Level Design: Arranging Coins

In my last blog post, I introduced Crocodile Cat, the one touch mobile game I’ve started working on. The gameplay flow is that of an infinite high score chaser, players see how long they can last without being eaten by a crocodile.

During the game, that player collects coins. When I show the game to my friends I say “yeah, there’s floating coins to collect because why not, it’s a videogame”, but in reality the coins serve an important purpose in the gameplay – they give the player a moment-to-moment objective beyond basic survival and they offer a reward in exchange for some risk.

It’s risky to coin chase in this game, for reasons I’ll go into in a later blog post, but right now I want to talk about the design of coin trails and how they can be used to instruct, tempt and delight the player.

I started creating some coin paths for the players to follow, trails of coins to be collected in sequence. I thought that this was where the core of the game would lie. Coin paths lead the player and feel good to follow, but early play tests showed them to be too difficult for new players who haven’t yet learned how to stay alive! I realised that placing coins near the edges of the screen might be more useful to teach new players survival skills, but play tests showed that new players were even less accurate without a path to follow.

My next step was to create some ‘elbow’ patterns to teach the player. Part coin trail, part survival instruction. This worked well when I played in the editor, but as soon as a tester made a mistake, the design fell apart! My design was too prescriptive, assuming the player would play a certain way, meaning that a slight error caused the game to make very little sense. Adjusting these designs to accommodate different user behaviors resulted in designs that were difficult to ‘read’, the player would not know what to do when presented with entwining coin trails. 

Through observing and testing, I realised I was wrong about what constituted a fun level. I realised that even my simple designs were too difficult, and difficult is not fun if you don’t understand your objective yet. I designed larger coin arrangements that were easier to collect at least part of, and changed their behaviour so that they always stick to the edges of the screen. I hope these are good ‘beginner’ levels: they help the player learn the controls relatively safely and offer easy rewards for performance.

These are playtesting much better, patterns being larger means that players are more likely to be on target and get a reward, and players are picking up the survival mechanic much easier as they are more naturally travelling to the edges of the screen.

Playtesting with a variety of different patterns and ideas, I’m now designing ‘difficult’ patterns that present more options to the player as to the path they want to take through the level. Fitting in with the overall game design, I need to make sure that the value of the coins is balanced with the risk involved in obtaining them, and to give the player meaningful choices through these level designs.

This level design process of playtesting and observation has helped me to really understand where the difficulty in my game truly lies, and where the fun lies too. Both of these elements are key to designing a ‘flow’ state, which is the next step in my level design task. I’ll write more about designing a flow state in a future blog post.

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