Monday, 14 May 2012

Portal 2 Perpetual Testing Initiative (and Level Design Guide)

Over the last few days, I have been creating levels for the PC version of Portal 2 using the new game editor that was released last week as part of an update.

See my efforts for yourselves - Skelitor77's Steam Workshop Page

My First Level Attempt (How the Chicken Crossed the Road)
- A fairly easy puzzle which got me used to the editors possibilities.

The new editor is very easy to use and works on a click-and-drag basis for most areas but by right-clicking an object, you can edit its properties and connect it to buttons or objects. And although I have experience with other editors such as the UDK, it would be pretty straight-forward for anybody that is new to level editing to pick up.

With over 30,000+ levels being created and 1.2mil custom level downloads since its release, it is also proving to be very popular amongst Portal 2 fans. There have been a few issues with publishing and playing levels during peak time, but this is something Valve are looking into as it appears that this has proved more popular than they predicted. Hopefully they will also looking at ways to improve the exposure of new levels and good but low-rated levels, but it is still early days.

Lab Escape - Keeping the player focused on reaching the central room.

Having played some of the levels currently available, while most are fun and enjoyable, there a few issues and problems people seem to have when it comes to creating the levels. Obviously it is difficult trying to work out what other people are going to do when they enter your level, and they are likely to come across solutions and bypasses that you never intended. I’ve done a quick list though of the things you should be doing to create a better experience.
Here's my guide on creating great levels:
  • Test your Levels – You’d be surprised at the amount of levels that people will play once decide it works then publish it. And you not only have to play it a number of times, but test it to its limits. Look for puzzles you can bypass, try to approach the level from a different perspective. But best of all, get your friends and other people to play it. You’ll be surprised at what you can miss. 

Puzzle Machine - This required a lot of testing...

  • Don’t make it completely Obvious – As a Puzzle game, a lot of the enjoyment you get from Portal 2 will be from solving the puzzle and then executing the solution. The amount of levels where there are only a handful of places where you can put a portal is ridiculous, and so many good concepts are ruined by the lack of thought to this area. Nobody wants to play a puzzle game on-rail. 

The Flooded Room - Although some Levels can just work first time.

  • Let the Experiences Flow – All great games have a flow. One experience, leading to another, to another, and then on to the next. The player doesn’t want to be trying to find out what they’re supposed to do, especially if they enter a giant room with hardly anything in it. Everything should be compact, whilst still having the room it needs to work. Flow will keep a player in the game, whilst lapses give the player the chance to leave, and they can do that at the end of the level.

Puzzle Machine - A Big experience that needed the player to know where to go next.

  • Make Good use of Light – If a player walks into a room, more likely than not they are going to look towards the better lit area, Its Human-nature. Don’t ignore dark areas though, these add atmosphere, just don’t expect people to find the solution in the dark. I have play-tested my own levels with minimal lighting but then I know how to solve it, after all I built it. But trying to spot the difference between a white wall and a grey wall when they are both near black is just about impossible.
    Lab Escape - The Big Observation window is great for shadow effects
  • Don’t Force Players to Restart – This all comes back to Testing and Flow, but if a player has to manually restart a level, then the level has failed. If you don’t want the player to get into a certain area, or want to have a trap the player can fall into. You need to allow them to escape, or at least kill them. If you don’t, you are basically giving the player the opportunity to quit.
    Broken Lifts - The bright lights of the lifts gets the players to look upwards and their attention.
  • Dying for the Hundredth Time isn’t Fun – An Player Error executing a manoeuvre can be funny, just don’t expect the player to be able to always be able to perfectly execute a jump/manoeuvre. Challenging manoeuvres add to a puzzles difficulty. But when they have to perfectly execute it to avoid falling to your death; they are going to die a lot, no matter how good they are. If a player keeps dying they are eventually going to quit, and that will not reflect well if they end up rating the level too.
Shooting Gallery - It's a tough challenge trying to face up to a number of Turrets.
  • Bad Trolling – The point of designing levels is not to beat the player, but to pose a challenge for the player to overcome. Much like the Evil Genius from Spy Thrillers and Action films that keeps the Hero at arm’s length until he overcomes the odds to achieve victory. The player should always wins in the end, as they are the hero. You can scare the player with impending death, only to save them at the last minute, but don’t kill the player because you can.

  • Finally, make it Look Appealing – Imagine a big grey room, four walls a floor and a roof, with a few objects in the middle of it. Boring isn’t it. Once you’ve got the basics in place, decorate it. Use the contrast between White and Grey walls, have undulating walls, place light features, get some glass and iron grating, raise columns and beams. Having something pretty to look at is never a chore, but flat, square, monotone rooms are. Games are about an experience, and the look of it is included in that, make the player think about it after they’ve stopped playing.

Puzzle Machine - All white walls here are for effect.

