Level Design: Spine and Convenience

Comparing the design of Yooka Laylee with Super Mario Odyssey to determine how each handles their massive levels.

Super mario Odyssey

The approach to 3D collect’em all sandbox games such as Super Mario Odyssey and Yooka Laylee have changed over the years.  With the advances in hardware, developers can now craft massive levels where players search every nook and cranny they can find.  While playing Super Mario Odyssey, I found myself instantly drawn into the worlds.  I often stayed in each level longer than required, growing a sense of familiarity and momentum.  Each time I found a moon, I knew the next could be just around the corner if I only looked.  Yooka Laylee, developed by Playtonic, has beautiful worlds as well where the player is tasked with finding Pagie’s.  The levels are vast and beautiful, but there is something missing compared to Super Mario Odyssey.  In this blog, I wanted to discuss how player direction can lead to a more compelling experience.

When the player first enters the level in Super Mario Odyssey, the camera pans across the scene, eventually pointing to your main objective, either a boss at the end of a level, a high peak you must reach, or an NPC in need.  Right off the bat the player has what I consider a spine.  A spine is different than just a main objective because it’s carefully designed to allow the player to digest most of the level and create a suitable mental model for it.  After traveling the spine, the player still can explore multiple limbs.  Super Mario Odyssey clearly lays out the spine of each world, giving the player a clear sense of direction.  If they ever become tired of wandering for off-spine points of interest, they can always return to the main objective and regain their orientation. 

Yooka Laylee does not give the player a level spine to work with.  Does that just mean Yooka Laylee was designed to be a harder game than Super Mario OdysseyYooka Laylee leaves the players to their own devices in developing their mental model of the level.  In a sense, that’s harder than Super Mario Odyssey, but it’s also less convenient for the player.  Let’s dive into the first world of Yooka Laylee, which should be considered the easiest, allowing the player to become acquainted to the controls and the challenges of the game.  Yooka Laylee thrusts its players into the “Tribalstack Tropics” with no clear level specific objective or point to reach.  As a player I only know I’m looking for Pagie’s.  Yooka Laylee’s first level has multiple peaks as well, which further dilute the level spine.  High peaks offer the player a goal to reach, looming in the distance.  Think of the Cascade Kingdom or Luncheon Kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey, each of which had one peak.  Yooka Laylee’s first level has multiple peaks, so as a player I go up all of them.  I found myself wandering, not progressing, and since the level was so large, it took an unusual amount of time to run from place to place. 


Unfortunately Yooka Laylee has another more game specific problem as well.  So I’ve climbed to the top of a peak.  To my dismay, I find a dead end.  Now I’m confused, and I just wasted time wandering to the peak and climbing it.  I then must exit the level to discover I can “expand” it.  By offering up some Pagie’s, I can enlarge the level, adding to what was already pretty sizable.  The way it was designed, I almost feel like the expansion idea came later in development.  The designers created massive beautiful worlds, but then realized “oh shit. These are so huge, the player won’t have the capacity to develop a mental model, so lets cut it in half.”  I don’t necessarily think size was the main issue here.  The level lacks a spine, which causes me to wander aimlessly. 


Why isn’t level size an issue?  Super Mario Odyssey has huge levels, but Nintendo also developed ways to combat the problems a huge level incurs.  Once Mario has discovered the checkpoints around the level, he can instantly teleport to anyone at any time.  If the player prefers exploring the landscape over teleporting, Mario can travel along power lines to quickly traverse the levels, usually once they’ve traversed the entire spine.  One might argue Metro Kingdom has a lot of peaks with each building top.  Yes, but there are multiple ways to reach them, via power lines or “flick posts” (for lack of a better way to name those).  There’s convenience designed into each level.  Nintendo also jam packed each massive level with a ton of collectibles.  The player never needs to wander very far to find a new challenge.  The combination of a spine and multiple fast travel options makes the world more digestible for the player.  They travel the spine and simultaneously form their own mental model.

Side Note: Back in the day, the lack of powerful hardware made level designers think in creative ways, and I think to a degree, the advancement in hardware has spoiled us.  We think, “lets make the biggest levels we can think of.  And then lets make them bigger.”  With technology constraints, designers couldn’t just make the worlds bigger, so they tried to flip the player’s mental model on its head.  They changed aspects of the level to open up new possibilities.  The player has a mental model, and they adjust it for a new outcome.  Think of Super Mario 64 where the player drains the castle moat.  A bunch of new possibilities just opened themselves to the player.  The world is still the same size.  I think as designers, we should think back to these practices on how the levels can be altered slightly, to open up new possibilities to the player, instead of making levels larger.  In it’s defense, Yooka Laylee does alter its mental model in the “Tribalstack Tropics” by adding water, but the damage has already been done.

So in summary, including a level spine will help players become acquainted with your level.  If you plan on designing massive levels, design some convenience in for your players, including fast travel.  Fast travel and a level spine in tandem, will cut down on needless wandering for the player.  In this case, I think convenience isn’t the same thing as difficulty.  Convenience makes your level a place the player wants to be.  Therefore, I always look around the next corner to find another moon. 

Please feel free to comment or reach out with questions if you have them.