Mind Gamerz: A look back at Menu based Level progression.
In the earlier days of gaming, many games used menu based level progression, in which each level is individually selected and completed. After completion, the player would be sent back to the menu and the next level would become available on the list, and this system continued until the game was completed. A classic example of this is In the Nintendo 64 game: 007 the world is not enough. This system probably came about due to the limitations of the he hardware of the time, as it allowed the developers to create limited areas per level, which reduced loading times, especially on the early disk based console that had longer loading times when compared to their cartridge based cousins. However, not all games were forced to use this level progression system and it fell out of use as better machines came along. Though by dropping this system, we have lost some of the main advantage it offered, such as strong replay ability, a pseudo party/competition option and more in depth/complex levels in linear games.
I am not saying this system is good for all game types, but it would be particularly suited towards games that are linear. Developers could break up the event sequence into levels. In traditional linear games, as the player progresses, there are points where something happens and the player can't backtrack anymore such as a rock slide or gate closing. That would be a good place to break levels up.
Replay ability is a major selling point for any game, it allows for the player to re-enjoy a game after the initial play through or beyond, if done well. The new game plus or multiple story arcs options are nice, but what if a person wanted to play a particular part again. Players are usually very fond of certain parts, but it would usually be impossible to play as there is no way to directly select a certain section to play on demand. Now compared to Half Life2, which uses chapter based progression, if I wanted to replay certain chapters over, I simply reload that chapter over and start playing, WITHOUT even worrying about overriding my existing progress. If the chapter/level system is mixed with variability systems, such as individual as scalable difficulty curves for each level, fun cheat codes (single player) or game plus options that game would have strong playability.
Building on the replay ability aspect of the menu system, it allows for the players to use this option in groups and pseudo competitive capacity. Before the internet was available to gaming, I would invite friends over to play. We were very competitive and not all games were multiplayer, thus game with the level menu system allowed for us to create competitive speed runs. We would select a level and see which of us could complete the level faster. This was a more enjoyable way to play single player games, as it was more competitive and more interactive, through the competition process. When compared to the hand off the controller when that player dies method of group single player game play.
When developing a level it is important to take into account the amount of time a player will spend in various parts of that level. Thus, if a player is expected to spend a small amount of time in an area, that area will be simpler with only a few divergent paths or extras. However, when a player will potentially be revisiting the same area multiple times, the developer has the ability to add extra and more complex content as the player can search for on subsequent visits. This also further improves replay ability. The best implementation of this is when developers add areas that can't be accessed until subsequent abilities are unlocked (e.g. high jump or grappling hook). This teases the player to come back and check it out later, varying the play style and slightly increasing play time. Best examples of this I can find are in Metroids (nes) and Banjo-Kazooie series (N64).
Finally, the level based system can be very damming to a game if done wrong and its usage comes with its own issues, related to breaking immersion and pacing. In the traditional level menu system, once a level is completed, the level is ended and the player is forced back to the menu to pick another level, breaking immersion and flow. The solution is to make the level transition seamless. The Half-life 2 system is the best example, it was broken down into chapters instead of shorter levels, which keep up the pacing. Secondly, when the player completes a chapter the game doesn't end and send the player back to the menu, it simply lets the player know that the next chapter has started. Also there is a save system built into the system that allows players to progress at their own pace.
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