Design From the Top Down: World-Level-Experiences-Moments
Speaking of making things more interesting and less frustrating let’s discuss the order of operations that you need to keep in mind and follow when coming up with the nuts and bolts of your gameplay design. There are four basic tiers of design in gaming:
World – First you need to design the world, which has a lot to do with the main character(s) and the main character’s abilities both at the start of the game and throughout the game to the end where they are fully powered. You need to decide what kind of physics your game has and if your character can do things that aren’t possible in the real world or if you want more realistic physics. You need to decide if vehicles are a part of gameplay at all and if the player can control them. Lastly it’s important to have an idea of the visual style and graphical theme of the game, so you can design to those strengths. Even the game’s color scheme can affect the design of everything else.
You need to have an idea of the theme of the game if there is one and the general way you want to blend that into the level (through common types of obstacles, enemies, story-telling or gameplay in general) or you could decide that each level is a completely different experience. Most games keep the same types of core gameplay elements and expand on that core gameplay with various twists that get harder to beat until the end. As a designer, however, you are in charge and can do the exact opposite if you choose.
Level – Once you have designed your world you can start focusing on designing each individual level. How this works is that you shouldn’t move on to designing specific experiences within a level until you have designed the level itself. You can work on multiple levels at once after you have designed the world. Designing the level means knowing the graphic theme of the level, figuring out where the level begins and ends and listing out the obstacles and enemy types that will appear in the level. Design the flow of the level, any story plot points that occur during the level, any boss fights or player upgrades. Basically you want to know all of your ingredients and line up the sequence of events that will carry the player through the level.
Experiences – Once you’ve designed the level and you know the general sequence of events in the level it’s time to design the individual experiences that the player will encounter. This is where “player meets random group of enemies” becomes “player meets three enemy A’s, 2 enemy B’s and an enemy C at the beginning of the cave and finds two chests.” You fill in the details and set the mood of that particular moment in the game to give everyone who will program and animate the game, as well as others who review GDD documents, a clear idea of what is happening throughout a level.
Laying out the individual experiences and then mapping out the flow of events and gameplay, making sure that there is balance and challenge enough to keep players engaged. You also want to be on the lookout for sections of gameplay with little to no variety and spice that section up.
Moment-to-Moment Gameplay – This is the last and final step in the process of designing your gameplay, and also the most detailed and time consuming. This is where you or your team actually program the obstacles, enemies, and bosses and design their movement and attack moves, their patterns of attack and defense and all of the ways they can interact with or affect the player. This step continues from the planning stage through the programming and debugging stages. You will refine the moment-to-moment gameplay many times until you’re satisfied with the outcome.
Follow this outline for design and you will not have to stop development and start over on a section of the game or scrap good work due to issues involved with planning. Sometimes you find that things just don’t work as planned, but it’s better to see it in the early stages (world tier or level tier) before you put hours of work into designing experiences and the moment-to-moment gameplay which may have to change or get scrapped because of changes in a higher tier.