DISCUSSION: Keen 6 level design.

Discussion and analysis of graphics, story, levels, and so on.
EricMushroomWilson
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DISCUSSION: Keen 6 level design.

Post by EricMushroomWilson » Thu Jul 07, 2011 9:00 pm

Okay, since it seems like Galaxy/Aliens modding is increasing, I think now would be a good time to take a look at how those games did things level design wise. Starting with Keen 6, just 'cause.


Keen 6 Level 1: Bloogwaters Crossing

A few preliminary thoughts:

This level uses a switch, which to the best of my recollection the first levels of Keen 4 and 5 do not. Could this have maybe been influenced by an assumption that the player has played one or both of those before an is familiar with the switches?

There's a definite straight line structure to it, not uncommon in first levels.

Three different enemy types are introduced here, two of which can kill Keen directly. Maybe compare and contrast this with the first levels of other episodes? Keen 1's first level, for instance, contains only the non-lethal Yorps.

Edit: Actually, it looks like the Babobba may appear on Hard mode only.[/url]

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Ceilick
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Post by Ceilick » Thu Jul 07, 2011 9:59 pm

Woo this'll be fun. Going pretty in depth for this level, since it's the first.

Opening of this level is a really nice, picturesque scene. As the player enters they've got plenty to see: a blue Blooglet over head, 3 sodas, and the animating waterfall. There is also the rock and the two trees which use two different sets of tree tiles giving them both a unique look. The Blooglet is positioned pretty close to Keen's head and having something moving that quickly near the player may be a bit alarming, especially for the first level, but this doesn't seem like a major issue.

There's nice point selection in the beginning area: soda, popsicles, and flying and standing vivas. This is probably the best way to introduce the standing viva, right next to the flying type, since it might otherwise not be seen as an item. The 1-up is positioned just out of site, and while it might be interesting to tease the player with it seen, that might make the beginning of the first level too busy and detract from finding it later.

First Bloog is introduced well: it's coming up a slope so the player can't readily shoot it and has time to experience the creature with more depth than they might otherwise if they were able to stun it immediately.

My first problem with this level is the water height; it's too low. The player should not have to look down to see that first threat, it should be up where they can see it. As it is, the animating water is too far down and out of the action when it needs to be up where it will influence the player's feelings about the jump they're making.

Next problem is that the third tree Keen comes to after jumping the first water pit has a branch that is too high to jump to. Without being able to get on this branch, this platform is pretty boring and the level remains perfectly linear. While it is nice to be able to come back this way from the goplat above and explore those branches, I think at least the first branch should be reachable at this point in the game. The second, higher branch can be saved for later.

The switch placement is to me just strange and random. The player isn't given any indication of what it does. These things alone don't make it bad; random can be good especially when it's this simple. And it does mesh well with the whacky design schemes of the Bloogs. Giving the player a “Huh, I wonder what this does?” moment seems worthwhile, but the payoff in this level doesn't feel worthy of this scheme.

Having the second Blooglet appear red is a nice bit of diversity from the blue one at the start and is suggestive to the diverse theme throughout keen 6.

The placement of spikes, rather than another water drop off, is an interesting choice but, similar to the switch, feels random in relationship with rest of the level. Could use some explanatory extra graphics, in my opinion, to explicitly suggest that they were placed there as a trap for careless river crossers by the Bloogs.

The tree at this point has branches that are out of Keen's reach, but that's less of an issue here since platforming here is slightly more interesting (narrow platform with spikes on one side and the water on the other).

I think the next few platforms should features the water higher up, the same way as I suggested before.

Next section is nearly as picturesque as the beginning of the level: gives the feel of a small forest with two trees in the foreground and one in the background, Keen can access the branches, and makes use of that purple rock for an extra detail object. The placement of the Bloog in there works well, but I'm not sold on the Babobba placement; it can very easily hide behind the trees or get shot before the player ever realizes what it is. I'm not really sure how to remedy this except perhaps to lower the very end by a single tiled step, giving the Babobba a small section of platform to hop around where it can't get up to the trees.

I've never really liked the platform ride from the right to the left of the level: it's too long, the payoff is only a lot of chocolate bars, some vivas, and an extra life. Improving this, while keeping it essentially the same, might be done by diversifying the point items more, giving the player more goplats to hop to and from, and possibly more tree exploration.

EricMushroomWilson
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Post by EricMushroomWilson » Fri Jul 08, 2011 12:38 am

Ceilick wrote:I've never really liked the platform ride from the right to the left of the level: it's too long, the payoff is only a lot of chocolate bars, some vivas, and an extra life.
Yeah, when I play Keen 6 I pretty much never bother with it.

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Ceilick
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Post by Ceilick » Wed Aug 10, 2011 11:55 pm

C'mon guys, EricMushroomWilson and I can't be the only ones with something to say about this level :(

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Post by Kdash » Thu Aug 11, 2011 6:23 am

Huh, I could've sworn I posted a reply here.

I find this level far too linear, even for a first level. Sure, you have some tree branches here and there, but you can never really take a second path in the tree tops.

I think if there were more trees and the branches extended more, so that they form more upper paths to choose from, the level would be better overall. Of course, if this is overdone, then the player might feel overwhelmed, either that they're missing all the stuff in the sky or missing all the stuff on the ground.


I always felt that the babobba at the end was a bit out of place. Their spark attack is hard to notice, and the first level seems like a bad place to teach the player that those 4 or 5 little pixels can kill. And it might be just a little too close to the exit for comfort. The player can jump over it, but they have to hope that they'll make it in time before the babobba decides to hop one step to the right.

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Post by XkyRauh » Thu Aug 11, 2011 8:44 am

Kdash wrote:Huh, I could've sworn I posted a reply here.
Me too! I got deja vu reading the topic & first few replies, and could have sworn I'd already posted a response! Oh well.

Introducing foreground tiles, point arcs, and non-threatening-versus-threatening enemies all within the first two/three screens of gameplay is pretty impressive. There's a lot of information the player gathers very quickly without a lot of reading.

I really like the introduction of the switch and its placement in the level--although I don't necessarily like what it does. The THEORY for it is good (provide access to a new area) but the practice of it is rather infuriating. Either make the switch activate an up-down platform near the 1up at the left of the level, and have two or three additional left-right patrol platforms over the top area, or simply remove the upper area entirely, and have accessing the 1up be the ONLY thing the switch does.

I'm not sure I agree about raising the water level or ditching the spikes--having some sort of "building" in the Bloogwaters Crossing demonstrates that the entire planet has been worked/affected by the Bloogs presence. Sure, the spikes themselves aren't visually representative of a dam or a water wheel or any other kind of actual civilization-based affect on nature, but they represent an artificial, manufactured hazard, which (strangely) is enough for me. :)

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Post by Ceilick » Thu Aug 11, 2011 6:26 pm

Kdash wrote:Of course, if this is overdone, then the player might feel overwhelmed, either that they're missing all the stuff in the sky or missing all the stuff on the ground.
This is precisely why I'm not a fan of tree levels in general. This isn't a problem for every one, but it's so easy to get this feeling about a level, even when not actually missing anything.
Xky wrote:I'm not sure I agree about raising the water level or ditching the spikes--having some sort of "building" in the Bloogwaters Crossing demonstrates that the entire planet has been worked/affected by the Bloogs presence...they represent an artificial, manufactured hazard, which (strangely) is enough for me. :)
With respect to spikes, this makes perfect sense if spikes are always considered a manufactured hazard. For some reason I've always had it in my head that spikes (in the Keen universe at least) are a naturally occuring phenomena (unless context indicates otherwise). Keen 4 may have had something to do with this...

As for the water level, do you think there is an advantage to keeping it low and out of view?

