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Ramblings on CC level design and other topics

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jblewis

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to playtest the forthcoming CC2 for bugs and other issues before its May 28 release. As part of that, I recorded a blind Let’s Play of the stock game and its 200 levels, which will go live on YouTube starting on release day. What can you expect to see in the game? Here are a few hints…

 

WARNING: Minor spoilers!

  1. There’s quite a decent difficulty curve and plenty of variety to satisfy players of many tastes, with many levels of different sizes and gameplay styles.
  2. If you’ve played Chuck’s Challenge, it’s worth noting that quite a few of its levels were based on CC2 compositions.
  3. There are at least three levels that reference CC1 in some way. There are also plenty of level titles that would later be used again in custom and official CC1 sets.
  4. A few level titles: CHAMBER BOMB, SMUGGLER, PATTERN BUFFERS, IN THE SLIME, SAUCE FOR THE GOOSE, CHAOSLANDS, IDENTITY CRISIS.
  5. No worries - there aren’t any levels that are quite as long as ON THE ROCKS or PAIN here!
  6. One level is an early version of a level that would later appear in CCLP3. Speaking of CCLP3, some of the late game arguably approaches its difficulty, at least in the early triple-digit range.
  7. You can place doppelganger versions of yourself or Melinda on the map to do your bidding (defined by a red, opaque background), but you can also place multiple copies of yourself or Melinda as well. In the latter case, you’ll have to get everyone to the exit, making for some interesting puzzles that involve switching between characters.
  8. Want all the collectible bonus flags in the game? You may have to wait a while.
  9. The levels were designed before the turn of the century, so if you’re familiar with the level design techniques commonly used back then or in CCLP2, you know what to expect here.
  10. Before it was ever used in “Chance Time!” or anywhere else, the “choose your own adventure” level layout was first introduced in CC2, as shown in the level pictured below.
  11. There’s a level with 207 teeth.
  12. Get ready for a lot of strictly timed levels.
  13. Using other items or enemies to pick up and drop items will really mess with your head.
  14. There’s a level with 900 chips, and yes, they’re all required.
  15. The yellow teleports truly are a precursor to Portal. Not only do you have to think about where to place them, but in some cases, you have to place them in such a way that you can later partial post and pick them up for subsequent uses.

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jblewis

blog-0129458001418940809.jpgFebruary 9, 2002.

 

Many CC veterans and long-time community members will recognize the significance of this date. It was the release day of CCLP2. Excitement pierced the online air. After years of playing and optimizing CC1 and being disappointed with the lack of release for CC2, the CC community finally had something different and official to get behind. New levels! New challenges! New records to set! It was all so fresh, teeming with possibilities to be explored. After the set was released, the first few months brought about a flurry of activity on the newsgroup. Scores were being reported every day. Busts were discovered. Records were being broken. People were threatening to rip each others' heads off if their records were broken. It was a level of involvement for the game that I still hope can be rivaled in the years to come. And in the wake of the optimization rush, people started thinking ahead: where do we go from here? What will CCLP3 be like? Let's start collecting levels and build something new! It should be fairly simple.

 

It wasn't.

 

CCLP3 wasn't released until almost nine years after CCLP2. Much of the delay has been attributed to the waning community involvement of the original staff and the piling up of submissions that took place over that time. Even though submissions didn't start until 2006, many sets were already created specifically for CCLP3 in the years beforehand that immediately followed CCLP2's release. When a new staff was finally formed, it took a mammoth undertaking to play catchup and test the gigantic mound of levels. But it finally happened at the end of 2010, and a new official set was born. Fortunately, CCLP1 managed to avoid many of CCLP3's delays by positioning itself as a specific kind of set, with a specific goal to achieve. Even though the work was plentiful, it was much more manageable. So...where does this leave us with CCLP4?

 

After looking back at how the previous CCLPs were constructed, what the level design scene was like in the past, and what it looks like now, I've come to the conclusion that CCLP4 needs to become a reality sooner rather than later. This isn't normally where I'd land on an issue like this. Many of you reading might know from previous comments I made during CCLP1 production that I'm the last person who would ever want to rush production on a new CCLP, and that is still true. But I think we're dealing with a very specific set of circumstances this time around that need to be recognized. I'd like to dedicate this blog post to explaining my reasoning. Please note that although I'm not mentioning any other potential level packs that could be built in the near future (like a "hardcore" set, CCLP0, etc.), I'm still behind the idea of making them at some point.

 

- We've already got a solid collection of levels from CCLP1 voting. This is probably the most understandable reason. We can all agree that the CCLP submission periods are typically kept open for a while so plenty of levels can fill up the pool, and thus, there can be plenty of options from which to choose when voting. But there's a difference here between what these pools theoretically looked like between CCLP3 and CCLP1, in which many new levels congruent with the set's purpose had to be created, and CCLP1 and CCLP4, in which there are (so far) no such restrictions, and many existing levels can be submitted again. It's especially worth noting that a lot of deserving difficult levels were given the shaft for CCLP1 for a number of reasons: they were too complex to begin with and didn't even make an appearance in voting, some of the ones that did were perceived by voters as less beginner-friendly than others, and the staff's attempt to establish a gentle difficulty curve meant limiting the number of difficult levels in the final tier of the set. So although there are also plenty of levels in this bunch that didn't make the cut by virtue of being poorly designed or not very fun, there is a very strong collection that could perform quite well in CCLP4 voting.

 

- We've already got a solid collection of levels created after CCLP1 voting. The term "level factory" has been tossed around in reference to some very active designers in our midst, but it's also an interesting statement on the state of level design in general today. Although the number of designers may have decreased since, say, the age of heavy activity on pieguy's site, the rate at which levels - specifically quality levels - are saturating the potential submission pool is quite astonishing. The past year and a half has seen the release of and/or additions to sets like JoshuaBoneLP, The Other 100 Tiles, JBLP1, TS2, ZK2, ZK3, Ultimate Chip 3, JoshL4, JoshL5, and many more, with even more additions to some of these and entirely new sets on the way. What's really encouraging for a CCLP staff is that many of these sets have tried to incorporate some kind of difficulty curve, which helps introduce a form of variety into the submission pool. One of the indicators that can be an effective way to determine when it's probably a good time to start looking at working toward a set's production is to see if it's theoretically possible to construct a decent 149-level set from the levels available, especially if it's difficult to choose between a number of quality options. Personally, I think CCLP4 submissions are already at this point, though it doesn't hurt to keep them open for at least several more months.

 

- The set needs to be constructed with CCLP5 in mind. This may seem like an odd reason, but it's an important one. If CCLPs are meant to represent the best of what the community has to offer, waiting too long can end up putting deserving levels under the bus - not only during the current set's production process, but also during the next's as well. Many designers who walked away disappointed after not seeing a favorite level of theirs in a CCLP have been encouraged to submit it again for the next. And as levels like Lazy Hourglass, Yet Another Yet Another Puzzle, Rhombus, Double Diversion, and Traveler show, it is indeed possible. But it's much more difficult when these levels are up against a brand new bunch that's taken the spotlight. Alongside that, waiting too long will bring about way too many "147 candidates" (read: ultra-difficult levels) from which to choose. Of course, the staff would need to be responsible for maintaining a proper difficulty curve for the set, but it would be that much harder for them and voters to make the difficult choices when there are so many of them. Plus, again, the levels that get shafted will have a much harder time competing for a spot in CCLP5 with so many new options available by then.

 

I don't think we need to have CCLP4 submissions open past the end of 2015. In fact, I'd even go as far as to suggest that they should be closed in the middle of 2015. We've got the components for an amazing set at our disposal right now. Let's move forward. Though I personally don't intend to get involved with its production, I hope we see interest in staff positions from the community in the days to come.

jblewis

Welcome to a very different blog post - at least for this blog. I'm going to take a break from soapboxing about level design, CCLP1 voting, and the like to take a trip back in time to when I first designed levels so you could get a glimpse into my terrible level design sensibilities when I was a kid. Unfortunately, these levels are pretty much entirely gone, unless I one day stumble upon some sort of backup floppy disk that had some of them on it - or something like that. If that ever happens, rest assured that you all will see these levels in their original, untarnished state. But right now, you'll have to settle for some silly-sounding descriptions. :)

 

Before I even discovered that ChipEdit existed, I had dreams about custom levels I wanted to create, the most vivid involving a level with a lot of sockets. Yes, for some reason, the idea of using lots of sockets was really appealing as a little kid. I always thought that the original game's penchant for almost never placing any obstacles between a singular socket and the exit was downright silly. At the time, my favorite levels were those like FireTrap and Mixed Nuts - those ones where the designers thought to put something between the socket and exit. In my dream, a bunch of sockets led to icy paths that began in parallel, supermarket aisle fashion but then branched off at the ends of the aisles. I think the idea was that one was ultimately supposed to lead to the exit, while the others looped - not unlike the original game's DeepFreeze. (Eventually, I did build this level in ChipEdit. Sure, it could've been called something cool like "The Frozen Supermarket" - and who knows, maybe that might still happen someday - but my kid brain opted for the unoriginal "Dreams" instead.) Around that time, I also asked my parents if Heaven would have some sort of way to design Chip's Challenge levels. I had a vision in my head of a level with a Lesson 8-esque dirt/gravel square with a bug circling around instead of teeth. Why that felt appealing - I have no idea. But I was itching to design it.

 

When I was about eight years old, I had completed 148 of the 149 levels in the original CC, with Totally Unfair being the lone exception. After several unsuccessful attempts at trying to solve it, my dad and I caved and looked up the solution online. Back then, the only online resource with CC text solutions was Richard Field's page. We quickly solved the level, but afterward, my attention turned to a link to an announcement that Chuck Sommerville made: after receiving scores of petitions to make Chip's Challenge 2, he was going through with its development! As silly as this may sound, my eight-year-old brain read "petitions" as "levels." So, I mistakenly assumed that people were submitting levels for the game, and Chuck would be picking the best to feature in the final product. I immediately got to work so I could somehow submit my designs to Chuck. My dad put together an Excel spreadsheet with enough appropriately sized square cells to fill an 8.5 by 11-inch sheet of paper. We took the printout of the blank spreadsheet to Kinko's and made about a hundred copies. For the next year or so, this would be how I'd design most of my levels. And for the most part, they were very poorly made. Aside from the crude drawings of water and fire that dotted many a sheet of paper, I'd often find myself resorting to labels like "IW" for invisible walls (at the time, I hadn't discerned the difference between hidden and invisible walls) and making what amounted to the exact same type of level over and over again: a block-pushing navigation puzzle akin to the end of the original game's CityBlock. (Around then, I thought that was the most fun challenge from CC1.) By the time I had 50 levels made, I started to wonder how in the world I was going to mail all my designs to Chuck. After several fruitless attempts to find a point of contact online, I gave up.

