If you've been around the internet the past year, you've probably heard of Gears For Breakfast's upcoming 3D platformer A Hat In Time. With gameplay that looks right in line with some of the N64 platforming classics, I can safely say the game is looking promising. However, just like any 3D platformer, much of the enjoyment will lie within the level design. I was able to catch up with Gears For Breakfast's level designer William T. Nichols to pick his brain on the upcoming game, as well as what makes platformer levels stand out.
What are the main inspirations for the level design in a Hat in Time?
Specifically we take inspirations from various platformer games such as Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie.
When I'm assigned an environmental task I receive layout drawings as guidance. I am also given specifications such as "Make sure the player can easily climb vertically in every location." But ultimately we design them through iterative methods until they flow nicely and then we begin to make them look visually pleasing.
The levels revealed so far seem to subvert the usual categories of fire level, desert level, etc. Why's this?
We actually have a desert themed level in the fourth chapter which we have teased in the past. As for the other categories I feel we are trying to create our own unique experience and we want to really wow players with places they may not have experienced before in a platformer game. There are several levels we haven't shared yet with really cool themes and we look forward to hearing what people think of them.
How will the co-op affect the level design?
It's unlikely to change anything. Specifically we're focusing on a single player experience and our co-op is more in theme with the Mario 64 co-op mod that originally inspired us.
What do you think makes levels in 3D platformers stand out compared to other games?
Verticality for one thing. I feel it is a design feature that we have lost over the years and are slowly getting back. Games such as Half Life 1 had this design philosophy and it really added a new dimension to the gameplay so it is disappointing to see games becoming more corridor like in design, funneling players down to the next cutscene or scripted event. Especially since open levels give a sense of freedom to the player that you don't often see in today's games.
Additionally it is an interesting challenge to design levels for a platforming game as you have to consider that some players might get lost and therefore good level design subconsciously guides them.
For example I designed Mafia Town, the first level in the game, with a circular shape in mind as it essentially guides players all the way around it. As it is set on a volcano, the shape of it gives plenty of verticality that I can exploit.
Of course it is also unfair to compare different game genres like that. In some cases certain games work better with more linear, flat design but I cannot deny there is a strong appeal to working on a platformer game because of the freedom given to players.
I do not think that level design is completely overlooked in modern games because I have seen many AAA teams put real passion into the level design of their games. But I do think the problem is that the games industry is at a stage where games are trying to become more cinematic, more photo realistic and because of that, some games sacrifice actual gameplay in exchange for pretty environments or non interactive cutscenes.
But I do agree there is a sense that we are forgetting what makes great level design and it is my hope that A Hat in Time introduces new generations back to that experience of open level design.
Do you believe it's important for a game's levels to be coherent, or feel more like actual places rather than just floating platforms? Why?
I think it helps immensely to have environments that are relatable to the player. Floating platform levels have a place in games, more so to get the player to focus on gameplay mechanics. After all it's the coherent levels that stick in our minds long after we have played them.
For example I can recall the layout and appearance of Cool Cool Mountain in Mario 64 but I have great difficulty remembering the secret levels found in Mario Sunshine.
Our secret levels are actually similar in design in that their purpose is to challenge the player and get them to focus on the mechanics they have available. However unlike Mario Sunshine we have applied themes that will hopefully make them memorable experiences. Music and visuals play a massive part in that and we look forward to sharing more in the future.
Are there any platformer levels that really stick out to you as being exceptionally designed?
I'm actually a fan of the level designs found in Super Mario Galaxy. Granted the series moved towards a more linear experience but there is no denying that each level was crafted with lots of passion and love.
Additionally I really liked the theme changes of Click Clock Wood in Banjo Kazooie and how certain level design elements changed based on the season you entered. A simple idea but back then it was new to me and I felt more connected to it, especially in the Winter parts of that stage when you saw the fruits of your labour take form.
One of the important elements of game design is teaching the player how to play your game. For example you could throw in a tutorial at the start of the game with lots of text boxes explaining the controls but we personally find that it detaches players from the game. It also alienates those who just want to jump straight in and play.
So we gradually introduce mechanics through level design. In Mafia Town you can choose to follow Mustache Girl and we use several prompts to guide players into doing this via a sound effect and a graphic effect. Some players might ignore her and try experimenting with the controls and discover they can wall jump. In doing so this allows them to skip going around the level and head straight to the fountain where Hat Kid's umbrella crash landed. However if players do decide to follow her, they'll find themselves jumping across gaps and climbing objects while subconsciously learning and feeling what it is like to control Hat Kid.
There are even some gaps that require the dive move but we include paths to go around them. It is all about believing in the player and slowly teaching them the controls without them realizing it.
Before we wrap this up, are there any shoutouts you'd like to make?
We have been working on this game for a while now and the support we receive from our fans is great for our morale. The feedback we received from the release of the alpha and the fans reaction when we met them at PAX East was very rewarding and we are very grateful for it.
Currently we are working towards the beta release and are very excited to share it with our fans.
Thank you for your time.