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Post by XkyRauh » Sat Aug 13, 2011 2:24 pm

Claustrophobia, mostly. The level background gives us the impression that we are in a canyon with water at the bottom of it, and that is reinforced because of the map screen showing us a canyon with water rushing through it. When the player first enters the level, a waterfall is immediately visible, and as they run down the first incline, water becomes visible in the background. It's not tough to put two and two together and realize that there is water down the first pit--and if the player looks down, they can confirm this! :)

If the water level were higher, such that it were immediately visible to the player, looking down would present a large expanse of blue wasted space, as opposed to the current version, which showcases the background and makes the water appear much more broad.

I'm not sure I'm explaining this correctly, but from a "nature" perspective, it makes the river appear to have been here much longer, since the water has eroded its way down, leaving the islands in the crossing as pillars, rather than shallow humps emerging from the surface. Does that make sense?

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Post by Ceilick » Sat Aug 13, 2011 9:12 pm

I see what you're saying about the broad nature of the river which the deep water helps create, but I feel the depth of field is noticeably disproportionate compared to the angle of the platforms.

I've been experimenting with water heights in a level editor to see if I could find a balance between letting the player see the water while still maintaining the depth of background. As you predicted, the result has some empty blue space and the platforms have less of a pillar appearance. Here's what I came up with:
http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3654819/Ceilick ... ossing.zip

Included here are a few other alterations: the third tree is now climbable early in the game (hopefully improving on points both I and Kdash mentioned), the switch affects a goplat at the top of the third tree (which I feel further develops the tree as a new area and hopefully improves the effect of the switch), and finally the end of the level includes a small drop off where the babobba is contained. Level size has been reduced by 2 tiles from the bottom of the map and extended 2 tile to the right. Few other tweaks include very minor point tweaking and including a background behind the switch (since raising the water level changed the depth of the background).

If anyone else wants to experiment on levels over the course of this discussion, I've created a folder for editing (you'll have to provide your own Keen6.exe): http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3654819/K6%20Le ... diting.zip

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Post by Ceilick » Wed Aug 17, 2011 8:42 pm

Shall we move on then?

Keen 6 Level 2: Guard Post One

Personally, I think this level is great. There is just enough room for a little exploration, but each route is limited to prevent the player from getting lost.

I have only two minor quibbles: the upper story of the guard post could use an interior background (does having it 'open aired' affect the atmosphere or perception of the player?), and all the labels above the switches do not have corresponding letters to what they activate (Bloogs suck at labeling?). Most of the switches don't need this and are simple to deduce, but I find it odd that the level designer put the effort into including labels but not what they correspond to.

Point of interest: The blue gem is placed almost haphazardly in the air, but this allows the player to see it without yet crossing the spikes.

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Post by Kdash » Thu Aug 18, 2011 10:43 pm

Ceilick wrote:and all the labels above the switches do not have corresponding letters to what they activate (Bloogs suck at labeling?). Most of the switches don't need this and are simple to deduce, but I find it odd that the level designer put the effort into including labels but not what they correspond to.
IIRC, the labels are either U or D, showing which direction the switch should be facing. Honestly I always thought this was a bit useless, since most of the switches are supposed to be flipped to the opposite position from which they start.

I like the way the background near the top has highlights, yet the underground background is flatter looking.

The pit with the green gem always annoyed me. They give you a switch and platform to get back up, but also give you the choice to climb up via the brown ledges. The platform starts at the top and takes far too long to come to the bottom. And the brown blocks are placed too far apart to efficiently jump up one at a time, but not far enough apart to jump up two at a time, which always bugged me. This whole part of the level always struck me as a waste of time.

My other problem with the level is the switch at the end. It requires a decent amount of back-tracking, only for a couple pizzas.

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Post by lemm » Fri Aug 19, 2011 12:28 pm

You can pass through the electricity gates on hard mode by use of the Gik. I like that little trick.

