Genre: Action, Adventure
Project Role: Level & Encounter Designer, Director
Engine: Unreal 4.22.3
What is it?
“Just Desserts” is a 3D action adventure game, where you take on the role of an unnamed cupcake hero, guided by their last remaining friend.
Your role as the cupcake hero is to foil the Muffin Man's plot to become the sweetest being in all of Dessertia by de-icing all of your fellow cupcakes!
The target audience for this project is casual gamers. This audience can be defined as people who do not play video games often, but want a game that is easy to pick up at any time, even after a long day at work.
To further cater to this target audience, our team decided to aim for an art style more in line with games from the early 2000s and late 1990s. Our references were Rareware games that some members of the team grew up with and played with our parents, such as Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Banjo Kazooie. These references are why we decided to go with the types of puzzles, platforming, and combat that we did.
For this project, I fulfilled the roles of level and encounter designer and director.
As the level and encounter designer, I designed and developed all of the levels for the project throughout development. This included all 10+ sandbox levels that each team member needed to build and test various aspects of the project, 5+ demo levels to display milestone progress as production went on, and all of the levels used in the final product. I also designed every encounter throughout all of the levels made during production.
As the project director, I developed the narrative of the game and guided all design decisions throughout production to ensure that the game progressed toward the desired end-product. I worked with the other members of the design team and the technical team to ensure that our project met all of the needs of our target audience from both a design and a technical standpoint.
The game world’s levels were designed to evoke the feeling of being in a candyland corrupted by a Muffin Man’s madness.
Each section of the world was designed to flow into the next, eventually guiding them to the Muffin Man’s castle, while allowing for some minor exploration of the game world. The first two sections of the game contain all of the game’s tutorialization, with the next couple reinforcing the player’s knowledge of the game’s mechanics. The end of the game tests their abilities with each mechanic, while also introducing some minor concepts to keep gameplay interesting. This allows players to achieve the same goals in different ways.
To help teach the player and keep their engagement up as they progressed through the game, I utilized the level design concepts of kishōtenketsu (起承転結) and jo-ha-kyu
(序破急). Kishōtenketsu was used on a world scale to teach and reinforce the concepts, while jo-ha-kyu was used for the moment-to-moment scale to ensure that each encounter was kept short and sweet, so the gameplay never had a chance to get stale.
Throughout the game, I utilized several different varieties of level design to help create a world that a wide audience could appreciate. The levels include exploration, 3D platforming, basic puzzles, and simple-to-approach combat encounters.
To help pace all of the puzzles and encounters, I created a series of regional cadences to make sure that each region of the world was cohesive and flowed smoothly into the next.
Kishōtenketsu (起承転結) and Jo-ha-kyu (序破急)
For those unfamiliar with the kishōtenketsu (起承転結) or jo-ha-kyu (序破急), they are both eastern design methodologies.
Kishōtenketsu is used extensively by Nintendo in developing the various Mario games, as the most commonly notable example. It is also used extensively in movies, games, television, and other forms of literature. To break it down:
“Ki” here means introduction. This is where the characters, era, and other important information such as vital game mechanics are introduced.
“Shō” is the development, where it follows the lead of the ki in an expected or logical direction.
“Ten” most closely means “recontextualization”. This is where the mechanic or story is flipped upside down, or changed in an unexpected way, forcing the reader/player/etc. to consider the mechanic in a new way. In instances where this occurs multiple times, the “ten” is the biggest recontextualization.
“Ketsu” is the reconciliation of “Kishō” and “ten”, where everything is put together, oftentimes with callbacks to prior events, and then concluded.
However, jo-ha-kyu is not typically seen in games, but can be seen in Space Invaders. The gameplay starts out slow, and the difficulty slowly ramps up, and the ending is rapid before resolving with either the player’s success or failure. Jo-ha-kyu is most commonly used in kendo, Noh theatre, poetry, and other forms of literature. To define each part of it:
“Jo” is the beginning, and it moves slowly.
“Ha” here roughly means “speed up”, where the content is built up, and development starts to pick up speed.
“Kyu” most closely means rapid break. This is where the content is rapidly ended, and results in a sudden, but satisfying ending.
Given that this game is intended for what many consider “casual gamers”, I wanted to make sure that none of the puzzles were too complicated but still offered some amount of challenge. On the other hand, if a less “casual” player were to play the game, they shouldn’t be bored either.
With that in mind, and recognizing the need for variety, I designed two primary puzzle types into the game: lever puzzles and block puzzles. These types were chosen because of their near universal recognition to players and the flexibility and simplicity of each of them, allowing for vastly different experiences based on how each of them are utilized and approached.
