Elevation, or how I learned to stop worrying and love three-dimensional space
If the term "corridor shooter" implies nothing else, it's two-dimensionality. People, spending most of their time on the flat ground, already have a predisposition to want to focus their view forward and keep headed in a single direction; when playing a game, especially on a console, where moving around is easier than actually looking around in a full 360 degrees, people become even more tempted to lock their sites forward and barrel forward. In fact, this priciple is so strongly rooted that many successful console shooters have actually met their success precisely because it's easier to create an "interactive shooting gallery" than truly play with 3D space. While effective and straightforward to design around, this kind of thinking can be extremely limiting to the design of your environments, your enemies, your weapons, and, subsequently, your encounters.
By far the number one way to augment an existing environment design is to add multiple levels of elevation. This can be done for a number of reasons, all of which can be valid in a given situation, but which, when used right, will always positively agument your encounters and overall game structure.
1. Keeps the player moving forward. Adding a few jumps down here or there on the path can give the sense of forward direction, while also making sure the player is effectively "checkpointed" along the way to avoid confusion involving backtracking. Usually if there's a drop down that looks safe enough to make without injury or death, the player is going to think one thing - that it's the right way to go.
|In Crysis, the player is usually given the option to survey and review the playing field before fighting.|
2. Allows for tactical consideration and breathing room. In a firefight, it's always a good idea to know what you're getting into. While it's rarely a good idea to give the player the high ground or a clear picture of the map in all cases, usually the player is going to want a way of viewing the entire layout of the battlefield so he or she has some foreknowledge and time to plan out his or her angle of attack.
3. Provides new opportunities on the fly. This actually goes both ways - the player can use elevation to his or her advantage, while as a designer, an interesting challenge can be constructed by varying enemy placement based on the player's own position. Take the low road because it's shorder, but risk fire coming from above, or take the high ground but work through an additional layer of enemies? Varying the path also means that enemies will continue to come in from different angles, and, when combined with the different enemy classes discussed in the first article, it means that there's all sorts of interesting combintations that can be worked with.
|Call of Duty 4 varies its terrain and gives enemies multiple, and unexpected, angles of attack.|
Getting beyond two-dimensional thinking also involves the inclusion of what I'll refer to as "agumentations." These generally include environmental hazards, platforms and ladders to climb, puzzles to solve, and so on. Whether that's navigating lava and bottomless pits with precarious bridges suspended above, hopping on an elevator to gain a height advantage, dodging in and out of massive, gnashing teeth as you duck and cover your way through a giant alien organism, or blowing up a wall to proceed forward, all of these can be mixed inside of combat encounters to provide the player with a more interactive environment that can work hand-in-hand with the narrative demands of the situation.
Ultimately, two-dimensional thinking in level design isn't, itself, a bad thing... but it can't be your only type of thinking, or you're very quickly going to start running out of ideas, and a lack of ideas means a less interesting, enjoyable game, with less inspired encounters for the player to fight his or her way through. It's important to remember that, when weapon and enemy design considerations begin to enter the fray, level design becomes a holistic process. Proper understanding of all the tools at the player's disposal, and the enemies that the player will be facing, are just as key as designing a level that looks good in isolation.
Mission objectives and layers, not "kill all dudes"
It's not a very common complaint to see given the nature of shooters, but gamers tend to pick up on it when it's done poorly: while a shooter needs to be about shooting, if you can't give interesting context to that shooting, you're going to end up with a boring game. One of the most sure-fire ways to do precisely this is to offer up a single repeating goal: "kill all the dudes, then wait for the door to open." Sometimes, this can be a literal mechanism - in the case of Call of Duty, the player literally cannot open the door to go to the next sequence, and instead has to wait for their NPC companion to open it for them, which of course, only triggers after the fighting in the given area has been completed. Other times, it can be a little bit less obvious - an NPC that needs to hack a terminal, and only finishes after X enemies are killed, or an enemy machine-gun that must be disabled before progress is viable.
