Flow and Clarity in Locomotion

Yesterday – or a few days ago, depending on how long I spend typing this up – I wrote about Flow in first-person games, and about using the shape of the level to guide and control how players move. This post is about how I used those principles when designing levels for Locomotion, which you may notice is not a first-person game.

To save you rereading the other post, a quick summary:

  • Players need to be able to automatically guess which is the right direction to be going in for what they’re trying to do.
  • As designers, we need to make the shape of the level promote correct guesses.
  • We can do this by giving players a sense of the direction each route will take them in, by placing more useful routes directly in their eyeline, and by hiding routes that will take them to the wrong place.

Of course, only some of this is applicable to Locomotion: in a shooter or similar, navigation needs to be as easy as possible, and players have comparatively small focus – only on what they can actually see.  In a puzzle game, navigation can act as part of the puzzle, but unless your whole deal is confusing or hiding things (no shame innit but not for me) then you can probably see all the relevant information at once.

The lessons I was able to take away from this, and from watching people play, are below:

Be Clear. I Was Going to Call this Section “Don’t Obfuscate” But I Have a Better Sense of Irony than That

In particular, the idea of strategically showing or hiding routes doesn’t really work: instead of using “what can the camera see” to give navigation information, I use that for “which puzzle elements are relevant right now”. Many levels have multiple small puzzles in with reasonably self-contained elements, and it’s important to use the camera angle and level shapes to stop players from conflating them. (It’s a cheap shot to make puzzles harder by blocking the player’s view to elements and forcing them to search, in my opinion, but I think it works pretty well when those elements have already been used and the player can recall them: “wait, i have to go back and get that” gives a pleasant sense of thinking outside the box). In most levels, though, the important thing is to find a position from which all puzzle elements can be seen.

Here’s a picture of a level that you can see all of. (All of these pictures are quite old, by the way: we’re making some cool art changes that haven’t propagated completely yet, and all our levels are looking embarrassingly half-finished at the moment.)

Another element of clarity that I take into account when designing levels is spacing out the tracks. Closely-packed puzzle elements are harder to read and easier to misclick, and having things packed too closely together on screen can lead to a sense of information overload. In the picture above you can see that I’ve spaced things apart by at least one square each time – if the puzzle doesn’t allow for that to be done within the maximum size of the level (roughly 10×10, though everyone else is frustrated by my habit of pushing that bound) then the puzzle’s too complex.

Players Like To Go Forwards

One particular puzzle, early in the Jungle theme, was broken. Perhaps 9/10 players that played it would get into one or other unwinnable states and be forced to restart: it’s not necessarily a problem if this happens occasionally, but was happening way too often for comfort. I watched people play the level (standing at their shoulders with clipboard and pen, making notes and muttering to myself: each man becomes the thing he hates) and saw the pattern quickly. All these players were simply holding down the forwards button until forced to stop, and then looking around for puzzle elements. Normally this worked, because players are “gated” by problems to solve, but in this case would get players irrevocably stuck.


This quickly became a key principle of building the levels: just holding down forward should never finish the level, get players too much into a pickle, or pass by important puzzle elements. It also made designing the small “narrative” sections of the game much easier, and made it much easier to anticipate the “story” for the level. (As distinct from narrative: the “story” is how you expect players to experience the map, and you can manipulate that for best effect.)

(I’m going to resist the urge to go off on a tangent here about how for players, moving forward is often the greatest way to feel a sense of progression).

I’m looking to make posts here more frequently in future, particularly about Locomotion, so please let me know if there are specific design aspects you want me to talk about. We also have a general blog for Locomotion itself, and I think the idea is that the more talented and harder working members of the team will post stuff about their role there. That’s all of them, so there should be lots to look forward to.

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