 

But the sadness didn't last for long. For a day came when I was browsing Chip's Challenge websites online, and while I was on Richard Field's page, I noticed a link I had previously missed: one that led to an editor! I was ecstatic. Not only was this a way to record my ideas without actually having to draw them on paper, but it also allowed for those ideas to be played! At the time, I had to ask for my parents' permission before downloading anything off the internet. Excited, I called my dad, who was out of the house, and told him the news. When he got home, I could barely contain my excitement. Designing CC levels became a passion since then, albeit with some seasons where I've taken a break from it. Like many aspiring designers, my original goal was to create a set of 149 levels to match the MS iteration of the original game. Unfortunately, my very first set, "JBLevels" (which, hilariously enough, is a term some people use today when referencing levels I created), made it only to 67 or so levels. Well, okay. Technically, it had a few more than that, but that was only because I accidentally misused the "copy / paste levels" function in ChipEdit and somehow managed to append about 20 extra iterations of one of my first levels, "Wars 2," to the end of the set. Eventually, I began work on a second set, which, after a few years of work, reached 149 levels. Here's just a glimpse at what some of those levels were like, to the best of my memory. At the time, I titled all of my levels entirely in capital letters to match the original game, but I'll use normal capitalization instead.

 

- Ice Slide. This was the very first level I made. I loved ice a lot as a kid, esepcially the giant ice slides of CC1 levels like Playtime and Mix Up. So my first attempt at designing a level in ChipEdit involved Chip walking through an arbitrary path of alternating dirt and gravel to pick up a yellow key, sliding on the titular slide, passing the exit, going down through a force floor, and facing off against a single ball to collect the chips and a pair of suction shoes to make it back to the exit. And since I didn't have any real concept of centering the playing area in the middle of the map and had no idea what copy / paste even was, I just built the level from the upper left corner. It barely made a dent in the map. ;)

 

- Welcome to JBLevels! A while after making Ice Slide, I thought my set could use an introductory level, so I made this one. It took up only the top third of the map and had a blocks-into-water pushing challenge with a water section akin to the matriced design of CityBlock. Yes, for some reason, I loved CityBlock that much. :P

 

- Wars 2. I always loved the unpredictability of the melee gameplay in the original game's Wars. So I decided to try a concept of my own: pitting two groups of gliders against each other. The level contained about an 8-tile-wide "S" path with giant clusters of gliders trapped behind toggle walls at each end of the "S." In the middle were toggle buttons that Chip would have to run through to release the gliders and create some chaos. I think I also included some blue walls so it would be possible to escape out of the "S" and sneak into the exit area, but practically figuring that out would have required a significant amount of brute force.

 

- Think It, Pal. The title of this level came from a shareware game I played in the 90s called "Ball Game 2." (Yeah...very original title. Basically, it was a more evil version of Super Monkey Ball / Marble Blast / etc.) The level itself wasn't much, just a "don't-use-the-recessed-walls-that-inevitably-lead-to-traps-and-avoid-temptation" challenge that barely exceeded a 10x10 space. I think by this point, though, I started to center the levels on the map.

 

- Two Fireballs. I don't remember much about this except that it was small and had two fireballs. :)

 

- Frogs, Balls, and Blobs. A level with three huge rooms that respectively contained frogs, balls, and blobs. No big deal. Well...except that I intentionally placed a bust that involved getting flippers early and being able to swim to an exit surrounded by water that was supposed to be accessed via block. Yeah...for some reason, I thought that was really clever and non-obvious back then.

 

- The Block-Out. This was a rather funny one. I thought of the title after hearing the term "blackout," and my kid brain thought, "Hey, 'black' sounds like 'block'! I know what I can do!" For the first time while using ChipEdit, I thought it'd be fun to make one of those CityBlock-esque block navigation puzzles. Thankfully, that didn't extend to the entire level here - there were other block-pushing bits that weren't quite as hard. But what really floored me was that when my mother saw this level, she said, "Wasn't there a level in the original game called that?" It took me a while to figure out that she was talking about CC1 #108 - but I'll always remember making this level as the time when my mom knew more about CC than I did. :)

 

- The "I.W." Maze. At this point, I can't really remember if I really intended for the public to see any of these levels. I was mainly designing them just for the fun of being able to personally play them after they were done. So in this particular case, "I.W." was a reference to the way I labeled invisible walls back when I drew those paper levels. Thankfully, the maze wasn't terribly huge.

 

- Impossible Exits. For a while, this was the level I was the most proud of. It was my magnum opus. I remember waking up on a Saturday morning and thinking that I'd dedicate the entire morning to crafting a single epic level. It didn't take too long to decide on a Trust Me-style challenge where instead of keys that were impossible to use, the player would have to find the right exit. Instead of being structured linearly like "Wrong Exit" (CCLP1 Voting's Violin #11), the level was fairly open, with exits everywhere. Most of them just had monsters on top of them surrounded by gravel. Again, it was another case of my young mind concluding that most players would somehow want to go for those exits. :P Some of the unreachable exits were surrounded by bombs without enough blocks nearby to use on them (although I think a bust existed where a clone machine could be used to help out with this, with some monster manipulation involved). Ultimately, though, the "right" exit contained a teeth on top of it, surrounded by green doors that had to be opened with a key retrieved elsewhere. At the time, the concept of being able to "beat" the teeth when on the right parity was entirely new to me, so I figured no one else would know about it.

 

- WaterMaze. If you've played Fisherman's Maze I and II from AndrewG1 or CCLP1's voting packs, then you know what this basically is. It's also the first level of the second set I created.

 

- May the "Force" Be with You! Yes...I thought this cheesy reference was really something as a kid. :) When I began producing my 149-level set, I didn't bother to put in lesson or tutorial levels, but I did put in some small introductory challenges that demonstrated some concepts that were completely different from those in the CC1 lessons. This was one of quite a few. Basically, it "taught" players about...guesswork. Yeah. Thankfully, it was short, but the idea of placing groups of chips in front of rows of force floors with invisible walls behind them was a little mean.

 

- That's Right! Once, I had envisioned a Southpole-style level where instead of pressing down all the time, the player would need to go right at each fork. But part of me thought, "That'd just be terribly unoriginal," so instead, I made a level where Chip had to guess which ice path with a preceding east force floor was the "right" one amidst 30 or so choices. Yeah...not exactly fun.

 

- Demolition Derby. This level sounds like it should be a melee extravaganza, but instead, it was an action level akin to MikeL2's "Bouncing Off the Walls." The tie-in for the title was a bunch of enclosed, inaccessible rooms viewable along the way where monsters just collided with each other. Somehow, I thought it was really fun to watch that as a kid. :P

 

- Detective Chip, Parts 1-5. When I originally played through CC1, I didn't recognize the significance of the level "Cypher" - not even with the Melinda dispatch - until I actually opened up ChipEdit and looked at the layout from a bird's-eye perspective. So I thought it'd be fun to craft a different sort of message-style puzzle, albeit one where everything was much more drawn-out. When I finally buckled down and created my 149-level set, I think my intent was to offer an alternative to CC1 where the story of how Chip joined the Bit Busters was completely retold. This segment of levels, which I believe was 52-56, was a series in which Melinda and the Bit Busters planted messages that Chip would have to figure out in order to gain access to the ability to even try to join the club. (What Chip was doing in the 51 levels prior to this, I never thought about. :P ) The "messages" were basically letters written in blue walls or blocks that were meant to spell out "Bit Busters" throughout the first four parts. I don't remember everything about each level, but I do know that Part 2 of Detective Chip had a bunch of gliders circling around a large room with lots of gravel, including a spot where the gravel vertically spelled "CLUB" as a clue. Part 4 was subtitled "Case Closed" and featured Chip "figuring out" the message by revealing it in the level's hint...which I suppose ultimately spoiled everything for the player. Part 5 was subtitled "The Party" and was meant to signify Chip's excitement at "solving" the case and the Bit Busters (monsters) celebrating his eagerness to take the next steps to join the club. I seem to recall that I based it on the layout of a friend's house in which I celebrated a birthday party. :)

 

- Return Back. As mentioned in a previous blog post, "Levels01.dat," which later became the set known as CatatonicP1, was one of only two custom sets available online back in 1998 (at least that I could find). One of the most prominent types of levels in that set was the ice maze. I loved CC1's ice mazes. I enjoyed CP1's smaller, more linearly structured ice mazes. So I thought it'd be cool to make my own. If you were to look at my early levels collectively, you'd probably see a lot of ice mazes and levels with blue walls...most of which were simply real walls. The gimmick of this particular level was that after collecting everything in the expansive ice maze in the top half, the player would have to beat a block-pushing challenge in the bottom half...and then return to the start where the exit was. Sadly, this level was made much less enjoyable by guesswork in the ice maze portion.

 

- Wrong Way. Speaking of guesswork, ice mazes, and CatatonicP1, one of the other notable elements of that set was that at the time of its release, it had only 47 levels, with nearly 102 other "blank" levels placed after it. The notable exceptions were levels 51, 61, and 146. When my second set had reached only 50 levels, I thought this would be fun to do. I threw in an unexpected guesswork-filled ice maze into an arbitrary spot later in the set. The whole level was essentially a dirt border with ice paths that led to other parts of the dirt border, bombs, or, in one case, the exit. Not exactly fun, but I thought it looked cool.

 

- Clues / Who's for Dinner? Before Miika's Outer / Inner / Reverse / Full Circle series made an appearance in kidsfair.dat (and in CCLP1 voting), I had a similar idea, only not quite as polished. As a kid playing through CC1, I always thought it was interesting to see other areas of a level before you could reach them. So I thought, "Why not make one level where you could see an entire other level before you got to it? The result was a rather oversimplified blue wall maze (the idea was that you were supposed to evade a ball at the bottom that was blocking the exit path by pressing on the blue walls above - the "clues"!) that took up about half of the map, the top section of which allowed parts of the second level to be visible. The second level was a melee-ish level in which teeth were set loose and were hunting down Chip for dinner. The sad part about all of this was that in the end, the top section looked a bit different by the time I was done with the latter level, and I didn't know how to copy/paste pieces of levels between levels at the time.

 

- The Fun Maze. This was the Nightmare equivalent in my set. I must've had a pretty sadistic definition of "fun." :)

 

- More Impossible Exits. The original Impossible Exits level was so fun to make, I decided to try for a second. This one didn't feel quite as fresh, though. Instead of a sea of impossible exits, I focused a bit more on the steps necessary to reach the "possible" one, which was visible in plain sight in the middle of a twisty ice slide. The ice skates necessary to get to it, though, were not quite so visible. Instead, they were hidden behind a block that was smack dab in the center of a huge sea of blocks, chips, and walkers. I can't remember if I even required all of the chips, or if the solution was intentionally a bust - but it was still fairly fun to play. Perhaps the chip socket was meant to lead to another impossible exit. :)

 

- The Grocery Store. Not to be confused with the JL1 level "Grocery Store," which was based on a more linearly structured HEB Central Market-style supermarket, this grocery store was much more basic and based on the many Safeways and Albertson's I saw back in California, where the produce was always on the left, and most of the store was dominated by aisles. This level shared a lot in common with Tom P.'s level "Supermarket," though I think his ultimately looks much cooler.

 

- Science Fiction. I have no idea why I even named this level as such. It featured a fire maze, some nifty puzzling, and some dodging elements, and it was all very random and arbitrary. Maybe I felt at the time that sci-fi was too...or something.

