Instructive Level Design is an approach to teach players about the game’s rules, mechanics, and patterns while playing the game. It is opposed to traditional games, such as board games, in which the mechanics and its aspects are presented through a rulebook or other written medium.
Some games implement the instructive level design approach by using visual elements, as a “show, don’t tell” style. As stated in a previous article, this approach is also known as Miyamoto’s Level Design.
Moreover, game designers use instructive level design to teach players about the upcoming challenges, streamlining the game’s difficulty. A common approach is to introduce a smaller version of a challenge before it takes place. Thus, the player can practice it before progressing.
This approach is known in Level Design as an antepiece — a smaller and introductory level piece presented before the actual challenge. The name “antepiece” comes from the analogy with “antechamber”: a smaller room or entryway that leads to a larger room.
While traversing an antepiece, the player faces the elements presented in the challenge, but in a trivial or non-threatening manner. In most cases, the player can even go past the antepiece without dealing with its contents. However, when later those elements are used in a challenge, the player does not feel that it was not prepared for it or that the game is unfair.
Take the following example of an antepiece:
The above image shows a trivial antepiece. The player can simply move past it without experimenting with the spike. However, it serves to introduce the spike visually in a safe situation. In this example, the player might use it to determine if spikes are lethal or not before facing them as obstacles.
The following image shows an unavoidable interaction with spikes:
In this case, the player cannot proceed without facing the obstacles. If they were not presented before, the player could feel cheated and forced to deal with a lethal mechanism before knowing its consequences (or if it is even deadly). However, the knowledge (or lack of) about the obstacles is now a consequence of players’ actions instead of faulty level design.
The same concept can be applied to introduce enemies. The antepiece introduces one enemy in a trivial, non-threatening situation, while the piece forces the player interaction as a challenge.
This approach is especially useful when an enemy has a non-obvious mechanic or attack. For example, if the enemy has different states, or if its projectiles move following a particular trajectory. For this, the antepiece presents the behavior in a safe environment.
It is worth noting that, depending on the enemy, this example (image above) might not be an actual safe environment. For instance, if the enemy’s attack can hit the player even if it stays underneath the platforms.
After introducing the player to the game elements, the game designer can build upon previous knowledge and create more challenges by combining them. Thus, more exciting pieces can be introduced, such as the image above: a combination of spikes, platforms, and enemies.
This idea is similar to the Tutorial-Challenge Sequence previously explored. Still, the core difference is that an antepiece does not force behavior, whereas the Tutorial-Challenge Sequence is built upon forcing the player to act in a certain way to teach the game mechanics. An antepiece allows for player experimentation, and the player is usually free to ignore it and proceed.
The Megaman and Megaman X franchises are known to use the concept of antepieces regularly. As both franchises are built on specific level designs for each antagonist, each level has unique threats and mechanics. Thus, antepieces are a solution to streamline the teaching of the level’s mechanics that are likely to not repeat through the rest of the game.
Flamme Mammoth stage’s Fiery Factory, in Megaman X, is an excellent example of antepiece usage in level design.
A video for the full level can be found below.
The following paragraphs analyze the antepieces and mechanics in the level.
Conveyor Belts, Enemy Spawners, and Lava.
At the beginning of the stage, we enter an antepiece that introduces three main mechanics: lava floors, enemy spawners (the tubes on top), and conveyor belts. When the player approaches them, as seen in the image above: the lava floor is in a far and safe distance; the conveyor belt moves away from the player; the enemies are mostly junk that does not attack.
The level proceeds with a gap between conveyor belts, marking the transition between the antepiece and the piece. Notice that it is unnecessary to have a gate between them, as you would expect from the name "antepiece".
Additionally, the conveyor belt on the antepiece moves in favor of the player jump (it moves to the right of the screen), facilitating the jumping.
The following piece has a higher tendency to spawn enemies (Scrap Robos) that can attack back. The conveyor belt this time moves opposed to the player movement, forcing it to face the enemies and hindering the movement.
