Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Hidden Garden - A Design Perspective




So a few weeks ago I posted up a bit of a story on how I stumbled across The Hidden Garden jumping puzzle, and the adventures I had in exploring it and  uncovering its secrets.  But as I moved about the garden, I couldn't help but notice all the little designer touches here and there that made it such an enjoyable experience. I've been a game developer for some 15 years, and though I'm not a content designer by trade, I've spent more than my share of time thinking about and building zones in games.  For Atomic City Adventures, I developed four entire city zones, and then had to think about the best ways to repurpose them in such a way that made sense.  Because Hidden Garden is more than a jumping puzzle - it's almost a mini-zone in and of itself, it makes a great candidate to examine some of the subtle and not-so-subtle methods designers use to assist you through the level.

Let's start with when you first enter the zone.  Hidden Garden has four entrances, each one from a different location within Mount Maelstrom.  All of the entrances are located on the perimeter of the zone.  Regardless of which way you enter the zone, two things immediately stand out.  First, there's a towering hill dominating your view, in the center of the hill.


Second, you can see at least one or two of the other entrances from where you enter the zone.  So already you've been given some direction.  First, the tower in the center of the zone serves as a natural focal point, inviting you to explore it.  You're drawn to it because it's the most prominent feature in your view.  Second, because you can see the other entrances, you can see that regardless of which portal you use to enter the zone, you're going to be presented with the same grand view.

So given the large focal point in before you, you set out to make your way to the top of that hill.  Regardless of which direction you come at it from, you will encounter enemies.  And some of them are possibly veterans.  Now normally you might think yeah, so.. enemies.  All zones have them.  But it's important here, because of the way you found this area.  Because you teleported here from somewhere else, and it's, well, hidden, you might suspect the rules might be a bit different here.  Some jumping puzzles have platforms that disappear.  Some puzzles have wind traps, all sorts of things.  The thing is, the designers do like to change things around a bit for the puzzles, present you with interesting challenges, and right away you are informed that this zone has challenging foes.

So you make your way up the side of the hill, and already there's a couple of little jumps and opportunities for missteps along the way.  Again, you're being informed that you need to watch your step and pay attention to the terrain. About halfway up, you encounter a lone Sylvari sitting on the tree, and just beyond her a chest.


And if you didn't see the chest, well that's okay, because she promptly tells you about it.

Instructions are not the place to be subtle, and the designers know that.  Through her conversation, they pretty much tell you straight up what you need to do.  You need some elemental clusters to open  the chest.


And if that weren't enough, of course you're going to go over and try to open the chest anyway.  And it gives you more information.  You need four elemental cantles to open the chest.  Now, if you're like me, you probably don't know what the hell a cantle is.  But you know that it has something to do with the elements.  And you passed some elementals on the way in.  So at least some of what you need is likely in this zone. And you need four of them. So the first thing you do is to look about for some hint as to where to go next.

And this is key.  This is a crucial point for the designer, because you want the player to feel like they're exploring and finding things on their own, but you don't want them to feel directed, but you also don't want them to feel lost.  And again, the designers hit it perfectly here.  Because if you turn slightly to your left.. from where you are standing, whats this?  Is that a jumping puzzle leading directly away? Why yes, yes it is.

The particular stages of this puzzle are again pretty straightforward.  At each point along the way it's pretty clear where you need to go next.  And while none of it is particularly difficult - for instance nothing is shooting at you, and there's no traps for forces trying to blow you off the leaves like there are for some puzzles, you are afforded some dizzying views that will quicken your pulse as you make your way up.

So you get to the top, and look - there's the Cantle of Light.  It's clearly labeled, and you interact with it, and you receive the first cluster.. cantle.. whatever it is.  You don't really care you just know that you have it.  So once again, now that you have one objective completed, you're going to look for clues on where to go again, and once again, the designers are aware of this.  It's a very small promontory that you're standing on up here, but even in this small space the designers have packed it with clues.

From one side, as you gaze across the incredible vista that you are afforded, observing the beautiful waterfalls, you can clearly see the cantle of water, dancing atop some cliffs below you.  And on the other side, looking across to the other side of the zone, you can clearly see the cantle of wind.  And then finally, and this is most important, from where you gather the Cantle of Light, you can clearly see some diving goggles.  The presence of Diving Goggles is essentially a message from the designers that it's okay to jump from here.  Or at least there's a smaller chance you'll die if you jump from here.  So in just a very small space, you've been told where two of the three remaining cantles are, and how to get down.





















