Rambling about ESA

Turned out that writing ‘articles’ about problems in my own games was fun and seemed to get a positive response and actually really nice feedback, so let’s have ESA design problem huffery-puffery #2!

I just played around in the temple area to test some stuff (small dust particles as you walk in the aream yay!), and man is the area horrendous. I could really feel my disinterest in working on the game as I walked around there. I had planned for the area to be mainly about puzzles and traps, and there were those (especially the latter), but they were almost universally obtuse, unfun and often very player-unfriendly, designed mostly without thinking of how a player first seeing them might react. To list some of the horrible things:

  • Insta-kill traps
  • Another trap that deals 10 damage at a time where the player might have 15
  • A puzzle with the only hint located on another room’s wall, said room being also hidden and the hint being partially blocked by tiles
  • Two bosses being literally one room from each other
  • A boss having insta-kill traps between it and the next save point, so that the player might instantly die after beating the boss but before saving

I felt really disappointed at myself. At the moment I feel that the only way to really approach this problem is to actually redo most of the temple. Redesigning the area shouldn’t be that difficult, considering that I know where the area starts and ends, and all the things that should be found within. Still, it might be quite a large undertaking, although it’d probably pay off very well.
I have some ideas on how this might be improved; it’d probably require redoing some of the enemies and most of the area itself, but all in all I think it could be worth it. I’ll probably finish the penultimate area first, though!

(To be honest, the temple tileset is also quite ugly.)


  1. Cornelis de Mooij says:

    I think the temple tileset looks good. Also:

    - Insta-kill traps can be not frustrating, if their attacks is telegraphed in some way. The big rolling stone thing for example, that falls from the wall in one of the earlier animations, is fine because it is (or at least appears to be) dodgeable. You could do something similar for other such traps: make the traps take some time to prepare or move towards the player, or set up the level in such a way that the player sees a non-player character fall for the trap, so that they know about the trap.
    - Reduce the damage it deals? Or maybe not make the player take that much damage before it? Or put a health-pack in between.
    - If the puzzle can also be solved without the hint, that could be fine. I like figuring out puzzles myself in games; if the game just tells you the solution to every puzzle that’s very annoying, especially if it tells you the solution before you even see the puzzle.
    - Are the bosses related to each other, like different forms? That might be cool to keep, maybe just nerf them a bit if they’re too difficult. The first boss could also drop some health packs after being defeated.
    - This is actually horrible and should be fixed :D

  2. Bitcoon says:

    I suppose I don’t have as much experience with getting into the swing of things with level design. My current project is as far along as I’ve gotten with a game before, and I’m still implementing the features that will be used throughout the game.
    I just don’t see myself making those sorts of mistakes, and I wonder how you happened upon them. Had you not playtested enough, or were you going through just thinking more as the developer – knowing every little detail of how everything works giving you a huge advantage, so you tune the difficulty to your expertise – rather than as the player who’s learning as they go?
    I must say I’ve learned a lot on my current project, though. One thing being how absolutely vital it is to keep your level designs interesting and place visual landmarks. That’s one place where developer-vision really hurt me when I was first designing the initial area. I meant it to be somewhat maze-like and I was on the right track placing a few visual cues as to where to go, but it wasn’t until I let a friend just sit down and play it while I watched silently that I realized I sorely overestimated people’s ability to remember elements of a level that’s made mostly of identical tiles.

  3. Hempuli says:

    - Yeah, true, and there’ll be some insta-kill ones in the game even after this change. These particular ones were just really dumb. I’ll reduce the stone’s damage, but that one wasn’t insta-kill to begin with and I think I’ll keep it :)
    - Going to do that!
    - I like to think about puzzles myself as well, but then again it’s not very good either to have to blindly guess until one gets on the right track. I’ll try to change the puzzle so that it’s more of a ‘good’ challenge instead of a ‘bad’ one.
    - They weren’t related in any way, the other one was the one I had planned from the beginning and the other one was just something I wanted to do. They’re both nice bosses, I’d say, but I’ll just have to relocate them!
    - Yes!

    I think there’re two larger things at effect here; the first was that I designed the game map before making any areas or even finalizing the engine. This caused some area layouts to be not very well-suited for the actual gameplay, yet I didn’t want to change them much (who knows why). The other problem was as you said, as the developer one easily becomes blind to design problems related to players not knowing what to expect or do in certain situations. The temple is especially tough in this sense; I wanted for it to have puzzles, even some think-out-of-the-box -ones, but then I also had to try to keep in mind that the player might get frustrated with all that since the game isn’t very puzzle-oriented, and also that the puzzles might be just too outlandish.

    I agree with you, visual uniqueness in areas is very very important! I’ve noted that it even affects my motivation as a level designer – I feel somewhat giddy at times after creating an area or a room that I feel to be especially memorable, but when working on an area I (sub)consciously know to be at least somewhat ‘samey’ or boring, my motivation plummets very easily.

    Thanks for the comments, sorry it took so long to dig them up!

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