In this ongoing series, I’ll take you behind the scenes into how I designed a level, to hopefully teach something about level design and the processes we use as level designers.
The idea behind Time Cannon was interesting- what if you, as a player, had all the time in the world to set up the perfect shot to change history? Scratch that, what if you could scrub backwards and forwards in time with fine control to set up the perfect shot? It was an interesting initial design idea, but not one that was without its challenges for me as a level designer.
The idea was that we would be creating a single level, but then going back at 4 distinctly different times, with different vehicles, planes, ships, creatures, whatever. So many of the static assets could be reused but there would be different enemies on different paths in each epoch the player came back to. In this way there were only four levels or stages in the game, but with 4 different epochs there were 16 total stages to clear.
When given this as a level challenge, I immediately thought that this would definitely be a challenge for me as a designer balancing the difficulty. The trouble was how to challenge the player when so much from the gameplay side was weighted in their favor? Most FPS games are very fast paced and quick reaction times are what the player is being tested on. Here was the exact opposite, there was very little reaction time, and players could move backwards and forwards at their leisure. The answer I came up with Chris DeLeon, the lead designer, was simple: limited ammo per stage.
This made ammo count a fun variable to play with, as levels were then identified as 1-4 shot levels with variable number of enemies and flight paths. This way I could dynamically change the enemies, obstacles or flight paths and change the difficulty to match the ammo. I did different things with the two levels- each of the desert stages was a one shot stage. This was the first stages the player would play, so I wanted to keep choices to a minimum. Make the best shot you can, and then live with the consequences. Or try it again! With the Chaos Dimension stages I went with a graduating approach meanwhile. The first stage was 1 shot, all the way up to the last stage being 4 shots. This way the player got more choices thrown at them slowly, so they could hopefully handle learning the game and its controls while they were making easy decisions.
The feeling I went for when designing these two levels was player power (the player routinely shot 5-10 targets per shot), but the design I quickly realized made this a puzzle game. Puzzles in the game design sense have a rigorous definition. A puzzle is a game with a dominant solution, a “right” answer. Games often have multiple correct options and answers, like the possibility space in a Civilization game with seemingly infinite choices and victory conditions, or the different ways to approach a Deus Ex or Dishonored level. In that regard, puzzles are a subtype of game wherein the possibility space is defined and there is most definitely a correct answer.
Once I realized Time Cannon was really a puzzle game, I got to work making my levels the best puzzle levels I could. Where is the exact right moment going backwards and forwards? Making that fun and not too easy was a fun challenge. I quickly discovered the best way to challenge the player was to obfuscate the correct answer as much as possible, while still giving them breadcrumbs, and having them try to get closer and closer to an ideal score.
The scoring system is the other thing that helped this game. It gave a soft difficulty curve in that you could technically complete the game and see everything but with a low score. This satisfied narrative driven players while also providing more mechanics driven and or competitive players a higher target to hit.
In the end, I think we nailed the initial feeling our project lead was going for, and created a fun puzzle game in the process.
Time Cannon is out now and can be played on Desktop and VR here: