Updated: Oct 15, 2021
In an ideal world, the quality of a single-player campaign would remain constant throughout. Better yet, it would improve as the game progressed. This would make the game’s latter stages akin to a crescendo in music, the dramatic climax of a truly great film or the season finale of a superb TV series. These late-game levels would then be something to look forward to.
Unfortunately, this is seldom the case. Games rarely improve as their levels progress. Worse yet, many do not even maintain the level of quality they had at the start and thus get worse as the game progresses. I name this Design Sin ‘Top Loading Level Design’.
Why would a game have its best content at the start and its worst at the end? There are many reasons; some are perhaps deliberate; some are accidental and some are the inevitable result of narrative choices. Let’s investigate each in turn.
With Deliberate Intent
At the nefarious end of the scale, it could be done deliberately to mislead players and drive up sales. If a developer or publisher is aware there is an imbalance in the quality of its upcoming game’s maps, levels, gameplay, etc. they might be tempted to ‘tuck these away’ at the end.
They may reason that since some gamers leave their playthroughs unfinished, these gamers may not reach that far into the game and thus never see these levels anyway.
An even more exploitative view could be to use the best content early on as a form of ‘attract mode’. From a purely short-term sales perspective, once someone has purchased a game based on seeing its early content it doesn’t matter if they get bored halfway through.
This is pure supposition of course, and I hope that ‘with deliberate intent’ covers only a very small minority of ‘top-loaded games’.
Hopefully, most cases of Top Loading are unintended, and are the unfortunate results of working practices, design philosophies or accidents.
The Consequences of Crunch
Developers are only human and none of us are capable of producing our best work 100% of the time. Devs can get burned out, especially during ‘crunch’ sessions. The working conditions in the gaming industry are notoriously harsh, with punishingly long hours being all too common. This can soon lead to dev teams becoming thoroughly spent, and few people are at their best when they are exhausted. This is particularly true for anything that requires imagination, creativity or the creation of solutions to complex problems - all of which are required when creating a video game.
The Dev's motivation to create ‘the best game they can’ may get so worn down that they settle for creating the ‘minimum viable product’, which may, or may not, be improved via post-release updates.
Overly Ambitious Goals
Sometimes it will be due to starting with well-intentioned grand ambitions, which subsequently prove too difficult to deliver. An excessive amount of time might be spent on trying to make these work before the decision to cut them is made. This may leave little time to complete development. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl and Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines are two infamous examples of this. (Both, incidentally, fixed by mods.)
Eager to Impress
Another possibility is that some Devs might be so eager to show off and implement their great new ideas and gameplay mechanics that they use them up too early, thus leaving nothing to introduce in the late game.
Anyone who has worked on any long-term creative project, be that a game, a novel, a film, a music album, etc. has probably encountered this themselves at some point. This is probably best countered by careful planning and spreading out these features evenly throughout the campaign. This may entail trimming down the campaign so that they are not spread too thinly. Quantity does not always have a quality all its own, and sometimes less is indeed more.
Another possible cause is that some dev teams will have different team members working on different maps, levels, stages, etc. The various devs may have very different design philosophies which might result in very different level designs. Some players may not like a particular dev’s level design choices. If those levels happen to be at the end of a game, said players may perceive this as an objective drop in quality, when it might simply be a matter of having differing subjective tastes.
[DOOM] John Romero's Level Design Rules
Romero’s rules work well. A different set of design rules might result in very different levels. These might not be to some player’s subjective tastes, or they could also be objectively worse
Video by Chubzdoomer
Events Beyond the Dev's Control
Another pair of culprits are ‘Old Father Time’ and ‘Murphy’s law’. In the real-world projects rarely run to schedule, for a multitude of reasons. Some things will take longer to do than expected. Staff may be rendered out of action due to illness, injury, parental leave, etc.
The game engine and gameplay mechanics may create unforeseen problems that need to be fixed before progress can be made.
Worse yet, In Real Life (IRL) disasters may happen which can throw a colossal spanner in the works. A fire in the office, a hurricane knocking out the power, a flood making getting into the office impossible, etc. are all very plausible scenarios for Devs based in areas prone to these events.
