The Good & Bad Sides of Flow in Level Design

30 Dec

By Nick Halme
As my main hard-skill duty on my group’s final project is lead level designer, I thought I would share some of my opinions on level flow; how is it used, is one way preferable, etc.

I’ve found myself guilty of ignoring the concept of flow in level design, and this article is part of an effort to really start incorporating it into the way I approach constructing an environment. First I’ll outline the two different kinds of flow, you may find that there’s a bit of mixing and matching going on when applied to a real level, but in general this is how it breaks down for me:

Good Flow

What constitutes good flow is easy player navigation. While walking forward in a relatively linear path, the player should be able to get through the level with ease. Missed that jump and fell into a dark tunnel? Continue down the tunnel and you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be. Made a wrong turn? Don’t worry, you’ll end up back in the right spot. This is usually what most experienced level designers are familiar with. Used correctly it means that players will never get stuck, will never get confused for the wrong reason (it’s the fault of bad level design that they are lost unless it is part of a challenge/puzzle), and can progress through an environment in a timely manner.

Bad Flow

First of all, bad flow is not evil — if anything it is simply the opposite of good flow, and therefore it can be used to create a different sort of scenario. Games like Rainbow Six and other tactical shooters utilize bad flow very well; they construct an environment that becomes its own problem to overcome. You’re standing behind a wall, and must find a way to dash across an open stretch of pavement to a piece of low cover a few feet away — do you make a run for it, pick off the gunmen waiting for you, or wait for them to investigate and stay where you are? These kinds of decisions and the pacing it creates just do not exist in games that utilize good flow; games like Quake and Unreal.

The Grey Area

It’s rare for a game to follow the use of either good or bad flow too strictly, and so it isn’t uncommon to see a specific level mix and match design principles. While Counter-Strike is a tactical shooter, it also remains very fast paced — this is achieved through using a combination of good and bad flow. Take a map like the first de_Dust; the map exhibits good flow in that there are two very well defined paths to take, but at the same time it uses bad flow in that these two paths are chokepoints.

Other games can be found to mix and match as well. Games like Crysis use a very open environment which presents many different challenges that the developers have very clearly outlined: you want to give the player a choice of paths and approaches, but you also want him to feel like he’s going ‘the right way’ and you still want to guide his experience a bit. So, Crysis ends up relying much more on its objectives and enemy placement in order to balance out the game’s inherent good flow (very open) with some bad flow (a slower, more deliberate pace, players think more). The player can enter an enemy camp in any way they wish, crashing through the jungle like Rambo or stalking while cloaked ala Predator, but the player is very much encouraged to work his way from objective to objective. The player can crash North Korea’s party any way they want to, but they’re still aware that the party is going on at all times, and sometimes it’s better to stick with a certain suit mode to get the job done. At no point do players find themselves running and gunning or getting lost.

I’ve found myself very often ignoring these two principles, simply because I don’t feel that I have enough time to pussyfoot around in the planning/whitebox too long. That’s not really an acceptable practice for a level designer, no matter what level you’re at. Corny as it sounds, it’s like leaping before you think. It doesn’t matter if your level plan looks like it connects well and looks clean — if you’re not sure why one hallway turns this way and not that way, then you’re not thinking about flow, and in the process you’re ignoring which kind of flow or combination of flow your game promotes.

Well, I don’t expect any veterans learned anything from that diatribe, but it was good to get it out of my system, and I hope it may have helped someone out.

For anyone interested, there is another short breakdown at the Valve Developer Community: http://developer.valvesoftware.com/wiki/Level_Flow

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3 Responses to “The Good & Bad Sides of Flow in Level Design”

  1. antohautin January 21, 2008 at 8:16 pm #

    I like your concept here but I feel when I am playing games I don’t enjoy that linear feeling all the time like where you have no choice what to do. So when I am creating levels I like to give the player multiple choices where to go.

  2. McElroy Flavelle January 21, 2008 at 8:30 pm #

    It’s a tough call for sure.

    My wife is playing DS Zelda right now and she finds the game a little unchallenging because of the linearity. (Is that a word?) Anyhow, a little more choice would go a long way in that extremely well rated game. They came close to the perfect balance, close indeed.

  3. nickhalme January 23, 2008 at 9:02 am #

    Excellent points, and I can see now that the article didn’t do a great job delineating just how to apply the concepts.

    Basically, the point is that whether you consider it or not a level is going to have good or bad flow. It’s beneficial then to make an effort to control it, even if flow is not the focus of your level design. Even if it’s an open world and the player is in complete control, no areas that the player could potentially explore should be overlooked.

    I think the biggest challenge in the near future will be giving players the room to breathe with lots of choices while still providing all of the bang and whiz of a scripted linear progression.

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