Evaluating game and level design choices, understanding why they work and where they fell short, and using that information to improve upon my own works is a philosophy that I have upheld throughout my studies in game design. Here, I visit a unique game mechanic decision, critique it, and offer a prototyped alternative of my own creation, and revisit two incredible level designs from one of my favorite games of all time.
World of Warcraft: Legion legendary items
Myself and many players of the popular MMORPG World of Warcraft are disappointed with the legendary item drop system found in the latest expansion, Legion. The live version of the feature is a completely random drop chance – there are many activities that players can participate in that have a small chance to award a legendary item, and the difficulty of said activity will result in a higher chance (i.e. a Normal difficulty dungeon boss has a much lower chance of dropping a legendary than the same boss does on Mythic difficulty). When a legendary item is dropped, a random legendary item available to your class and specialization (that you have not previously earned) will drop. In order to counteract the extremely low drop rate of these legendary items, Blizzard Entertainment has employed “bad luck protection”, which will help players earn a legendary item if they have gone a considerable amount of time without one. However, Blizzard has made no comment as to the exact percent chance or how much the bad luck protection system will raise it by. On top of this, they have stated that the system only applies for the first two legendary item drops per character – meaning that your third legendary item and beyond are completely dependent on luck.
Legendary items, as their names imply, are exceedingly rare and powerful – and due to the nature of balance, not all the legendary items are equal in terms of benefit for your character’s damage output or survivability, and thus, some are more desirable for end-game content than others. There are some legendary items that are not specialization specific, and there are even some that are available to all classes, making the chance of getting a desired legendary item very low. For example, here is the table of legendary items available to Blood Death Knights.
The random element of earning a legendary item is a desirable effect – however, with the added random element of getting a undesired legendary, players can be left feeling as if their luck was wasted on a worthless item, and will have to wait a long time before they have a chance at getting the sought-after item.
A prototype solution I have developed is to replace the legendary item drops themselves with a currency, which can be used to purchase these items. Here is the table for the prototype:
The prototype version of this feature has a player roll some dice (or use a random number generator) according to the task they are completing. Below is the table for dice generation:
Using this system, when a player completes an eligible activity, they generate a number of dice that corresponds to the difficulty of that task. The player then gets to roll those dice – if any of the dice shown (per individual roll) have a value of 20, the player is awarded one Legendary Mark. Marks are then traded at a vendor for a specific legendary – non-specific legendary items cost 5 Marks to start, while specialization specific legendary items and trinkets cost 8 Marks. Every time a player purchases a legendary, the cost of any future legendary item DOUBLES (i.e. the cost of the other legendary items goes up to 10 and 16 respectively).
A player completes 40 Mythic dungeon bosses, 10 Mythic Keystones at Level 9 or lower (with an average of 2 reward chests, equaling 20 Mythic Keystone Rewards), and 10 Mythic difficulty Raid encounters during the week. The player also loots a Blingtron 6000 Gift Package and an Emissary Cache daily. Then, they receive a Challenger’s Bounty at the end of the week. During the course of this week, the player would get to roll the following dice:
1 Die: 7 Blingtron 6000 Gift Package + 20 Mythic Keystone Reward (1-10) = 27 rolls
2 Dice: 40 Dungeon Boss (Mythic) + 7 Emissary Cache = 47 rolls
4 Dice: 10 Raid Boss (Mythic) = 10 rolls
5 Dice: 1 Challenger’s Bounty = 1 roll
A mark will be awarded to the player for each roll that produces at least one 20 result. Below, we see our example in action:
This is a rather extreme roll, since many players will not be completing Mythic raid encounters on their first week of play for a character. This represents a player who dedicates a lot of time to playing World of Warcraft. Here are the results from those rolls. Rolls that award a Mark are highlighted in red, and the total number of marks awarded is displayed at the bottom.
I think that this system is a great start as a non-RNG alternative to Blizzard’s “bad luck protection” implementation. The finer points that I would continue to work on as development continued would be to tweak the cost of items, to ensure that exceptionally lucky players do not flood their inventories too quickly, and to tweak the drop chance of Marks. I feel that the dice “advantage” system with higher difficulty content is a move in the right direction, since it rewards players for playing the game while not shunning players who do not participate in higher tier content (raid bosses of any difficulty can be looted only once per week, restricting repeated high-advantage rolls). Issues that may arise with the implementation of this system could be balance patches that change legendary items, and a rise in player requests to refund an item due to its changed abilities. Additionally, the total number of marks needed to purchase all legendary items can vary depending on what order they are purchased in. Changing the cost to be the same for all items might remove any potential for player abuse of the system.
Spyro the Dragon: level design analysis/review
This level in particular has stuck with me throughout my entire gaming career as one of the most fun and brilliantly designed levels I have ever played. While many other levels throughout the Spyro series have been incredibly well designed, Wizard Peak and its winding paths and challenging gameplay make it the highlight of a playthrough any time I decide to go back to the original title.
Wizard Peak is a level located within the Magic Crafters homeworld, about halfway through the game. The levels within the world (and the world itself) are filled with nefarious wizards and druids, which reshape the levels and attack from afar with elemental spells, adding a new layer of difficulty to the game - Wizard Peak, as its namesake might imply, is no exception to this rule. Visually, this level is easily identifiable – it features grand spire-like buildings floating in midair, beautiful tiled floors and fountains lining the indoor areas, and a stunning skybox framed by a large, azure mountain range. The music in Wizard Peak, much like the music from the rest of the Magic Crafters worlds, is light, airy, and memorable thanks to Stewart Copeland’s brilliant composition.
