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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