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 Post subject: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Fri Nov 04, 2016 6:25 pm 


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Nobody seems to have a consistent idea of what stage design is, what makes some stage design better than others, or what bad stage design is.

So,
A) What does "stage design" mean to you?
B) What do you think makes good stage design?
C) What makes bad stage design?
D) What are some of your favorite single stages (based on the stage itself, not the game it's in)?
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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Fri Nov 04, 2016 6:35 pm 


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I can't really put my personal idea of it into some sort of well-constructed thesis right now, but here's what comes to mind:

- Good enemy/target pacing, not too busy or sparse
- Enemy placements flow somewhat naturally, relatively easy to figure out a low-level route on the fly (obviously it's easy to overdo this)
- Not too much repetition -- or if there is repetition, it's done with a purpose in mind like the Garegga platforms
- Big centerpiece stage enemies are unique and fun to fight
- Cool background scenery or otherwise gives a sense that something rad is happening
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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Fri Nov 04, 2016 6:49 pm 


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I assume that these questions are all shmup-related.

A) What does "stage design" mean to you?

Basically, concept of how things are placed in a stage. Mostly meaning enemy positioning and their patterns.

B) What do you think makes good stage design?
It uses the game's mechanics and presents enemies and patterns in a way that the player is continiously engaged and thinking. There has to be a 'flow', meaning that the player is constantly doing something, and he should feel like that there's still much more effective ways to kill enemies or get score.
Shit on CAVE all you want, but they really have mastered this in my opinion, especially in their older games. There's constantly new situations and enemy formations, and everything feels carefully placed with the game's mechanics in mind. EDIT: Keres also mentioned something i forgot: the stage should be theoretically completely possible to at least survive on your first try, so it doesn't rely on memorization that much
That's it, in short.
Constantly engages the player with variety, has depth so that the player never feels like he has hit the limit (or near it), AND when he does, make sure executing it is incredibly difficult.

C) What makes bad stage design?
The opposite of everything in B.
The stages feel empty, it feels like the situations are not designed with the mechanics in mind, and the player feels like he hits the limit of what's possible too soon.
Also it's bad if things seem like they're placed randomly, and difficulty is inconsistent.

D) What are some of your favorite single stages (based on the stage itself, not the game it's it)?
Probably the hardest question, because I can think of so many good stages and choosing between them is hard.
I'll probably edit in more specific answer after I've given it some thought, but from the top of my head and because I just played it recently, I'll say
Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu 1.5's Stage 5 (yes, the one with the laser rings)
It's like Chaining: The Stage. Enemies have interesting formations requiring dodging and keeping your chain in different ways, then there are the laser rings, then buildings that spawn enemies in smart spots and lastly, just destructible things that require you to dive in to more dangerous places but are completely optional otherwise.
You can avoid chaining properly by hypering, and that comes at cost of your score.
It's an excellent stage, I'll probably do a video about it at some point.

Other, different games with good stage design:
Mushihimesama Futari (especially black label!)
Final Boss
Ikaruga



Image

This is a handy picture, and by good stage design I mean that this applies. Flow, is obviously the good zone, and the player should be able to stay in it as long as possible.

As the challenge gets too easy because player skill increases out of the flow, the player can increase the difficulty by trying to get more score. And this is thanks to the stages and mechanics being well designed and flexible.

Image

Good stage design should allow this flexibility, and it should come naturally to the player (and in that sense the picture is stupid).
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Last edited by Cagar on Fri Nov 04, 2016 7:35 pm, edited 17 times in total.

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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Fri Nov 04, 2016 6:50 pm 


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Where enemies are concerned, me, I've always loved the tank placement in Toaplan games. They're not instant-death-sniper tanks, but if you don't know they're gonna appear, you will have to put up a fight while focusing on the other attacks from the air-air enemies etc. The surroundings give you enough visual cues so you can anticipate where they might appear, but you just don't know when unless you're a few credits in.

I also like the conditional enemies in CAVE games, like if you kill off a middle boss with haste, say, using a bomb, more popcorn enemies will show up and even some mid sized ones. Dead air is boring as hell.
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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Fri Nov 04, 2016 7:08 pm 


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trap15 wrote:
A) What does "stage design" mean to you?


The arrangement of the stage's components. Enemy placements/formations, item distribution, terrain and environmental features (if any). To me, this applies whether it's something chock-a-block with walls and traps (Image Fight), or featuring only open playfields (Hishouzame), or limited to the "actors" and items with backgrounds strictly ornamental (Cho Ren Sha).

The specific design of these components is separate. Enemies, bosses, traps... these things are subsequently arranged to form the stage. Of course in some cases the enemies and/or their bullets might largely constitute the stage, particularly in the absence of conventional terrain ; see Recca's most intense zako onslaughts, or Ketsui's malleable danmaku "corridors." Even in these cases though, the enemies and projectiles are arranged to create a specific effect. It's simply a different style of stage design, compared to something more terrain-based.

Quote:
B) What do you think makes good stage design?


Pace and variety. Keep the action moving along, while throwing a variety of challenges at the player. This doesn't have to mean a Treasure-style miniboss/setpiece extravaganza (indeed, without good sense, this style of stage design is no guarantee of quality - for a cross-genre example, Contra Hard Corps is peppered with cold spots where the action thuds to a halt for the sake of the next setpiece or miniboss). I was playing Raiden yesterday, and enjoying the interplay of its various ground and air enemies ; sniping tanks, fixed sprayer turrets, slowly advancing but persistently shooting heavy jets, and scads of 1shottable but screamingly fast kamikazes.

"Intensity" is certainly desirable, particularly if it's the natural byproduct of the above two factors, but it's not to be confused with absolute difficulty imo. Even a relatively easy STG like Elemental Master can still be hugely entertaining if it engages the player properly, in EM's case via constant bidirectional threats and lots of tricky terrain.

Quote:
C) What makes bad stage design?


Dead time is the absolute worst thing an STG can have (R-Type III st1, Gekirindan st1) ; this covers "pace." A secondary problem is overt repetition. Verytex is objectively quite fast-moving, but too transparent at recycling its same few enemy routines per stage. Lack of variety. Some repetition is fine, say to create a groove (the exhilarating left/right/left of Raiden Fighters' breakneck QUICKSHOT QUICKSHOT QUICKSHOT rampages), but it should never be a crutch or padding.

Also unwelcome are "memorise or die" stage layouts like R-Type III's infamous lava maze, or for another cross-genre pick, Ninja Spirit's truly execrable "ninja pit." However, I think this sort of rote regurgitation is a game design negative in general.

Quote:
D) What are some of your favorite single stages (based on the stage itself, not the game it's it)?


Metal Black's second stage and R-Type Delta's fifth both illustrate what I meant in question A. Neither technically have any walls or terrain whatsoever ; yet clever enemy and obstacle arrangement packs them end-to-end with varied action. Even in direct comparison to other stages in those games that do make use of conventional terrain, they feel dense and vibrant as hell.

That to me is the meaning of good stage design. Arrange what you've got in a way that delivers action swiftly and with sufficient variety. The genre's simplicity is a great thing when properly marshalled, but can quickly induce tedium otherwise. Walls or no walls, bullet curtains or sniping shots, high-risk scoring or raw survival, the style of STG doesn't matter - just keep things moving along engagingly.
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Last edited by BIL on Fri Nov 04, 2016 8:31 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Fri Nov 04, 2016 7:46 pm 



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A) What does "stage design" mean to you?