Immediately as you fly into the level’s start, you are greeted by a room with large blue wizards that cannot be charged, requiring some finesse to successfully defeat. Some of these even jump onto platforms out of your reach, leaving you with no choice but to run and dodge their attacks. Progressing through this area, players will find some treasure, a dragon, and cross a bridge that gives a good view of the beautiful scenery, as well as a preview of the rest of the level. You soon reach the defining mechanic of the level, and one of the most important mechanics across the entire Spyro franchise: the supercharge. A dragon will give you a brief, unskippable explanation of how to use it - one of only two unskippable cutscenes in the game, to prevent the player from being unable to figure out how it works. From the supercharge ramps, the level’s end is in sight beyond some pools of dangerous liquid. The player must traverse across this treacherous area ultimately leading to tons of treasure, and a dragon who reveals a secret to the player: a series of stones in the first homeworld, when jumped on in the proper order, will reveal a secret level behind a waterfall! This is the only example of a secret area like this in this title, and its seemingly random inclusion in Wizard Peak makes the area that much more memorable.
The supercharge, usually a hill or path with flashing arrows, allows players to gain incredible speed and strength as they charge down it, and access areas or treasures previously unreachable thanks to convenient ramps. In Wizard Peak, there are three supercharge ramps, and three large platforms floating far away from the main level that can be reached with them. The easiest one allows players to simply time their jump and reach the treasure, but the second and third take much more cunning: players must chain two supercharges together to maintain enough speed to make it there, and dodge enemies and obstacles along the way in order to reach their goal. One of the platforms even has an egg thief hiding on a tiny ledge behind the back wall, whose telltale laugh gives players a clue to investigate the area.
One attribute that really separates this level from the rest is the large sprawling outer path. As mentioned previously, there are multiple blue wizards that jump out of your reach, and once the level is beaten, the question remains – how do I get up there? Careful eyes will notice a small ledge just to the left of the level’s start point, and jumping here gives access to a long winding path along the edges of each building, with multiple tough glides (and at least one blind glide, potentially killing a player that misses their mark) keeping you on your toes. Gems line the paths, acting as a marker so the player does not lose their way. These ledges let out at multiple points where the blue wizards escaped to, allowing the player to finally defeat them and take their treasure.
Wizard Peak combines tropes and concepts from dozens of popular games and genres into one incredible level. Perhaps the one major change I would make would not be to put “all the eggs in one basket” in terms of level design for this world – in comparison to the other levels in the Magic Crafters segment of this game, this level is significantly more built up; some of the other, shorter levels in this homeworld could have shared in this splendor even slightly, if the design tactics were used here as well. There are not many levels in the series with separate non-linear paths, but all of the non-linear segments of the Magic Crafters realm have poor pacing; they either feel rushed, or are quite large and empty. Wizards Peak solves this by sticking to a hub-like structure, with multiple linear paths branching out from it; this is the type of level design I seek to emulate with Feast, albeit in an even more linear fashion in order to focus on storytelling.
Perhaps the most infamous level in Spyro the Dragon, Tree Tops is a sprawling jungle level that has led thousands of players through an emotional roller-coaster ride - first amazement, followed quickly by disbelief, a long period of frustration, culminating in sweet satisfaction.
The first and most difficult task here is to determine which level structure this level follows. The level itself is comprised of multiple enormous platforms (many of which are trees, as the level’s name suggests) with a vast bottomless pit covering the entire level’s floor. Using the supercharge mechanic, the player must navigate through the platforms, while performing basic game objectives such as collecting treasure and slaying enemies at each platform. However, in a typical playthrough of this level, a player will not travel to each platform. In fact, from the level’s start, a bottleneck can be found, separating the level into two specific paths. Depending on which path the player chooses, they will have a different experience through the level. It is possible to reconnect to the other paths, or to backtrack and replay the level in another manner, but these methods are not encouraged by the level design. For this reason, the level’s structure can be identified as selection. However, due to the bottlenecks, I would instead identify this level as a hybrid structure, composed of selection and multiple solution components. Since there is only one level exit, and both paths eventually bottleneck and converge into one linear path again, labeling this level as a multiple solution sounds vague, so the hybrid definition clears it up a bit more.
There are several hub-like segments in Tree Tops, allowing the player to change their path and move along a different linear segment. On top of this, there are a few objectives that could be compared to “side quests” within the level. There are two dragons that need to be saved that cannot be reached by normal means within the level. In order to reach them, one must chain supercharge ramps together, using multiple parts of the level in conjunction, in order to get enough speed to reach the great heights. A map with the paths highlighted, along with the total level layout, is presented here:
These dragons, however, are no more special than any others (minus the congratulatory message for reaching them), and simply count towards the total completion of the level/homeworld – these are necessary for 100% completion of the game, but not to progress to any other part of the game. Additionally, there are some egg thieves that are colored differently than those in previous levels - they are much faster and carry gems instead. Like the dragons, these are not required for level completion, but serve instead as a satisfying reward for players who have outsmarted the clever designers and solved the puzzle.
The story content of the level fits perfectly with the level’s structure. While there are no cutscenes or major sources of lore within the game, the dragons within Tree Tops discuss the place and its fame within the Dragon Realms as a favored “supercharge spot”, and give the player tips as to reach the heights within Tree Tops. The visual design of the level definitely backs up these claims, with the enormous trees visible from any point within the level, backed with a stunning skybox and a mysterious mist covering the “floor” of the level.