There's nothing wrong with any of these scenarios. In isolation, they're totally reasonable objectives to put into a shooter game - if your primary mode of interaction with the world is to blow it up, well, there's going to be a lot of blowing up done. The most direct approach, however, is in the case of shooters rarely the best, and so providing interesting, plot-relevant objectives that revolve around more than just shooting is key to providing an engaging experience, and, more specifically, engaging encounter designs.
|Mass Effect 2 often builds upon objectives to provide additional intrigue.|
All of these different layers in Mass Effect 2 work together in order to provide a unique gameplay experience, all while utilising different types of enemies, different levels of elevation, different sub-objectives that aren't all directly combat-related, and additional game features like hacking, in order to provide a sequence that is fun, well-paced and memorable. Additionally, the player has to look at the environment from all angles due to traversing it multiple times, re-evaluating the same battleground as new enemies come in from different approaches; all told, this half-hour section of Mass Effect 2 gets more gameplay out of its rather small level than most other shooters would get out of a space five times as large. What's more, there is a narrative arc in here: players arrive not knowing much about Archangel other than he/she needs to be rescued, they arrive and learn the background of the situation, hints are dropped as to Archangel's identity, and midway through, the tone changes from reaching an unknown to fighting to save an old friend's life. It's a mini-narrative all in itself, and it works hand-in-hand with the variety in gameplay goals.
Strong motivations are strong gameplay
How many times have you stopped and thought to yourself, "just why am I doing this?" while playing a shooter? If the answer to that question is "ever", then the designer has failed to provide adequate emotional or rational justifications for what you've been asked to do. While I'm not here to provide tips on writing a good story, approaching this from a designer's perspective, there are certain techniques that can be built into the context of a situation in order to give the player a reason to keep moving forward... and they need to be utilised a lot more often than you might think.
To put it simply, the design goal in a shooter is to try to convince the player the game isn't about shooting. This might sound a little bit strange, but what I mean here isn't that the goal is to make a shooter with a lot of additional mini-games tacked on, or to literally make a shooter where shooting is a secondary concern. Rather, as a designer, you need to be able to give the player a strong motivation other than "my purpose is to shoot guys." Whether that's rescuing a captured NPC, hacking a terminal to gain enemy intelligence, sneaking into a base through some sewers, or driving a tank to punch through an enemy fortification, the player needs to believe he or she is doing more than just shooting for shooting's sake. It's not enough to have "cool stuff" in your game - you need to have "cool stuff" that players are given reason to care about.
|Half-Life 2 avoids the worship of killing by presenting it as a necessary means rather than an end.|
It's also worth pointing out that gameplay needs to have a natural ebb and flow for players to stay interested. One of the easiest way to dilute the impact of your encounters, no matter how well designed they may be, is to pace them poorly. Players need to have breathing room, space to think, a natural moment where they can pause (or shut off the game) and collect themselves. When a given encounter, or string of encounters, drag on for too long without enough in between, players are going to grow fatigued. In Call of Duty 4, this is achieved by providing a strong contrast and mix of high-action levels with short walks and story sections between large battles, atmospheric stealth sections which can feature minimal or even no shooting at all for extended periods of time, and even levels that exist solely to advance the story and provide an emotional impact. If Call of Duty 4 had been one straight roller-coaster ride, all the way from top to bottom, then it simply wouldn't have the same emotional resonance that renders it a modern classic... and on a personal note, it's this lack of coherent flow which has largely turned me off from all the subsequent games in the series. To borrow a phrase from the audio production world, without quiet, there can be no loud.
I realise I've covered a lot of ground in this article - everything from layering mission objectives on top of one another, to dealing with the physical layout of your environment. The simple fact is that providing a point-by-point breakdown of each and every fundamental component gets harder and harder when you start involving "softer" elements of game design, like narrative, but I hope the examples I've given do a good job of illustrating how designing encounters in shooters is, beyond a purely mechanical level, a discipline which involves an encompassing knowledge of the game, not just those fundamentals I covered earlier. If the basics are able to give you an "adequate" game, it's paying attention to the details as covered here that will elevate a game to something more than "just another shooter". Thanks for reading, and feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below!