Progression Theory

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Ceilick
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Progression Theory

Post by Ceilick »

The following is an article I've been working on for the CK Newsletter, however, due to its highly abstract and theoretical nature, I thought I'd post it here for feedback, suggestions, etc., for improving or rejecting it.

In my observation there are three, interrelated concepts of progression in Commander Keen and related games: experiential progression, macro progression, and micro progression. In this article I'll define the meaning of each and suggest ways in which level designers can best approach them.

To begin with, lets introduce terms.

Experiential progression is the rate at which the player encounters new material in a game. This can be anything from new graphics, new enemies, new puzzles, new gameplay features, new story elements, and new 'scenes' (this last item doesn't necessarily feature new graphics, but features a unique, picturesque display of graphics which sticks out to the player). This kind of progression can take place and be measured in a single level (for example, a level that starts on a mountain and goes underground), over the course of several levels (level 1 taking place on a mountain and level 2 taking place underground), or develop over the course of the game (levels 1-6 are on a mountain, levels 7-12 are underground). Experiential progression is directly related to time: how long a player must undergo macro and/or micro progression before encountering something new and how long that something new will sustain the player before something else must be added to it.

Macro progression is the rate at which the player moves across the world map or from one level to another. It is not limited in scope to any one level; it takes any number of levels into account, up to the total number of levels (hence the 'macro'). If a player is stuck on a level, macro progression has stopped. Macro progression is a time oriented concept, affected by how long it takes to beat individual levels. What characterizes macro progression as good or bad, however, is not level time but quality of micro progression.

Micro progression is the movement of the player toward the exit in a specific level. It has to do both with the player's ability to locate the path to the exit and to actually complete the level. The quality of micro progression is affected by complexity, difficulty, and the degree of experiential progression within the level. If the player cannot find the exit to a level or cannot overcome some obstacle between them and the exit, there is a failure in micro progression.

Real progression is quantitative progression which has hard, measurable evidence. Examples: real experiential progression could be the introduction of a new enemy when it was notably absent before; real macro progression is the rate at which the player completes levels compared to the total number of levels; real micro progression is a measurable closing of distance between the player and the exit of a level.

Apparent progression is qualitative progression and deals with the player's feelings. Examples: apparent macro progression is the player's feelings of victory over completing levels even though they have no idea how many levels are in the game; apparent micro progression is the player's feelings that they are getting near the exit or figuring out a puzzle even though they may not be. Apparent progression usually coincides with real progression, but not always. For example, in the case of macro progression: if player A has completed one, twenty minute level in a ten level Keen game, he feels less macro progression than player B who completes three levels in the same amount of time in a thirty level Keen game. Apparent progression is useful for creating twists and surprises for the player, but it can also create situations where the player feels cheated when they realize what they thought was progression is miniscule or no progression at all.

Now that we have some understanding of the progression concepts, how can we these types of progression good?

Experiential progression is all about feeding the player new things and keeping them from getting bored. The level designer chooses when the player takes each new spoonful of experience. Different elements of experience will exercise different degrees of power on the player: the introduction of a new background may only impress the player for a moment in comparison to a new enemy. A new backdrop may impress the player for a whole level but a new story element may affect the player the rest of the game. Good experiential progression is characterized by giving the player something new to think about and interact with before the player can get bored with what they've already been given. As the level designer you'll be injecting the player into a world and slowly add to their experience of that world. Throw too much at the player and they may be overwhelmed, but give the player too little and they will become bored. When working with experiential progression, you'll be addressing both the player's conscious and unconscious thoughts and reactions to your level. Everything counts, although some things are very mundane and only affect the player for the briefest moment: a new platform, a different looking tree, an arena featuring a certain enemy, something that needs to be jumped over, a hole to fall into, etc. It's up to the level designer to keep the simple and small experiences progressing and to pace the bigger ones and just the right moments to grab the player's attention and inspire them to continue playing.

Macro progression has two purposes: creating apparent progression and providing new opportunities for experiential progression. The game as a whole can be thought of as a ladder with each rung as a level. The ladder can only be climbed with each step, the player experiences no apparent or real macro progression between rungs. Keeping the player in any single level for too long can be detrimental to the player's experience to an entire game, even if the player is making real progress in that single level (as opposed to being lost); they're taking too long to climb a single rung on the ladder. Players want to feel like they are accomplishing something, like the effort they put into the game is getting them somewhere. If it's taking too long, they're more likely to get frustrated and not feel like pushing on; it's just too much work with too little payoff on the macro side of things. This can be offset with experiential progression within levels; as long as the player is receiving new experiences (both quantitative and qualitative) in a single level and not getting bored, macro progression can be delayed. However, when a single level has run out of opportunities to provide experiential progression, it's time to progress on the macro so that experiential can resume in a new level (or even on the world map).