To me, it's a combination of all the elements. Most important would be the enemy waves and bullet patterns, since they are the core gameplay. Second would be environmental gameplay items, like secrets and collectables. The artistic end is important as well, and evokes the mood and style that the designer wants to take -- the graphics and sound help tell the story of the shmup without needing to be explicit. Music is important too, and a good or bad soundtrack can really do a lot to change your impression of a stage.

B) What do you think makes good stage design?

I'm not a superplayer or anything, so I can't really give the kind of deep insight that they can. While I think having great pacing and setting up the enemy encounters and environment to work well with the scoring system is important, it's not the most vital thing. For me, the best stages are a series of really memorable little moments that make each section distinct and unique. Having the stage broken up into a number of sections, and each of those sections providing a different type of problem to tackle and enemy to take on makes games really fun. Having a couple "setpiece moments" per stage that kick things up a notch is great too. If the game can put unique art assets for those moments, or provide background art that separates each section of the stage, that is even better, though I won't hold this against a game if its made with a very low budget. One of the signs of a well made shmup to me is when you are ruminating about them and go "I need to practice the part with the _______" or "the _______ section is hell".

It doesn't have to be flawlessly executed, but every part of a stage should feel "designed".

C) What makes bad stage design?

One of the things I keep on seeing pop up on steam are indie shmups with randomly generated (roguelike) levels. There's no stage design involved at all. The people who make the games assume that as long as there are bullets on the screen to avoid and enemies to shoot, then players will be satisfied. In digging through the genre since getting into it, I've played a lot of different games, and the worst ones always take the same approach. A game can have bad art and poor sound effects and free music -- I don't really fault hobby developers for not having every talent out there, but for the love of shmups please don't just have things coming from the top of the screen, filling it with semi-random bullets, and then repeating until a boss shows up.

D) What are some of your favorite single stages (based on the stage itself, not the game it's in)?

Crimzon Clover stage 4. The music is awesome, and it just thrusts you right into the action. It opens up with waves of zako, then thrusts larger and tougher ships at you, culminating in one of the first setpiece moments as you battle through deep cloud cover, bursting out through them and taking on some heavy ships before diving back into the storm and fighting inside the laser barrier, the attacks changing as you destroy them one by one. Right after that the midboss shows up and the stage reaches full intensity, swarming you with zako that chases from all sides, and then ending in an onslaught of really tough heavy ships before giving you an incredible stage end boss fight. Its fucking glorious and I will never get bored of playing it.


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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Fri Nov 04, 2016 8:26 pm 


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I could go on about this at great length, but I'm in kind of a rush and some respectable members have already made some pretty in depth posts about the subject, so I'll keep it brief:



A) What does "stage design" mean to you?

To me, it's purely the gameplay elements.

In the professional game industry, it's a bit more comlicated. Hence you'll often see people purey responsible for 3d modeling and textures credited under "level design".

But to me, when I think of stage design, I'm thinking of all the things that go into making the stage play that way it does. Enemy placement and design, obstacle placement and design, length, flow, pace, scoring, survival, difficulty balance. Everything that you play.

B) What do you think makes good stage design?

Subjective. There are many different flavors of gameplay, not all of which can appeal to everyone. Some people love extreme pattern based, choreographed dances. I prefer things to be more chaotic and improvisational.

But anyway, to me the most important aspects are:
-Subtle and carefully implemented RNG elements to keep you reacting, watching, and thinking in unique ways everytime.
-"Strategic Variety". No two hazards should be solveable in the same way. Each and every challenge should make you look at things from a slightly different perspective. This is key to getting a sense of variety in general.
-Pacing. Related to the above bullet point. Each of those unique little challenges shouldn't take too much time. They should change and switch to the next one before you're fully "used to it". No dead air either, of course. You should always be doing something.

And lastly, one of my own personal fetishes is high movement. The more the game makes you quickly move all over the place while using your characters unique abilities in creative ways, the better.

C) What makes bad stage design?

Again, subjective. But for me pretty much the lack of all the above bullet points.

The thing that I dread the most is "sterility". Where you're not really thinking or feeling any intensity (usually due to a combined lack of improvisation and challenge) but just "going through the motions".

D) What are some of your favorite single stages (based on the stage itself, not the game it's in)?

-Cho Ren Sha 68k stage 3 and stage 0 on hard
-Rayforce stage 5 and 7
-Mecha Ritz stage 3
-Biometal stage 4
-Touhou 10 stage 5
-Darius Burst ACEX Bottom Route final stage
-Eschatos stage 4
-Guwange stage 3 and 6
-Battle Garegga stage.....pretty much all of them after the early game

Probably more
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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Fri Nov 04, 2016 8:40 pm 


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trap15 wrote:
A) What does "stage design" mean to you?

The interaction between the player and the stage by dint of its enemies/environmental hazards/power-ups/checkpoints/... on the one hand and how it is scenically designed on the other hand. While game play does come first, I also derive great pleasure from cinematic vignettes, whether they are small or large. Tanks trundling out of depots, suggesting that the enemy is mobilizing his forces after an unexpected assault, small turrets/hatches located in neuralgic spots within a fortress in such a manner that they're tricky to hit, devious foes (from bandits to bio-mechanical beasts) that appear from behind or the sides to intently murder you from a blind spot, all those elements that make a stage feel "inhabited" as opposed to clinically crafted. There's a lot of subjectivity when it comes to such calls, of course, but I can't deny that it is very important to me.

trap15 wrote:
B) What do you think makes good stage design?

Mindful allocation of the above-mentioned facets as well as a smart consideration of the strenghts and weaknesses of your ship. There are some games with good stage design that take a hit because they are clearly not designed around your ship and its abilities while other games might have "only" solid stages that get elevated by another twist. If you have prudent enemy positioning in a horizontal memorizer, for example, it's probably not the best idea to give the player access to extremely strong homing shots that come without disadvantages. Good stage design takes all of that into account and has you work with your ship. You can combine certain elements if you're a master of your craft (e.g. fast/plentiful bullets with strict memorization as is the case with Irem's second loops) or stick to one core trait, it all depends on the execution.

trap15 wrote:
C) What makes bad stage design?

The opposite of the last subitem. If you have a supposedly frantic, exciting game but are able to wipe everything out with a spread shot, or if movement becomes optional, or if your principally felicitous memorization-heavy design is negated by other inherent factors. There are easy games that still provide fun, exciting stages where you move around a lot and others where you're bored from minute one. Some hard games will trash you again and again, yet you can't wait to figure out the fine details of it, and other games that grow unbearable over time due to horrendous design choices in that department (such as Tatsujin Ou's snowballing - you have to deal with several identical or very similar enemy waves and if you miss one or two enemies you just get overwhelmed and either have to bomb, make frantic dodges or die).

trap15 wrote:
D) What are some of your favorite single stages (based on the stage itself, not the game it's in)?

Off the top of my head:
BioMetal (SFC), stage 5
Dragon Saber (AC), stages 6 & 9 (except for the boss in the latter)
Gradius II (AC), first stage from loop 2 onwards
Gradius III (AC), stage 10 (the fortress itself, not the boss rush)
Gradius Gaiden (PS1), stage 3
Granada (MD), stage 9
Hishouzame (AC), stage 3
Image Fight (AC), loop 2, stage 7
Kiki Kaikai: Nazo no Kuro Manto (SFC), stage 4
Kyuukyoku Tiger (AC/PCE/MD), stage 8
Rayxanber II (PCE), stage 6
R-Type II (AC), loop 2, stage 6
R-Type Delta (PS1), stages 5 & 6
Sol-Deace (MD), stage 5
Undeadline (MD), stage 7
Violent Soldier (PCE), stages 5 & 6
Viper Phase 1 (AC, New Version), stages 6 & 7
V-V (AC), stage 6, especially in loop 2
Xexex (AC), stage 3, especially in loop 2, stage 6, loop 2


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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Fri Nov 04, 2016 10:29 pm 


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A) What does "stage design" mean to you?
The execution and application of the game's mechanics, the body which wields the weapon (the weapon being the gameplay). You can have the coolest gameplay concepts, but it ultimately falls flat with boring repetitive stages which don't make good use of the gameplay. Likewise, someone with the strength of a twig can't even use Megaxcalibur Z, Destroyer of Worlds properly.
The stage design is meant to test the player's skillset/set of ability to it's fullest extent, presenting the player with a problem as the player is already given the tools to deal with the problem in any way he deems fit.

