Teaching via Level Design Gone Wrong

Posted November 24, 2017

As you might have seen I have recently released a brand-new preview build of [Speer] and so far it seems that people really like it! However, one person had trouble getting through a certain stage and it turns out that was my fault.

The level in question was 2-9: TeleDelivery:


Incidentally I’m going to spoil the solution now, so if you want to give it a try yourself first stop reading now and download the build right here!

Anyway, it turns out that the player didn’t realize that you could send the explosive barrels through teleporters using your Speer, which is required to move through the level. That’s fair enough, as that is actually the main puzzle in this stage; However, the player lacked the knowledge required to actually arrive at a solution for this puzzle because I didn’t teach him properly.

Look at the first level containing an explosive barrel:


The solution seems rather obvious: Carry the barrel to the breakable wall and blow it up. There is even a small lip you can throw the barrel on, so it’s all pretty straightforward. The next level isn’t much different:


Again we have a barrel that needs to be carried to the wall in order to blow it up. This time you don’t even have to throw it, you can just drop it right next to the wall.

The problem? The player learns to place the barrel next to the breakable walls in order to blow them up, which actually isn’t necessary…and in level 2-9 isn’t even possible. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that it reflects how barrels usually work in video games: You shoot them, they explode. The game doesn’t teach you that you can skewer and carry barrels with your Speer and the player has no reason to assume you can. Hence when a level comes around that requires you to do it (and adds the extra complexity of teleporters) it’s no wonder that some players will get stuck.

In order to fix this I have reworked level 2-2 (the first one that contains barrels in this build) to look like this:


You now have no way of reaching the barrel, so the only course of action is to throw a Speer at it…which will then launch it into the wall, blowing it up. The next stage then teaches players that barrels can be picked up and carried around, thus giving players everything they need to know for upcoming puzzles.

I think this is a neat example of teaching the player game mechanics via level design and how you can mess it up when you don’t think about it enough. [Speer] has no tutorial boxes explaining the game to you and the levels more or less hid a mechanic that you needed to progress through the game, which is not fair. And when a game isn’t fair, it’s not really all that fun to play.

And you know what’s the funniest part? I’ve already implemented all of this in the final game. The first time a barrel appears there it’s out of reach just like in the reworked 2-2. I just forgot to add this level to this preview build. I guess past me was actually smarter than present me for once…even though I still have to wonder about his coding ability.

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