Micro progression is all about giving the player challenges to overcome, places to explore, and new opportunities for experiential progression. However, from the design standpoint, challenges and exploration should never be considered as ends in themselves. The player's number one goal in a level is to find the exit. Level designer's need to give the player signs of real progression or give the player signs for apparent progression toward that goal. Challenges and exploration can be done along the way and this is by no means a suggestion that the player should be able to follow a single path to the exit or know exactly where to find it. Players do need, however, to not wonder aimlessly in levels or die repeatedly in the same spot. Areas that are too difficult hinder real and apparent progression. Mazes and other complex situations hinder apparent progression. Too much progression can also be a bad thing. Long, flat hallways are an example of this; the player covers too much area, progressing too much while experiencing only the barest minimum of experiential progression (that being the player's feeling of "this is a long hallway"). Each new area and tile placed in a level grants the player a little bit of experiential progression. More unique experiences can be added to hold the player's interest in micro progression. Micro mixed with experiential can only last so long, however, before the player needs a new setting (another level) for micro progression.

Progression through a game is much more complex than "beat the levels to see the ending". It is a dynamic experience which the level designer is responsible for creating. Level designers need to pay attention to the rate of at which all of these progressions flow; doing so is crucial to a fun, exciting, challenging game. Some may excuse this as obvious, or that designing progression comes naturally to level designers, or that progression works itself out, but we've all seen more than enough Commander Keen mods to indicate the contrary.

Any thoughts or need for clarifications, etc., let me know :)
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Post by lemm »

I think you are correct in your emphasis that "macro" and "micro" progression are two separate concepts. The idea of experiential progression, and particularly its partition from macro progression, was a fresh perspective for me as well.

Upon reading your elaborations of the different varieties of progression, I began to try to formulate a mathematical or graphical representation of progression as you have defined. My first visualization of an abstraction that portrays the interactions between the different dimensions was a 3x2 grid or map, that diagrams all the combinations of progression in their real and apparent status, but then I realized that progression could be abstracted to a percentage of the total experienced by the player, and I came up with the following:

Mathematically, I define progression as a value between 0 and 1, respectively representing no progress and complete progress. The range of values can be visualized on a number line, or, if you wish, a coordinate on an axis. Given the separate types of progression you have defined, each dimension of progress is orthogonal to every other. (Conveniently, there are only three dimensions that you have described, so one does not have to attempt the visualization of 10-dimensional space).

First let's ascribe dimensions to the axes; how could one represent "completeness?"


  • Macro progression: Defined as the percentage of quests that must be complete before the game is won. For example, in Keen 4, there are 8 elders that must be rescued, so rescuing one elder advances macro progression by 0.125. In Keen, the dimensions tend to be obvious to the player (rescue 8 council members,collect 4 ship parts, destroy 8 tantalus rays, etc.).
  • Micro progression: There are a couple of potential definitions of micro-progression. The most trivial would be to measure the shortest path length required to complete a level, then compute the player's farthest point traveled along this path as the progression value. Border Village, for example is perhaps 300 tiles in length if you count ALL the potential passages and movement required in both the x and y dimensions. A better definition of micro progression, however, would be to demarcate zones within a level, and then assess how many zones the player has completed. For example, in the Security Center, Keen must open the bridge, grab the security card, and then exit the level, for a total of three zones. I feel that the latter definition of micro progression is more suitable for Keen, because we are dealing with areas of tiles and not linear distances. It's also a more flexible measurement system, as the physical size of a zone is not necessarily proportional to the difficulty in bypassing it.
  • Experiential progress: This is the hardest dimension to define, as it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to quantify human emotion. For this purpose, I will simply define experiential progress as the fraction of background tiles that the player has witnessed. Of course you could compose a function that defines experiential progress as a function of the number of sprites, sounds, messages, etc., but background tiles tend to be the most representative of the different atmospheres in a mod, so I'll stick with that.
Now that we have ascribed units to our dimensions, we can refer to progression as a coordinate. In the manner that I have extended Ceilick's description, we have three dimensions, so total progress is defined as an (X,Y,Z) triplet, or a vector in R3. (I am arbitrarily declaring that X = macro, Y = micro, and Z = experiential.) One could perform all sorts of interesting mathematical analyses using this setup.

