Push & Pull
The art of guiding players through an environment
Whether you call that signposting or telegraphing or whatever else, the concept of allowing intuitive navigation and understanding of an environment has gained more and more momentum in recent years, and it is a subject that fascinates me. I love to dissect games to find all of the tricks used to guide to a destination, lead along the critical path, and communicate without words.
This article lists and categorizes many different ways to tackle navigation aids in games. While the point of view is that of a level designer, level design is so central to the development of most AAA games, that I have to bring other fields into the discussion too, like art, storytelling, cinematic design…
However, intuitive navigation is commonly associated in people's minds with the ‘dumbing down' of modern video games compared to previous generations, so I feel like I should touch upon that subject first.
2. Accessibility in modern game design
Understanding why a publisher/higher-up wants something is often key to figuring out a better solution to the problem, so let's start by bringing up some of the reasons the industry is currently seemingly obsessed about accessibility.
- Fiercer battle for attention – A lot more games, as well as other types of entertainment, are available and battling for attention nowadays than there were ten or twenty years ago. This, plus the rising costs of developing AAA games, means that publishers have developed higher risk-aversion and prefer to stick to proven formulas. This mentality that at any moment unhappy players may move on to another distraction leads to thinking that a game should have as few potential exit points as possible (when frustration takes over enjoyment, and players decide to stop playing.)
- Less frustration, more completion – Telemetry has revealed that a large portion of players do not finish any given game, and that most of them quit after a frustrating section of the game. This, and the need to establish long-term franchises and sell DLCs, has led to attempts to reduce potential frustration as much as possible to increase the percentage of players who reach the end of the game wanting more.
- Lowering the barrier of entry – AAA games are so expensive to make that they need to reach a very large audience to make a profit. Common reasoning says that's achieved by making sure the game is providing enough assistance and has as few sharp edges as possible, making it easier to convert new players by asking less of them at any given moment, and focusing on a variety of low-challenge skills rather than pushing a few to the extreme.
- Maturing audience – Video games have been around for a few generations now and players come in all shapes and forms. A big part of the target audience for AAA games nowadays (including devs themselves) is composed of aging players who have more money to spend but less free time than in their youth. For this reason, games are evolving to try to smooth the process of dropping in and out of them (lowering the barrier of re-entry at the beginning of each play-session.)
This evolution isn't a bad thing in itself of course! Making our games more accessible, fairer, and able to reach people far and wide is a noble goal, and a journey that most mediums have gone through before us. I'm not talking about dumbing down at all here, but figuring out what was wrong before that people were putting up with because it was all that was offered to them, and how to turn that around into positive elements or swapping it for adequate replacements. Just because these guiding techniques are used alongside other tropes and mechanics the industry has become obsessed about, misused, simplified… does not mean that they should be put in the same basket. There is merit to smoothing out the navigation of most games, if only for the fact that it lets other parts demand more of players.
With all that said, there is still a tendency in modern AAA development to go too far down the path of accessibility, and to follow the right mindset but use the wrong methods (e.g. relying on taking control away from players to show them every little event.) This can lead to robbing players from the joy of discovery, of figuring things out on their own, of mastering systems, etc.
From my experience and that of other developers I've met, it is too often the case that respect and trust in the player's ability to piece things together on his own takes a serious hit at some point during the development of a AAA game, sadly often for the wrong reasons: because some players get lost or confused. Well luckily that's something that we can take efforts to address with some of the techniques in this article, and hopefully strike that balance between asking too much and too little, between frustration and hand-holding.
The purpose of this article is to research and educate myself and others about all of those techniques at our disposal, so we can use them, when suitable, in both our own interests as designers, and the interests of players going through our levels.
3. Why should you care about these tools?
- They can generate more player satisfaction – The more subtle signposting tricks allow the designer to guide from the shadows (e.g. not taking control of the camera or avatar), and the player to feel good about himself. It's like letting a kid win at a sport: as long as the child doesn't see through your game, he will have a good time.
- They free up concentration – The conscious processing that doesn't need to happen to navigate the environment can be used for better things instead (like an ongoing combat sequence.) This allows for higher levels of tension and concentration, by allowing players to make instinctive decisions based on a broad scan of the environment, and letting them focus on threats or puzzle elements.
- They improve flow – Flow is a gestalt of many elements that's beyond the scope here. Let's just say that using these guiding techniques you can draw intuitive paths between areas, creating a flow that keeps the players moving around the map naturally and make for a more enjoyable experience than having to start/stop at every intersection.
- They do limit frustration – Re-playing very old games can be quite a blast but also show how much we have progressed in terms of limiting situations where the player gets stuck and roams around the same area in search for the way to proceed forward or a missing key-card. Most of these techniques do not impose limitations on your game design, so there is no reason that old-school gameplay cannot work hand-in-hand with them. Limiting confusion and frustration when navigating an environment also allows the navigation itself to become or remain fun, which is a great goal to aim for.
- They make worlds feel less constrained and linear – Constantly bumping against the edges of a level (the worst example being invisible walls) reminds players that they are playing a game, and highlights the limits of the environment. However, if the navigation is so intuitive that players do not have to hit those edges to find the open path, it helps make the world feel deeper and less linear than it actually is: the player thinks there were many possibilities and he just picked the natural one, instead of feeling like there was only a hoop he had to jump through.
I've chosen to present those methods from the least intrusive to the most hands-on, because in my opinion the heavy-handed options should be considered when all else fails, or when dictated by the complexity or vision of the game (e.g. open-world or story-heavy games). They should not be the de-facto solutions for getting players through a game.
This is just a list of many available tools at your disposal, to use or to ignore. Depending on the situation, not all tools will do the trick, and abusing a certain tool can do more damage than good. Only pick techniques that both fit, and are necessary for your level or game.