There are all sorts of level design tools and tricks we use to make a Secret World dungeon, but it’s all in the service of one thing: an experience.
Dungeons in The Secret World are challenging and intense, an opportunity for players to test their builds, skills and teamwork to the utmost. They serve as very focused content, in sharp contrast to the wide sandboxes of the playfields. In a dungeon, players live and die by the strength of their team and their ability to strategize to meet the odds.
At the same time, story and setting are key to The Secret World, so each dungeon still needs to expand on and deepen the world we're creating. The extra level of control that we developers get in instanced content gives us a great opportunity to tell stories, but we still want to make sure it feels like it's the player's story. They must feel involved and immersed, driving the way forward through their own actions.
Thus it goes that the experience is a key focus of our dungeon development. We want players to feel like a part of the game world, instead of just zeroing in on the particulars of monster stats and mechanics. Crafting this kind of great experience is no easy task though, so we focus on it in every step of the process.
When starting on a new dungeon, it's vital to narrow down the focus. Therefore the first thing we do is define the high concept. What is the nature of the enemy? What elements of The Secret World’s larger story are we trying to communicate? What do we want players to feel - is this an action-packed rollercoaster, or do we want to layer on the foreboding and make it seem like the players are marching towards their doom?
These kinds of questions get at the real core of the game and answering them allows us to form a statement about the dungeons purpose. Anything that doesn’t fit that statement has no business being there!
For example, if we have a dungeon where the story dictates that players are supposed to infiltrate an enemy lair, the goal of every single element is to emphasize infiltration. In the end, the players will only get that experience if it’s wholly consistent. The route should feel hidden, the decisions secretive. The encounters should feel like you’re surprising someone – you’re not expected to be there. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to lose track of the big picture when you’re in the design trenches, so we have to make sure to have that strong guiding principle established at the outset.
At this point, we’re always tempted to jump in and start designing encounters but it’s important to hold off on that for a bit and spend some time brainstorming more flexible gameplay elements. An emphasis on fewer, better mechanics that we can build on throughout the dungeon makes it easier to stay on target in supporting the aforementioned concept.
For example, there are dozens of possible infiltration elements that we could introduce to a level (shadow gameplay, security systems, hacking, etc), but we try to pick just the few that work well with our game, work well in combination, and that we can prototype quickly.
Having a smaller set of mechanics also lets us to spend more time on one of our biggest focus areas: communication. It’s very important to us that monster and dungeon mechanics are presented in a very clear fashion. Players shouldn’t be spending time and energy trying to figure out what killed them or why - the fun is in figuring out how to deal with that threat the next time (or reacting to it smartly in the first place).
While we have no problem with players visiting third-party sites to get the best strategies, we want to make it so they don’t feel like they have to - a good team should be able to overcome our challenges with the right mix of logic, preparation and coordination.
If overcoming a particular type of security system is a major element of the dungeon, players may encounter that system early on, by itself, in order to have the opportunity to learn how it works. Attentive players will then be able to better manage the challenge later when the boss turns on the same system in the middle of his encounter.
Level and Encounter Design
With some great gameplay themes at the ready, we can start on the encounters themselves. This part of the process always goes hand in hand with developing another essential piece of the experience: the pacing. Mistakes with the pace can take players out of the action and break immersion. Each tussle with monsters is part of a larger whole, and it’s vital that the speed, challenge, and intensity levels match our intentions.
To this end, we’ve developed tools that aid in estimating the peaks and valleys of a dungeon’s flow. Based on our previous experience (and educated guesses), we’ve assigned numerical values to different types of challenges. These are then mapped to our paper designs as best we can in order to generate metrics pertaining to various aspects of the user experience.
There’s no magical formula for great pacing and difficulty curves of course - what this process does is help us evaluate whether the experience we’ve designed on paper will actually reflect what we intended to make. If we don’t like what we see, we can easily make the appropriate adjustments before getting our hands dirty.
As for the encounters, a summary of their design process could easily fill a whole article by itself! Suffice to say, designing the encounters is a matter of combining the pieces created in the mechanics step in ways that tell a story in the setting and create interesting pacing and challenge curves. To aid in this, we've developed guidelines for different encounter types in order to make it easier to hit those marks. For example, one of our rules about minor encounters is that they should never introduce a unique mechanic unless that mechanic is going to be used in a later major encounter - in which case it serves as a teaching device.
Of course, major encounters (the bosses) require a great deal more effort than the average monsters. In these cases, the key is making sure we nail the "epic dimension", the wow factor in the encounter that makes a case for why this is the best boss in the game. There are no spreadsheets to help us come up with these, but the best ones tend to have an impressive visual component and create extreme tension for the players. These are the moments where we show players what it means to go up against the most ancient and terrible evils in The Secret World.
Implementation and Polish
Making the best of this pre-development phase can make a world of difference, but it’s no substitute for actually playing the content itself! On the dungeon team we playtest each others’ work – a lot.
For all the effort we put into developing a solid paper design process, it’s still just a starting point. There’s always some variable you forget to account for, or an aspect of gameplay that’s just not as fun as you thought it would be. We have very high standards, so sometimes whole encounters will end up getting kicked back to the drawing board when it’s clear that they’re just not working.
It may not be too sexy, but iteration is the key to producing quality content. Once the core of an encounter is solid, we keep working at it as every pass gets better and better. Interactions get punchier, the rhythm and flow improves, and we get closer and closer to our desired challenge curve - this is how you cover up the seams and put that final layer on a smooth and immersive experience.
On The Secret World’s dungeon team, we’ll be doing a lot of this over the next few months to ensure that when you take a party out to the explore the draug-infested Wreck of The Polaris, the fiery plains of Hell, or any of the myriad other content we’re responsible for, you’re going to get our best. Happy hunting!