Before examining some elementary observations, let's discuss "real" vs "apparent". Realty and apparition can simply be represented by two different coordinates on the same graph. The player may think he has a micro progression coordinate of 0.75, when in fact he only has one of 0.5.

  • The progress space is a cube. The player starts at (0,0,0), which is one corner of the cube, and finishes at (1,1,z). We know this is true, because at the beginning, the player is completely inexperienced, and at the end of the game (X=1), he has completed a level (Y=1), but he may not have seen all the tiles (e.g., he didn't find the secret level, so 0 < z <= 1).
  • Because there is a start point and an end point, this implies that there may be a path between the two locations, and unsurprisingly, a path does exist. The path itself has some noteworthy properties:
    • The path is necessarily discontinuous, as microprogression ALWAYS starts at 0 and ends at 1 for each level, requiring the path to be broken into segments to return from 0 to 1. The path is always continuous in the experiential dimension (barring amnesia), always discontinuous in the micro dimension, and possibly discontinuous in the macro dimension. One could make macro regression, although we have yet to witness this in a Keen game. Game Over does not count as regression, but as the end of the path.
    • The path has a direction (and as such, a derivatve over its continuous parts). From the previous point, the change in the macro and experiential dimensions is almost always positive. Whether or not there can be partial regression within a level is debatable. Certainly there is complete regression (i.e., a jump to 0 upon restarting the level or starting a new level). You could say there is continuous regression if a teleporter sends you back a zone, or you miss a critical jump and end up two screens back. On the other hand, if you view microprogression as a series of irreversible checkpoints (opening a gem door, collecting a gem, stunning a key enemy, etc), then there is no regression, only stagnation.
    • There is always at least one path from the start point to the endpoint. Generally, there are many paths. If the player is not limited by lives, or can get "inifinite 1Ups," then there are infinite paths.
    • There is a real path and an apparent path, exactly analagous to the points of real and apparent progress. Recall, however, that real and apparent progress are just points. The apparent path is akin to the players recollection of the game thus far, and how well he thinks he has done all throughout the game.
  • In a one level mod, macroprogression can be equated to microprogression, and thus the progress space reduces to two dimensions.

I'll stop here for now.
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Ceilick
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Post by Ceilick »

We've been discussing this on irc, I'll try to summarize the important parts of our discussion:
Ceilick: "We know this is true, because at the beginning, the player is completely inexperienced, and at the end of the game (X=1), he has completed a level (Y=1)" is this assuming the game is only one level long?
Ceilick: shouldn't Y need to take into account all the levels that need to be won

lemm: nnn, because Y goes from 0 to 1 multiple times

Ceilick: right, but should each instance of y going from 0 to 1 accumulate?

lemm: hmm, that's another way to look at it then, with each levle having only a fraction of the total microprogression

Ceilick: hmm, thats just what i was going to say, if the micro in this sense is lying within the total macro, then i guess it makes sense not to accumulate; otherwise your coming up with a 'total micro' which just equivocates to macro

lemm: I was going to say, that 'total micro' as you put it, could be seen as how many independent challenges (i.e., navigating over some platforms, getting a difficult gem etc) there are in the entire game, while "macro" progression is the total number of "large scale" quests that have been completed.
lemm: For example, you could beat 10 levels in keen 3, and make no macro progression, but you've made a ton of aggregate micro progression

Ceilick: one of my issues here, though, is that I don't think macro is necessarily measured against the game's end
Ceilick: "Certainly the ultimate end of macro progression is completion of the game, but I think the progression itself, at least in the apparent sense, doesn't need to be measured in the face of the game's end. If there are infinite levels and no ending, I can still experience apparent macro progression. Macro, as I see it, is merely moving from one location to the next, it's the resetting of 0 to 1 on the micro scale. I think this is measured by the time it takes to do that. "
Ceilick: I dont think you can beat a level without macro

lemm: Would you say that macro progression always has some quantifiable property to it, such as how many points, levels, or quests you have completed?