 

- Tankx. A level with a bunch of tanks in the shape of an "X." Get it? :)

 

- Stations. One of the reasons why I enjoyed CC1's lengthy ice slides was because they often allowed the player to see different parts of the level. I decided to make a level based on this concept. In many ways, it was a precursor to a fad that seemed to sweep the custom level design world (sliding around and seeing the entire level before tackling a series of challenges that crossed the long slide multiple times). Instead of that, though, this level felt more like Amsterdam with a bunch of different types of tasks built into larger "houses" instead of little rooms. It was also one of my first true variety levels.

 

- The Whirlwind. I have no idea why I went with this title in the end - all this was was a wide open expanse with a single row of teeth on all sides that the player had to evade in order to get to one of the four exits at the corners. Fun stuff, but a bit rigid.

 

- Wipeout. This was another fun melee level. Divided into four quadrants, the first section featured a bunch of random, arbitrary balls to dodge, then the second was comprised almost entirely of a series of open-the-door-and-let-the-monster-escape-while-you-duck-into-a-niche bits, much like the second section of TS0's "The Sewers." Finally, there was a push-blocks-into-bombs room or two. I think the reason why I remember this so much was because the blocks spelled "go!" :)

 

- Impossible Exits 3: Fast Blast! This final entry in the Impossible Exits trilogy was probably the most linearly structured. The title came from the very first obstacle, which was a 10x2 (or so) ice slide the player had to cross on skates...with balls bouncing around. Of course, with MS being the only ruleset with which I was familiar, slide delay made this ridiculously rigid.

 

- **INVALID**. One of the discoveries I made while playing through CatatonicP1 was that it was possible to create invalid tile combinations in ChipEdit. I never knew it was possible, mainly because I had the "Check" option checked, and I had no idea what that even did to begin with. But once I unchecked it, I created a level that ran rampant with invalid tiles, though it was still very playable. Most of my experiments were silly-looking things like Chips, keys, and boots on clone machines and items hidden under dirt. Still, most of my early work didn't include invalid tiles - mainly because I was interested in creating something that resembled CC1, though I didn't know about Lynx compatibility or pedantic Lynx at the time.

 

- Chips Ahoy! My mom came up with this title. It was a simple, neatly designed chip-collecting level with teleports and paramecium. Thankfully, this was no Telenet.

 

- Chip "Peninsula." Continuing the trend of putting quotation marks where none were really needed, this was another itemswapper / variety level. For a while, I wanted to make a level set on an island, but then, I thought it'd be more interesting to remove the water on one side of the island. I was probably studying what the word "peninsula" meant in school or something when I made this.

 

- Hawaii. Carrying on with the island theme, this level was, in many ways, like DanielB1's "Island" with a big, open area in which to dodge monsters and collect chips. The smaller islands were accessible via (what else?) ice slides. Of course, none of this was to scale at all. :)

 

- Job Search / Chip Finds a Job as... The first level here (#124) was originally titled "Workers." Basically, it was a Kablam-esque level, except the player had the ability to control the clone machines. I'm not sure what kind of work was being done here (bombs as occupational hazards?), but in the end, I decided to change the name in the interest of taking the set's storyline in a direction where Chip was looking for work while trying to enter the Bit Busters. The second level came later (#139) and was a filler level that just served as a cliffhanger-ish announcement that Chip found a job. Though the "cliffhanger" part of that didn't really last for long, since it was just another level where Chip was surrounded by teeth and had to escape...this time in two seconds or so. :P

 

- Detective Chip, Parts 6-10. I decided to make a second "season" of Detective Chip at the end of my set as levels 140-144. The storyline direction I was trying to take was that Chip's love for detective work was rekindled while he searched for a job, and the Bit Busters decided to surprise him with their admitting him into the club by giving him another puzzle to solve. The message this time was "Traveler (Chip) has membership!" (Maybe I thought it'd work to use some sort of generic-sounding welcoming message, but then insert Chip's name in the middle of it?) I don't remember much about the actual levels, except that Part 6 was subtitled "Here We Go Again!" and featured Chip starting on an exit, and either Part 7 or 8 was subtitled "The Future" and featured a bunch of walker dodging. At any rate, level 145 was designed to be a "celebration" level, much like the party level in Season 1, only without the Detective Chip label. I forgot what I ended up calling it, but I do remember that it was the level I had originally designed as a warmup level for the set, with lots of variety included.

 

So that's a peek into my level-designing past. :) Eventually, I discovered other sets online circa 2001. The one that made the biggest impression on me was EricS1, primarily because it had a full 149 levels, many of them were excruciatingly difficult, and some of them were based on CC1 levels. I never thought to edit CC1's levels, but it was certainly a welcome change of pace. Other level sets that really impacted me were AndrewB1, DanielB1, and TomR1. There were eras where I forayed into designing levels meant to resemble the design styles employed in these sets (JohnL2 was my attempt to be AndrewB1-ish). But lately, I've settled on designing much simpler, more accessible levels.

 

I hope one day to find some of these levels from the past and share them with you all, but for now, I hope this blog post was entertaining to read. :)

jblewis

In Defense of Consistency

blog-0359461001379470727.pngOnce upon a time, there was a period in which Chip’s Challenge levels were fairly manageable. As I mentioned in my very first blog post on here, one of the first CC level sets I ever downloaded was just called “LEVELS01.dat” and contained the levels that would eventually grow to become CatatonicP1. There was also a set called “New Levels.dat” that had an unsolvable first level and an open melee level called “Guard Dogs” that involved teeth, which later inspired me to create my own version of the concept. And despite the shortcomings of these levels, I could tell that their designers wanted to create their own version of the CC1 experience that made them fall in love with the game in the first place.

 

But oh, how far we’ve strayed from that since then.

 

The years that followed brought about thousands of levels, and as far as I can tell, the simple life principle of “just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should” has gone out the window. “Bigger is better” became the mantra of level design for many, with several designers who felt obligated to fill up the entire map just because, well, they could. And if they wanted to make a smaller challenge, the design principle of choice would be to cram in as much stuff as possible in one tiny room because, you know, anything less would just be a waste of space.. And on top of that, the natural tendency of many was to complicate a level and feature as many of the game elements as possible because, hey - easy and homogenous have to equal boring, right?

 

The sad truth is that when examined in light of assembling a set like CCLP1, all of these design principles fall short of - and in some respects, run diametrically opposed to - the design principles that made levels generally considered CC1 favorites what they were. In past blog posts, I’ve discussed why variety is important for any CCLP. However, in this blog post, I’d like to focus on something else, especially with respect to CCLP1: consistency. Now, that may sound rather self-contradictory at first. But let’s take a moment and think about all the different types of levels out there:

  • Feel: open / closed
  • Design: matriced / organic
  • Gameplay: action / melee / puzzle / maze / speed / collection
  • Size: small / medium / large
  • Length: short / medium / long
  • Structure: linear / non-linear
  • Dominant tiles: hodgepodge / element(s)-focused

This may not be an exhaustive list, but I hope we can see each of these types of levels well-represented in CCLP1. Now, I’d like to present a notion to you. It may sound radical, but just hear me out. What if, among all these different types of levels, design principles that transcend their differences existed among many of them in CC1? We toss around the term “CC1-ish” quite a bit, but considering that CC1 has been hailed as a variety-filled set, what does that really mean anyway? We seem all too content to just find “equivalents” to many of its levels for CCLP1, but if CCLP1 is meant to be a CC1 substitute featuring today's levels, shouldn’t we at least take some time to nail down what characteristics defined many of the most-loved levels from the original game and keep them in mind while we vote and at least clarify what we mean when we say “CC1-ish” so we can give each level the consideration it’s due? Or are we too afraid that establishing such standards would eliminate levels that fit our veteran sensibilities and steer us toward those that may feel less interesting to us? It may sound impossible, but I believe I’ve found three characteristics that fit the bill - characteristics that are conducive to beginner-friendliness and (at least so far) seem to have been forgotten by many voters at the ballot box. I’ve mentioned them here and there in passing, but I’d like to examine them more in-depth in a different context. If you examine CC1 closely, you will find that many of its levels exhibit at least two of these three characteristics. Hey, whenever we play any other game, we expect both variety and consistency in quality, so we can't the same be true for CCLP1?

 

Freedom. This is a big one. It’s probably the biggest one that’s often overlooked in today’s level design paradigm. Remember how most of CC1’s levels allowed players to run around without the fear of tripping some button or collecting some item too early? Or just to experience the joy of running around to begin with? Whatever happened to that? This isn’t an issue of “open” vs. “closed” levels. It’s an issue of gameplay rigidity. It’s a tendency that manifests itself in level design because as designers, our natural tendency when we build levels is to think in goal-oriented terms, like this:

 

1. Decide what the player has to do to get to the exit.

2. Build everything such that every tile in the playing field contributes in some way toward that objective.

3. ???

4. Profit!

 

Okay, scratch those last two items off, but the second point is the clincher here. It’s the major contributing factor to an issue I like to call Designer Disconnect. In the previous blog post in this series, I talked about another tile-based game called Escape, which allowed the player to see the entire map and provided an unlimited undo function - both of which made it much easier to attempt hardcore puzzles. Chip’s Challenge, on the other hand, is not only more than just a puzzle game, it also allows the player to see only a 9x9 grid! This should give a lot of designers pause, but the sad truth is that it does not. Designers have the freedom to see the complete 32x32 map, and all too often, levels are designed as if the player could see the complete 32x32 map - or wants to see it. Is it possible that maybe - just maybe - we’ve forgotten about the thrill of discovering what’s around that next corner?

 

What this all boils down to is that Designer Disconnect often interferes with a player’s natural desire to explore and experiment. When a designer builds a level with a solution in mind and throws down the pieces of that solution, it’s easy to forget about what happens or what is attempted when a player has no idea what that solution even is. Generally speaking, the more complex that solution is, the less freedom the player will have to take a look around and the more the player would have to remember, especially since the game has no checkpoint / undo feature. And the more the player has to remember, the more the game feels like work. I’m just going to speculate, but if I had to guess why CC1’s levels were not exactly all that complex, this is probably at least one reason why.

 

The issue of rigidity may not be the same as distinguishing between “open” and “closed” levels, but our fascination with rigidity has certainly thrown many “open” levels under the bus. I honestly have to wonder how many of CC1’s simple, open levels would do if we had never seen them before and they were in CCLP1 voting today. Would we vote down Nice Day just because it wasn’t hard enough, and it didn’t give us that sweet satisfaction that comes with figuring out something difficult? Would we have a negative view toward Force Square because the wide open rooms around the titular square weren’t jam-packed with puzzles and were just nearly empty spaces? How about Metastable to Chaos and its spacious dirt room to send the bugs into? After seeing how voting has proceeded so far, I honestly have to wonder. CC1 often flew in the face of modern level design by not reducing everything to function and not resorting to irreducible complexity. Instead, we had arbitrary pieces of fire littering some levels, open spaces with absolutely nothing, and dead ends without any items to collect here and there. They may have seemed random, but from a design standpoint, they contributed to the aesthetic of each level and, in many cases, were quite calculated in their placement.