The lever puzzles involve pulling levers that each have an effect on the world, and by pulling the levers in a certain order, you open the path forward. The block puzzles involve placing blocks on pads to open a way forward, and, late in the game, are often incorporated into platforming challenges.
The lever puzzle systems were designed to be simple for the player to utilize, and are extremely scalable. The first time the player sees one, all they have to do is pull it, and it affects change in the world and can’t be interacted with again. However, by the end of the game, I was able to increase the complexity of this system to have two puzzles in the same room that, while separate puzzles, lead into each other.
The first of those two puzzles requires the player to turn all of the levers to “on”, as indicated by a green tint on the lever itself so as to be immediately noticeable. However, each lever deactivates a separate lever, and the player must figure out how to activate all three levers. Once all three are active, they lead into the next lever puzzle. This next lever puzzle involves interacting with the levers to rotate pillars that have platforms affixed to them so the player can reach the next platform. Like the previous puzzle’s levers affecting each other, some of the levers in the second puzzle affect the same pillars. This means that interacting with one lever to rotate a pillar, then rotating another lever, could rotate the pillar that was just rotated back to its original position.
In an effort to keep the game approachable by as many players as possible, and add variety to the gameplay, I kept the block puzzles simple, with one block and one pad for the block. To add interest, however, I tied these “puzzles” into several different types of platforming challenges, so that the challenge came from successfully carrying the block to the pad, instead of trying to solve a specific puzzle, like the player did with the levers.
This is seen most in the game’s underground section, where the entire focus is on the platforming and block puzzle combination. I utilized this combination because of the scalability of platforming, and I didn’t want to overcomplicate the game or shift the focus of the game from the adventure of a cupcake’s life, to the puzzles, instead aiming for a balance between the two.
Bearing in mind the target audience for this game, it was important to keep all of the combat encounters as easy to approach as possible, while still maintaining some level of difficulty.
The first main contributor to achieving this balance became the strategic placement of the ovens, which served as our save points, as well as restored the player’s health. The placement of areas where the player could get a chocolate coating to serve as a limited invulnerability shield for the player was also important, but the ovens ended up being more widely used.
The second main contributor to achieving the balance was our two enemy types, a stationary ranged enemy, that could have its projectiles reflected back at it, and a melee enemy that could either patrol, or remain stationary, depending on how its patrol points were set up.
The balance between the number of ranged enemies and melee enemies, as well as the spacing between them and other traversal routes for the player was the most important part of their contribution. If there were too many ranged enemies, players died but didn’t always know why. However, players were intimidated by too many melee enemies and didn’t want to proceed towards them even if the enemies were between the player and their destination.
Because of each of those extremes, it became even more important to design alternate paths for the player to take to navigate the world and feel safe. Even if that path crossed with an enemy, at least the player had time to deal with them before another one engaged, which led to players never having to face the consequences of either extreme.
Just as important as the encounters themselves are the different methods to handle the encounters that are provided to the player. To help players handle each type of encounter, we gave them a variety of weapons, as well as a shield that can reflect the ranged enemies’ projectiles.
The player’s three weapons are: a lollipop, acting as a base weapon, with average damage, speed, and area of effect; a candy cane, acting as a low damage but high speed weapon, and a small area of effect, and a rock candy, giving the player the ability to deal massive amounts of damage over a large area very slowly at the cost of defensive capability.
As the player progresses through the game, they receive each weapon and an opportunity to immediately use that weapon. When they receive the lollipop at the first combat encounter, where they learn to attack and defend, they have to use the lollipop to progress. Later, the player receives the candy cane, which lets them carve a swath through the enemies on the bridge ahead of them as they progress toward the Muffin Man’s castle. In the depths of the castle, they receive the rock candy weapon, which they have to use to get out of the caves under the castle.
What went wrong?
We are satisfied with what the final result was, but the final quarter of the development time was crippled due to the global pandemic of COVID-19. Due to that influence, the project did not end up being as complete as it could have been. I personally wish I could have built more levels to the game, but a requirement of this project was that the game is 10-15 minutes in length, so I was unable to build more. I wanted to develop a more varied environment, with an urban area for a cupcake village, and a forested area of lollipop trees, but it wouldn't have fit into the time limit, so it was cut from the game.
What went right?
While this project did not have the benefit of having artists working on it, we are proud of how well we were able to emulate the Rareware look, while also having a cute set of characters. Our game's levels and encounters were also well received by our professors and peers alike, which is extremely satisfying for us as we watched them have fun just moving around in our candy land of cupcakes and muffins.