Ceilick: yes: I think macro is a rate of levels beaten over time.

lemm: ah okay
lemm: hm, perhaps macro progression is then a mixture of levels beaten and other things? Say you had a keen 1 mod with 30 levels, only 4 of which have a ship part. If you beat 1 level, then you've made a little bit of progress, but if you've beaten a level with a ship part, then you've made a lot more progress?

TerminILL: macro progression might be in terms of objectives, really

Ceilick: there seem to be two progressions there: progression between micro progressions, and progression toward the game's end, the later potentially being a fourth form of progression

lemm: I can see that.
lemm: Do you think macroprogression could be considered the progression between microprogressions?
lemm: or, as the "total microprogression"

Ceilick: yes
Ceilick: well, it's not just the total of micro progressions though, it has to factor in how long it takes to get from one 0 to 1 situation to the next
Ceilick: is time a necessary component of progression?

lemm: the way i see it, time does not factor into absolute progression. You aren't any farther just because you took longer to do it. I think time is effective in modulating the distance between apparent and actual progression, however.
lemm: Probably the most important factor.

Ceilick: ok, that makes sense.
Ceilick: apparent progression, then, seems to be what players care about and what level designers should care about. I'm not sure if calculating real progression has anything but trivial purpose

TerminILL: I suppose so. Players don't want to feel like they're not getting anywhere (even if they are)

lemm: I agree with apparent progression being what players will ultimately care about.
lemm: but if you happened to be a bad judge of apparent progress (because that is subjective in a sense, perhaps you have played your level too many times), but you could create a "mathematical function" to compute apparent progress from real progress (because you can always objectively judge real progress), then, real progress is important in a way
lemm: assuming you had a way to accurately judge expected apparent progress from real progress?

Mink: maybe it's best for players when apparent progression = real progression and that's why real progression is important

Ceilick: wouldn't this mean the player could never die or regress in a level?

lemm: how so?

Ceilick: the longer a player is taking in a level by dying or regressing, the slower the apparent micro is from real micro. I think.

TerminILL: I guess it depends on how you view dying

Ceilick: this assumes the state of progression is wherever the player is in the level. Time and progress run parallel until an instance of regression, at which point progress goes back but time continues forward. This marks a widening gap between real and apparent, i think
To summarize: We've decided that the time it takes to make progress only affects the player's perspective of their progress: apparent progress. Because of this, real micro and macro progression deal only with the distance of the player from the level exit (measured in 'zones') and deal with the player's progression toward the game's end.

The quantity of real micro and macro progression, however, matters only in that it is used to determine apparent progression; this is what the player cares about and this is what level designers need to cater to.

Here is a method of calculating real and apparent micro progression that I've come up with. It's probably not perfect, and quite possibly doesn't work at all, but I've spent a few hours calculating it and don't see any issues at the moment.

Calculating Real Micro Progression:

Code: Select all

Real Micro Progression = # of required Zones Complete / Total # required Zones
Calculating the difference between Real and Apparent Micro Progression:

Code: Select all

[[Real Required Zones Complete / Total Required Zones] - [Apparent Required Zones Complete / Total Required Zones]] - [[Time of Annoying Apparent Regression + Time of Annoying Stagnation] / (Experiential Progression)]
*note: This assumes that real zones completed will never be greater than apparent zones completed.

The further from 0, the less apparent progression corresponds with real progression. Arguably the further from 0, the less fun the player is having, however, the closer to 0, the easier the level is. Apparent Micro Progression will vary between players

Terms/Units:

Zone: section of a level that requires effort or time to pass (duration of time debatable)

Real required zones complete: zones which contribute toward victory in the level which the player has passed

Apparent required zones complete: zone which the player has passed and believes contributed toward victory in the level

Total Zones Required: the number of zones needed to beat the level.

Apparent Regression: instances where the player feels they have lost progress toward level victory.

Stagnation: both real and apparent instances where the player is doing, or not doing, something to progress toward level victory.

Time: measured in minutes.

Annoying: complete or near complete demotivation to regain progress or make future progress.

Time of annoying regression or stagnation: the time it takes from the moment regression or stagnation first occurs to the moment the former progress can be recovered.

Experiential Progression: measured on a scale of 1 to 10.
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XkyRauh
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Post by XkyRauh »

This is extremely well thought out and articulated! :) I have to admit that part of my mind immediately goes blank as soon as the terms "macro" and "micro" are incorporated with any sort of mathematical equation, but I read and re-read what you've proposed, and if I'm understanding it correctly, I absolutely agree.