 

At the end of the day, freedom is not just limited to the feeling of openness in a level; it’s a state of mind with which one can approach the game. Let’s take one of the more difficult, confined levels of CC1: FireTrap. This level has a variety of challenges involving monster manipulation and chip collecting, but although these tasks must be completed in a certain order, the player is left to discover what that order is without too much fear of necessitating a restart. It’s relatively simple to roam around without accomplishing anything for a while - and for the most part, there’s no need to worry about cooking the level! There’s even an extra block toward the bottom - how about that! This is a perfect segue to…

 

Difficulty management. In the previous entry in this series, I briefly mentioned this characteristic as a positive trait of difficult levels. However, much like any transcendent quality, it can be applied to just about any level of difficulty when making a level that can be universally enjoyed. The premise behind managing difficulty is this: a game with over 40 unique elements is inherently going to be complex; therefore, a designer must manage a level’s inherent complexity if the level’s goal is to provide a fun experience. I understand that we’ve got levels in our midst whose sole purpose is to stump players everywhere and encourage them to draw diagrams that are meant to be studied for months before a solution reveals itself. And that’s great. But, for the purposes of this blog, I’m talking about levels for CCLPs, which are meant to be played by all types of players.

 

The first step toward difficulty management is to identify exactly what component(s) of a level contribute(s) to its difficulty. Some levels are a challenge because of the concepts featured in them, and for those of us who are veterans, this type of difficulty is easy to spot. However, difficulty can also manifest itself purely on the basis of design, and I believe it’s this form of difficulty that we as designers and veteran players often underestimate. Levels that take a long time to solve or levels with a linear structure are, by their nature, at a disadvantage in the difficulty management arena. This is not to say that these types of levels are bad. It’s just that CC itself is limited because the measures that games often provide to make these types of challenges more bearable, such as checkpoints, aren’t available in this game. And if the level’s goal is to provide a fun experience, then the other elements in the level that contribute to its difficulty must be constructed with caution.

 

What CC1 accomplished quite brilliantly was limiting its difficulty to one component throughout the vast majority of its levels and dialing down other components to help the player focus more easily on that particular one. Notice, for instance, that almost none of the pure melee levels in CC1 are linearly designed (and if so, they take on a simple A → B structure like the one in Problems rather than a complex A → B → C → D → E structure). Instead, they take place in wide open rooms where the player has the ability to walk wherever he or she wants while avoiding the monsters. The CC1 designers understood that something like monster dodging was going to be no easy task for their audience and tried to implement measures that would keep the player focused on the task at hand - dodging - rather than creating constraints to make things more difficult just because they didn’t look hard enough.

 

So let’s take that principle back to the realm of linear/lengthy levels. Notice how CC1 hardly ever resorts to pulling out increasingly harder challenges as an extremely linear level progresses, nor do most of these levels punish players for making poor choices at a late point. This is because the more opportunities for failure are presented in a long level, the much greater the likelihood for failure and, by extension, the much more frustrating it would be. The hardest sokoban in Mix Up, for instance, was toward the first half of the level, whereas most of the challenges that followed were arguably easier. Even Four Plex, which is probably the most rigidly linear variety level in CC1, had challenges that were fairly self-explanatory. As the level progressed, the challenges became less ambiguous. The opening ice maze contained lots of different possibilities, fake walls to uncover, a few unknowns to discover, and a healthy dash of guesswork. In sharp contrast, the second area’s only big surprise was the bouncing blocks (if one didn’t explore before activating the cloner). From that point onward, there wasn’t really anything unexpected in each room. The northeast room was a monster manipulation puzzle. The next area involved navigating walls. And then, the final challenge was a simple itemswapper. Players could tackle each of these challenges knowing what they were and without any sudden bursts of designer trickery late into the level.

 

Unfortunately, we as voters have tended to approach difficulty management with a stringent “all or nothing” standpoint based almost entirely on our playing experience (“How did this level make me feel?”) when evaluating levels for CCLP1. For many of us, it seems like the general rule of thumb is that if a level can’t be solved on a player’s first try, it must not be beginner-friendly at all and should be automatically discarded. I’m sure we’d have voters giving the proverbial thumbs down to Four Plex purely on the basis of the first room offering a few opportunities for failure. But not only would this voting approach be unfair to many levels, it also fails to recognize that failure is inevitable and to distinguish between different placements of opportunities for failure and how they affect the propensity for an enjoyable experience as they relate to a level’s structure. An isolated tough puzzle in a non-linear level, for example, that allows the player a greater degree of freedom in choosing the order of tasks to complete would be theoretically much less frustrating than a linear level that strictly establishes that same puzzle’s placement in the level at a late spot. The same could be said about the level that involves a bit of guesswork but actually contains multiple solutions or is somewhat open-ended.

 

A similar principle applies to navigation challenges involving recessed walls, especially if there are multiple solutions involved and minimal complicating variables entering the equation. I’m sure even a simple (in design) navigation challenge like Apartment would be slaughtered in CCLP1 voting just because someone didn’t quite get it on their first try. The reality is that Apartment is manageable because it understands just how far it needs to go. Chips, walls, and recessed walls define where one can travel. That’s it. No force floors, no boots, elements, or thieves, no doors or keys. The level works because the design is basic, consistent, and symmetrical, and the end result is a beautiful challenge. But just watch well-designed navigation challenges like Anaconda (Omicron #2) and Cell Swapper (Mushroom #48) or open-ended, multiple-solution levels with a bit of guesswork like Puzzle Box (Jacuzzi #35) fall by the wayside because some people rely solely on feelings and not on discernable principles that helped make CC1 what it is to determine their landscape of CCLP1 ratings...even though both of these levels exhibit a remarkable degree of simplicity and difficulty management. And speaking of simplicity…

 

Identity. This design principle worked in tandem with difficulty management for much of CC1. In fact, you could say that all three of these characteristics worked hand-in-hand throughout many levels. Once again, let’s start with the basics: identity is, in essence, a level’s ability to effectively manage itself. Levels with a strong sense of identity tend to be easily describable, primarily because designers who create such levels actually think through what they want their levels to be before dotting the map with tiles and building away. Levels that don’t have an identity crisis usually contain a discernable objective (or two) that doesn’t require a ridiculous amount of lateral thinking to discover. When we play, say, Digger, we know that the point of the level is to collect chips and find ways around teeth monsters to do so. When we play a level like Mishmesh, we know we're going to be pushing some blue walls.

 

Once again, this type of level design feels so foreign to us today. I’m just going to speculate here, but if I had to make an educated guess as to why, it’s probably because to us veterans, such levels feel all too predictable. And predictable must equal dull, right? That’s probably why many of today’s levels feature room after room filled with completely different challenges that require the player to switch gears and think differently every time the gameplay shifts. It’s certainly a far cry from the low-key days of Tossed Salad or even Mixed Nuts. We’ve gotten to the point now where we recognize that trying to be too clever by injecting CCLP3-esque obfuscation and deception won’t win people over, but we have yet another quantum leap to make: recognizing that building a jumble of stuff just to say that our level is amazing and has more tricks than the previous one also isn’t really all that clever in an age where practically more than half of the levels out there aspire to do the same.

 

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but personally, I find it much more impressive when a designer knows how to exercise restraint. It’s easy to see all 1,024 tiles in the editor and feel inclined to fill them all up. It’s much harder to know when to stop. Predictability to a person who has command over what to build on a 32x32 board is certainly not the same as predictability to a player who’s exploring that 32x32 board with only a 9x9 square viewport to look at while exploring.

 

Thankfully, for the most part, CC1 knew just how far to go. Do you know, for instance, that adding a border around your level reduces the size to 30x30, eliminating 124 (over 10%!) of the 1,024 tiles? And if you stripped the level down to a more manageable 24x24, you’d be eliminating 448 of those tiles? CC1 certainly isn’t perfect at knowing where to stop, as there are definitely some exceptions - long block-pushing levels like On the Rocks come to mind - but even they avoided the pitfall of “breaking up” the homogeneity by forcing players to get their minds and fingers off block-pushing and onto something completely different in the name of “being more interesting.” From a difficulty management standpoint, it’s much easier to temper the inherent difficulty that accompanies length or linearity with simplicity and straightforwardness in the challenge.

 

What I have to wonder is - why do we carry around a stigma toward homogeneity in levels? CC1’s levels managed themselves well because they understood that the game was interesting enough to warrant that focus on individual concepts more often than not instead of flitting around from concept to concept and - SQUIRREL!

 

You get the point. So, to wrap this series of blogs up, I’m going to pose a challenge to you. As you rate the levels in voting, ask yourself the following questions:

 

1. If I were to take all the levels to which I’ve awarded my highest ratings, how consistent would these levels be with the design principles that made CC1 what it was?

 

2. From that list of most highly-rated levels, could I build a set of 149 levels that included a proper difficulty curve, levels that explored each of the game’s elements, and plenty of variety throughout?

 

Be honest with yourself. Then play the levels. Examine them in detail. Think outside the fact that you failed or solved a level on your first attempt. Then get back to the ballot box. You’ve got an opportunity to help craft CCLP1 into a suitable CC1 replacement that is one of the greatest, most diverse, beginner-friendly level sets ever made by examining what made CC1 work and applying those principles here. Or, you can undermine the purpose of the voting process and throw around ratings solely based on how the levels make you feel.

 

The choice is up to you.

jblewis

blog-0754190001377033959.png(This blog post is the second in a three-part series. For the first part, click here.)

 

Several years ago, I came across another tile-based puzzle game online that was similar in appearance to Chip’s Challenge. It was called Escape. The objective, quite simply, was to escape out the exit door while navigating any obstacles in one’s way. Sound simple? The game was devilishly difficult. Thousands of levels created by scores of designers have been uploaded online from within the game. What ultimately set it apart from Chip’s Challenge was that it was turn-based, and as such, it was much easier to implement an undo feature. For instance, monsters would move only when you did. A level’s entire map could also be viewed all at once. One of the game’s most prolific designers was someone many of you may recognize: Joshua Bone. That’s right - the creator of Spiral, Mud and Water, Thieves and Teleports, and other simple CCLP3 levels crafted some of the most diabolical (no pun intended!) and well-designed Escape levels in the game’s level bank. I can’t help but think that at least one reason for this - besides the differing game elements - is the game’s undo feature and ability to view the entire map at once. CC has no such mechanics.

 

So how do we provide a challenge to players when a level has to be completed in one sitting? And how do we do so in CCLP1?

 

By now, many of you reading who are veteran players have no doubt played or at least skimmed through CCLP3, which was filled with many long, difficult levels. Since its release, many casual players - even veteran casual players - have voiced their concerns about its difficulty. But just why was it frustrating to so many, at least when compared to the original game’s final tier of levels? Here’s at least a few of the most mentioned reasons:

 

- Convoluted puzzles. This doesn’t require a lot of explanation. Puzzles are a core element of CC and work well in manageable doses. Puzzles that involve multiple inevitable failures, vast leaps in logic, and copious amounts of spatial reasoning and attention to detail are much less fun.

