If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my time with the early access for GolfTopia, it’s this: designing a golf course is easy, but designing a good golf course is hard. Building a course that people actually want to play, that’s challenging without being too hard, while also retaining whatever creative vision you had for it, takes a lot of practice, experience, experimentation, and good old fashioned “throw it out there and see how people react”.
It has a lot in common with game design, it’s what I’m saying. Which makes sense–golf is a game, after all, and a course’s holes are its levels. GolfTopia is about playing the level designer, with the visitors to your resort acting as AI-controlled playtesters.
And true to real life, these playtesters will frequently behave in odd or unexpected ways. Sometimes that results in some cool, emergent aspect to a hole you’ve built, but mostly just exposing its flaws and things you overlooked.
Not everyone who visits your course will be a golf expert. My first hole was—I thought—a pretty straightforward one: tee off from the top of a small hill to an open fairway below, which then carried on to the green with a very slight curve along the way. Many visitors got it, even if some complained that it was rather dull, but a not-insignificant number struggled to even get from the tee to the start of the fairway. Some would aim directly for the green, despite it being much too far to reach straight from the tee, and wind up in the bushes. Others would shoot vaguely in the direction of the fairway but end up nowhere near it. I don’t even know what some players did to end up where they ended up.
It’s easy to get frustrated with players like this. “What are you doing? It’s so obvious!”, you want to scream at this little cartoony golfing sims. But just because it’s obvious to you, the person who designed the course, doesn’t mean it’s obvious to everyone—and if people are struggling and doing things that seem stupid to you, it’s probably a reflection on your level design.
Luckily, even in its early access state, GolfTopia has a good set of tutorials that goes beyond just teaching the mechanics of the game to basic level design philosophy and how to make productive use of players’ negative feedback. It talks about using things like sand traps and other hazards not just as obstacles, but as ways of communicating to players what you want from them—putting a couple of traps around the edges of that fairway was enough to dramatically increase people’s success, and with it their enjoyment (while also dealing to some of the other complaints about the lack of interesting features). A thicket of trees to block line of sight from tee to green quickly sorted out those people gunning for a one-in-a-million hole in one.
GolfTopia also goes to pains to differentiate between “challenge” and “difficulty”, to the point of making these separate metrics for each hole you create. Here, “challenge” refers to players’ perception of how difficult a hole is going to be due primarily to the visibility of hazards, while “difficulty” is how hard it actually is to complete a hole. There’s a lot of overlap between the two, but it’s possible to create a high-difficulty, low-challenge hole or vice versa.
These all factor into players’ enjoyment of your course. A hole that’s too difficult will be frustrating and a hole that’s too easy will be boring, but that can be moderated with the right level of challenge. Even a very easy hole can be fun if it looks more challenging than it actually is, and—perhaps counterintuitively—increasing the challenge of an unfairly difficult hole can smooth out those rough edges, provided the challenge is used as a way of guiding players.
The science-fiction nature of GolfTopia also means there are some fun, creative toys to play with in designing your course. As well as the usual sand traps and water hazards, you can add pinball-esque bounce pads, springboards, teleporters, and flaming hoops to your holes, each of which opens up new creative possibilities. These less traditional items can be tricky to use well—I’m still yet to make a functioning pinball hole—but experimenting with them and figuring out how to make them work is part of the fun.
This all makes GolfTopia a fascinating exercise in game design. It’s not really a “game design game” in the way that something like Dreams is, but it still makes level design—right through to playtesting and taking feedback on board to refine your creations—the core of its game loop.
There’s also a management sim built around that. You’re running a golf course to make money, so that you can upgrade your facilities and unlock new buildings and gadgets and the like, so that you can earn more money, so that you can upgrade further… you know the drill. You have to make sure there are sufficient amenities, and keep weeds under control lest they ravage your resort. The management side of GolfTopia is a bit of a light touch at this stage, with relatively few particulars to manage and a lot of automation built in.
But it’s clear that the focus with GolfTopia so far has been on creating a robust set of tools for designing your golf courses themselves, and building an intriguing level design game around that. First and foremost, your role as manager of a futuristic golf resort is to keep your visitors happy—happy visitors come back again and again, and maybe even buy memberships. The best way to keep visitors happy is to give them a course that’s exciting to play and finds just the right balance of creativity, challenge, and difficulty, so it’s right that GolfTopia puts that front and centre.