I would propose that, from a level design standpoint, the clear definition of the aforementioned zones is critical--because so long as the player does not realize the boundaries of a zone, the player does not have clear direction to overcome the zone.

A zone is complicated to define, as it can be a single-screen area, like the inside of several of the buildings in the Shadowlands, or it can be a subdivision of an uninterrupted stretch of open area (e.g. "before the spike pits," "the spike pits," and "after the spike pits" in Border Village). The bottom line, however, is that if the player doesn't understand how far a zone goes, they have no idea what they have to do to overcome it.

As an example, take the Isle of Tar, which is, in my opinion, a confusing level. We begin in a clearly defined outdoor area with only one direction to go: right. We can dip into a one-screen room for supplies, but it's not confusing at all--until we come to the first pit. Now, having choices is good--I'll give you that--but when the choices balloon into other choices without resolving anything, the player can become overwhelmed.

For example, attempting to circumvent the first pit to retrieve the droplets above leads to a potential three way split--try to pogo across the huge gap (impossible, but tempting to try for first-time players), cross the tar pit to unknown riches (not actually anything but an Ice Cream, but we don't know that at first) and drop down the pole to the left. This set of choices is compounded with the choice of backtracking to fall down the original pit we were presented with.

Ultimately, this set of choices is harmless, because they all lead back to the same central location--the switchable bridge at the base of the first pit. But the set of choices we receive here, at this central location, is confusing and bothers me. With minimal exploration, the player can identify six things to attempt, starting at the bridge. 1) Flip switch, fall down pit. 2) head right climb down pole (and possibly realize they need a Blue Keygem). 3) head left, find vertical shaft, seek switch (and perhaps suspect moving platform must be turned on?). 4) head up and left, into diagonal passage. 5) head straight left, choose door or pit. 6) head down and left, discover need for Yellow Keygem, find bridge that needs disabling, and take door--back to path 5?

It's a tall order. Looking at the map, it's easy to say "yeah, well, choices 3 and 4 are ultimately the same zone!" or "it's not that confusing!" but follow along with me, here: If the player chooses to head left from the bridge and go down, falling into the room with the door, they have NO IDEA when they take that door that they are really backtracking. In fact, there's a good chance that they'll get pegged by the Wormouth as soon as they come through the door, and have to start all over. I'd argue this is a poor level design, and an example of poor zoning.

Because the player's overall progress through the game is measured by their progression through each individual level, and their progress in the level itself can be seen as the percentage of zones or set pieces they succeed at, it's absolutely critical that the zones be clearly defined and easy to understand! :)
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Ceilick
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Progression/Micro-Progression/Zones

Post by Ceilick »

Xky wrote:A zone is complicated to define, as it can be a single-screen area, like the inside of several of the buildings in the Shadowlands, or it can be a subdivision of an uninterrupted stretch of open area (e.g. "before the spike pits," "the spike pits," and "after the spike pits" in Border Village).
Here are my thoughts:

Real Zones are from the perspective of the level designer and are areas of the level which consist of a room, section, or area of the level. These zones are defined by platforms and hazards, specifically:
  • -Where can the player go? What options are available to the player?
    -What is in the player's way? What hazards, enemies, and jumps divide a room or hallway?

Apparent Zones are from the perspective of the player and are areas of the level which are either the same as Real Zones or a subdivision of Real Zones based on the player's knowledge, specifically:
  • -What can the player see? What does the room/hallway look like to the player at a given spot in that room/hallway
    -What does the player expect based on what they see?
    -Where can the player go? What paths does the player see? (different paths/corners, etc)
    -What is in the player's way? What hazards, enemies, and jumps does the player see as obstacles to overcome which count toward zone progression?
    -How much time does the player spend in the area? How long does it take to go down a hall or reach the top of a room.
Visual aid! Here is the Isle of Tar with one take on how to map the level's zones: http://i71.photobucket.com/albums/i156/ ... tZones.png Zones marked and numbered in yellow are 'Real Zones'. The red subdivision lines mark the 'Apparent Zones'.
Xky wrote:...but when the choices balloon into other choices without resolving anything, the player can become overwhelmed.
Well said, I agree completely. In addition to too many choices, I think the issue in situations like this comes from the level designer's perspective of seeing these options as a single zone, but the player perceives them as multiple zones which create the illusion of even more choices. Referring to my example image again, take for instance Zone 5. The level designer will likely see this as a single zone. But the player sees this as compounded due to limited visibility and the size of the area. The player has no idea what to expect is up that path and what choices they'll discover there.
Xky wrote:it's absolutely critical that the zones be clearly defined and easy to understand! :)

