Design Concepts (UPDATED)

6 years, 6 months ago 4
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Missing Elements

When a level is confusing or uninteresting, it’s probably due to a missing layout element. Here are eight common examples of missing elements…

“The Same Damn Corridor”

Everyone’s probably seen this in some game – that “Same Damn Corridor.” It happens when the level looks the same everywhere, becoming boring and repetitive.

Remember the first Halo? Every other location looked just like these!


Fig 18: Halo corridor ‘A’


Fig 19: Halo corridor ‘B’

This problem occurs when there are:

  • Missing Landmarks – no unique eye-candy or reference points
  • Symmetrical or repetitive – including the overuse of instanced geometry
  • Too many Paths – full of routes that lead nowhere, where nothing really happens

“The Secret Passage”

This happens when players miss a turn. Unless prompted by something of interest (like a Landmark), players tend to travel in a straight line. Every turn should be obvious – at least in the beginning. If you can use early levels to teach the player to look for alternate routes and to adapt to the changes, you may be justified in making the player work a little harder to find those options in later levels.

For example, can you find some clue where a secret passage might be in the left image below?


Fig 20: Where’s the Secret Door?


Fig 21: …hiding around a corner!

In this area, the gameplay kind of requires you to eventually use it. It should be a little more obvious! Not tucked around the corner, way up high, only viewable from one perspective.

In this next area, the secret passage is where most people expect it to find it in a room with a big waterfall. It’s obscured from a passive glance but in plain view for ones that stop to look.


Fig 22: Where’s the Secret Door?


Fig 23: …right in front of you!

The reasons for this confusion are:

  • Missing Landmarks – no unique eye-candy or reference points
  • Poor Path weight – the important route is not emphasized enough
  • Off-screen Edges – frame important changes, to ensure the player can clearly recognized it

Depending on your audience, you might actually want an obscure passage, but then it should never be critical for completing the level.

“The Road to Nowhere”

This is a common example of poor level design. When nothing of interest exists, it can crush a player’s feeling of accomplishment and question why he’s wasting his time playing this game.


Fig 24: Shooters don’t have this bird’s eye luxury


Fig 25: Rewarding exploration with… a dead end.

Exploring should lead to something cool. Petering out or ending abruptly is frustrating! Be careful of:

  • Missing POI

“The Wrong Doorway”

Similar to the above problem but more specific when crossing an Edge – if a fantastic door reveals a storage closet, it harms a player’s expectation.

For example in Ico, if you fight your way up to a massive door, only to discover a small empty room, you’re going to feel like you’re missing something obvious. Is there a secret door or switch you overlooked? An elaborate Edge should reward the player with something equally elaborate.


Fig 26: A monumental doorway to…?


Fig 27: A simple doorway to…?

The opposite applies, too. A simple hole-in-the-wall should lead to a simple area. What if a seemingly trivial, closet lead to a secret winter fantasyland? Well, the exception in CS Lewis’s tale is that the Wardrobe is an Point-of-Interest the player is made aware of early on. In any other game, where this would be a trivial piece of furniture, players will get confused over its lack of presence.

To prevent this confusion watch out for:

  • Poor Edge scale – for POI or Landmark
  • Poor Path scale – for POI or Landmark

An incorrect scale can fail to foreshadow the scope and importance of the next area. A good rule of thumb: the distance traveled should never be smaller than the size of the destination’s Edge.

“The Weak Corner”

When elements are revealed in a slow, gradual pace, it results in a lack of drama and creates an ambiguity to the role of the next location. This happens when you forget that a corner should be considered a vertical Edge.


Fig 28: No big reveals here.

  • Missing Edges – remember to use corners. They’re a great place to trigger events!

“The Missing Wall”

Similar to too much of the same thing, too little can create a sense of uncertainty in the player. An ambiguous location with no clear boundaries might cause the player to explore an unintended Path, diluting the purpose of the area.


Fig 29: Where’s a compass when you need one?

  • Poorly defined POI – No Breadcrumbs to lead the player. “What is this place?”

“The Trackless Forest”

Similar to the above example where the player has no direction – this time there’s too much of the same thing. To avoid this problem, create and organize an artificial sense of structure to the area.


Fig 30: Too much of the same…


Fig 31: …prompts confusion in destination.

To remove this problem, look for:

  • Missing Paths – causing players to continue along a straight line
  • Missing Edges – to tell the player why and where they’re traveling

In a linear event-driven game, this free form aspect might be okay to use in the level. In the Resident Evil series, exploration is restricted by camera angles and screen edges, limiting player options in direction.

“Fire Hosing”

When POI are stacked on top of one another, the experience becomes flat and exhausting. Events should have an ebb and flow to its intensity to help stir up emotional responses from the player. If the game doesn’t have this rhythm, constant intensities quickly become the new baseline for all future encounters.

Fig 32: More and more and more and more and more action!

  • Too many POI – preventing time to build anticipation to the next event.

The movie series Pirates of the Caribbean is notorious for having every scene blasting with over-the-top action. Creating a plausible intensity will eventually fail – and break the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Once this occurs, the player no longer believes in the world that you’ve created for them.

4 Responses

  1. You’ve been doing some really interesting posts on your blog lately…good read’n, and the vintage video(s), so good.

  2. Glad you’re enjoying ’em, Kevin! It takes a little bit of effort, but I’m sure I’ll appreciate it when I’m 80 years old and wonder what the hell I use to do when I was spry.

  3. Now that’s cool… As someone that plays some of these games, I’ve sometimes felt that something “really worked”, or “seemed broken”. This actually breaks down the concepts and the lingo enough to figure out what it is!

  4. Hey Chris! Yeah, I spot these all the time now. Just saw a couple in Diablo 3 the other day — like always finding a dead body to loot at dead ends. Cool to hear it made sense to you (as a player not a maker).

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