 

- Needless red herrings. Whether it’s the surprise victory lap in Grand Prix or the unnecessary key in Floating Plaza (yes, I’m going to burn my own levels here...many of them are old shames for me now), using deception, particularly late in a lengthy level where falling for the trap necessitates a restart after several minutes of gameplay, is very, very frustrating.

 

- Excessive length. Long levels aren’t inherently bad, but a general rule of thumb is that if the level feels like work, the greater the possibility that players will become exhausted and lose interest. This principle is applicable regardless of difficulty (On the Rocks comes to mind as an easier example), but when extreme difficulty is applied, the frustration gets compounded.

 

- Unforgiving linearity. Linearity, again, is just another method used to structure a level’s challenges and can be used to make great levels. Linearity used in conjunction with frustrating design elements combined with opportunity after opportunity for failure can lead to relentlessly difficult levels that are no fun to play again after cooking the level late into an attempt. Not only must the player journey through everything leading up to the cook all over again, but he or she must also guard against making other mistakes along the way - and then anticipate even more trickery beyond the cook. The process just snowballs when more cooks occur. Linearly designed levels are especially frustrating when a level presents at once multiple options to the player that offer several different ways to go, but only one “order of operations” is correct.

 

This may not be an exhaustive list, but it’s a list of qualities that have been mentioned the most. There are a couple of reasons why I wanted to put all of these elements in a list that can be viewed at once - other than the fact that no such list has been written out yet. First, studying these elements to see how CCLP3 used them can be quite helpful. A level that utilizes one of them has the potential to be tough and frustrating, although not necessarily so. A tiny level with a red herring, for instance, isn’t going to make CC players ragequit and hang up their hats. However, a level that uses two or more of them can be relentlessly difficult. Note that the first two items on the list are concerned with gameplay, while the latter two are concerned with design. (All of them can be tied into Designer Disconnect, but that’s another topic for another time.) Convoluted puzzles combined with excessive length or needless red herrings combined with unforgiving linearity are almost certainly going to be trouble for a general audience. In many cases, CCLP3’s final tier of levels exhibited all four of these qualities! And if you were to look at the set as a whole, you’ll notice that there were strings of these levels with two or more of these qualities placed consecutively, especially toward the end.

 

(Side note: Please don’t get me wrong. I do think there’s a place for some of these kinds of levels, but I don’t believe that CCLPs are the context, as they are meant for more general audiences - even the non-CCLP1 packs that are geared toward veterans. Veterans can include casual players who don’t wish to use maps. For this reason, I think we’re really going to have to work hard to adjust our difficulty expectations for CCLP1 and dial down the toughness two notches - one below CCLP3, which would be where a non-CCLP1 pack would ideally be, and another so that CCLP1 is properly introductory and features a gentle difficulty curve.)

 

Second, studying these elements can be quite helpful when we contrast how CCLP3 was difficult with where CC1 ventured with respect to difficulty, which should be an important part of informing how we vote during CCLP1’s voting process. It’s so easy to vote based on how a level makes us feel or how it appears upon first glance, but unless we cast aside our veteran biases and use a rubric of objective standards, we can’t honestly say that we’re rallying behind the most appropriate and deserving CCLP1 levels. (More on how a rubric can be constructed from the most agreeable CC1 levels and what qualities they exhibited is to come in Part 3 of this series.)

 

I bring this up because “This level is CCLP3-ish” is a comment I’ve heard directed at quite a few deserving CCLP1 candidates that are admittedly difficult but barely even exhibited the four above qualities. It seems like much of the time, such comments are often born out of frustration, especially if a player just happens to miss something random or is just having a bad day while playing. When the trouble has nothing to do with poor level design, can we honestly say that it’s entirely appropriate to vote down levels like these if they excel with respect to other qualities that provide a quality experience for first-time players - just because we died a few times?

 

I’m going to go into further detail about the universal qualities that made CC1’s most well-received levels of all gameplay types and difficulties fun in the third and final entry in this series, but for now, I urge you to consider what characterized CC1’s most accessible difficult levels before pronouncing a CCLP1 candidate “CCLP3-ish.” Note how CC1’s difficult levels typically exhibit one quality that defines why they’re difficult but dial down the other qualities that could theoretically make the level needlessly hard if they were dialed Up to Eleven. If a level is long and contains a linear (but not unforgivingly linear!) structure (Mixed Nuts), then the challenges are usually accessible, self-contained, and allow for some room for error. If a level contains a very, very challenging puzzle that requires significant brainpower (Totally Unfair), then the level typically goes no further and refrains from adding additional types of puzzles into the mix. If a level has the potential to involve skill and speed (Underground), then it’s usually open, non-linear, and short.

 

Chip’s Challenge is an inherently complex game. Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how complex it is when we design levels. But when we play complex levels, the ones that are built with the intention of bringing order to that complexity are the ones that usually have the potential to be the most well-received.

jblewis

blog-0836600001371836260.pngThere's a thread on this forum dedicated to what we as Chip's Challenge players called certain game elements when we were younger that really intrigued me upon first glance. Some of the names given to the various monsters have been quite funny. (For instance, I didn't know that thieves have been called both "firemen" and "policemen"!) But I feel like another one should be made about the misconceptions we had concerning certain game behaviors when we first started playing. Wouldn't that be interesting? Perhaps part of my perspective stems from being only 5 years old when I first started playing the game, so reading the help file provided only limited understanding compared to engaging in actual gameplay and the experimentation that came with it. I'm assuming that's the case for most first-time players, though. I didn't understand what "following the left wall" meant for bugs - I just assumed that the game programmers somehow instilled set paths for them - nor did I understand that all grey walls were actually permanent. When I tried Nuts and Bolts for the first time, I saw the thief and the bombs above the opening area and thought that there was supposed to be some way to break through those walls to get to them! But no - the only walls that I could break through were blue, of course.

 

Why do I bring this up? Because we've taken upon ourselves the rather awkward task of evaluating and voting on levels for a level set whose target audience is comprised of people who are the exact opposite of us veterans. These are the people who will struggle not only with understanding the game and its elements, but also with being able to control Chip to begin with. These are the people who will make the mistakes that we forgot we once made when we first started playing. These are the people who would lose patience with the game if the CCLP1 of today were constructed exactly as CC1 was, with a level like Nuts and Bolts throwing newcomers into the fire and steeply escalating the difficulty curve immediately after the tutorials. And sometimes, I think it's difficult for us to cast aside our veteran sensibilities and remember how these people feel - how we felt - upon playing the game for the first time.

 

At the time of this post, there have been 10 voting packs (500 levels) for CCLP1 released and nearly 6,600 votes cast. Although the voting process is far from complete, I've begun noticing an interesting trend in the results - most of the top levels so far are either hodgepodge or "themed" levels with some degree of variety and (usually) moderate difficulty - though for a beginner, many of these levels would probably be fairly difficult and would fit right at home in the last quarter of CCLP1. In contrast, most of the CCLP3 top levels were those that obviously involved a lot of time and effort spent to build them, which typically meant that they were also the hardest of the bunch. A lot of these levels were also hodgepodge or themed levels as well, or at the very least, they were non-homogenous. But the irony of this penchant for non-homogeneity in individual level design was that by primarily using the voting results as the determinant for what was inducted into the final set, CCLP3 was a rather homogenous set when viewed as a collective whole. "Puzzle," "long campaign level," and "hodgepodge" would probably be the three main descriptors players would give CCLP3 if asked what kind of level best described the set. On the other hand, it's hard to nail down a specific type of level that CC1 featured a lot, mainly because the set itself had so much variety. (The same may be said of CCLP2, though some people might answer "invalid tiles" if asked that question.)

 

So how can we avoid making the same mistake with CCLP1? Thankfully, the CCLP1 staff will be making the final decisions on what's inducted into the set and what's not for the sake of variety and the establishment of a friendly difficulty curve. I think this is important for any CCLP for the former reason, but it's especially important for CCLP1 for both reasons. But since we will be using the voting results as a guideline, we need some way to know what levels everyone enjoys besides the aforementioned hodgepodge and themed levels. If voting continues to go as is, there's going to be a huge mass of levels below the top tier that are averaging around 4.00 or so and a whole bunch of easy levels that aren't even reaching that point. So here are a few tips that I thought I'd pass on to all of you voters out there that I thought might be helpful to keep in mind when rating levels - especially when it comes to making sure easy levels get their due:

 

- Not every level needs to be "extraordinary." It's true - the CC community of today is a very, very tough crowd to please. For the most part, we have a tendency to play and rate levels based solely on how interesting we find them. And we've seen and played so much that even our level design tendencies can often reflect this; many levels out there today try to outdo each other by trying to include just one more trick in their compositions than the last one. Again, though, there's an irony in this, especially with respect to designing for beginners. The easier levels that we often deem "boring" are most likely going to be the ones that newcomers would find interesting, whereas those that we find interesting would probably also be intriguing but sometimes frustrating for first-time players. The other major takeaway from this point ties in with the above bit about CCLP3: individually great levels do not necessarily make a collectively great set. A set composed entirely or even primarily of "epic" levels would get frustrating and repetitive after a while (in fact, some people would say that CCLP3 was exactly this), even if they weren't all difficult. Easier, smaller levels do have their place, even if they may not seem quite as engaging as the epic ones.

 

- Try to avoid comparing apples and oranges. It's very easy for us to look at the easy, simple maze we're playing and think about the thrilling campaign level that included every game element or the level that reinvented the wheel for a familiar concept to which we awarded a 5. But why can't all three levels succeed on their own terms? While a collection of individually great levels doesn't necessarily make a collectively great set, a collectively great set is composed of individually great levels - specifically, a variety of levels that do a great job being what they were designed to be. Almost no one would say that it would be fair to compare Sampler with Four Plex from the original game; yet both of them are often praised - the former for being an excellent, simple itemswapper, and the latter for being an excellent campaign level. Is it fair to give that excellent maze a 3 just because it doesn't feel quite as thrilling as that giant hodgepodge level? For instance, I've given Chip Be Steady (Lipstick #50) a 5 out of 5 rating. It isn't a mind-blowing level that left me with a sensation of "Whoa!" when I solved it, but in the context of being a maze in which you had to avoid touching toggle buttons and a level that beginners would find inventive, it succeeded. The only other levels I'd even be thinking of when looking at it would be similar mazes in which the player isn't allowed to touch the "walls," not the campaign level with every game element included that I may also enjoy too. The reason why this one in particular stood out was because of its symmetrical "border" with the colored doors and teeth waiting to be released, which made it look a lot neater than similar levels.