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Post by XkyRauh » Fri Aug 19, 2011 11:07 pm

lemm wrote:You can pass through the electricity gates on hard mode by use of the Gik. I like that little trick.
You can also Impossible Pogo past it on Easy, leaving Normal as the one mode without a shortcut.

This has always been one of my favorite Keen levels, and I can't really put a finger on why. There's not a lot of danger here--there are very few enemies that the player has to directly confront--and it's not like the map image or shape of the Guard Post itself is a terribly critical aspect of the level, but somehow the level itself works magnificently.

I think the upper area doesn't need the indoor background only because that part of the level extends right up to the map boundary. If the map were a bit taller, such that we could see over the roof of the Guard Post, I'd argue in favor of the interior background. As it is, the in-level interpretation of the map screen's Guard Post is consistent. :)

Neat to see how the foreground bars at the base of the Post help to mask the fact that the backgrounds don't sync up all that well! Detail tiles are your friend.

Also notice how some sections of the level exist solely to make sure that enemies don't get where they shouldn't. The Giks for Hard are contained in the "bucket" beneath their initial spawn, such that they can't accidentally get down near the Green Keygem.

I know Kdash doesn't like the pit with the Green Keygem, because it's a timesink, and that really made me stop to think about why I have no problem with it. This is an odd distinction to make, but the fact that the right side of the level is so barren and devoid of wildlife makes it more atmospheric to me, in a sort of Metroid-like fashion. If there were a Blooglet at the bottom near the gem, or if you could see other enemies on other paths off to the side while you did this side quest for the Green Keygem, I would agree that it was a timesink. But having some parts of a level be completely harmless and, for lack of a better word, scenic, can benefit a level.

There's definitely bias in my interpretation of this level, though. It's my favorite. :)

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Post by CommanderSpleen » Mon Aug 22, 2011 6:42 am

My favourite thing about this level is how you can impossible-pogo through the middle and avoid 80% of the level.

Guard posts always intrigued me in terms of map/interior abstraction. They all look the same on the map, and the levels have a certain theme uniformity, but they all have their own shape and character.

As for the design, it is a great introductory level, bringing switches, hazards, switches, falling platforms and doorways into play all at once but with a digestible procession. You're pretty set to tackle any other level after this. Although, interestingly, it doesn't introduce poles yet.

The atmosphere of this guard post was particularly neat. There's something about exploring that building, going underground through its floor, blending a steel plating background with an sprawling organic one, that really appeals to me.

One little thing I would criticise is the unavoidable (assuming you don't take the aforementioned shortcut) vivas in the first drop and at the green door.

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Post by EricMushroomWilson » Fri Aug 26, 2011 9:06 pm

This is a pretty important level. It introduces the guard post concept, and ramps up the use of switches and keygems, somewhat setting the tone for levels to come. I think it's very well realised conceptually, with Keen going underground to make his way past the guard post itself (unless you use the aforementioned tricks).
XkyRauh wrote: I know Kdash doesn't like the pit with the Green Keygem, because it's a timesink, and that really made me stop to think about why I have no problem with it. This is an odd distinction to make, but the fact that the right side of the level is so barren and devoid of wildlife makes it more atmospheric to me, in a sort of Metroid-like fashion. If there were a Blooglet at the bottom near the gem, or if you could see other enemies on other paths off to the side while you did this side quest for the Green Keygem, I would agree that it was a timesink. But having some parts of a level be completely harmless and, for lack of a better word, scenic, can benefit a level.

There's definitely bias in my interpretation of this level, though. It's my favorite. :)
I've not thought about it before, but I can indeed see what you mean with the Metroid-like barren atmosphere of that section. The eyes are placed well too add a little creepiness as well. The music, on the other hand, doesn't really seem to be going for creepiness (unlike the music in the final level, but we'll get to that eventually I hope), so it's more of a subtle hint - a big part of the atmosphere of a level is decided by the soundtrack, although I don't know if perhaps that's outside the scope of this topic?

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