If you’re looking for ideas, the best thing to do is to play around with the tools on offer. But you can also play other peoples levels to look for good ideas. The link to my levels is at the top of this post, and the screenshots are all from my levels. Always try to leave feedback, good or bad, as with feedback and critique is how we improve as designers. You can only go so far by yourself. My levels are certainly not perfect, with myself and others spotting things I had overlooked. Some things I had even considered before publishing, but either decided I had done enough to combat it, or that the solution I had put in place was not effective enough.

Shooting Gallery - Could you get though that gap in the glass? Maybe you should try the hard version.
I hope this helps any wannabe level designers and puzzle-makers, and a lot of these rules apply to many other genres and games. After all, games are about using the mechanics you are given to work past the obstacles, and achieve victory.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Portal 2 Review - PC (Single Player)

Following the original Portal’s successful debut alongside the Orange Box’s heavyweights of Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, having more than stood on its own two feet; Valve have recognised the games iconic charm by releasing Portal 2 by itself. With the original enjoying so much success for a game that presumably would have only been considered as little more than a HL2 Mod before release, this leaves Portal 2 a huge task to show its worth as an independent game. But I believe that Valve have pulled this off and beyond.

With Steven Merchant as the blundering guide, the plot is full of twists and turns, with plenty of sharp humour from both the story and characters, whilst adding to the atmosphere created by the huge improvements to the scenery and graphics. Especially to the rather bland entry/exit elevators from the first game, that has been given a complete make-over, as well as other areas of the game. Now the older style levels, as well as the brand new areas completely fit into and expand the atmosphere created by the story. All I would say about the story is that it is perhaps a bit short for a full priced game, but it is still two to three times the size of the original. And if the Co-op is anywhere near as long as the single player, then this game is certainly worth the money paid.

The new levels are as challenging as ever with a good learning curve from the start. Some later levels are huge; and although this causes a few problems with direction, new and experienced players by this time have had plenty of time to know how to tackle the problems and won’t take so long that they may begin to consider giving up. The new mechanics are inspired; especially the new paints which add a whole new layer to the challenge of the game, but players will enjoy all the new devices available to complete each test; one of which always conjures up the image of Tom Baker’s face from the old Doctor Who TV series whenever you enter it.

As for players who are new to the series, the start of the single player shows you every move you need to get through a good chunk of the game, which is just as good for experienced players that may not have played the original for a while. Some of the newer mechanics tend to be thrust onto you at one point, but this tends to be the exception rather than the rule as the majority are introduced by the guides.

One of the biggest problems in the first game was attempting to direct yourself into a portal when falling a big distance. This has been solved in Portal 2 without making it too easy, as now your character will auto-target a portal if you are more or less heading for it; and this also goes for placing the cubes onto buttons, which now only require you to place the cube somewhere on top of the button rather than right in the middle. As for the sound direction, it is as atmospheric and fitting as the first game; although if I’m honest, the music isn’t quite as outstanding but is still good.

So Overall, Portal 2 expands on the innovative first game with a great story full of humour, exciting and expansive new levels, with inspired new mechanics into a game that easily fits its self-evident atmosphere. Sound is good although not quite to the level of the first. The game is accessible and I’d therefore recommend it to both new and experienced players. The only areas that I found wanting were that the story was short; although a quality story on a short game is always better than a average story on a longer game. Also that some of the big levels tended to be fairly unclear in places for where you needed to get to and where you could place portals. But otherwise this is an outstanding game and a great effort by Valve on a sequel that always risked it not being value for money.

9.5/10 - Potato Clocks

Tuesday, 19 April 2011


Now that I've finished uni, I have decided to repurpose this blog into something that can form a part of my portfolio, as well as a place for me to discuss games and the industry and maybe a bit of gaming banter on the side. So here we go, time for an introduction for me and this Blog.

As it states in the Bio, I am a 23 year old Games Design graduate (University of Central Lancashire) looking to break my way into the Industry; working on a portfolio, applying for the jobs and now blogging, all whilst working at a local Hotel/Restaurant. I am from and currently living near Louth, Lincolnshire.

My hope is that this blog will act in a supporting role with my portfolio, and I will be updating this blog with mostly gaming related posts, such as reviews, my opinion on recent industry news and my gaming exploits, and perhaps the odd post about some of my other interests. Look out for the odd Music and Football posts that may appear from time to time as these may be the most likely things I will discuss other than games.

My gaming history is reasonably varied, starting on the NES and SNES, moving onto PlayStation 1 & 2, and currently own Xbox 360 and PC where I terrorize FPS (First Person Shooter) players with my formerly unique playing style of Stealth Shotgun (hence the blog title), although this is actually a small part of my range of genres, and I can often be found playing Strategy, Simulation, RPG (Role Playing Games), Action/Adventure and Sports games amongst others.

Anyway, I think I've got everything that needs covering. I hope to update this fairly regularly (depending on varying weekly work hours and portfolio progress), although traditionally blogging is not my thing, but I will see how this goes.

I hope this will be fairly successful and welcome whatever future comments on my blogs and work that you may have.

Si (Skelitor77)