Role: Level / UX Design
Genre: Open World Platformer
Engine: Unity 3D
Developer: Kevin Ethridge (DigiPen Institute of Technology)
Total Dev Time: 2022; 4 months
Beach Island is an exploration of how to create an open experience that is accessible and approachable to all audiences, being dynamically adaptable in it's difficulty level through level design. In it's purest essence it is a microcosm prototype of everything the core of an open world game is supposed to be. This was a solo project that took me roughly 4 months to complete and is the last thing I worked on while attending DigiPen Institute of Technology. Explore the island freely and collect enough stars to open the mysterious portal, or keep exploring! Its all up to you!
TASKS / RESPONSIBILITIES
Authoring GDDs, priority lists, and asset lists.
Whiteboxing the environments
Programming and art asset creation
MAKING AN OPEN WORLD
Making an open world game on any scale is a daunting task for one person so I stayed laser focused on the overall goal of the project, making something that anyone could play and there would always be something they could do. My method of tackling this was through giving players a variety of things to do, with each method rewarding the player for engaging in different ways and providing enough of each so that players had actual choice in what they were doing. The level design had to facilitate this mindset as well, as the levels are designed in such a way so that players can disengage from any challenge they want at any time and be okay to go find something else to do. Providing shortcuts as a form of progression from reaching checkpoints in the world helps reinforce this idea as it lets players safely disengage from any part of a challenge and then reengage with any part of a challenge without fear of losing significant progress which can be a barrier for those differently abled or skilled.
Another part of encouraging this is telling players what kinds of things they can find out in the world and where they can find them. For example there are stars that are easy to get to but they are simply hidden around the map. Setting up a piece of level that lets the player ‘discover’ one of these while they’re out and about no matter what direction they enter that part of the map is a secure way to make sure that this option for finding stuff is there for them.
Establishing what the objective looks like and what the general direction towards progress is what tells players they’re going the right way and are on the right track. With some experiments I had done with converging multiple paths and entry points into a single island I realized the importance of consistent funneling of the player’s momentum in clarity of progression, as paths converging in the middle of a challenge narrative can confuse the player into not knowing which way is the way to their goal and with the kind of game this is, going anywhere has a cost and this can be detrimental to their engagement.
Wide open spaces act as liminal spaces and frame the entrances of other liminal spaces or challenge islands or can house smaller compact challenges within them. Within the mechanics and game loop of this game, having linear appearing paths that have a flow that pushes you in a consistent direction helps keep the clarity of what is expected of you pure. In a game like Far Cry things like a wall around a complex would tell players they are expected to explore within the walls of the base for their objective, everything within the walls is the challenge space and everything outside it is liminal space.
Once gameplay language is established its time to think about how the placement of all of those things impacts the experience. I tried many many different island configurations to see what made the best experience. The location of the end goal was the most critical as it was a location the player needed to be aware of and needed to see frequently in order to gauge their progress and see if the portal was open and know where to go. The level design even accounted for the liminal space surrounding the challenge islands as players could 'break the game' by using surrounding level geometry to sequence break or bypass parts of the level. Crafting the environment to make this rewarding without losing out on what the level design needs to teach the player was a carefully constructed balance. The best time to allow the player to do this is after a big challenge, since seeing a way to 'cheat' to another star from that vantage point and then pulling it off makes that victory all the sweeter.
And of course to make sure people don't get lost you need to put landmarks everywhere. But going a step further to making entire locations into their own distinct landmark goes so much farther to people being able effectively navigate. Splitting the island into 3 different unique aesthetics really makes the space feel bigger than it is and is a clear indicator of where the player is at any time. You can also lean into the character of each part of the island by matching it with fitting gameplay to really make each area feel unique and that will make it all the more engaging for the player. The sightlines between areas from within areas is also important for establishing where things are in relation to each other or where you should go next. Setting up sightlines from breaks in the challenge narrative that point directly to the entrances or goals of other parts of the island shows the player exactly where other places are and that they can go to those places anytime they wish. In that same vein having places open up facing other locations as part of a vista creates a reward out of this.