Level Design in Tribal & Error

In this post I want to share some insight on how we design levels for Tribal & Error and how that has changed throughout the development.

How a level is built obviously heavily influences the way a player experiences the game, but how it influences gameplay varies greatly between games. Given the massive difference between genres it’s hard to generalize design frameworks, but roughly speaking I believe that there are two methods of influencing the player experiences through level design.

  1. Where you position points of interest/interaction which can be anything from story elements to positions of cover.
  2. The shape of the level, where players and/or characters can and cannot move, and how they navigate through such an environment.

However for a long time we couldn’t figure out how either of those points really apply to Tribal & Error’s gameplay. Besides a simple click to move navigation, the interaction happens between the player and the cave people. Interaction with the environment is very minimal. So we were left to wonder how the shape of the levels, or where we positioned cavemen mattered at all.  Later we learned that it of course does matter, as is now painfully obvious to us. The lack of clear design guidelines in earlier levels led to large areas of unused space, dead ends, needlessly long routes and many other problems.  level_design_ch2_huntinggrounds_v2

We later managed to make progress in our design approach by paradoxically, taking a few steps back. We reevaluated how we approach the core elements of Tribal & Error’s design. First of all we asked ourselves: What is the core entertainment value of our game? We came of up with  “The success of thoughtful and goal driven experimentation and feeling clever as a result.” For this to be possible, a puzzle goal needs be to clear enough that the player can formulate a plan. To work towards puzzles that facilitate this we created a framework for our puzzle design. We realized that we could divide Tribal & Error’s puzzles in three key pieces.

  1. The problem:  For instance, a caveman is cold
  2. The solution:  I need to explain to them how to make a fire
  3. The means: How do I explain my solution in their language?

Having evaluated that the core focus of the game was in experimentation and discovery of language, we wanted to make the game efficient in enabling that experience. Struggling to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing doesn’t enable it, so we decided that the actual challenge for the player should only be in the third piece: “How do I explain my solution?”, while the first two pieces of the puzzle (The problem and the solution) should be as obvious as possible. In making it so obvious we realized the environment could play a part.

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Instead of a big open space to explore we’ve moved to a framework of small level chunks, each chunk dedicated to specific parts of a puzzle. Some dedicated to showing a problem,  a solution, or missing puzzle pieces. With these smaller chunks everything you need is in a small manageable space, not hidden away in a corner. This decreases the possibility that the player misses a key piece of the puzzle and allows us to focus on letting the player be creative with the presented puzzle pieces.  
Keeping these chunks small also gave us the ability to motivate the player to move between chunks. With levels of this scale the player can be in one area where a caveman has a problem while simultaneously seeing the solution in another. Having the player motivated to move from A to B allows us to put puzzle obstacles in that path. This way we can organically add more puzzles.

If you enjoyed this insight into our design work, want to hear more or give feedback, feel free to leave a comment here or on Facebook.

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Grotman’s new Office

 

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With our time at the University of the Arts Utrecht at an end, a lot of things are changing. Our old workplace is no longer available to us and the real world has come knocking on our doors. Every team member has to work on getting their life on the right track. In this crucial phase, the ambitions of building a game and studio can easily fall apart. In the past few months we’ve worked from home and public workplaces which was less than ideal.  We needed a place of our own, in part to cement our commitment in finishing Tribal & Error, but also to provide us with a stable center in our lives to tackle the challenges ahead. Now we are overjoyed to announce that we found just that. Grotman Games has moved to the Dutch Game Garden in Hilversum!

Right now, we’re working on gathering stuff to start filling this empty void that is our office. As you can see, we already found a neat desk and some pretty comfy chairs. Having an actual office, with a desk and a chair that’s yours, really is quite nice. But, of course, work on Tribal & Error also continues and as we settle into our new place, we aim to have some significant progress to show in the coming months. We’ve also done some exciting work on our finance and production planning and that wasn’t even a sarcastic statement. With everything, from our workplace to our production pipeline taking shape, the dates of announcements and the actual release seem to be fast approaching. Work on planning can sometimes feel far removed from the eventual reality of production. But as our skill, knowledge and work-speed increase, milestones seem less like arbitrary goals and more like markers on the road ahead.

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Still Alive

Yep we’re not dead, nor is Grotman Games or Tribal & Error.
It’s been a while since we had any concrete updates, so we decided it was about time to give some insight in the development of Tribal & Error.

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Over the past two years we’ve been showcasing a demo at several events, such as E3 and Indiecade Festival. Based on what we learned and the feedback we’ve been given we have been iterating and polishing the core of the game again and again, however after a while we felt the time had come to start expanding the game in length and content.

With the nature of video game development, especially more innovative projects, it is necessary to experiment and slowly discover the shape you want the game to be molded in. In contrast to the more linear demo we set out to create an almost open-world-type game that leaves you free to explore and solve puzzles in whatever sequence you wanted. On paper it sounded great. In the eventual prototype, instead of leading to freedom of play, it led to confusion and frustration. Redesigning where we wanted to take the game instead wasn’t much of a problem. However, to build this functional new level and come to this conclusion took us almost three months. At this rate we realized we weren’t ever going to finish this game, and so we decided to refocus our efforts on refining our production pipeline. Streamlining the art production with a style guide and speeding up our puzzle production by standardizing design templates as well the development of an editor.

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However before we could really harness these tools, the time of our graduation was fast approaching.  A large chunk of the past year has been dedicated to graduation work, something not entirely unimportant though unrelated to the development of Tribal & Error. With that behind us and the summer ahead we could finally look towards picking up where we left of. The first thing on the horizon is the reveal of a new demo. From 17 to 19 August we’ll be showcasing Tribal & Error at the Holland Games Pavilion at Gamescom in Cologne.

To summarize, we’re still alive and kicking. We’ve had bumps in the road, but it is on that same road where we’ve met so many people who inspire us to finish this game and make it the best we possibly can. Thank you, all of you for supporting and believing in us thus far. Be to sure keep a close watch on our channels as we aim to steadily keep you updated on Tribal & Error’s development and the eventual release plan.

While you wait for all that, here is an appropriate song

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