As the stage progresses, more pieces are used to challenge the player with a combination of the previously introduced mechanics. In the image above, there are two enemy spawners, two Sky Claws, and an inclined conveyor belt.
Flame Towers, and Dig Labours.
Technically speaking, the second section of the Fiery Factory does not use antepieces, but they could be easily adjusted. Let’s see how:
As the player approaches the second section, another lava area is introduced with broken platforms destroyed by timed flame towers. In a regular play session, the player will likely jump towards the platform without understanding the full effect of the flame tower, causing frustration. To transform this piece into an antepiece, the game could speed up the flame tower action to force it to happen before the player jumps towards it.
Even though the game did not use an antepiece, the first introduction to the flame towers is still relatively safe and tame. After it, the game challenges the player with a sequence of flame towers, closer together, and an enemy (Dig Labour). Dig Labour attacks with an arc-trajectory projectile (a pickaxe). A fun fact about the Dig Labour is that it will laugh if it succeeds in hitting you.
The third section of the stage introduces press machines. They activate as something (player or enemy) gets close to it. The antepiece has a conveyor belt in the direction of the press machine and an enemy spawner that will most likely spawn junk. The junk will probably be pressured before the player approaches it. Thus, the player can learn the mechanic in a safe setup.
The rest of this section comprises pieces using the previous mechanics, specifically enemy spawners (for junk and Scrap Robos), conveyor belts, and the press machines. The image above shows an example of a challenge piece.
Dripping Lava and Moving Obstacles.
The last section of the stage introduces two other mechanics: moving obstacles and dripping lava. Moving obstacles are present in almost all other stages, but the dripping lava is exclusive to the Fiery Factory. As in the second section, this one does not start with an actual antepiece, since the player is not introduced to the dripping lava mechanic in a safe environment. As stated before, that could be easily solved by managing the dripping time or by just placing it after the ladders (thus, the player would only optionally face it).
The image above shows the next piece (continuation from the previous image) in the stage. Both sections could be unified to transform it into an antepiece by removing the first dripping lava. Thus, the player would optionally face the dripping lava mechanic while would also have a safe space to understand the movement of the obstacles (Rolling Gabyool).
The last segments in the stage ramp up the difficulty by using a more complex enemy, the Hoganmer. It has double the health points than the other strongest enemies in the stage and has two phases: defending (invulnerable to frontal attackers) and attacking (vulnerable to attacks from both sides).
The stage combines the positions of Hoganmers, moving obstacles, and dripping lava to assess the player’s mastery before facing its final trial.
Flame Mammoth: A Combination of Mechanics.
Flame Mammoth uses combinations of the mechanics previously presented in the stage with mild variations. Also, the battleground floor is a conveyor belt controlled by Flame Mammoth, that can change its direction.
Flame Mammoth has an oil spitting attack that grounds the player and can be ignited by its flaming projectiles. These mechanics are similar to the Dig Labours throw-attack. The boss also frequently jumps towards the player, similar to the Press Machines earlier on the stage. However, this time the player is stunned for a while if it is on the floor during Mammoth’s landing.
Using antepieces, the level design can more easily introduce mechanics to the player without interrupting the game flow. Even complex mechanisms can be easily attained by simply watching them from a safe position. Moreover, even if the player decides to ignore these attempts, the game still feels fair.
From a game designer’s point of view, organizing levels in antepieces and pieces also help to separate mechanics from challenges. This facilitates the block out of a level and creates a vocabulary of pieces to be assembled to create exciting and varied experiences.
Conclusively, this approach is meant to optimize the difficulty streamlining in a game. Even if your game is intended to be hard and unforgiving, there is no excuse to make its learning process also hard and unforgiving. Doing so can lead to frustration and a sense of unfairness. In worse cases, the game may feel cheap and poorly designed.
As a final analogy, compare learning how to play a game with reading a book. Although the book might be renowned, if it was written in such a cryptic language that you cannot make sense of a single phrase, you would give up on it and never look back. Some might make an effort to finish it, and others might even rejoice after doing it. But for most of the others, the experience would be ruined beyond repair.
Thanks for reading :)