 

- When evaluating easy levels, don't look for the interesting - look for the uninteresting. Yes, you read that correctly. But it deserves a bit of clarification. The aforementioned designing tendency to outdo other levels by including more "tricks" in them is especially harmful to easy levels. As veterans, we tend to frown upon levels that feel more minimalistic - though not necessarily trivial, even for a beginner. Maybe this is because we've played the game so much that so little feels original to us anymore. We play through a level and immediately turn to one of those prepared level categories we've already created in our head so we can file it away under something like "blob level" or "ice maze." We may also turn to our preconceptions about those categories as well, some of which may be negative, even if the level would be ideal for a level set targeted at beginners. Sometimes, we may even have specific levels in mind that the ones we're playing remind us of, so much so that we're willing to discard them just because they feel like yesterday's news to us. But there's a difference between a level that's a blatant ripoff and one that does a commendable job being simple and generic, either by presenting its concept in an approachable way or by demonstrating some degree of artistic merit. Many of CC1's levels accomplished both of these objectives well. The problem with us is that we not only want to throw away these types of levels out of comparative instinct, but we also prefer easy levels that are inherently more complicated because they feel "more interesting." In many cases, these levels would be an inappropriate, muddled teaching tool for beginners and would be too uninteresting for later portions of CCLP1. Don't be afraid to give a deserving easy, generic level a good rating because it's generic and does a fantastic job being so, especially when that level excels with respect to design quality and playability.

 

- CCLP1 may be a CC1 replacement, but it need not succumb to its shortcomings. I remember the very first time I went to a Chip's Challenge website. I was eight years old and was nearly done with the game, with the exception of "Totally Unfair." Richard Field's site had a complete walkthrough that came in very handy, but what was even more interesting than that was the collection of testimonials on the site about the game. Some of the levels that other people listed as the hardest to beat may surprise us today - levels that we as veterans find easy, such as The Last Laugh, Knot, or even Blink. It may seem unbelievable to us that they could be a challenge, but they certainly were. Another common thread from first-time players was that Nuts and Bolts presented a huge step up in difficulty from the lesson levels that preceded it. And I could totally empathize with that sentiment, as Nuts and Bolts took me an entire month to complete. Does CCLP1 need a "Nuts and Bolts" equivalent immediately following its lesson levels, or could there be some space in between to amp up the difficulty a bit before such a large level? Do we need to wait to introduce partial posting until level 138, for instance? Or is there a level simpler than Partial Post that could teach the concept in a different spot in the set? We shouldn't feel obligated to give CCLP1 all the trappings that made CC1 what it was; rather, we need to recognize what made CC1 work and avoid the areas in which it fell short while still being flexible.

 

- Don't forget about what made you love the game when you first played it. Whenever I vote, this is the principle that I try to come back to - but it's also the one that I so often neglect. That desire to break down those walls on Nuts and Bolts is something that I forget when I play the game now. But when I think about what got me hooked on Chip's Challenge in the first place, it was that. It was that desire to break out of the box, to explore, to see what was around that next corner. In hindsight, I was so thankful that the gameplay window was only nine by nine tiles. I would spend hours trying to figure out the secret to the opening room of Paranoia while looking wistfully at the bugs roaming around in the room on the left. I didn't know what else was over there, but I was determined to find out. Sometimes, I think we now focus so much on dissecting the game, cram in as much content in as little space as possible in our levels, and find it easy to turn to the editor for a level map that we've forgotten the joy of walking around in open space, exploring that newly opened path, and remembering what made Chip's Challenge so fun to play to begin with.

 

It's my hope that CCLP1 can recapture that sense of awe and wonder for a new generation through top-notch level design and accessible gameplay while still retaining the "challenge" part of the title that kept us coming back for more. Let's not forget about the easy levels along the way that prepare newcomers for those challenges!

jblewis

blog-0128493001369190145.jpgIf you saw my post a few months ago in the "Ten Levels You'd Love to See in CCLP1" thread, then you'll recognize some of these levels. But then I had a thought: why not add ten more and post a blog entry about it before voting started? :) It never hurts to take a break from talking only about level designing! It's not my "top 20" in any way, but these are all levels I'd absolutely love to see in CCLP1 that haven't been in the spotlight or mentioned much - made by 20 different designers - along with a brief explanation about why I enjoyed each. So, in no particular order:

 

And the Buttons Were Gone (Ida Roberthson): One of the most fun aspects of CC1 was its wide open levels. Who didn't love running around Nice Day or walking around the room in the expanse outside the room in Lemmings? It's just one of those original game charms that was lost with the "compressed cleverness" of CCLP3. In this level, there's a puzzle, but the puzzle is quite simple, isn't crammed into a tiny room, and certainly isn't obfuscated by layers of deception. There's freedom to walk around, which is a plus. All in all, probably one of the most non-complicated and enjoyable "monster manipulation" levels out there.

 

Celtic Rotation (Ben Hornlitz): Though the name may bring back memories of CCLP3, the implementation of the concept here is much less complicated and feels like a clean, symmetrical CC1 level. There are only four traps, which makes everything much simpler, and the itemswapping isn't excessive at all. Very well-designed!

 

Firewall ("tensorpudding"): CCLP1 needs some good old-fashioned dodging levels. I've always said that one of the hallmarks of a well-designed CC level is knowing just how far to take a concept. It's especially difficult with levels that are purely about dodging because of the lack of an undo or checkpoint feature in the game: the longer the level, the more frustrating failure can be for a player. This level, however, is just the right length. It takes a concept that feels easy at first sight - fireballs traveling through lines of teleports in a predictable manner - and forces the player to learn the gimmick as he plays at a pace that's reasonable. What's even better is that the linear "maze" through which the player travels starts off incredibly simple so the player can get used to the dodging and then gets a tad more twisty toward the end. Very well designed!

 

Chip Be Steady (Kevin Stallman): The concept of creating Strange Mazes that extend into the realm of not pushing buttons or collecting boots in order to make it out alive may not be new in the custom level designing world, but it certainly would be for a first-time player, and this level just hits all the right notes. Many of the KTNUSA levels extend to the edge of the map, and while this may be overkill in some of the other levels, it certainly doesn't hurt this one; in fact, it helps it by creating an expansive maze that never quite gets old. The neat door arrangement seals the deal with all four colors represented in each section.

 

Stairs (Archie Pusaka): There's a level called Skiing from TomR1 that played around with this zig-zag design style, but unfortunately, it fell into the trap described above of filling up the entire map with the same concept. This level, on the other hand, features a single set of "stairs," but the challenges therein consist of four different "stages." It's actually a really simple itemswapper, but it's just so fun to play that it's hard not to enjoy it! The end may look like a cheap "dodging near the exit" challenge, but thankfully, the hint reveals that it's quite a bit more straightforward than it appears at first glance. Good stuff.

 

Burn Out (Grant Fikes): Much like the level above, this level reminded me a lot of another one - in this case, EricS1's Separation and Regrouping, in which two cloners would clone on the same column using a force floor, separate into two streams via toggle wall, and then merge via another force floor before the monsters died. The challenge in that level mainly involved collecting all the chips before time ran out, but here, the objective is to evade the two less concentrated fireball streams while working against the flow. Much like other great levels, this one knows just how far to go, never overstaying its welcome. Perhaps the most satisfying moment is blocking the clone machine at the end to get to the exit located by the "merge" area. That always feels relieving after all that dodging and weaving!

 

Corral ("ajmiam"): Some people who may think this sounds crazy, but I actually enjoyed Blobdance from the original CC. :) This level features a similar challenge with rectangular rooms and blobs, but it's a lot less frustrating and includes a fun strategic element: using arsenals of blocks to box blobs in. I can think of a lot of players who'd have fun with that outside of the goal of exiting, but beyond that, the level itself doesn't feel stale. The rooms have a variety of sizes, which make the smaller rooms a lot more intimate in terms of blob dodging and boxing. Overall, this level is very enjoyable to play and just screams CCLP1.

 

Blocked Alley ("Syzygy"): One thing we often forget as designers is that playing a CC level isn't just about getting to the exit. It's about the experience too. The atmosphere we create lends itself to that experience for better or worse. Here, it's definitely for the better. I've always believed that permanently invisible walls work well when used sparingly or in a way that doesn't make the player feel like he or she needs to rely hopelessly on sound to find the way out. In this level, they work brilliantly to enhance what's already a wonderfully claustrophobic environment and to make players feel even more lost. The narrow time limit works well too, and the monsters inside the "buildings" give an even greater sense of urgency, bringing to mind CC1's Nightmare.

 

Roundabout ("jbdude55"): There have been many levels over the years that have emulated what CC1's Colony achieved, but this is one of the few levels I've seen that takes the concept and breathes some new life into it. The elements in the spaces between the rooms add some itemswapper fun to the mix, and the ones that seem a bit iffy at first (blue walls, invisible walls) are used to great effect and don't feel cheap because each room is 4x4 and contains only one monster, allowing the player plenty of time to explore. Aesthetically speaking, the level is a triumph. Note how the spaces between the rooms alternate from room to room - the pattern they form when all four are viewed from a single room has a beautiful symmetry.

 

Fiery Fogstorm (Josh Lee): CCLP1 needs a force floor level or two. Sadly, many force floor-centric levels fall prey to one of the following pitfalls: (a) ripping off Forced Entry, ( B) ripping off Force Field, or © presenting a sidestepping challenge that's just way, way too hard, sometimes with no opportunities for subsequent attempts without a restart. This level does none of those things, with a simple-to-understand maze and only one major mid-force floor navigation challenge that presents no penalty for initial failure and an aesthetic that I can only describe as unique. There are also multiple entrance points to some of the chip hiding places, which makes the task at hand much less rigid and more friendly. And the title itself just screams win. :)

 

They're Not Called Blocks for Nothing (Eric Schmidt): So far, I've been listing levels that have been rather easy - or if moderate in difficulty for a beginner, at least easy to grasp. The concept here is quite easy to grasp, but the level in which it's featured is what I like to call a "difficulty curve" level: one that teaches the player the "trick" at the start while steadily increasing the difficulty throughout. Thankfully, the challenges here are quite reasonable. The last room, while being the most challenging, is actually deceptively simple. And to top it all off, there's a nice "end at the start" touch that brings everything full circle.

 

Chip Alone (Tom Patten): "Be a good little fella now and open the door!" Tom's original classic sadly didn't make it into CCLP3, but its sequel did. CCLP1 would be a perfect opportunity to use the original while paying a masterfully designed homage to a quintessential Christmas movie. The layout is much simpler than the sequel, with little preparation needed before the monsters travel through the "house." Speaking of which, it's fun to speculate about what rooms of the house are represented throughout the level. Is the area through which the bottom fireball travels supposed to resemble the basement? Only Tom would know, but I suspect yes. :) Also, if the extra room with the boots outside is supposed to represent either the treehouse or the neighbor's house...well played.

 

ChipWeave (Henri Potts): CC1 had its fair share of maze levels, and CCLP1 could use some, if only to get things "back to basics." This level combines the game's objective of chip collecting with a maze that looks easy but is actually a tangled web of well-laid paths. Incredible design here, and a lot of fun to navigate.

 

Skydiver's Maze (J.B. Lewis): Okay, I'm not usually one for self-promotion, but I couldn't resist here. :) This level is hard but manageable. One of my favorite difficult level qualities is the ability to explore before making any big decisions that could lead to a restart, and I tried to apply that principle here. The objective is to get a block down to the trap button at the bottom. Thankfully, the high time limit allows for plenty of study and path-tracing before any actual pushing is done, and the final solution is pretty satisfying to find. As an added bonus, I placed some tantalizing ice skates that can't ever be collected - whatever happened to the days when we put items in our levels that were obviously unreachable without having to experience a Trust Me-style red herring?