Then there are the major once-in-a-lifetime events that can grind development to a halt. For example, I’m sure there are plenty of games that will be delayed due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Delays such as these may result in a rushed development if release deadlines cannot be extended. If the game is being developed chronologically - i.e. working on the earlier levels first, then the middle, then the end - then the latter stages are the most likely to be rushed, and their quality will likely suffer as a result.
Sometimes the drop in quality is the result of the game's narrative. This is often linked to a drastic change in setting, gameplay, enemies, etc. Two infamous examples are Half-Life and Crysis.
About half-way through the Crysis campaign, the game changes dramatically. In the first half of the game, you are fighting against human enemies and their equipment on a lush tropical island. Success involves using a mixture of speed, stealth and cover.
Enemies can be taken out via stealthy melee attacks, picked up and used as human shields, and then thrown at whatever takes your fancy. Headshots are of course instant kills, and there is a multitude of creative ways to dispatch your foes using the environment as a weapon. The video below shows this off perfectly.
Crysis Montage HD 720p
02:44 to 02:46 - Potato Mode - Activated
Video by Tehdaza
From the approximately half-way point onwards you are fighting the alien Ceph, or specifically their flying and walking war machines. Because most of them can fly taking cover rarely works, since they can simply fly up and then look down/shoot down over it.
The Ceph war machines are comparatively resistant to damage - read bullet sponges - therefore there are few opportunities for satisfying headshots, stealth takedowns and the like. Grenades are not particularly effective either since they can fly away from the blast, and opportunities to use the environment as a weapon are limited in comparison.
Visually the second half is very different. Although it is set on the same island, it has now been frozen by the Ceph. It is an interesting change of aesthetic, but arguably not as visually appealing as the previous vistas of a tropical paradise.
Overall, the latter stages are less enjoyable than the earlier ones, and the final section, taking place in the tight confines of an aircraft carrier, is arguably the least enjoyable of all.
(Granted, this is only my opinion, and seemingly the consensus amongst most players. Some players may think otherwise of course, since personal preferences can vary considerably.)
Crysis Carrier Level and Final Ceph Boss
What is the most unrealistic thing about this game? It’s that it is set in the year 2020 and the in-game US Navy already has a full fleet of operational F-35s. See what I mean about IRL projects not running to schedule? 😉
Video by Bigtymer781
Perhaps the most notorious example is the Xen chapter from Half-Life. The change of location from the Earth-bound Black Mesa Research Facility to the extra-dimensional border world of Xen radically changed the design philosophies and layouts of the levels.
Frustrating, annoying and boring. This is Xen-done-wrong.
Video by VideoGameCinema
Gravity was lower, permitting greater leaps and less fall damage. Many of the ‘Land masses’ were small floating islands’ separated by large three-dimensional voids. Getting from ‘island’ to ‘island’ often required the use of the newly acquired jump module - the activation of which was somewhat unintuitive and awkward.
Xen changed the latter levels of Half-Life into a frustrating first-person platform game - a design choice that was not particularly popular. Indeed, it was so unpopular that when Crowbar Collective created Black Mesa - their 21st-century remake of Half-Life, they wisely remade the Xen levels from scratch. Much of Black Mesa’s Xen levels bear little resemblance to their Half-Life analogues and are much the better for it.
Black Mesa: XEN - Full Walkthrough
Bigger, better and enjoyable. This is ‘Xen-done-right’
Video by Bolloxed
And there we have it, my two cents on the trope of Top Loading Level Design in Video Games. Hopefully, when it happens it is unintentional, the result of life getting in the way and the unfortunate realities of video game design. With luck, it may not be as prevalent in the future as it was in the past.
What are your thoughts on this trope? Have you noticed it yourself? If so, what do you think causes it, and what could be done to reduce it in the future? What did you think of the second half of Crysis and how did it compare to the first? And how about the Xen levels of Half-Life? What did you think of these and how do they compare to the rest of the game and their Black Mesa counterparts? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to online multiplayer. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at email@example.com
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