Wow… Long time between drinks, so to speak. Been busy here working at work, working at home, working on Team Friendship, working on Audio Tours Australia, and working on not becoming a hermit becaue of too much working. Last I mentioned I’d finished the pen & paper level design for Team Friendship. Well that was partially true. You should know I’m absolutely opposed to “feature creep” where irresponsible management bloats a project with extras and new features during development which slowly but surely corrodes the integrity and overall vision of a project, often resulting in a mish-mash of features with no cohesion, no target audience (or rather too many target audiences), no definition, and often the complete collapse (or worse; development limbo) of a project. I’ve worked on projects like that before and, in a word, it’s bad. Really bad. So I was tentative about the big step I wanted to take with Team Friendship.
Team Friendship was designed as a four-player co-operative first person puzzle game, and it works well at being that (on paper at least). But there was a nagging voice in the back of my mind that said something was missing. Something was missing which would rear its ugly head come release day. Something I could avoid with a bit of foresight. That something was a single-player portion of the game.
Obviously a game designed specifically for four-players (i.e. the puzzles can’t be completed with less than four people playing) cannot easily be adapted to be a single-player experience. I could just use the same interactive elements as in multiplayer (switches, buttons, pressure plates, and timers) and try to craft some puzzles out of that. But it would feel too stripped back. Too bare and basic. Like comparing an eight-person running race to a guy going for a jog by himself. The ingredients are there but the interest is not. So I had to come to an equalibrium of keeping it absolutely in the same game world as the multiplayer component, while abstracting the gameplay enough that I could form an interesting and unique single-player experience out of it.
I’ll be the first to admit the Weighted Companion Cube from Portal was an early inspiration for the single-player gameplay. It was a gameplay element that could affect the environment by acting as a step or a shield, and it could interact with other gameplay elements such as pressure plates, energy balls, portals, and so on. This was the kind of thing that would help abstract the gameplay enough to make it different from mutliplayer, ground it in the same universe, and form the basis for new and interesting puzzles. But there were a few things that Portal does that I wanted to do differently.
Firstly I wanted the cube to be pushed, not picked up. By permanently grounding the cube (because it’s too big and heavy I suppose) it immediately does two things: it means you can go where the cube cannot (like over a step) which paves the way for puzzles right there, and it makes the cube dependent on the player. Which is something I want to expand on for a minute…
In Portal (and many other games that use spheres/cubes/whatever to drag around) the relationship between the player and the prop is co-dependent. The prop needs the player to take it safely from A to B and the player needs the prop to get them safely from C to D. The prop might be used as a shield from arrows, flames, spike pits, energy balls, etc. and it might also be used as a step, a floatation device across a lava flow, the list goes on. Basically: the prop keeps you safe. As well as that works for certain games it’s something I didn’t want for Team Friendship.
In games like ICO or Resident Evil 4 you’re escorting someone helpless (Yorda and Ashley respectively) and for the most part they don’t help you at all. The chemistry or bond between the characters develops accordingly. You, the player, are the protector. The white knight, the dominant one, the puzzle solver. And except for occasions where the AI goes wrong and Yorda refuses to follow you or Ashley runs gleefully into a bear-trap, you do develop a feeling of reponsibility for the escort-ee. An example of this in another medium is Tom Hanks’ friend Wilson the volleyball in Castaway. So in Team Friendship the box will never help you reach inaccessible areas and never protect you from harm. It will depress pressure plates when you put it on them. That’s about it, really. Each puzzle will be you trying to get the cube to the exit, and the entire single-player component of the game will involve taking the cube with you from start to finish. The relationship between the player and the prop has gone from co-dependent to flat out dependent. Now that I think of it, it’s very much like escorting the garden gnome from start to finish in Half-Life 2: Episode 2.
The other thing I’m doing relates more to the level design than the overall game design. There are a few reasons for it. One is to re-enforce the cohesion of the single and multiplayer components of the game, because gameplay-wise they’re quite separate. The other is to heighten the sense of… I don’t actually know what the word for it is. That “you were there” feeling you get when you leave an area then after a while you see it again in the background from a different angle. Like when you get lost and disoriented and then eventually you arrive back on a familiar street via a side-street that you’ve passed a million times but never ventured down. The world spins for a moment and you reorient yourself and see this familiar street from a new prespective. ICO and God of War do this a lot (as do a lot of games). The point: What I’m doing is intertwining both the single and multiplayer puzzle arenas, and the routes between them, into one whole single environment. So if in multiplayer you see a walkway going overhead that you can’t reach, in single-player you’ll cross that walkway and see down to where you were in multiplayer. With proper planning and foresight this is actually fairly easy to do and should give plenty of “oohhhh that’s cool” moments throughout the game as you start seeing previous areas from afar, walking through the same areas again, and even re-using puzzles from singleplayer in multiplayer (and vice versa) in completely different ways to open up different routes.
And the entire game (both the single and multiplayer routes) are enourmous loops where you arrive back at the beginning at the end of the game. Within that loop are smaller loops, and within those loops are loops, and so on. Yes this borrows heavily from ICO (again) but it’s a fantastic technique that squeezes plenty of emotional response from the players, and that’s what’s important. Oh, and also the single player component is only 20 rooms while the multiplayer is 30 rooms.
So now that both single and multiplayer components of the game are designed on paper, I’ll find an order to put the rooms in, how the flow between them works, how the single/multi rooms tie together, and just really get the overarching flow down pat. Then get it all done up in Photoshop and walkthroughs written, which really isn’t too time consuming because there’s no design involved now. Then it’s whiteboxing! But that’s later.
Stay tuned via Facebook/Twitter! ~Share on Facebook