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Pacing the unknown -- estimating level traversal and completion times

Last week we set about putting some parameters around the remaining design work for the core feature set of Dead West. We’re not trying to pre-emt derived and iterated gameplay stuff -- just get a basic framework to aim for.

One of the biggest remaining decisions is whether we're targeting aracde-style replay or campaign-like progression through the various maps and levels. We've a lot of flexibility in how we spawn, introduce and balence enemies -- so we can take a basic "x enemies == y time" sense of anything.

In order to produce for ourselves both a chicken and an egg, we decided to firewall some assumptions against the level designs we currently have. After a good amount of pondering on how we do that, we:

  1. Took a straight line (quickest) path through each level*
  2. Calculated a walking traversal distance for that path (based on what looks right in our current codebase)
  3. Inserted a number of enemy encounters that we felt looked right based on the aesthetics and feel of each map
  4. Timed those encounters (based on a completely different game)

* this sometimes meant picking arbritary start and end markers

The point of doing this was to answer the question "if we just give the player a simple A-B experience in each level, how long would it take them to complete the set of designs we have"... hopefully leading us towards a design on arcade or campaign/completion play.

Some detail on the techniques we used:

  • Stopwatch was invaluable for working out a pixels-per-second walking speed for our standard heroes.
  • "Mean time between interesting shit" was calculated/measured in Fable 3's gameworld
  • Reasonable encouter sizes and hits-to-kill enemies was estimated based on Battleheart
  • Relative encouter sizes and likely time differences were based on Warhammer Fantasy unit balance calculations

We got to a level completion time of between 25 and 40 minutes... and an answer on what kind of map progression and session play style we're targetting. We'll go into more detail on that in the future -- but suffice to say it's nice having the flexibility.

By far the most difficult bit was simplifying the problem set -- we spent a long time stopping ourselves from talking about enemy encounters and the complexities therein. We ultimately boiled them down to "Small", "Medium" and "Large" encounters, safe in the knowlege that if GW can genericse everything to a points value we will be able to as well.

Other pleasant side effects of the whole thing included a prototype for how we can offer variable play based on player preference and player experience -- and a good number of ideas for where we go next in regard to spawning and triggering of enemies (all of which seem simpler than we'd anticipated).

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