This is the first part of a two-part article focusing on the design and iteration of Fairytale Forest level 3 in Elder Goo. In this blog post we cover the initial design process and all the changes the level went through before launch.
A few words about level design
Designing a good level in any game takes a lot of work. In this article we focus on one of the first levels in Elder Goo, The Fairytale Forest level 3, and show you exactly what it took to design the level from start to finish. The reason we chose to cover this level is that it’s an early tutorial level which aims to teach the players some of the basic mechanics. However it’s not as trivial as the first two levels which can basically be completed with just trial and error. It’s also one of the few levels that we altered after the initial launch.
In most cases the tutorial levels take the longest to design – yes, even longer than the most difficult levels that appear late in the game. It’s because in the very first levels it’s crucial that the player constantly knows what to do and doesn’t get stuck. If a game feels too difficult right from the beginning the players might get frustrated and lose their interest or even worse – feel stupid.
The first few minutes of a game are supposed to be a warm welcome – to get the player in to a flow state where they feel good about themselves and feel like they’re making progress. You don’t want to arouse any negative feelings in the player, at least not at this point. The challenge should build up as the players get further in the game. Progression builds confidence and the more confident the players get the more easy it it’s for them to accept failure. As a developer you usually don’t want to make the player feel that the game is too difficult and thus unfair. What you do want is that the player feels he or she just needs to try harder – to master the game.
Designing the level step-by-step
Fairytale Forest #3 (or F3 for short) started as a simple sketch which in this case is already drawn digitally. This is also the first prototype of the level as it can be played as such with a little imagination – no fancy graphics here though! We used to design all the levels this way but have since started using our custom made Elder Goo level design tool which allows us to use the actual in game graphics right from the beginning.
If there are no evident flaws (like for example if the level is impossible to finish) we then move on to build the level in Unity. The first playable version is a crude mockup because it always changes at least a little bit. We don’t want to spend any time on the graphics at this point because we don’t know if whether the level’s a keeper or not.
Our tests showed that the first playable version of the level was pretty ok, but we had to change it because we had just decided to ditch double switch mechanic it didn’t feel intuitive to the almost any of the players. At that time Elder Goo had been in development for almost two months.
As we removed the double switches we also added the collectible crystal and cleared some unnecessary elements to make more room to the level. We put some thought into the visual layout of the level but intentionally kept the graphics at bare minimum to save time.
After step three we started to feel like we should introduce the fire mechanic to the player earlier – besides it was an easy way to add some color to the level. However we didn’t want to force the player to learn it but rather to encourage trying how different characters react to it. As you can see in the picture above approaching the fire is totally optional, but you have to get past it to reach the not-so-well-hidden crystal.
We also wanted a bit more variation to the level so we added another door and a new kind of a switch which opens two doors simultaneously! This mechanic is used in other levels as well so we wanted the player to learn it as early as possible. Finally we added some more bushes, tufts and flowers to make the level look more finished.
You can also see a little creature staring curiously from the bushes! The forest was more lively in the early versions of Elder Goo. However these decorative elements were too distracting for some players so eventually we decided to cut them.
We were satisfied with the level design so the fifth version was purely a graphics update. The doors were changed to look more like flowers rather than mean and spiky tentacles and the crystal was replaced with a more distinctive one. The biggest change was replacing the clone bushes with colorful bushes of varying shape and size.
More users – more feedback
During Slush 2014 Elder Goo officially entered beta stage which for us meant more users as well as more feedback. We don’t develop game for ourselves so it’s really important to get people to play the game and give as much critique as possible.
We share our games via different testing services (mainly TestFlight) but we also take every chance to show the game around in person. The players tend to give more honest feedback if interviewed directly and you also get to ask the questions you as a developer need an answer to. Remember that most of the time the player doesn’t know which features the developer wants to see tested and which ones are going to change anyway. The player might totally ignore the fact that the characters are difficult to move around (even though solid gameplay is fundamental for any game!) if he or she finds something else that’s more out of place. From my experience I think that most players can point out graphical issues as that is something they can see but analyzing how the game feels is much more difficult.
We organize testing sessions in different events and occasions to reach as varying audience as possible. As Elder Goo is a game for all ages we also visited schools and tested the game with some 3rd graders. At the time we’d already put all the graphics in place so F3 looked pretty good.
During our testing sessions we noticed that F4, the level after F3, was a too difficult for many players who hadn’t played the game before. To complete the fourth level the players needed to learn that Gooey is smaller than all the others and therefore only he can fit through narrow gaps. This is the first individual Goo mechanic required in the game so we felt we had to teach it to the player more thoroughly. We didn’t want to make level 4 any easier, as it wasn’t difficult per se, so we decided to introduce the same mechanic earlier in level 3.
To teach the new mechanic, we removed one door from the right hand side of the level and moved the other to block both Gooey’s and Sturdy’s way. Underneath the door we placed a tight spot where only Gooey can fit through. The switches were placed so that one character always ends up stuck behind the door on the right-hand side of the screen while the other three reach the goal. This effectively forces the player to move Gooey through the gap below the door and hopefully to learn the mechanic while at it.
We also added another tight spot to Gooey’s starting corner so that the very first time the player moves Gooey he or she actually drags him through a similar narrow passage. Why? Because repetition is the key to learning. Seriously, we’ve had players repeating the same maneuver two times in a five seconds and not knowing what to do when the third time comes just a moment after… Anyway, this was the seventh iteration of level 3 and the one we launched Elder Goo – Möllit with in Finland on October 8th 2015.
As you might’ve already guessed this wasn’t the final form of F3. The second part of the article shows how the players reacted to the level and what changes we made after the launch.