popular FPS games now focus on multiplayer, leaving less and less IPs to focus on Doom-like, level-based campaigns. A lot of alternate approaches to FPS have emerged, from mostly online games (e.g. CS/TF2 on PC, CoD/SW Battlefront on consoles) to huge open-worlds (Farcry & countless survival games), not mentioning some aliens (e.g. Alien: Isolation – pun intended, Portal, etc.).

    That leaves us to compare Doom with things like the Halo & Half Life series. These games are probably more linear compared to Doom but not that much compared to, say, the original Unreal (1998). Alien: Isolation on the opposite does involve a lot of going back and forth unlocking parts of the same level, in order to make the hide-and-seek mechanic with the alien work.

    I agree that there’s a problem with hand-holding in a lot of games these days, but I wouldn’t say FPS are the main victims of this trend. Level-design wise the FPS world has just diversified, offering a lot of different options depending on the experience you’re looking for.

    dollarone
    dollarone
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    #133

    > I think Doom was somewhat popular to play over LAN at the time, but Iā€™m not sure how feasible online multiplayer was back in 1993. Does Doom even support multiplayer over modem or something?

    Yes you could play over modem or a null-modem cable:) My friend and I played through a COOP campaign on both Doom and Doom 2 IIRC.

    Scorched Earth also supported play-over-modem šŸ˜€ which reminds me, that should be added to the suggestion page!

    sorceress
    sorceress
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    #134

    I think the design of Doom maps owes itself to three things:

    i) Doom is divided into relatively short levels, rather than providing a long continuous experience;
    ii) The levels are non-linear;
    iii) The levels are abstract.

    Addressing each of these in turn:

    Levels were a pretty standard “trope” in games throughout the 1980s and 1990s, so it’s no surprise that Doom utilised them. Maybe this was due in part to technical limits on 1993 hardware, but I also believe from a design point-of-view it was part of Doom’s recipe for success.

    I think they are still worthwhile to have today, even if modern tech is capable of creating a seamless experience. To me, levels are like chapters in a book, breaking up a game into small challenges with well defined goals: Something which players can start and finish in a 30 minute session, or play through in isolation at any time. (Due to juggling real-life demands, players may only be able to allocate 30 minutes at a time, so they fit neatly with that).

    Levels allow designers to cleanly break away from what happened before, allowing them to experiment with new and unrelated ideas, keeping the game feeling fresh. Similarly, levels allow players to draw a line under their work, either to put bad experiences behind them, or to frame their most proud moments. Consequently, each level can have it’s own unique identity: An iconic room or construction within it, which prints itself into our memory for life.

    And speaking of iconic rooms… A lot of levels in Doom involve one or two central areas (hubs), that you end up crossing through several times as you complete little side errands collecting keycards or raising bridges and barriers. Part of the interest in non-linearity is that you can investigate these little side areas, to see what you can/can’t access, and what obstacles are blocking you. You build up a mental model of what you might need to do. So when you get a red keycard or raise a bridge, you can think back, and connect the dots… It’s mentally stimulating that way.

    There doesn’t have to be a strict order-of-operations with non-linear maps either. Players may have choice eg, to do area A or B first. Completing A first may mean that you can approach B from a different/better angle. B might even be completely optional, yielding only some powerup bonus, for example. Little choices like that are important, as they allow us to act on our whims, and provide something for both speedrunners and completionists. And for the more serious gamer, allow experimentation, so we can find the most effective strategies.

    A non-linear layout means that a level can be spatially compact too, with lots of branches and loops. This makes it quick to revisit areas once they’re unlocked, either to search for health packs, hunt down a monster you can still hear grunting somewhere, or to locate a door you fear you’ve missed. In comparison, this kind of backtracking can be rather tedious through more linear map design.

    Spatial orientation is fun too in non-linear levels: When you have all these areas connected together, you get to visualise how they all join up. Related to that – but maybe this is a personal thing? – I liked the experience of opening a door, and unexpectedly finding myself back in an earlier area. Times when my mental model was back-to-front because that locked door I saw at the start was not the next unlockable area, but was merely returning me back from the area just done! Things like that, which suprise us, disorient us, keep us alert and interesed.

    Meanwhile, abstract maps allow designers to work with a superset of possibilities, where levels don’t have to resemble real-world spaces, nor conform to conventional rules about architecture. Doom doesn’t try to convince us that what we’re seeing is something other than what it is, so what we’re most aware of when we play is literally the abstract geometry.

    This shared perception between designer and player meant that geometry could be used to it’s fullest effect, creating spaces which are fun to visualise and understand, and uniquely challenging to navigate through.

    Furthermore, when you consider these abstract spaces juxtaposed with various combinations of monster behaviours, you can see how a diverse and endless array of traps and confrontations become possible.

    rnlf
    rnlf
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    #136

    sorceress, what do you think about the way Half-Life does it? Having the player pass through a continuous world without any real level gaps but putting a chapter marker every now and then?

    And most levels actually have a unique theme to them.

    sorceress
    sorceress
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    #138

    rnlf, those chapter markers were used in quake II as well if I remember rightly. I don’t really like them, even though they are technically more advanced, as I prefer to see distinct levels.

    A lot of FPS games break the world into chunks which get dynamically loaded as you walk around (you get those little glitches in the framerate when it happens). Chapter markers feel no different than that to me, and programmatically, they probably are very similar.

