Thursday, September 29, 2011

Super Meat Boy 64 World 1-3: Interactive Playtesting is Amazing!

I am going to use the World 1-3 as my example to fully explain the playtesting ability of Blockland that I have been continually gushing about in the last few posts. World 1-3 was the 4th level to be made (Rykuta, my partner in crime, made 1-4 beforehand) and by this point I had definitely gotten my groove on with these types of designs. It was time to push things a little further. First, I decided to have the level take place within a cavern, changing the type of space I had to work with. Second, I introduced a gameplay element that required more precision on behalf of the player and their jumping; the saw blade. These were all over the place in Super Meat Boy, so I had to implement them here somehow. While they are square, I used a swirling animation on them to hopefully convey the idea to the player that they are swift moving pizza slicers of dismemberment. Third, I was going to have our growing gallery of fans (there were about four people on the server who were really excited about the project by this point) help me test how fun and difficult the level was, with a particular focus on the placement of the saw blade elements.

In Blockland, each online server has builds (made of Lego bricks) and mini-games (made of rules). With this project, the levels were the "build" and the mini-game was a set of rules that defined check-points, player type (to control speed and jump height), and a few other other things pertaining to the proper operation of a simultaneous platformer experience. Since there is only one instance of a level on the server, players share the space and thus can interact through collision and spacial positioning.
Since the creation of a build is handled live on the server, players can play through a level while the administrators make modifications. For example, this allows me to place a tester at the beginning of a level, watch them play it to the end, and then get direct feedback afterwards. From here I can instantly make a change; in the example of 1-3, I would have to move a saw blade to decrease difficulty and to make the level more approachable.

This is really quite incredible. In the past, especially with single player experiences, designers would have to struggle through far more obtuse work flows in order to make playtesting happen. When the tools are divorced from the playable client, this is the natural result. Thankfully, the trend with professional game engines has been a move towards being able to play within the editor, simplifying the work flow in order to allow the designer to focus on more important issues (UDK is an example of the move in this direction; Source is an example of the more dated approach).

Using the images, try to see that World 1-3 consists of two basic layers. The bottom is a twisting tunnel, riddled with saw blades on both the floor and ceiling. On the top is a large bed of spikes resting on the floor of a more open space, presenting the player with a different challenge half-way through. The second half of the level is hinted at throughout the first with gaps in the ceiling of the tunnel showing that more awaits the player as they continue onward, building excitement for the next challenge.

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