 

Badlands (Tyler Sontag): I absolutely adore this level. It's not only a fun level to play, but it also looks beautiful. Remember back in CC1, when levels like Drawn and Quartered or Spooks would contain tons of dirt without requiring the player to be incredibly precise with how it's used, as was the case in CCLP3? Here's one of those levels. Much of the dirt here is used purely for aesthetic effect, but it works. The spacious room at the top is also a welcome touch. There's something about a level that starts off in rather close quarters and then "opens up" into a grand room that's just so satisfying. The challenges around the edges of the level are fun and non-complicated. It's also welcome to see a room with fireballs that isn't meant to be a "monster manipulation" section. And how about that fire! I can't help but be reminded of CC1 levels like Paranoia, Slide Step, and Corridor when I see "arbitrary" fire like that. This level feels just like the CC of old.

 

Cell Swapper (Markus): Some of the most clever puzzles from CC1 were those that involved navigation - though Short Circuit may not make anyone's CC1 top 10 list, I did appreciate how there was almost always a method to determine which path to take whenever a fork was encountered. Unlike that level, though, this one does allow for exploration and a map to be drawn before tackling the actual navigation when the toggle walls close. The result is a well-calibrated puzzle and a beautifully matriced design. Just perfect for CCLP1.

 

Heat Wave (Daniel Bouwmeester): If you were to ask most veteran chipsters what they think of when they see a level that involves fire and water, as can be seen from the start of this level, they'd probably go for CC1's Steam or the many ripoffs of it that have been made over the years. Thankfully, this level is its own animal: a fire maze with walker dodging. It's reasonable enough for the neophyte crowd, but it's a fun ride for players of all skill levels. It takes full advantage of fire being a "safe spot" against walkers, with its chip-snatching challenges reminiscent of the northwest room of Nuts and Bolts. There are also walkers that occupy their own squares and exist only as pure obstacles, which is a neat touch as well. The water is used to great effect as the "barriers" for the player, but the way it's laid out makes it look like several rivers are flowing and criss-crossing throughout the map. Plus, for anyone out there concerned about optimization, it's not terribly difficult to achieve the optimal time here. All in all, an enjoyable and well-designed level.

 

Assassin (Rock Généreux): Who doesn't love a good teeth-evading level? CC1 brought us Victim and The Prisoner, but this level dares to be its own animal and succeeds. What makes this level work is that isn't neither too claustrophobic nor too open; there are defined paths to travel - and multiple ones at that, which make running away even more of a fun, panic-driven decision-making process. The structure of the level also includes the diagonal lines that are useful for trapping teeth while making one's way over to another area. This level is definitely one of my favorite dodging levels in recent memory, and I heartily recommend it for CCLP1.

 

A Puzzle (Dave Varberg): This level combines the bottom water section of CCLP2's Yet Another Puzzle with the obstacle-course sokobans of CCLP3's Yet Another Yet Another Puzzle. But unlike either of those two levels, this one isn't overly difficult, though it may pose a challenge to new players. Veterans may be fooled by a mechanism at the start of the level that usually requires an additional block, but thankfully, the level actually is solvable with one block remaining. The objective is fairly obvious once the first room is cleared, and thankfully, the level can be explored fully without having to wade through lots of challenges before one knows what to do. The actual manipulation of the glider may be a bit tricky at first glance, but the level's design allows for careful study of just how far a bridge would need to be built in order to direct the glider to its final destination. Overall, this level exemplifies what one may term "simple complexity" quite brilliantly.

 

Straight Forward (Trevor Hedges): In racing games, there's a certain smooth "flow" to a track that has had a lot of thought put into its design. Trevor, who designs custom tracks for Mario Kart Wii, has obviously thought of that same "flow" in designing this CC level. It's only appropriate that I end this list with an epic campaign level. :) This one is fairly easy and is placed right after a bunch of tutorial levels in Trevor's custom set; however, I think it's better suited for CCLP1's 30s or 40s. (If I had my way, I'd use Chip56's Chip Suey as the "tutorial review" level in CCLP1, providing it was voted highly.) One of the dangerous aspects of building a lengthy campaign level for CCLP1 is that the longer it is, and the more opportunities exist for failure, the more frustrating it can be to inexperienced players. This level is certainly long, but the tasks to perform are anything but frustrating. The linearity is refreshing, with a return to the start that just works.

 

So what are some of your favorites you're hoping to see in the final product? Sound off in the comments!

jblewis

The Simple Things

blog-0240673001368327188.pngIt all started on a lonely day at work. I was finishing up one of my internships during college and was taking a break, planning out a list of levels I had intended to include in my set. The CCLP3 submission deadline was approaching. I figured submitting a set with a nice, round number of 100 levels seemed like the proper thing to do - after all, one of my favorite sets, DanielB1, had that amount! And as I was nearing 100, I began thinking of a level I was hoping to place as #39 or so in my future 149-level set.

 

The level, quite simply, would involve tanks.

 

I never really had a tank-centric level in my set up to that point. Well, back when I was a kid, I made a rather lame level called "TANKX" (because the tanks were in the shape of an "X!" - get it?), but that was about it. But this would be different. This would be...the ultimate tank level. The tank level to end all tank levels.

 

At first, I started with some dodging rooms. One of my favorite DanielB1 levels involved dodging balls and tanks at the same time, and it seemed like a good idea here too. Then came a little puzzle: it wouldn't hurt to have a small challenge where Chip had to push a block into a room of tanks to make them push some trap buttons, right? I could even add a hint that spelled out what to do to be nice! At this point, I figured another round of dodging was in order, and then came a point where I couldn't resist building a device that I had seen in a CheeseT1 level called "Weaver": tanks traveling on twisty, icy, checkerboard-esque paths! So far, the level was coming along well. But then I had a realization: what if...all the tanks could stop? What if the level could have an intermediary section in which Chip would have to manually control the tanks? Thus began a new quest to include some amount of challenge in this section. I had a little room that was meant to be reminiscent of "Refraction," but that wouldn't be enough, right? Eventually, I had an idea: what if Chip had to make something control the tanks temporarily? Then it dawned on me: I could use a device I had seen in MikeL2's "Bug Arranging"! Just ferry a bug over to a tank button and kill it once the tanks needed to stop! Finally, at the end, I included a mechanism to get the tanks rolling again and allow Chip to return back to the original chain of rooms to exit. By the time the level was finished, I certainly felt like I had accomplished my goal of building the most epic tank level EVER!!!!!!1, but it was definitely a far cry from the simple, placed-at-#39 level I had also hoped to build. In fact, the level was a hit among the skilled veteran crowd and eventually made it into CCLP3 at the #133 spot.

 

So what happened? Why did my original vision to make a level that would be placed relatively early in my set turn into a monster challenge? Did my hopes for making the Ultimate Tank Level get in the way? Well...yes and no. Because while making the Ultimate Tank Level was in no way a bad goal, perhaps what it ended up involving was the issue.

 

I've been working on a theory. I don't really know what to call it yet, but the crux of it is basically this: as designers, we often forget about just how our levels will be played by someone who's never laid eyes on them before. It's especially the case when someone plays our levels unassisted, without the use of maps in front of them. As designers, we have the ability to see our levels from the ultimate bird's-eye-view in the editor, as everything can be seen on a single map all at once. It's a far cry from the small 9x9 window to which players are confined when they take on the challenges we make. And on top of that, we know what we intend to do when we add another room or another puzzle. We know the solution. We know what comes beforehand. We know what comes afterward. Everything feels so obvious to us because we're the ones in charge. And as a result, we continue introducing more and more opportunities for players to fail when they play a level, just like I did when I built Think Tank.

 

So what's the antidote to this problem? Quite simply...I think we can call it simplicity. And I think it's a timely topic to talk about with the next major phase of CCLP1 production in our sights.

 

Now, before I elaborate further, please know that simplicity doesn't necessarily equal easiness. Simple levels can be quite difficult. In fact, a lot of simple levels in the original Chip's Challenge were devious, especially to players undertaking the game for the first time. But for the most part, they were also manageable. Here are a few qualities that I believe define simplicity in Chip's Challenge levels:

 

- Allowing the player to understand what the objective of the level or section in a level is. One of the most distinct qualities that permeates just about every universally lauded level is that understanding what the level is all about isn't a chore. The end goal that must be achieved in order to reach the exit or the next room is fairly simple to understand, whether it's a specific way to solve a puzzle, getting through a series of rooms alive, or just making one's way out of a twisty maze. This doesn't mean, however, that the tasks required to reach those goals are easy. In fact, they can be difficult. Let's use the original set for reference here: Blink, Rink, DoubleMaze, Jumping Swarm, and Force Field are all levels that, according to some testimonials on Richard Field's site, were among the hardest for those who had never played Chip's Challenge before. But let's break these levels down. They're not filled with devilish puzzles and red herrings. In fact, all of them use only a few of the game elements. The first three are navigation challenges, while the latter two are tests of skill. But in every case, what needs to be done - whether it's surviving a horde of walkers while collecting chips or navigating a series of teleports - is obvious. Even levels that involve puzzles can apply this principle when the objective of the puzzle isn't difficult to understand. A great example of one in the CCLP1 submission pool is Ida4's "Lean Thinking."

 

- Resisting the urge to be clever. Here's a mistake I've made plenty of times as a designer. If you think your red herring, guesswork challenge at the end, or making-the-player-realize-that-he-or-she-had-been-doing-everything-incorrectly-for-20-minutes moment is going to make someone go, "Oh, that was just brilliant!", chances are that it probably will frustrate more people instead. I speak painfully from experience. I'm not saying that every level that includes these sorts of mechanisms is bad; in fact, the veteran in me enjoys some of these levels. But more often than not, the average player doesn't have the time to wade through a level obfuscated by layers of deception just to understand what the point of all of it is or how to get to the next room or the exit, especially in our on-the-go, pick-up-and-quickly-play world - and especially for a game like Chip's Challenge where failure involves returning all the way to the very beginning.

 

- Remembering that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. This was the big mistake I made when designing Think Tank. This one right here. All those moments I had of, "Oh! I loved this mechanism in Level X; let's include it here!" neglected one issue: the landscape of my own level. And by "landscape," I'm not referring to the design quality of the level. I'm talking about how the level plays, especially when it's long and includes multiple types of challenges. That skill-intensive task far into the level may be something you can include, and it certainly may add variety, but is it really necessary, or will it just frustrate players even more? The same principle applies to the size of a level as well - and this, unfortunately, is probably one of CC1's biggest shortcomings. Did Rink need to be as large as it was, for example? Some of the best levels are those that know just how far to go before they become too repetitive.

 

- Defining what you want the level to be before designing it. There was an active topic on CCZone back in the day when this question was asked: do you plan out your level before you build it, or do you come up with ideas as you go? Both certainly work in level design and have produced many great levels, but the former is certainly much more helpful in preventing another Think Tank. Ask yourself: what do you want this level to be? What kinds of game elements do you want it to include? How difficult do you want it to be? Some of the best levels are those that are very deliberate and measured in their design. Come up with a list of goals for your level - they don't necessarily have to be lofty or extensive - and check what you're doing with those original goals as you design to ensure that things don't get too out of control. Some tried-and-true design tactics involve focusing on a theme, limiting the number of game elements in your level and exploring a few different concepts with those elements, or doing the same thing with one easy-to-pick-up gimmick and including a gentle difficulty curve within the one level that explores that gimmick. EricS2's "They're Not Called Blocks for Nothing" is a great example of the latter that is both challenging and accessible.