    Moving between one chapter and the next doesn’t feel like a proper start/end point. So when I cross a chapter marker I don’t feel like I’ve finished.

    I grew up with 80s and 90s games which were predominantly level-based, so maybe that’s just what I’m most confortable with. But as I argued above, there benefits to distinct levels, and I’ve come to value their use over these more modern solutions.

    Maybe that’s too subjective to make a proper discussion, but it’s just what I like šŸ˜€

    rnlf
    rnlf
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    #139

    I’ve played through most of Episode 1 now (until I hit a bug that killed me and I lost the engagement to continue).

    I like the leveldesign so far. The game is making use of many sharp turns behind which often a whole army of enemies is waiting. Stylistically it reminds me a lot of later games, including the different Quakes and later Dooms.

    As others already mentioned, the level design forces you to pass through the same area multiple times, to get different keys or use levers that open doors or pathways.

    Because the levels are relatively small overall, backtracking through already cleared areas is a lot less tedious than it would be in a level of modern dimensions.

    There are often smart and less smart ways to approach a certain level. Often you can kill off a bunch of enemies from relative safety before entering a new area.

    Two things I don’t like very much though:

    a) When getting killed in a level, it is often _very_ hard to survive the first wave of enemies. You start with nothing but the pistol and often have to improvise, kill the first enemies (that don’t wait for you!) in a certain order to get a shotgun, run over radiated water multiple times just to survive the first minute of the level or so.

    b) The lacking AI forced the level designers to replace smart enemies with hordes of enemies. While that I feel that is part of DOOM’s gameplay, it also feels older than the rest of the game from today’s perspective.


    M2tias
    Participant
    #156

    I played through the first episode trying to look at it with new eyes, because I don’t like the map design. I’ve never really hated the game. In fact I think it’s amazing how well it’s aged.

    Then I came here and read your posts and realized why I hate the map design. It’s because I saw that exaggerating picture Tijn pasted.

    You can’t compare Doom to Call of Duty. It’s like comparing some old classic novel to a new comic book and saying that new literature is shit because there’s barely no words and only pictures. Call of Duty doesn’t try to do what Doom does.

    Doom like FPS games are still here but they are 100% multiplayer games. The maps would be better compared to something like Unreal Tournament series. That doesn’t make much sense either since it’s an arena shooter. On the other hand most of the action feels similar, you strafe around corners dodging or kiting enemies.

    Call of Duty tries to be realistic and it feels like that. I can’t imagine what kind of architect would design Doom’s buildings. But that’s fine, it’s not supposed be realistic.

    By the way, Unreal Tournament has way better maps.

    sorceress
    sorceress
    Participant
    #157

    After praising the map design in my earlier post, it’s only fair that I give some criticism of it too for balance, so expect this post to be more negative.

    So far I’ve played through e1 and e2. I have to say I preferred e1. e2 levels feel a bit different to e1 levels. I don’t mean the texture differences are bad (they are just as great!), but the map layouts themselves feel poorer somehow.

    It is clear that focus has been shifted away from the hub-like areas used in e1. But with fewer such landmarks to guide us, it is harder to build mental maps of these levels, which in turn makes them harder to navigate comfortably.

    The designs of e2 feel more like a chaotic clustering of many small areas, which make it hard to identify where you are at a glance. Abundant use of alcoves and corridors don’t help, as turning in areas with low visible range will disorient us, so we can easily lose our sense of direction.

    In a more realistic game, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, as even small areas are regularly given unique and interesting detail with scenery and use of the third dimension. But Doom cannot escape it’s own limitations, and to me this is an example of where it’s abstract geometry becomes a handicap.

    3D spaces need landmarks, but Doom is limited in how it can achieve this.

    So what are the consequences of this? If the player loses their sense of direction, they have no guide as to where they should go next. They’ll run around aimlessly hoping to stumble upon something new. If that means backtracking, then it quickly becomes boring. But even if we manage to progress, encounters will feel less engaging – it’s just one room after another of monsters – as each encounter becomes less meaningful in the bigger picture.

    Tijn
    Tijn
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    #158

    Yeah, I’m with you there, sorceress. Episode 1 really got me hooked, but Episode 2 doesn’t do so much for me.

    It’s just room after room, killing more and more monsters. And since there’s no story either, there’s really not a lot making me want to progress.

    I’m a bit sad about it, because I was really into Episode 1.

    rnlf
    rnlf
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    #161

    I feel Episode 3 got better again, though. The levels are more arena like (especially E3M6, which is just a huge area with a few buildings on it).

    If I’m not mistaken, the Episode 2 levels were made earlier than Episode 1 levels. (I’d have to watch the DOOM post mortem from GDC 15 (I think) again to be sure).


    dr_st
    Participant
    #281

    You expressed it very nicely, sorceress. I had similar feelings when I played the game ages ago, but never managed to put my finger on it. To date I can barely remember the designs of most E2 levels – they are like a blur in my mind – whereas most E1 I remember quite well. E3 is a little better in this regard, but not as good as E1.

    All E1 levels except E1M8 where designed by John Romero, whereas none of E2/E3 where. Many of the things that positively distinguish E1 from E2 are straight out of his “design rules”:

    https://doomwiki.org/wiki/John_Romero#Design_rules

    I guess this shows you that his reputation as a master designer is at least partially deserved. :)

    Tijn
    Tijn
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    #282

    Oooh, those design rules are cool, dr_st. Thanks for sharing!

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