Early notes on level design playgrounds

In my work, I’ve started thinking of multiplayer level design in terms of public parks and playgrounds. I’ve found these metaphors useful while trying to integrate new design ideas—especially design patterns for friendship and trust—into older multiplayer design patterns.

So, on my flight back from GDC today, I took some time to think about actual public parks and playgrounds. Some principles:

  • Users can enter and leave a public park freely.
    • Most activities, like using a swing, are short instances with repetition. These activities do not lock users in for a long duration (social activities are more complex).
    • Some public parks offer walking trails, which can lock users in for a longer duration. When designed well, these longer activities offer rest breaks along the way and shortcuts back for those who need them.
  • The park and its resources are not depleted through use.
    • A playground’s toys and their potential for play persist between uses.
    • Some resources, like a bench or a swing, are “held” or “blocked” while in use. This requires turns and sharing when demand is high.
  • Playgrounds are fundamentally multiplayer (not fun when alone), supporting parallel play and cooperative play (like see saws and tire swings).
  • Good public parks give options for different kinds of users
    • The children can play on the playground while the parents talk on a nearby bench.
    • One user can walk through a garden while others play a sport in the fields.
    • In this way, the park is a foundation for many activities.
  • Excellent playgrounds offer the potential for “subversive” play, like walking up slides or devising other routes that feel unintended.
  • Playgrounds aren’t ashamed of being toys.

I then adapted these ideas to imagine an alternate reality to Doom (1993):

  • The game is fundamentally multiplayer, supporting opt-in competitive and cooperative play. Players can drop-in or out of servers as they please.
  • The level exit is available from the start. Some areas in the level require the player to backtrack some distance, but no areas lock the player into an activity.
  • No resources are required or consumed.
    • All doors can be opened and closed, and none require keys.
    • NPC Enemies all respawn, or “freeze” for a duration instead of dying.
    • Player also don’t have health, armor, or ammo to collect.
      • Without health or armor, this means that all incoming enemy attacks are limited to their audiovisual feedback.
    • Players can’t hoard weapons. Instead they may only use their current weapon, drop it, or swap it for another. There are no ammo limitations.
  • Combat areas are all opt-in, with safe areas available to take breaks.
  • A score, if it exists at all, is opt-in or player-controlled. The game does not dictate a correct way of playing.
  • The level offers a range of activities, making full use of exploding barrels and elevators and collapsing floors (so long as all reset for the next player).

This is a very different game!

In particular, removing combat attrition and resource management reduces the challenge of Doom. If a player’s goal is to spend all their time in a “flow” state (where their skill is met by the game’s challenge), then these changes gut Doom‘s depth. But in that exchange, this alternative Doom gains something. This Doom could be the place players meet on their way to other activities, or the place they go to relax and spend time in peaceful conversation.

I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from this, since my example is an extreme. I think some of these problems may be known within MMO design, though. Time to do more research!




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