EA gameplay designer Travis Hoffstetter talks about the main principles of traversal gameplay.
While talking about Traversal Gameplay, Travis means the traditional stepping up / down, hurdling, mantling, climbing and swinging (actually he learned a lot about this type of gameplay, while he was developing a level for the Tomb Raider reboot). Overall, he distinguishes between three types of traversal level design: linear (only one main path), open (multiple branching paths (like hubs in Tomb Raider or any of the big cities in the Assassin’s Creed), enemy encounter traversal (any path that has enemies in it).
In his blogpost he goes in much detail about some of the principles, which define the inner workings of each of these types of gameplay.
1. Utilize 3D Space
Great traversal setups let the player move around a space, inside the space, on top of the space and even under it. Think of a cabin in the woods. For it to be “great” to traverse around, you need to be able to climb the outside walls, into the cabin, out of the cabin, onto the cabin roof and even under the cabin through the crawlspace. Utilizing all the space makes the setup feel more natural, encourages choice and promotes replayability. Even if a path is linear utilizing the 3D space will freshen up the gameplay path and make it feel more exciting.
2. Variety is the Spice of Life
The last thing you want to do is use the same move over and over again when there is such a large bucket of moves to choose from. A general rule is to never use the same traversal mechanics more than two or three times in a row. Please note, this is a general rule. Certain mechanics like monkey bars are fine to use more than that because the move is so quick. When in doubt, feel it out through play testing.
Another general rule is to not go in the same direction for too long. Another way to think of it: “Is the player pressing the same inputs over and over again in my level?” An example of this is a ledge the player is shimmying along. A designer could0 layout a long straight ledge that takes thirty seconds to scoot down, like in the below drawing.
Open setups can have long straight paths because they are architecturally necessary. For example, Assassin’s Creed has them all over the place, but it works because the player can break out of them at almost any time. This can be seen in the image below, where the player is not locked into a long straight path while shimmying along the roof.
3. No Vague Traversal Geometry
If the player can climb on it or perform any other traversal move, it needs to be crystal clear that it is a traversal path. If it looks like you can traverse something, players will try. If they think they can traverse and cannot, then they will get frustrated. This usually becomes a problem when a level goes from being block mesh to being arted. Keep an eye out for it yourself and in play testing.
4. Forbidden is Desirable
The coolest places to traverse are the places we fear to be in real life. That’s one reason why climbing on tall buildings is fun in the many games that have that type of experience now. When you need to spice up your level, add a dangerous feeling place for the player to go. You don’t have to add extra gameplay for it to be special, just the feeling of being in that place will be meaningful and fun for the player.
5. When in doubt, Move it About
Adding movement is a great way to make an aspect of your traversal more exciting. Something static in the environment can become fun moments with just a little bit of movement. Uncharted 3 had a cool example with two chandeliers the player swings back and forth on in the Chateau level.
6. 180 Degree Turns are bad
When the player gets to the next step in a traversal path, try really hard not to have them turn 180 degrees around to continue along the path. It is not intuitive for the player’s next path to be directly behind them, a lot of players look 180 degrees in front of them for the next path. Also, the 180 degree turn usualluy must be done in a small space in these cases, when a larger space is needed for the turn to feel fluid and smooth. For example in the drawing below, if the player jumps up to a ledge, pulling himself up, do not make him turn all the way around to make the next jump.
7. Leave Room for the Camera
The camera lets the player see all the cool traversal moves the player is doing. Problems with the camera mostly occur in third person games because the camera is on a track behind the player. Because the camera follows behind the player, it can knock into geometry in the environment. When that happens the camera can jerk or pop. Notice in the image below from Shadows of Mordor how there is lots of room for the camera to move around the player as they travel along the ropes, allowing for smooth camera movement.
You should definitely check out the full article, which has a lot more details and some great examples from the big third-person action games. Here’s the link to the full article.