Plummeting into the water below, when you go to make your way out, there's only one way out of the pond. And though you don't know it at the time, you've been dropped into a location that is quite close to the fourth cantle - earth.  All you have to do is walk around to the top of the pond, in either direction, and you'll immediately discover some earth elementals, and right next to them you'll see the Cantle of Earth.

Again, none of this is by accident.  The designers have gone to great length to put you in situations where you can discover what you're looking for easily, but without just telling you directly where it is.









So where you go next doesn't matter too much, you've been given clues for both of the remaining cantles.  As you stand there looking up at the very obvious Cantle of Water, you can see an opening in the back of the cliffs below the cantle - behind the waterfalls.  And upon entering, you find yourself in a picturesque grotto, filled with wildlife, giant plants, and sparkling waterfalls.  Now, I have to admit, I didn't pick up on the giant leaves right away.  For whatever reason, unlike mushroom pads, which are clearly designed for jumping pads, the leaves to me seem like something that would give when you stand on it.  But a little bit of experimentation, or perhaps another adventurer chancing by, and you quickly learn that the leaves are the key to this puzzle.


Again, making your way to the top isn't too difficult, and you're given some beautiful views along the way.  At each stage it's pretty clear where to go next, and eventually you emerge at the top.  There is your objective, and another breathtaking view of the zone.

All that remains now is the Cantle of Air.  And you've already learned approximately where it is and on which side of the zone it is.  A bit of exploration on this side of the zone reveals a cave, that invites further investigation.

Now, here the designers get tricky.  They're going to send you a message here, but it might take you a bit to get the message.  Especially if you're a bit dense.. like me.  As you enter the cave, you're immediately set upon by spiders.  So of course, you begin to fight them. And you kill them.  But then more appear.  And then more.  If you continue to fight, you are going to eventually get overwhelmed.  Because here's the message.  The spiders keep coming.  Eventually I got the message, and I fled the cave.  And again, there's a subtle bit of help here.  Just outside the cave is a deep pool, and as soon as you jump into the pool, the spiders immediately drop aggro return to the cave.  And over a short amount of time the spiders will despawn.  So now you're faced with a decision.  Either re-enter the cave, and explore more of it to learn if it's really where you're supposed to go, or to explore more of that portion of the zone, looking for an alternate route.

Well further exploration reveals no obvious ways to make your way up.  So if you run past the spiders, you quickly see the very obvious beginning of the jumping puzzle, and as soon as you make your way up a short ways, the spiders quickly drop aggro and you leave them behind.  So now the intent is clear.  The designers put the spiders there just to make it interesting. They're not there for you to fight, but to give you a sense of urgency to move along the puzzle.  It's important that you've learned this lesson, because further up, along the puzzle, you're going to encounter some more.  And by now, hopefully you know not to try to stand around and fight them, but to get on with the puzzle.

Once again, once you're on the puzzle, the direction on where to go next is pretty clear.  It's worth mentioning that, where jumping puzzles are concerned, this isn't always the case.  Several of them have branching (no pun intended) paths along the way, and some of them require you to detour down one path before you can continue.

Once you emerge at the top, the Cantle of Air is surrounded by air elementals.  This requires you to either kill them off before getting the cantle, or if you have some distraction mechanism, like, say phantasms, you can distract them long enough to perform a smash and grab, grabbing the cantle and then flinging yourself over the cliff to the large pond below - again, placed there specifically for you to land in.  Which is what I did, which is why the only screenshot you see of me getting the Cantle of Light is the one of me plummeting over the cliff with my ill-gotten gains.

And you're done!  With all of the cantles in your possession, all that remains is to make your way back to  the chest, collect your booty, and gain your achievement.  Just watch your step along the way!

So that's that.  I hope you enjoyed looking at the zone through a designer's perspective.  And more importantly, I hope you gain some appreciation for the hard working guys and girls that develop that content. There is almost nothing that happens in these virtual worlds in which we play that happens completely by accident.  That waterfall, that sweeping view, that fortuitous pool at the bottom of that cliff, those spiders you encounter along the way - all are there for a purpose.  And somewhere, someone spent an extraordinary amount of time thinking about just exactly the right way to present that content so that you can enjoy it in the most satisfying of ways.

Wherever you're gaming, I hope you enjoy!