 

I hope the above qualities help further define what I personally consider "simplicity" to be and why I believe it's important for CCLP1. One of the questions I've been asked since posting the voting lists for CCLP1 is what I personally consider to be too difficult for it. I could just point to a level number in CCLP3 and say, "Everything beyond this is way too hard!" But I think treating levels on a case-by-case basis is the best approach. While evaluating various levels and sets for CCLP1, in addition to including general enjoyability and design quality in mind, I tried to keep the original Chip's Challenge in the back of my head, especially considering that CCLP1 is meant to be a legal alternative to the original game that's at least comparable in difficulty. This doesn't mean that we would automatically eliminate anything beyond Force Field's difficulty, for example. Neither does it mean that CCLP1's levels would need to contain the exact same concepts or gameplay as CC1. But I tried to keep the principles that defined CC1 levels and made them accessible to beginners - even the frustrating ones - in mind throughout this process. In the future, as CCLP4 and future level packs are produced, I hope simplicity can still be a part of level design, even among more difficult levels.

 

Apologies to anyone who did enjoy Think Tank, by the way. :)

jblewis

blog-0569458001362888704.pngOne of the most memorable experiences I had while playing the original Chip's Challenge as a kid was journeying through the epic campaign level that was Four Plex. There really wasn't a level that preceded it that was in any way so diverse while being so lengthy and linear. The first room was a challenge to navigate out of. You remember it, right? There were the twisty ice paths, all the items to collect, and blue walls to uncover. And to add to the challenge, there were even a few pop-up walls! But thankfully, failure here didn't hurt too much. You could just start over with only a few seconds of your time lost.

 

Once you exited this room, you proceeded onward to a much more challenging one. There were plenty of obstacles here: you had to retrieve four blocks and push them to a line of bombs, but along the way, you had to trigger a ball cloner on each trip to each block, and as a result, your window of time to get past the barrage of balls shrunk with every subsequent retrieval! Oh, and who could forget choosing the wrong direction after getting off each force slide or getting a block to your face if you didn't react quickly enough? And to top this room off, you also had to deal with a bug circling around while you maneuvered your blocks to the bomb line.

 

But once you completed this section, you slid into another room and may have noticed a change in tone. No monsters coming at you or darting out from corners to attack! But what's this?! Buttons everywhere! After spending a few seconds stunned at the sight of so many buttons all in one place at one time, you noticed that there's a clone machine in the corner and some bombs you need to explode. Now the objective is a bit more clear...but so was your realization that if you made one wrong calculation with those toggle walls, you could send a glider loose, maybe even into that clone button, which would cause all sorts of chaos and pandemonium! So you carefully planned your moves and eventually figured out a way to move around while keeping the toggle doors in the state you need them to be in. Eventually, all the bombs were exploded and chips collected.

 

Finally, you reached the fourth and last quadrant. There's no way you could mess up now; you came too far for that! That's why you were only sitting still, nervously staring at what lay ahead...pop-up walls. You really needed to be careful now - after all, one wrong move could have sent you all the way back to that first ice room, where you'd have to start all over again and go through all three of the previous sections! So, you gingerly stepped through and made sure no chip was left behind. But along the way, you probably noticed that there was a path into another area - even more, a pop-up wall-free area at that! Should you go for it, or continue exploring? You could leave a path for a return trip back, so you continued tiptoeing across the pop-up walls and collecting whatever chips you could scour. After you conquer that bit, you took on the end-of-level itemswapper! Looked like a piece of cake at first, but you may have figured those monsters circling around in the tight 3x3 spaces could have been an issue. But you couldn't let that bother you: you had to muster all the resolve you had and go for it. After a narrow escape or two, it was finally time. This was the moment you had been waiting for: the exit was in your sights! You brushed past the chip socket, slid up on the ice, and hit the left arrow key...sending you into a bomb! A bomb one square away from the exit, too! Your life was in shambles!

 

Okay, maybe that story was a little overdramatic. But that was my experience playing Four Plex - besides the bomb failure at the end, thank goodness. Perhaps it's not everyone's experience, but I'm willing to venture a guess that most beginners who take on this level might have made some of the mistakes described above or felt some of those emotions while taking on certain rooms. When I solved this level, I was so satisfied and thrilled. It quickly became one of my favorite CC levels. It still is. And for a while after I finished CC, I was wondering - why weren't there more levels like this in the game? I mean, sure, we had some really long levels, but come on - they all involved repetitive block pushing! Bo-ring, right? What other linear campaign levels were there with this kind of variety? Nuts and Bolts? Tossed Salad? These were all relatively short and not too difficult to complete. So what's with the lack of more epic Four Plex-esque challenges?

 

In recent years, sets like CCLP3 and the custom sets in which some of its levels appear have provided an answer. One of CC's inherent flaws is the lack of a checkpoint system - something that could alleviate the worry of going back to the start if a mistake were made. While I certainly can't speak for the original CC team, I'm going to bet that the original Lynx system may not have supported save states, and the levels had to be designed with this limitation in mind. Unfortunately, not every custom level designer has thought this way or realized this. The use of an editor, complete with the ability to see a level's entire map, changed level design tactics for quite some time. Because it was possible to play the game with a map in front of you, level designers could worry less about hiding items, presenting challenges that focused on guesswork, or using invalid tile combinations that would otherwise obfuscate important information from the player. It was much harder for designers - myself at the time included - to put themselves in players' shoes and think like they would upon seeing a level for the first time. The expectation seemed to be that most people who played these sets would do so for optimization and would want to have a map in front of them so they could analyze the level much more quickly. And this would all work well...as long as we weren't dealing with players who wanted to simply play the game casually without the use of any help.

 

And eventually, this became the case.

 

While playing CCLP3 and testing CCLP1 submissions, I think I've found the answer to my long-pondered question about Four Plex. It's a great level by itself, but a set with too many levels like this would simply be exhausting. Some people might say that the latter portion of CCLP3 was exactly this, and I would be inclined to agree. On top of the challenge that comes with overcoming the lack of an undo feature or checkpoint system while designing is keeping in mind that players' brains have to shift gears each time a new type of challenge presents itself. You may have noticed in the dramatic description of it earlier that I listed many different ways you could die. Think about it: a level like Writers' Block may be long, but the entire level is spent doing the exact same thing: pushing blocks in water. Sure, there's a chance for failure every time you get close to that water, but you recognize the danger early on and know what to expect whenever you go for a different chip - because it's the exact same process. On the other hand, Cityblock features an end challenge that's unlike anything that had been seen earlier in the level and presents plenty of opportunities for failure - except in this case, most of them are unknowns. The room is new, and it's hard to know what to expect around that next corner.

 

I hope this post doesn't come across as a scathing reproof of long levels, because long levels aren't inherently bad. Nor is this meant to say that all of our levels should be simplistic and short. It's how we design long levels that ultimately makes or breaks them. So the next time you sit down at the editor and plan out your shiny new campaign level, think about each challenge the way a beginner would approach it. Perhaps your level isn't meant for beginners, and that's okay. But many of the most fun levels out there are the levels that anyone can solve, even if they're not easy. It's how we present the challenges, how we arrange the rooms, how much leeway we give, how many opportunities for failure there are, and how well we place ourselves in a player's shoes that define just how great a level can be.

jblewis

blog-0297139001362715969.jpgWelcome to J.B.'s Level Design Musings!

 

I've thought about starting this blog for quite some time, but I haven't really set out to commit to do so until tonight. So, here it is. Basically, I wanted to provide fellow Chipsters with a place where we could talk about the merits of quality level design, what level design preferences have looked like in this past in our community, and where things appear to be going in the future. I certainly don't consider myself to be the ultimate level design authority, but I'm happy to share my thoughts about what I've observed to work the most when designing levels, and at the same time, I'm ready and willing to learn from others as well.

 

So why don't we start from the very beginning?

 

Custom level design has almost always featured an overarching desire to explore new territory. When I discovered ChipEdit back in 1998, along with one of the first sets uploaded online (which is now much longer and called CatatonicP1.dat), I was intrigued by the use of invalid tile combinations. In fact, much of my time was spent playing around with invalid tile combinations, precisely because it was "that thing the original game just didn't have!" After a few years away from the game, I returned to the online CC world to discover many more sets had been uploaded, including an epic (then) 149-level challenge called EricS1 and an invalid tile lover's paradise: DaveB1 and DaveB2. From what I could tell, many of the seasoned designers were all about boldly going where no level had gone before. By the time CCLP2 was assembled and released, this same paradigm applied to many of its levels: sokobans, joyrides, a new type of puzzle called "Cloner's Maze," the use of random force floors, and other elements that had never been explored to much extent in years past took center stage. And at the same time, the interest in optimization started to reach a fever pitch.

 

The years that followed were largely spent dissecting the game and analyzing its various bugs and idiosyncracies. Some designers built entire levels that revolved around "insane" level behavior or the other strange workings of Microsoft CC. Much of the community at the time played the game for optimization, too. In fact, many levels were built specifically for optimization; the introduction of pieguy's custom scoreboard site was very instrumental in ushering in an era where custom scores could be reported on any set that was uploaded. Throughout this time, submissions for a new level set called CCLP3 were open - and for quite a very long time. With so much of the game's mystery taken away, the biggest satisfaction most people found was in optimizing it, and many of the levels submitted for CCLP3 consideration reflected this desire.

 

When CCLP3 voting was finally completed, most of the levels that the community had favored were the most difficult ones out of all that were submitted. But ironically, though the set was built mainly for the veteran players who enjoyed complexity and puzzling brain-teasers, what followed in the community was an unexpected but quite welcome shift. New players began to join the fold, and many of them weren't interested in optimizing the game, analyzing its intricacies to meticulous detail, or spending hours solving giant puzzles. They just wanted a game they could pick up for a brief period of time and enjoy playing in manageable chunks. The rise of Let's Plays on YouTube also proved to be conducive to casual gameplay, and once again, CC felt new again for a brand-new generation. Design was no longer about finding something new; it was now about presenting the familiar in innovative ways. It also wasn't long before the idea to create an official set specifically for new players that served as a replacement for the original CC1 was brought forth, and from that, the CCLP1 project has since launched and is currently in production.

 

Since CCLP1 submissions have closed, I've tested thousands of levels in the running, and I can safely say that the future is looking bright for level design. The objective of creating a level set that's beginner-friendly has sparked a revolution in level design where casual gameplay is being considered, and I believe that can only be a good thing, particularly for the next generation of CC players who will likely search for more challenges after completing CCLP1. In the days to come, I'll be sharing my thoughts on level design, how I believe the best levels consider all styles of gameplay, and some difficult lessons I've learned as a designer. Where will community preferences with respect to level design go in the future? The answer is anyone's guess, but I can only hope that it's a place where players of all skill levels can feel welcome.

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