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In a 2D platform game with RPG elements (not that it matters much), there's three ways, among others, for the player to choose the next stage he will play:

  1. He can only play the next stage and the ones he already beat
  2. On game start, half of the stages are open, and the other half is released when he beats the first half
  3. All stages are available to the player

What's the difference in perspective to the players general experience and his feelings towards a game rating of these three alternatives?

(I know it sounds like a copy of an exercise, but it isn't. I did this way so people may take this question in a more academic way)

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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The main objective here is to find a suitable progression system which allows a sense of progression, a proper difficulty curve, and a controlled release of game mechanics, without the roadblock problem of a player reaching a point they can't progress past and getting frustrated.

The latter problem can be ameliorated by RPG-elements, if grinding past a difficulty is possible (true for getting through enemy mobs, not necessarily true for platforming challenges). However, there are other ways of addressing this, and option 2 is a subset of those. Some examples of games which do it well:

  • Super Mario World: starts off linear, but the map very quickly starts diverging, which means that most of the time there are multiple points of progression. Furthermore, the existence of secret exits encourages replay of old levels.
  • Super Meat Boy: you can play any level from the latest world you've reached, and can face the boss after beating only a subset of the levels in that world, meaning any given level won't ever stop you from progressing. Beating levels within a time limit then unlocks a harder version of that level
  • Super Mario 3D games: beating a level earns you a star, and access to each group of levels is gated by your total number of stars.

One thing that's common to these games is that whilst they offer divergent options, they also have convergence points - a single point that must be passed to progress to the next section, usually a boss. This is actually really important, in order to give the game a sense of structure, milestones of progression.

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Do you think that to a low quantity of stages, the Super Mario 3D progression system make sense? (I'm thiking in 9~12 stages with 3 worlds) –  user9471 Jul 25 '12 at 15:08
    
As in, a total of 30ish stages? Or around 4 stages per world? Any branching strategy is going to be a bit out of place if you don't have enough stages for each stage to be incremental - note that Mario 3D games have 120 objectives, Super Meat Boy has 300. That's a large part of how they work. However, your game's got RPG elements. That adds an extra option: you can factor experience points into level access, allowing access to later levels which isn't predicated on success with earlier ones. –  Tom Johnson Jul 25 '12 at 15:20

I find the Mega Man series of games has usually been a mix of all 3. Select any stage, and after finishing them, you are given a set of more difficult stages that are linear in progression. Seasoned players have figured out there's sort of a puzzle to the best order of beating the bosses/stages, as the order of weapons you obtain present better options to tackle future stages. If you can work out a challenge based around the order in which the stages are beaten, this could be a fun way to play the game.

In other cases, the game has no apparent barriers to let you explore the whole world at first, but the extent to which you can explore it is limited by your character's abilities. This is common in RPGs, but also in Metroid/Metroidvania type of games. The world should be set up in a way in which the player would have to figure out where to go next, but without getting lost. If the process of elimination is made easy for the player, he would know where to go next and incidentally obtain an item that will let him pass through to places he previously couldn't go before.

The replayablity of the stages depends on whether or not it is worth the player's time to visit old stages with their newer abilities. You'll have to give him an incentive to go back, either by teasing the player with visible but out of reach areas during the first run, or some storyline component that calls for some backtracking.

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This is kind of a cop-out answer, but I would say that all of them have their pros and cons (like much in life).

Option 1: I feel that this is the weakest option. Players will be forced to play the newest level or the levels that they've probably already learned and crushed. There is no way for the player to take a break from banging their head against a new level while simultaneously making progression. It's either suffer the next level or farm (for lack of a better term) the previous levels (boring).

Option 2: This option reminds me of Mega Man stage selects where you can pick multiple stages in case you need to get an item from one stage to use in another or just want a change of pace after getting your ass kicked on Stage X. At least in this case the user can try to progress without feeling stuck.

Option 3: Truly laissez faire. It kind of ruins progression a bit when there's nothing to give you that "finally I can go to that stage I've seen locked!" feeling. Maybe not everyone likes unlockables, but I think in order to trigger some sort of feeling of accomplishment, you need to allow the user to have the satisfaction of going to the next area as a direct result of their work.

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Regarding option 3: If it's an RPG, you can "block" some areas by putting high-level monsters there. The player can still enter the level, but might have to back out and revisit later when he's capable of dealing with some of the monsters there. –  bummzack Jul 25 '12 at 6:30
    
@bummzack That would be my choice. It's better to let players decide it's a bad idea to play a level than to disallow it completely. –  Tharwen Jul 25 '12 at 10:42

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