Building Gameplay
by George

The Tomb Raider Experience

Before building gameplay into your level, ask yourself this question - what was it about the original Tomb Raider games that you enjoyed so much? Was it that you were free to explore vast temples and caves and jungles, marvelling at the ambience and atmosphere? Or was it that the levels were ridiculously hard and challenging and it took you hours to get anywhere? I think the answer is obvious. The most difficult task in the entire original Tomb Raider game was that timed flamed pillars sequence in Palace Midas and that's easy! The levels flowed beautifully and kept you moving. Tomb Raider is about an immersive experience, being lost in tombs and temples, exploring and overcoming challenges.

Here then is a basic premise you should always bear in mind when building gameplay - as long as players know what they are supposed to be doing, Tomb Raider is fun. It's when they are lost, not knowing what they are supposed to be doing and get stuck that it can be frustrating. It isn't so much the size of the rooms either, as The Deck in Tomb Raider was absolutely huge yet you never felt lost. You always knew what you were looking for, usually a key, and you had fun exploring to find them. Hunting for hidden crawlspaces tucked away in shadows somewhere in a huge level isn't gamplay, it's brainless and guaranteed to frustrate players to the point they might chuck your game into the recycle bin. Always ensure your gameplay flows and keeps people moving forward accomplishing goals rather than running around in circles going nowhere.

Not every Raider is alike and yes, there are a handful of players who love repeating exceptionally difficult tasks, but most do not. Don't judge gameplay by the views of this handful of hardcore challenge loving players who highly rate ridiculously difficult levels. Chances are they are the only ones who actually finished these games and, therefore, were the only ones to have reviewed it! What about the hundreds of players who gave up on these tough levels and binned them because they were too hard? If you think Tomb Raider is about frustrating players and killing them at every opportunity, rewarding them with spikes and instant death for completing a challenge, cramping their fingers with timed runs that can only be achieved after 100 practice runs, please go back and replay the originals and try to learn something.

If you still doubt me, think about that ridiculous ascent inside the Great Pyramid in Tomb Raider Anniversary. Did anyone actually enjoy that other than the level builder? I used a cheat to get up there. It totally ruined the entire game for many, many people. Think about that when putting your challenges together.

As a general rule, I would recommend your most difficult task or jump sequence should be doable for the average player within 6 to 10 attempts. If players have to reload 50 times and still can't accomplish a task, your game will most likely wind up in their recycle bin. If you only want to build really tough levels fine, spend months of your life building challenging games only a dozen people will ever finish. Me? I'd rather thousands of players finished my games and enjoyed them, and I don't really care if a dozen sadists moan about that. Always consider the difficulty levels of your gameplay.

I mean, is Tomb Raider really about seeing how many times you can kill someone who has downloaded your game? Is not the real art to Tomb Raider about challenging Raiders to their limits yet keeping them alive and in your game? Anyone can kill Raiders, that takes no skill or talent whatsoever. Anyone can make silly tight timed runs, that takes no skill or talent whatsoever. Balancing gameplay to give Raiders a challenging but enjoyable experience without frustration is quite another matter. Keep players in game as much as possible. Making players reload saved games a thousand times to master some ridiculously difficult spikes and flames jump sequence is not immersive gameplay. Constantly being in inventory looking to reload a savegame is not an immersive experience. The threat of death while keeping folks alive in game is far more powerful as an immersive experience than spiking them to death a thousand times.

While we're here, consider timed challenges. When you built your level, you knew the room layout before building in your timings. You already knew which direction to go, where to jump, where to duck, when to sprint, when to curve, when to jump over those spikes, when to draw your weapons and when to roll. You already knew this BEFORE you even tested it for the first time. You already knew EXACTLY what you were going to do and how you were going to do it. It may have taken you a couple of tries to get it right, you thought it was easy so you knocked a couple of seconds off, tried it again, reckon you could knock off another second, do a final test and just scrape in, thought it was brilliant and off you went to your next gameplay building scenario. At most, you had probably done the timed run in three or four attempts and you enjoyed it. But you KNEW your timed run before you started. Players won't. They won't know which direction to go, when to jump, where to duck, when to sprint, when to curve, when to jump over those spikes, when to draw their weapons and when to roll. Unlike you, they weren't there when you built your level and will have to learn it all from scratch. That takes time and practice. If the timings are tight it could take a player 20 or 30 goes to get it, or even more. That's not fun or entertaining, that's an ordeal. If they're constantly reloading a save game, they're not in your game enjoying an immersive experience. Tomb Raider is about immersion, keeping folks in your world, not driving them to the inventory to keep reloading save games.

People play games for fun and enjoyment and relaxation, not to get wound up and frustrated. Chances are if players can't do your tasks in 10 attempts, or even less, they will lose interest in your game. Like a good novel, you have to keep players in the story, enjoying their experience, enjoying the ambience and atmosphere, enjoying their Raid. If you keep smacking them back to the title menu they will lose their enjoyment because all they will be doing is going in and out of the title screen reloading saved games.

One final note regarding ratings and reviews. You may think they are important in the vast scheme of things but think about this: one of the Imprisoned Spirits levels I believe was downloaded over 10,000 times yet it received fewer than 20 reviews. Perhaps that might put the ratings into perspective for you.