B) What do you think makes good stage design?
The most important part is to provide space for the player to apply his skills in the first place. Meaning: there are many varied challenges which the player can solve in many different ways, the player should be able to learn and grow accustomed to the game and its mechanics, and there should always be room for improvement. In order to properly establish this learning process, there should be a certain flow. Good stages follow a structure of introducing new concepts, and then gradually building up those concepts and challenge by gradually adding new layers on top of the existing ones, forcing the player to adapt and change his playstyle in order to survive and keeping him active at all times. The hints and possibilities for surviving anything on your first try should always be present, and on death the player should reflect on himself and notice the aforementioned hints, taking in account not only those hints when he faces the same challenge next time, but also when the player faces identical challenges later on in the game.

For example, let's take Stage 3 in CRS68K. From the start we are introduced to a straight snake formation of large enemies which are seemingly invincible as we learn through our instincts to keep shooting at anything that moves. It fires off an unique spread pattern, before all the ships open up and fire large streaming bullets at you. At this point we learn that these enemies are vulnerable when opening themselves up. Now the same formation comes from the right side. Okay, now we're getting a hang of the pattern of these guys. Now it's time for a brief interlude featuring zakos and power-up carriers. They actually serve to get you to move to the middle of the screen because of your limited shot width, as the large enemies now fly in in a straight line formation at both the left and right side of the screen. Panic!! You're about to get shot from both sides, so maybe you should use a bomb you just got from those carriers, or since you can already anticipate the pattern by now, you can attempt to dodge it.
After that we're introduced to new enemies which fire two fast straight shots at first, and a spread pattern firing slow bullets when they're flying away downwards. Speedkilling seems to be the optimal strategy as they'll leave a lot of bullets behind if you don't, but the fast lasers prevent that, and these enemies always come in pairs of two or three, meaning you can't always be fast enough to kill them all before they can even shoot. After getting used to them, the large ships now start coming in more unique formations which require a different approach, and now the newer enemies start get mixed in with the old ones (brief zako and carrier interlude here). And then we top it off with one last large hurdle where three waves of large enemies start attacking in different intervals, with the starting blue attack of one wave being combined with the second purple tracking bullets attack of another wave.
We went from introduction 1 -> break -> test 1 -> introduction 2 -> test 1 & 2 -> break -> test 1 & 2 climax. A stage with only introductions will fail to capitalize on anything, a stage with only tests doesn't bring anything new to the table (unless it is some kind of final test which encompasses everything in the game), and a stage with constant climaxes without breaks or proper build-up will fail to properly end with a climax.

By instilling this feeling of getting better over time, the 1cc becomes less and less unreachable and the player is motivated to keep playing. Even if the players knows how to survive the early stages, the difficulty should be just high enough to get the player to stay aware at all times, the player could still be active by focusing on scoring rather than surviving once surviving gets easy, and RNG can be used to keep the player on his toes. However, RNG should be used in such a way that you should be able to expect the unexpected. The Dracula fight in CV1 comes to mind, you know he's coming, but you don't know where from. Sometimes (like in CRS68K) it's used subtly to change the position where an enemy formation spawns depending on your position, and sometimes it can change entire bullet patterns.

By using what the player has learned to overcome before and subtly changing it to force a different approach, the learning process feels natural. Consistency is important here, as without consistency it feels like the game is just throwing random things at the player with little thought for coherence. On top of that, without consistency a stage loses its identity. If it's a random mess of enemy formations and obstacles, it feels like it could just fit in another stage, and so the opportunity to test the player on a specific aspect is lost, but more importantly, the game loses its rhythm. Abrupt changes of the nature of the challenges in stage design tend to break a player's flow with things which seemingly come out of left field and feel out of place. Like a song going from classical to jazz groove without a proper transition.

Regardless of what kind of stage you're designing, being it a slow methodical level or manic bulletfest, the principle of structure, layering challenges, and a learning curve still applies.


C) What makes bad stage design?
When you're doing the same thing over and over, or when you're doing nothing at all. Basically repetition and dead air.
If there's nothing encouraging me to change what I'm doing on my path to victory, then the stage design is reduced to just sending enemies directly into a meatgrinder such as yourself. There should be a point to the placement of every single enemy in the stage. The designer should ask 'how is this enemy or this group of enemies supposed to influence the player's behavior?' and 'how would a player react to this on his first try?' along every single step of the stage. If you're placing enemies just for the sake of filling the stage up, then you're doing it wrong. You shouldn't design the stages so that the player behaves exactly the way you want him to if he wants to strive for perfection (*cough* Ikaruga *cough*), but keep things open enough that it allows for creative thinking for solutions towards the problems you present the player with using the tools you have given the player as well.

Ideally you want to approach difficulty with fairness in mind, and assume that the player can win at all times. When you make stages difficult for the sake of being difficult, you often end up treading 'that was fucking bullshit' territory as you're no longer considering that the player should live, but rather that the player should die. It shouldn't be painfully easy to the point where everyone can clear the game on their first try, but it shouldn't be painfully hard to the point where stages come down to trial and error. A good game has the player concluding on a game over that there's still room for improvement.

D) What are some of your favorite single stages (based on the stage itself, not the game it's in)?
Raiden Fighters 2 Stage 3
Mushihimesama Stage 3
Dodonpachi Stage 3 (I just happen to like stages where you dismantle a massive enemy machine step by step and all of these kind of stages always tend to be the third stage)
Cho Ren Sha 68K Stage 5
Crimzon Clover Stage 5
Alltynex Second Stage 4

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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Sat Nov 05, 2016 2:23 pm 


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A) What does "stage design" mean to you?

I think the concepts of stage design are the what allow someone to create a stage that is somehow more than just "generated to do the job". A stage is dynamical structure with many interacting parts - from the local, piece by piece progression from "waves" of enemies - to the global effect of the progression of the game as whole, such as scoring / survival considerations. You don't need computer code to design a shmup stage, anyone can manage how to do it, but to do it well is a craft. It's the same with a lot of creative pursuits I suppose - anyone can be struck in a moment of inspiration, but it takes true command of your resources and abilities, and knowledge of what to do with them to create something which has more than that momentary significance.

B) What do you think makes good stage design?

I think the most important thing is interactivity. Of course there's more than one way to approach most stages, but when you're playing the best ones you feel like you're exploring them. By their nature shmups have a few things that very easily play into this: risk vs reward with scoring (scoring or survival), extremely dynamic gameplay that can completely change moment to moment (starting a wave on the left or right of the screen can have big implications) and resource management, different attacks etc etc.

So the task is to create an interesting structure that the player can explore with the tools at their disposal. There are some obvious general principles that apply to shmups: fairness, balance, minimizing unnecessary repetition, sensible duration. But to me these are the basics, not what makes a stage stand out as one that is more than just a functional section of gameplay.