Yes! Without clear-cut zones the player is aimless and without any sense of micro progression.
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XkyRauh
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Post by XkyRauh »

Wow, your zones are much, much smaller than the ones I'd imagined. :) Interesting! The more I look at it, the more I agree with it, and the more the following becomes apparent:

Based on your subdivisions, I'd observe that Zone 4 is a hugely confusing mess and should be re-thought. Notice how every other zone you defined has no more than three exits, while Zone 4 has five. Never mind that the two upward-directed exits both lead to Zone 5--it's still way too confusing!!

So here's the question I've got, then:

Since we, as level designers, are working with our Zones on a different level--I don't want to call it a 'macro' level, but certainly more of an 'overview' mode, relative to the player--what are some easy tools we can use to help demarcate Zones?

In Keen:Vorticons maps, this is easy to do by shifting to a different color for platform tiles, using a different detail/background tile, or literally putting a door in the way. What are some Keen:Galaxy techniques?
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Ceilick
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Post by Ceilick »

I think explicitly defining zones to the player is less important than giving the player a sense of direction; of which zones and paths will progress them toward the end of the level and which lead to optional goodies. The player doesn't have to realize explicitly what the zones are, they just need the feeling that they're making progress (granted that this feeling does come in part from their observation of completing zones).

We could just add arrows to the level pointing out where the player should go, but as level designers we should want to be more subtle with our approach. We need to work with what the player's expectations are.

For instance: at the beginning of zone 1 the player is going to assume the exit is on the far right. It's a basic assumption on the principle that if the player starts on the far left, the exit will be on the far right. This isn't always true, of course: levels like the Lifewater Oasis occur where the player gets to the right but then must go elsewhere to win; but the path to that elsewhere proceeds directly from the right side of the level. So the player can assume getting to the far right is one of their goals.

This assumption gets shaken a little by Zone 2. Suddenly horizontal progression stops and the player is faced with some vertical. Assuming the player doesn't mess with the water drops or zone 18 and 19,l the player will drop into zone 3. Suddenly a lot of the player's expectations are shaken: this level has the appearance of being a lot deeper than they expected and the path to the left suggests more exploration than the player expected.

I'm lead to believe that despite assuming right is the direction to the exit, players will most of the time head left into zone 4. This is because the change in terrain, that drop off to a slope, is more enticing in terms of experiential progression, than the plain hallway to the right.

The problem when the player enters zone 4 is that not only are they faced with so many options for movement, but all these options grind against their initial assumption of going right to find the exit. The right no longer matters in the face of all these paths, of which the player is likely to assume at least one is necessary to finding the exit; there's no sense in having a branching of paths that all lead to optional areas.

So Zone 4 has the following problems:
  • -It breaks the player's assumption that going right will lead to progression. The player is injected with a new assumption that one or several of these paths is necessary to winning. This can lead to confusion over where to go; the player is losing their sense of direction.

    -There are so many choices and the player has no indication for which choice has which outcome. The player may feel that making the wrong choice will just get them lost or waste their time.

    -On choosing any of the paths, the player can't readily determine which will progress them toward their goal; zone 5, 6, and 10 are all too big for the player to readily size up their importance. Again, the player wonders if they're just getting lost or wasting their time.
One solution is to cut down the size of the branches: zone 5 and 10 could be reduced to the first apparent zone within them. This allows the player to quickly discover that they won't be making progress by those paths and gives the player a better sense of direction. It also helps the player realize what the switch in the reduced zone 5 does.

Another solution is to break down the order in which paths can be taken: make zone 5 or 10 a prerequisite for entering zone 6.

Another option is to simply cut zone 5, 6, or 10 off of zone 4 and make those zones accessible from some other zone.

Yet another solution is to isolate zone 4's options from the rest of the level by putting a gem door between zone 4 and 3. Force the player to enter zone 17 and 16 early so they can see the long term goal of getting the blue gem and so they can get a better grasp of the level's vertical size so they can better evaluate their options when reaching zone 4.
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