Starting the Game

Whatever you do, don't ever kill Raiders off in their first few moments into your game. Don't give them tough challenges, ridiculous jumps, nasty enemies, obscure puzzles and dangerous traps during their first exploration of your new world. Don't smack them back to the title screen before they've even had a chance to breathe your air!

They have just entered your world. Give them time to savour the atmosphere and enjoy your architecture. Give them music and flybys and draw them into the story. Start off with easy gameplay, let them explore, let them absorb the atmosphere and ambience. If you kick them back to the title screen as soon as they step into your game, chances are all your work will wind up in the recycle bin.

If you have a problem with this, ask yourself a question - how long were you in the original Tomb Raider game before you actually died? For me it was the Lost Valley. I'd been playing for over 5 hours and was into the third level before I was killed by the raptors and then the T Rex. And that was the only two times I was killed in that level. I lost a lot of health, but I was always in game and always had enough medipaks to keep going. Start gently, always.

General Gameplay

Gameplay that leaves Raiders alive in game but with nowhere to go and no way forward is not gameplay. Yes, you know the game is over but the players do not and they may run around for hours wondering what to do. You may think this is funny but I can assure you that if you employ gameplay techniques like this as part of your style, you should not be building levels. Either kill players off or keep the game open. This really isn't open to debate. If players are alive there must be a way forward to progress in game. Setting up a timed run which if they fail means they're stuck and can't continue is not gameplay, I don't know what it is.

Sometimes it's good gameplay to throw in something that makes players pull up and wonder what to do next. This makes them think and encourages them to look around carefully for solutions. Examples are hidden crawlspaces, pushable blocks that make up part of the wall, shatter walls that can be shot to reveal a hidden passage, difficult to see shootable switches and many, many other things.

However, these little gameplay enhancements can quickly become terminal gameplay killers if used thoughtlessly. Yes, you know where that pushable block in the wall is, but those playing your game don't. You built the level, you put it there, so it's not surprising you found it easily enough. But how is anyone else supposed to find it? Do you think players are going to spend hours running around a huge level trying everything they can think of to find this block of yours when they don't even know if it's a block they're supposed to be looking for? Oh, a few will go to the stuck threads or dig out a walkthrough if there is one, but most players will just get fed up and bin your work and quite rightly too.

So how do you build gameplay like this without running the risk of killing the gameplay? The solution is to ensure you trap Raiders into a smallish area so they can't go running around. Close a door behind them, raise a trap door, flip a map, I don't care, just enclose players into a small area to give them a fair chance to figure out their next step. If for example you have a puzzle item pickup behind a pushblock making up part of a wall, you can anti-trigger a door going into that area then use a pickup trigger on the puzzle item to trigger a flipmap which gets rid of the anti-trigger and place an ordinary trigger for the door in the flipped room which reopens the door allowing them out again. In effect, players can only get out once they've discovered the pushblock and found the puzzle item. If you don't enclose them in and they miss the block, their only recourse is to go back around the entire level completely lost and not knowing what to do and that's terrible gameplay design.

Forced backtracking is used by some builders because they want to ensure everyone goes back and admires their level buildering skills. Trust me, this is an absolute enjoyment killer. Backtracking will kill any enjoyment in your game stone dead. Keep players moving, keep things fresh and don't employ long or tedious backtracking as part of your gameplay. If players have negotiated a tricky challenge to get a pickup and have to go back the same way, why not anti-trigger all the flames or spikes or other traps first to make getting back easy? Don't force players to do the same challenges more than once. It's boring and makes for tiring and frustrating gameplay.

Always a gameplay enhancer, giving pickups to baddies can really help to make a level sing. However, use with caution. When baddies die they can slide over a floor tile and actually die inside an object. If this happens, the pickup they are carrying will be inside the object and Lara won't be able to see it or pick it up. This can totally ruin a level as you can imagine. It isn't so important if you give baddies pickups like medipaks but if you give them gameplay objects like keys, be extremely wary and fully test for every situation. Even the best Level Builders get this wrong. If you must give baddies important pickups, try to do it in a place with no static objects around or use grey squares around the statics to keep them away from them. Better for Lara to find a safe place to shoot from than not be able to pickup important keys or puzzle items.

Sometimes it can be difficult to balance gameplay with weapons. If you give folks too much ammunition, it can affect gameplay further into the game. However, what if you have a Boss fight half way through? Or what if you have a puzzle that requires a heavy weapon like the six shooter and the laser sight and if folks run out of ammo they can't solve the puzzle? Sure, you can lay tons of ammo around but how will that affect gameplay later? There is a solution! Type 128 into the OCB box of the ammo item and the ammo will reappear if players run out of it. This way you only need to place one ammo item and folks will have unlimited ammunition without being able to stock up their inventory.

You can also do this with medipaks. If you employ enemies such as dangerous fish, or poison rooms, you can't balance how much life each player will lose, and some will lose more than others. What if they lose so much they run out of medipaks? The game is over for them. A medipak with OCB 128 will ensure everyone can finish the level without stocking up on medipaks. It is an excellent gameplay safety net.

If using the torch, make sure you can't level jump with it. An unwanted level jump with the torch can totally ruin gameplay in the next level and cause level crashes if it's not in the WAD of the other level. Be wary about using the torch deliberately in level jumps as part of gameplay as it's buggy and can disappear.