I've only really mentioned mechanics and "pure gameplay" but players can interact with stages in other ways too - story, characters, aesthetics - a feature of the stage doesn't necessarily have to be able to impact to player's ship to have meaning to the player. We kind of expect shmups to make us go "woooah!" and while there are plenty of excellent "abstract" games which show that it's not 100% necessary, it's definitely something a designer should think about if they want to make the most out of their game.

The last thing I want to mention ties into all of the above. A player should be motivated in some way to play the game. Other genres do this by giving you things to unlock and secrets and so on. Of course this can happen outside the stage in various ways, but games which bring it in to the stage design itself will seem a lot more fun to play. Obviously we're all 1337 hardcore players who get high scores because it's the morally right thing to do. But a well designed stage should tempt the player to delve deeper. Or it can force them. It's not an easy choice to make - everyone likes a good survival challenge, not everyone likes pixel perfect chaining - but it's the kind of choice a designer has to make, and one that changes the whole direction of the game.

C) What makes bad stage design?

We all have our pet peeves - for me it's not about the individual elements but how they're mixed together in the pot. That being said I am wary of games which:

have only one perfect way to play
keep scoring and survival completely separate
have difficulty spikes for no reason - you know you can make difficulty spikes seem awesome by making a tough enemy a badass enemy ace mech pilots or something?? Or reward the player who gets through a tough wall with a 1up / bomb / power up. Otherwise be careful about how and when you increase difficulty - i find games that maintain a more constant level of intensity more enjoyable. which brings me too:
fake difficulty / lack of real difficulty - in some games every bastard on the screen will kill you if you let them. in others you can sleepwalk through the first 4 stages because you're never in any real danger as long as you hold down that fire button.

D) What are some of your favorite single stages (based on the stage itself, not the game it's in)?

I think Psyvariar Revision is a very well deigned game. I'm going to select the stage X-A PHOTON to talk about. First of all, it has quite different mechanics from the rest of the game up until that point. The game's stage progression is determined by the player's performance, so this could appear as the fifth and final stage, or the third of eight, or somewhere in between. The point is wherever you meet it you're confronted with something new: it's the first one in which the neutrino guage fills very slowly, so even though the attack patterns aren't the hardest, the player has a lot less leeway all of a sudden. You have to adapt your erstwhile carefree "bullet surfer" style to a more standard, cautious approach where you shy away from getting score because of the increased risk. But as you gain more knowledge of the stage you learn where you can adapt those old techniques to the more risky situation, as well as developing new skills to tackle the new challenges.

Playing this stage is one of the places you can learn of the importance of and practice your neutrino gauge management, and that is 100% fundamental to the game at any level higher than a complete novice. The reward is pretty huge in terms of score, but you can sacrifice some of this to go for 100% destruction of enemies and be rewarded with an extra bomb, which is a very important resource in this game for either scoring or survival.

Then we have the boss, oh boy. In this game bosses are very much part of the stages they belong. While the stage teaches caution to begin with, the boss's second attack is very deliberately a "freebie" for those that know it's coming, because it's quite easy to level up lots from it. Leveling up how you see more of the game, improve your ability to survive as well as increase your score. With an attack pattern like that the game is just telling you outright: even a survival focused player has motivation to milk the bosses, to risk fighting them in a harder way now to make things easier later when your skill level might give you fewer options.

i think the thing to take from this is as follows: this game has excellent mechanics that tie scoring and survival together, and the game's stage design exploits this to the full. This particular stage is glimpse into the higher levels of the games without overwhelming players with difficulty. The actual enemy placement and bullet patterns are important for moment to moment gameplay, but what's interesting is how they're not amped up much, they're made more manageable to the player can grapple with other things instead. It makes it an interesting stage and one that has a significant place in the game.


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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Sat Nov 05, 2016 5:43 pm 



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A)
Flow through a game, aesthetically in a shmup it's also a major opportunity to reinforce tone/narrative, sometimes not needed, but often very welcome.

B)
Combinations of stages more than individual stages. Having a single amazing stage will do little for your shmup if the rest are garbage. You need ebs and flows - trying to remain at 11 actually gets a little boring even if the screen is filled with great-looking-hyper-mega stuff. Typical boss warnings work precisely because of this.

I've noticed some cave games often have a rather 'pumped' stage 4 opening soundtrack+ pop corn enemies - helping to re-vitalise the player at that stage of the game following a typically more challenging boss.

Ikaruga makes great use of perceptual differences in space - actually leveraging the fact it's a 3d game.


C)
Boss milking / irrelevant play to get to single score opportunity. A style that clashes with the apparent conceit of the game's universe - not consistency, but rather a question of relevance. Otherwise I'd be cuatious of ruling anything in/out depending on the game's structure.

D)
Nothing really springs to mind in this manner in my case. Lots of loved parts. Never been a good enough/dedicated player to ever really feel attached to a single one mechanically probably :)


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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Sat Nov 05, 2016 5:58 pm 


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A) What does "stage design" mean to you?
How a stage is orchestrated in terms of enemy types, placement and the different bullet patterns that they shoot. And how this all correlates with the main (scoring)mechanics of the game.

B) What do you think makes good stage design?
When you're constantly engaged and have to pay attention to what you're doing. You're constantly doing something new and exciting. Whether that is working the mechanics, setting up a trick or doing all sorts of unique dodging stunts. You can never be on autopilot when you play it.

C) What makes bad stage design?
When the stage is so shallow and has so little to do in it that it become extremely boring to play after like 10 times. Heavy use of copy-paste. Unengaging patterns.

D) What are some of your favorite single stages (based on the stage itself, not the game it's in)?
- DOJ stage 1 is a good example of a stage that never becomes boring even though it's the first stage. If you don't pay attention you'll break the chain or you'll not get enough hyper gauge. Even the boss is quite difficult to set up properly.
- DFK stage 5. The laserwheels make for some really unique dodging movements and every part of the stage is a different dodging and chaining moment.
- Rayforce stage 4. The setups for chains are all very unique and quite difficult to pull off.
- Ikaruga stage 4. The chain in this stage is a work of art. It all flows super well.
- Dangun Feveron stage 5. You're constantly engaged with the super fast pacing and speedkilling.
- Strania stage 5. There are so many neat things you can do in this while also managing all the different weapons and experience.
- Raiden Fighters final stage. So much going on and so many cool tricks to do at a fast pace. Stage 6 is an example of a bad stage on the other hand. The pacing is super slow and there is barely anything going on for the most part.
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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Sat Nov 05, 2016 6:04 pm 


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im not good at words so ill just speak my mind out of it

other than the presentation/music/aesthetic that is related to that particular game's setting (which is also very important); good stage design in a shmup is meant to reveal all the mechanics that are available to the player, and then challenging them to piece them together in various situations as the game progressively gets harder

you know a shmup is good when everyone can clear the first stage on their first or second try if its not too demanding within the balance of mechanics=dodging spectrum

now for fav stages:

DFK stage 5: laser wheels fuck yes
Deathsmiles (canyon stage): that little fact that you can use walls and whatnot to hide from bullets is so brilliant, i wish cave did it more often


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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Sun Nov 06, 2016 4:47 am 


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A) What does "stage design" mean to you?
Stage design encompasses anything about a game that is particular to one specific stage. This includes not only enemy layouts, bullet patterns, powerup locations, and environmental hazards, but also art, music, the general theme of the stage, and where in the game a stage falls (a great stage 1 might not make a great stage 8). It does not include game mechanics that apply to the entire game, though how the stage-specific elements mesh with those is definitely a factor to consider.


B) What do you think makes good stage design?
C) What makes bad stage design?

(rolling these two into one question since they go hand-in-hand)
A stage should stand out from other stages in players' minds. Even in a game like RayForce which has seamless transitions between stages, each stage represents a distinct and readily identifiable part of the player's journey. Ideally this should be reflected in both gameplay and artistic theme, but Cho Ren Sha 68k manages fine even with only one background (it does have the music going for it at least). Each stage should provide a distinct style of challenges that are mindful of the game's mechanics and overall vision (an oppressive and claustrophobic stage would work well with X-Multiply's atmosphere, but not with Dangun Feveron). Just getting harder as the game goes on isn't enough. A good example is Touhou 12.8 (Great Fairy Wars) - the six routes essentially allow you to take on the three stages in any order, but each stage maintains its identity no matter whether it's the first, second, or third stage, or whether you're playing on Easy, Normal, Hard, or Lunatic difficulty. As per usual for a Touhou game, each boss also has specific themes to their attacks that play with your freezing mechanic in different ways. For example, throw a bunch of rings at me and I'll know that's one of Star Sapphire's attacks. If the stages blend into each other and players stop caring which stage is which, then maybe they shouldn't be separate stages at all and you need to trim some of the fat. If it's not distinct enough to be someone's favorite or least favorite stage, what you may have is an utterly unremarkable stage.

Different parts within a stage should also be distinguishable from each other, while following the stage's overarching theme. Not only is this more interesting to the player, but it also aids with memorization, so players can think "oh it's this part, then this part, then I need to do this" rather than "I need to dodge 37 more waves of these enemies... or was it 36?" Be careful about making the areas too disjointed, however - like a good speech, you need breaks between sentences to organize your thoughts, but the sentences should be related to each other and you shouldn't break off a thought choppily like you forgot your lines.

Similar to Squire Grooktook, I like there to be a high emphasis on big, sweeping movement. It disappoints me when a game shrinks the player's hitbox and enlarges the play area to create a ton of area to work with, then squanders it all by throwing out walls of bullets that section you off into a tiny fraction of that screen, and the rest is really just for looks. If you're going to make a 16:9 shmup or a multi-monitor shmup or even a not-240x320 shmup like Touhou and its derivatives, make sure you actually have a use for that space! Please use all the space you have, and make me use that space too! Get creative with your enemy movements! Two games that do this well are Dangun Feveron and Progear. Dangun Feveron encourages a ton of movement back and forth from left to right through its enemy spawns and the item collection mechanic and enables it by giving you very fast movement speed (if you ask for it). Progear, from stage 3 onwards, doesn't hesitate to send enemies from all sides of the screen. This is exemplified in stage 4, the infamous vertically scrolling stage in a horizontally oriented game. Many of its bullet patterns consist of tight clusters of bullets separated by wide gaps, essentially making these clusters act as very large bullets. Not only does this play nicely with the bullet cancelling mechanic, but it also enables big, bold movements through these gaps, further encouraged by the brisk pace/bullet speeds. The scoring mechanics also encourage these movements, since they push you away from using lock shot all the time and also encourage you to move around the screen to fill it up with bullets to cancel.

(On a side note, the greatest strength of suicide bullets is to force the player to move around a lot as they destroy enemies, usually macro-dodging the suicide bullets.)

One thing I think doesn't (necessarily) make bad stage design is dependence on memorization. Not only does it not particularly matter after the player has played the stage a couple times, but it's also very difficult and error-prone to judge what is and isn't humanly doable on the first try. Present a bunch of enemies shooting a hail of aimed bullets at the player and a newbie would flail around and get walled off unless they explicitly remember that they're supposed to tap slowly, while to an experienced player such a technique would be obvious from the get-go. Some people have an easier time than others reacting to fast bullets, and some are more proficient at the space management demanded by slow and dense bullets.

Additionally, challenges aren't simply pure memorization or pure reaction/on-the-fly (execution?), nor do they even exist on a single point on a spectrum between the two. Rather, what is typically the case is that you have a relationship between how much you've memorized and how much you need to react on the fly. If you have no idea what to expect you'll need very good reactions and precision, while if you've memorized more you won't need to depend as much on your reactions. Imagine this relation being illustrated by a graph where memorization is the x-axis and other skills is the y-axis, since I'm too lazy to draw graphs myself.

What we tend to call "memorization-heavy" are represented as steep curves on the graph, where small changes in memorization lead to comparatively large changes in the amount of other skill required to pass the challenge. How steep is too steep? How much should you be able to reduce execution/reaction requirements before memorization becomes ineffective (e.g. through RNG)? It depends on who you ask. There's an interview with some Toaplan devs that offers some insight into why they intentionally made their games "memorizers." Regarding Hishouzame:
Quote:
We didn’t want to make a game that players needed really good reflexes or hand eye coordination to clear. We wanted it to be cleared by the tricks and knowledge the player had accumulated through playing. The word “memorizer” didn’t exist then, but that’s the kind of game we were trying to develop. So the small boats are just one part of that overall goal.


What is lame is if memorization is the only engagement the section offers - that is, the section ceases to have gameplay value assuming the player has memorized what to do. I can't think of any specific examples of this I've personally played but I've heard there's something in Sine Mora involving a piano... Such an obstacle would appear on the graph as a vertical line at the threshold between "memorized"/"not memorized," shooting up to infinity in the "unmemorized" half and dropping down to zero past the "memorized" threshold. Not everybody hates this but most shmup players do, as it gets boring reciting each credit something that's essentially dead time after you've memorized it. In my view, the problems here are that the "curve" is so binary, and that it drops down so low after the threshold. The high value before the threshold doesn't bother me as much.

To me, the primary downside of making a game memorization-heavy is that it makes it painful for players to switch up their routes and experiment with new techniques. Change up a little bit and you set yourself back on the memorization/execution curve, driving up the challenge to uncomfortably high levels before getting accustomed to your new route. I've experienced this myself with Dragon Blaze - learning new routes is probably my least favorite part of playing the game, but I can forgive this because executing my routes is so much fun.

It is also important to give players clear indication of what they're doing right or wrong, and direction on how they can proceed. I said before that dependence on memorization isn't a big deal after players have already memorized their routes, but that requires that players be motivated to do so. You should strive to help players understand what they need to remember so they aren't just blindly stumbling through darkness until they find something that works. Psikyo's particular brand of memorization can struggle with this - for example, I recently got a 1-ALL of Strikers 1945 II but I'm still not sure how my strategy for this attack works. I just referred to some videos and repeatedly tried it until I figured out a timing and remembered it through muscle memory. The rest of the patterns in that phase are pretty fun, albeit a bit easy for a stage 6 boss (in my opinion it should be harder to get into the safe areas on time or there should still be a bit of dodging to do after getting into position, even if it's also macro-dodging).

D) What are some of your favorite single stages (based on the stage itself, not the game it's in)?
In no particular order:
Sexy Parodius, Stage 6
Gun.Smoke, Stage 3
Gun.Smoke, Stage 6
Progear no Arashi, Stage 4
Crimzon Clover: World Ignition, Stage 5
Armed Police Batrider, Stage 1
Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius ~forever with me~, Stage 3
Dragon Blaze, Stage 5
Touhou 12.8 (Great Fairy Wars), Extra Stage
Dodonpachi Daioujou, Stage 4

I may elaborate on my choices later but I've already spent enough time writing up to this point, so not now.

Squire Grooktook wrote:
B) What do you think makes good stage design?

Subjective. There are many different flavors of gameplay, not all of which can appeal to everyone. Some people love extreme pattern based, choreographed dances. I prefer things to be more chaotic and improvisational.

But anyway, to me the most important aspects are:
-Subtle and carefully implemented RNG elements to keep you reacting, watching, and thinking in unique ways everytime.
-"Strategic Variety". No two hazards should be solveable in the same way. Each and every challenge should make you look at things from a slightly different perspective. This is key to getting a sense of variety in general.
-Pacing. Related to the above bullet point. Each of those unique little challenges shouldn't take too much time. They should change and switch to the next one before you're fully "used to it". No dead air either, of course. You should always be doing something.

And lastly, one of my own personal fetishes is high movement. The more the game makes you quickly move all over the place while using your characters unique abilities in creative ways, the better.

C) What makes bad stage design?

Again, subjective. But for me pretty much the lack of all the above bullet points.

The thing that I dread the most is "sterility". Where you're not really thinking or feeling any intensity (usually due to a combined lack of improvisation and challenge) but just "going through the motions".

I'm curious, have you ever played Gun.Smoke? Seems to me like it'd be right up your alley.
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Last edited by Shepardus on Sun Nov 06, 2016 10:37 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Sun Nov 06, 2016 5:33 pm 


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A: How elements in a stage are organized, and how they interact with the player

B: Seems like I have a similar impression as most others in this thread. Good stages should be designed around the mechanics of a game, whether that be a weapon system, or a scoring system, or whatever other mechanics a game might have.

They should not be boring. I especially like Cagar's flow graph as a way to look at this. You don't necessarily want it to be too hard for survival to start out with (though this definitely depends on how far in you are), but as it becomes easier, through familiarity, it should not become so easy that you don't have to pay attention. Scoring systems can be very useful for this because you can increase the difficulty, until you're in that flow zone, by trying to score more. Also agree with many others that repetition and dead space can really make a stage boring. I would say that some breathing space, especially before a boss, but also elsewhere, if implemented well (however you do that) seems to actually make games more enjoyable, probably because it's exhausting to be at 100% 100% of the time.

I definitely also agree with Shepardus on, well it seems like most things mentioned, tbh, but specifically there's a lot of value in making sure different stages feel unique from one another, and different parts of stages as well. This is super important (at least to me), maybe a lot because my skills are pretty low so I need to depend a lot on memorization (this also ties into the flow chart, btw, because memorization = familiarity).

On the topic of memorization, I haven't played a ton of games to a point where I can claim to understand them, really, but as far as the games that I have played the most go, I have yet to find one where memorization put me in a place where I can just space out and get through something. This may be because I tend to not keep playing a game if it feels boring to me, and it may be because my skills are relatively low, but regardless I don't think that memorization is bad at all based on my experience. This is probably largely a subjective element of stage design, however.

A few ther things that seem to appeal to me subjectively are games that are designed to force wide swath type movement (as a few others mentioned), such as Mars Matrix, Cho Ren Sha, Dangun Feveron, and probably many others. Mars Matrix especially has a lot of parts where you need to move in wide swaths while also weaving through bullets. It's really just the best game ever.

Also, unique feeling stage elements are something I've noticed tends to draw me in (which probably ties into the point earlier about stages that feel distinct from one another). A few examples are the bits of scenery in Mars Matrix that you can hide from bullets behind and / or reflect bullets off of. Also the bullet cancelling enemies in stage 5. These all can contribute to distinct and interesting chaining strategies (tying into the earlier point about designing stages around the mechanics of the game), and if you watch the high level videos (mostly Rob's videos), they're essential to maximizing score. Another example is the weird 3D rotating things in Eschatos stage 3. They're an interesting stage element that is very fun, although occasionally it screws me over. Also, in Fast Striker stage 3 there's this laser grid throughout the stage that kinda phases in and out in addition to the usual bullets. This is made even better by high rank, because you also have suicide bullets. The level of tension is very high because you have to dance around these three different types of things that kill you that are all seemingly triggered independently. The grid is timed, the bullets come from enemies, and the suicide bullets come from enemies you just killed. Maybe another example is the enemy snakes in CRS stage 3. They start out armored, but still fire bullets, and you can't kill them until they open up their armor. They also move in a very unique and interesting way. There are probably dozens of other examples of unique stage elements to a greater or lesser degree.

C: Basically things that don't fall into good stage design. Mostly things that lead to boredom or seem like they are placed randomly rather than deliberately

One thing that's kind of interesting tangential note about stage design, especially vis a vis designing around scoring systems, is that some of the deepest games are actually deep in likely unintentional ways, like Battle Garegga, for example. This is due to chaotic elements. Things that are in the hands of the player. In the realm of things I'm actually familiar with, I think it's clear that Mars Matrix was not actually designed for the amounts of chaining that some people manage to get out of it, but the nature of how Mars Matrix works is that the player has a huge amount of control over how much chaining that they can do because they can create gold cubes using the mosquito system. There's a part right in the beginning of stage 3 where you get these tea kettles when you kill a certain enemy fast enough, and you can reflect bullets off of them. This was probably intentionally added by the devs for the sake of scoring. Early clear videos use it. However, if you look at Rob's highest chaining 3rd stage route it actually does not. Is this bad stage design? It's definitely good mechanical design (not that that's related to this topic). It probably makes the game better, but was unintentional.

D: There are very few games that I've played seriously, so take this with a grain of salt, I guess.

Mars Matrix stage 1: This is a really good stage 1. It is easy enough to finish on your first try, and has a ton of optimization potential. It's usually pretty easy to figure out what you need to do to improve your chain, and it never really gets dull. It's nice and short. It teaches you how to chain.

Mars Matrix stage 3: I love the way that the bullets in this stage act as sort of a maze that forces you to move around the whole screen, especially if you're chaining. the way enemies are gradually introduced to increase the challenge throughout the stage. Scales up in difficulty very well with how much you try to chain. The gold cube fountain is a unique element that is highly visceral, and very important for scoring

Basically every other Mars Matrix stage, also

Fast Striker stage 3: already kind of explained this

Eschatos stage 3: already kind of explained this, but also probably other things

Cho Ren Sha 68k stage 3: snake enemies, also like Durandal pointed out, it does a good job of introducing enemies and overlapping their attacks. I guess I didn't really touch on that earlier in this post, but it's a very good point that can add a lot to how well a stage is designed.

I guess I'm a stage 3 kinda guy :P
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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Sun Nov 06, 2016 6:07 pm 


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Shepardus wrote:
I'm curious, have you ever played Gun.Smoke? Seems to me like it'd be right up your alley.


Yeah, very briefly, and it seems really good. It's one of those games I've been meaning to spend more time with, but am kinda saving for a special occasion :3
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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Sun Nov 06, 2016 10:22 pm 


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A) Stage design is simply a means of communicating an idea.
B) A good idea that is communicated well.
C) A bad idea that is communicated badly.
D) One of the final levels from Ecco called "The Machine." This stage totally and utterly communicates that you are in a cold, unfeeling, unfair alien meta harvesting plant. It unfairly crushes first-time players against the sides of the screen. The music is unfeeling, alien, and spoopy. It is seemingly endlessly long and nearly impossible for a kid which increases your anxiety going through it. It tells the story about the aliens beyond any way words could. People still remember and bitch about this level because of the impression it left and that's how you know it did its job well. To translate it to shmups you need to think about the idea you're trying to communicate in that particular shmup level. I don't have any arcade shmup example because for the most part the only thing that needs to be communicated is that it's a flashy obstacle course that wants your quarters.


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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Mon Nov 07, 2016 6:27 am 


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This is a great thread. This is exactly the kind of discussion I enjoy reading the most, which unfortunately seems to be becoming increasingly rare as people continue to conflate interactive film with video games. I'm glad to see some still retain an understanding of what the medium excels at, and still have the language and capacity to thoughtfully deconstruct it.
Please keep the replies coming.
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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Mon Nov 07, 2016 8:20 am 


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I think of all the games I've played Guwange is the most exemplary when it comes to stage design. Good stage design needs to be mindful of how the mechanics of the game comes into play and that means you're going to judge all kinds of unique games by different standards. However if we try to go by some kind of absolute standard then Guwange nails it.

Each stage is carefully composed and takes into account both the beginner and the high level player and everything in between with startling accuracy. There are no "waves" of enemies but instead you have many setpieces each stage, all of which seamlessly blend together to create a game flow where nothing ever drags but rather everything is fresh... each setpiece tends to have unique enemies with their own kinds of behaviour. The game introduces so many unique enemies and it is also a one of a kind danmaku game that blends the CAVE design with a more old school stage design with hazards and the like. Add to that the perfect unison with the game's mechanics and you have something that which I think truly nailed it, at least in the danmaku genre. I vastly prefer Guwange to DDP, DOJ, Kets, etc.
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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Mon Nov 07, 2016 12:18 pm 


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Ako wrote:
One of the final levels from Ecco called "The Machine."


Never got that far as a kid and having now watched it I'm kind of glad I didn't. But that showcases a particular mechanic that I adore, namely where the level designer uses the scrolling as a weapon, funneling you relentlessly through a series of obstacles and playing on the panic and claustrophobia that it engenders. I can't even think of many strong examples except perhaps level 2 of the Turrican 2 shmup stage, and its spiritual successor: Gradius V Stage 6.

Stage 6 is a brilliant piece of stage design. The game to that point has thrown a fair bit of variety at you (boss rushes, sections where the scrolling from top to bottom loops, transitions from wide open spaces to cramped little boxes that flood with enemies), but the central gimmick of stage 6 - that it's being constantly pumped full of a deadly green liquid - really allows the designer to play around and experiment. You can almost see how their mind was working.

They start by moving you into a relatively narrow space and introducing the liquid, then play with all the ways they can make that liquid deadly: walls move back and forth to alter the flow of the streams and the height of the pools, pushing it at you in waves from both directions; the path takes you repeatedly between the bottom to the top of the screen, allowing moments of respite in little alcoves above the main flow before forcing you to quickly cut back down and through, the inertia from the liquid always threatening to overwhelm your firepower; then they let loose and start swinging the whole level back and forth, almost to see what happens, which is to cause deadly tidal waves to rush through the space, crashing over your head or rushing underneath; they wonder what happens when the slime pours from above, and force you up tiny chutes against the flow, before twisting everything 90 degrees and making it literally rain down on top of you as you make your escape. The backwards-scrolling section at the end might not have any slime, but it was still a wonderful "fuck you" moment that this Type 4 player only managed to surmount a couple of times.

All that wrapped up in an incredibly strong aesthetic, with the visuals and the very anxious, squelchy music really selling the alien waste plant theme. For me it's a unique, challenging, perfectly-executed concept.


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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Mon Nov 07, 2016 4:03 pm 


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trap15 wrote:
A) What does "stage design" mean to you?


The particular configuration of a playground or playing field.

It has to be geared to appeal to a particular group of people, you can't please everyone with a particular playground. Children might be happy with the hippity-hoppity horse; adults might prefer something with more structure and challenge, like a Ninja Warrior course.

Quote:
B) What do you think makes good stage design?


That it satisfies its target demographic.

The only universal truism is the need for variety to stimulate the mind - even little kids want more than the hippity-hoppity horse.

Quote:
C) What makes bad stage design?


Something geared toward an extremely niche interest group - like say shirtless muscle men shooting poop at you. That'll ruin a stage real quick. Less obvious is mismatching themes and content to a genre - people who play diabloish action RPGs tend to be edgelord males that oftentimes like math, so a Childish theme with simple mechanics won't serve them well.

The real stake in the heart is a lack of variety. Combine that with mindless repetition, and it's cancer.

Metroid is unfortunately the best illustration of this. The blue and gold shafts right at the beginning of the game are possibly the worst stage design I've ever seen in a popular title. They're right at the beginning of the game, so you have to slog through them every single time you play the game. The blue shaft is the same identical screen copy and pasted 14 times vertically. The gold shaft.. doesn't even have to exist. They could have done much better.

I know they were working with a contiguous map in a limited space. I would have had doors that act as invisible teleporters and cut their length to 1/4th or, failing that, at least mix the platform pattern up a bit.

Even its sister game Kid Icarus does this a little bit, where they copy and paste rooms in the dungeons. Battle Kid would never approve of this.

Oh, but I can think of one stage in a popular game even worse than The Endless Blue Shaft - Diablo 2's Maggot Lair. Jesus christ. A game all about moving around and managing space, now we take away your ability to move and yer space. You'd think once would be enough, that they would learn, but no. NO! This was the beloved pet level of someone with too much power who went completely mad due to that power. They put this stage into their sequel title: Hellgate: London. Not just once, but twice.

Hellgate: London is a smorgasbord of bad levels. The worst ones are the awful "special minigames" they made, when the core game wasn't good to begin with.

Quote:
D) What are some of your favorite single stages (based on the stage itself, not the game it's in)?


Those challenge stages in Mario Sunshine were something I really enjoyed. They're everything I want a Mario game to be but never can be due to needing to appeal to the mass market: cruel obstacle courses that shit down my throat and force me to get better at jumping on things.

The first section of the last stage of DeathSmiles is actually pretty good. It takes you on an adventure where it actually feels like you're sieging a castle, you're scrolling in every direction, splitting shots to the left and right are a constant occurrence; it's all stuff the other stages just don't offer.


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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Tue Nov 08, 2016 1:34 am 


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A) What does "stage design" mean to you?
The overall design of a stage from backgrounds to enemy placement, and how these work together as a whole. Stage design is part of the art of making a good game.

B) What do you think makes good stage design?
Good backgrounds, preferably these should have some relation to enemies even if there are no ground based targets. A stage should feel like you are going from one place to another, it's part of the journey and should provide enjoyable 'meat' rather than just being pre-boss filler. A well designed background can help the player remember where they are in a stage in a way which can be difficult when you're faced with just a repeating background and being asked to remember enemy positions.

C) What makes bad stage design?
Lightweight throwaway stages with no identity, or which feel like procedurally generated challenge screens (Dariusburst....) Some games have stages which feel like filler, they provide no context for the game and ultimately contain little in the way of enjoyable gameplay. If you can't remember a stage, it's probably not a very good one.

D) What are some of your favorite single stages (based on the stage itself, not the game it's in)?
R-Type Delta (stages 1-3)
Mushihimesama stage 2
Einhander stage 1
Ibara stage 3 (most train levels are fun - RF2 for example)
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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Wed Nov 09, 2016 3:48 am 


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LordHypnos wrote:
Cho Ren Sha 68k stage 3: snake enemies, also like Durandal pointed out, it does a good job of introducing enemies and overlapping their attacks. I guess I didn't really touch on that earlier in this post, but it's a very good point that can add a lot to how well a stage is designed.


Overlap, that's the word I needed for my post the other night. The overlap resulting from complementary arrangements, be it of enemies, items, stage hazards... having to deal with two or more matters on the fly is a fun mental juggling act. See Metal Black's st2: leading sniper fire from the right, while staying in the shifting blind spots of spreadshotters from the left. The problem with a game like Verytex, now that I think about it, is the stark lack of these mixups.

Regarding obstacle courses and the like, I've come to regard linear arcade action games as resembling both those (tactical shooting courses, more specifically) and musical pieces. I read this a few months ago and felt a recognition:

Phillip Farkas wrote:
As time went along on this Boston concert, it was obvious that we had a “no-hitter” going. Tension was mounting — there hadn’t been the slightest flaw, no scratch. Intermission came, and we said, “Jeez, what’s going on? We’re playing even better than usual.” So at the end of the concert — nobody had scratched a note anywhere during the entire concert. We were all aware of this, and very excited about it. When we went off stage after the applause had stopped, Reiner was there shaking everybody’s hand, tears streaming down his face. “All my life I’ve waited for this moment: a perfect concert. The only one I’ve ever experienced.” And it was, so far as I know.


If the player's going to be on a set course, one revisited over and over, it should at the absolute minimum refine away dreary routine and most certainly idle time. Ideally, completing it should be a pleasure, excelling at it a rush.
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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Thu Nov 10, 2016 10:30 am 


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Good stage design can mean different things.

1. A well designed stage can demonstrate a technique or trick - even perhaps hinting at more advanced moves or scoring tricks. Nintendo are very good at doing this in platform games, but there is no reason why STGs can't have this too.

2. An OK stage can be elevated by an entertaining scenario. An example of this is stage 2 of Super Aleste which is essentially an assault on a platform in space. However it is presented brilliantly with you seeing it off in the distance, gradually getting closer until you are flying over it in close proximity (incidentally I consider this the best use of the SNES Mode 7 in any game). Some good levels have very distinct sections - for example the level in Gigawing that starts with you attacking two trains before transitioning into an assault on a base.

3. Then there is the general feeling a great level gives you. This is probably hardest to define and therefore attain - and I suspect it is to do with the layout and design of enemies and any obstacles (perhaps offering neat ways of avoiding enemy fire) and the bullet patterns.

4. A level can have strong risk/reward elements within its design - if there is more than one way of progressing - each way with its own level of risk and reward.

5. Attractive graphics or even an entertaining soundtrack (the castle level in Sexy Parodius for example) can also elevate a level.

I suppose those incorporating 2 or more of these qualities produces an excellent level.


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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Thu Nov 17, 2016 11:10 am 


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BIL wrote:
LordHypnos wrote:
Cho Ren Sha 68k stage 3: snake enemies, also like Durandal pointed out, it does a good job of introducing enemies and overlapping their attacks. I guess I didn't really touch on that earlier in this post, but it's a very good point that can add a lot to how well a stage is designed.


Overlap, that's the word I needed for my post the other night. The overlap resulting from complementary arrangements, be it of enemies, items, stage hazards... having to deal with two or more matters on the fly is a fun mental juggling act. See Metal Black's st2: leading sniper fire from the right, while staying in the shifting blind spots of spreadshotters from the left. The problem with a game like Verytex, now that I think about it, is the stark lack of these mixups.

I neglected to mention this in my previous post, but I too consider the concept of "overlap" very important. Action is at its best when the challenge comes from multiple elements that are individually easy (or at least easier) but must be managed together or juggled. This can manifest in many different ways, including bullet patterns with multiple bullet speeds/directions, a mixture of large/small enemies, or the interaction between different game mechanics, e.g. catching medals while dodging bullets, or collecting and choosing upgrades while engaging enemies in Gradius, or even rank systems on a macro (game-level) scale. Not only is this juggling something I enjoy, but it also opens up more approaches to the stage/game, which many people posting here have cited as an element of good stage design. In a stage with enemies coming from the front and back simultaneously, for example, one might choose to focus on eliminating the enemies on one of the two sides, each of which has its own advantages/disadvantages, or one might plan ahead and choose a weapon that can take out both sides simultaneously, but is weaker than the normal weapon and may be disadvantageous later (this is something I do with the tailgun in some parts of Parodius Da!). If I find it difficult to catch a certain set of medals, I might misdirect the bullets that are preventing me from grabbing those medals, or I might choose to simply ignore the medalling for that part.

Mechanics such as rank operate on a different scale but can similarly open up options through the overlap of the individual stages with the game-long rank curve. For instance, quite recently I was struggling with stage 3 in Gokujou Parodius, but then I realized that I could control my rank in the first two stages to make later stages significantly easier. If learning and getting better at the immediate challenges presented in stage 3 were the only way I could improve, it would have been far more frustrating (especially since stage 3 is ridiculous at high rank). Stocking up bombs and lives in many games fulfills a similar purpose - you can improve your chances of survival in the late game not only by practicing the later stages, but also by improving your early game.

Getting back to what I was originally talking about, I find it lame when I find my progress blocked by a challenge with a single really difficult element that I have no choice but to learn, such as a precise timing or positioning of a safe spot. I'd rather have multiple elements, each demanding less in terms of timing and positioning, that can be juggled in different ways. Overlaps create new types of challenges through such interactions. For example, you may be able to separate two overlapping patterns by misdirecting the aimed pattern, but if the next wave of bullets comes before the previous wave has fully cleared off the screen (a temporal overlap, as opposed to spatial), then getting into position to misdirect the next wave becomes a new challenge as you need to weave through the unaimed pattern more quickly than if there weren't this pressure to misdirect the wave, and you also have to consider the challenge of space management to ensure you don't run out of places to misdirect bullets.
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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Sun Nov 20, 2016 9:24 pm 


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chum wrote:
I think of all the games I've played Guwange is the most exemplary when it comes to stage design...


^ Totally on board with this. Guwange had excellent formations and patterns, and a good sense of pacing, with a very brief breather period of minimal enemy fire in between "waves". It also had physical obstacles - despite being a vert, which is super rare.

Maybe I''m crazy, but it kind of felt like a Psikyo game at times.
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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Sun Sep 22, 2019 4:51 pm 


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A) What does "stage design" mean to you?
empty stage

B) What do you think makes good stage design?
transitions

C) What makes bad stage design?
loading

D) What are some of your favorite single stages (based on the stage itself, not the game it's in)?
radiant


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 Post subject: Re: What does "stage design" mean to you?
PostPosted: Mon Sep 23, 2019 8:04 am 



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Posts: 681
To me, good stage design is one that complements the core gameplay design. Cotton 2 is a perfect example. The game is based on chaining, so the levels need to be designed in a way where the player can get the most out of the chaining system. While at the same time keep the challenge level increasing stage per stage. The best designed stages never make a player feel something is impossible. Great stages run on the thin line where the player will find it tough, but have the confidence to keep trying.

Another example would be Midgarts on X68000. This game is meant to be very organic, you are fighting against living things in real locations. The first stage tends to turn people away, because the cave it's set in has tight narrow passes, and the first enemies are bats, that fly in very erratic patterns, like real bats actually would. It turns people away as it goes against what most shooters do, but it perfectly matches the theme and world Midgarts wants to create.

Metal Slug 5 has rather horrid stage designs. One level you go from underwater to the middle of a desert to fight a boss with no transition what so ever. MS5 is certainly an unfinished rushed to hell game, but damn is this part jarring.

The worst stages are those where you really have to be in the designers mind to understand what you are supposed to do. Not a shooter, but John Romero's recent Sigil for Doom is a perfect example of this. On a blind first play-through on UV it will be extremely frustrating for the player. As there are lots of randomly placed "fuck you" moments. On one stage there is giant pool of blood that hurts you if entered. Later on, there is a narrow cat walk section with lots of enemies. Your instincts tell you all you can do is strafe a tiny bit and hope the enemies die before you do since you don't have enough space to dodge. But the trick is that only the main blood pool on the left side hurts you. The 100% identical pool on the right doesn't. So if you randomly decide to jump or fall down on the right, you can easily get through without taking damage. This kind of bull is what makes it more fun to watch someone else play then to play it yourself. Still though, I did enjoy Sigil, despite it's problems.


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