Weenies in Level Design
A fairly commonly used term in the field of level design is the “weenie” (also spelled “wienie”). Though few designers know of its origin: Walt Disney Imagineering.
Let’s take a brief look at where the term came from, how it’s applied in Disney’s theme park design and how we can apply those learnings to level design.
“Weenie” is a shortening of the word “wienerwurst” and refers to a hot dog-type sausage. Walt Disney observed how he could entice his dog to go wherever he wanted to by waving a sausage treat around. When explaining to his Disneyland designers how he wanted to guide visitors around the park by means of visual guidance, he coined the term “weenie”.
Jim Korkis (Disney Historian) states: “Over the decades, the company has referred to the concept as “the architectural visual icon that causes people to gravitate naturally toward a location”. Often Disney refers to it as just “a visual magnet.””
Weenies applied in Disney’s theme parks
Left: Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland
Right: Symbolica at Efteling theme park
The first thing that comes to mind when I think about weenies is Sleeping Beauty Castle at the center of Disneyland. It’s an iconic landmark that immediately draws the eye when entering any of the Disney parks around the world and has inspired similar designs in other theme parks.
After the castle draws you into the main HUB (the center of the park), weenies are revealed all around you that guide you into one of themed sections of the park, such as the Mark Twain Riverboat with Big Thunder Mountain in the background, the Astro Orbiter and Space Mountain (see images below).
Smaller objects such as attraction posters also give the guests a glimpse of what is to come and entices them to further explore the park. In function those could also be construed to be weenies/visual magnets.
Attraction posters in Disneyland
They key function of all those weenies is to draw guests in and guide them from area to area. This spreads the visitors through the park but also excites them and makes every short distance traveled feel like an adventure rather than a chore.
Why use weenies?
Getting the player to a specific point
A well-made weenie will act as a ‘visual magnet’ for your player. Though it’s not guaranteed that a player will follow your set-out path, it highly increases the chances. This gives you more control in crafting an ‘ideal experience’, especially useful in open world games or larger game spaces in a more linear game.
You may have various reasons for wanting to guide players to or through specific areas in your level, for example:
An NPC is located here that the player must talk to in order to continue the main story line
An important item can be found here that’s needed to progress to other areas or complete side-quests on the way
A HUB containing shops, storage space, crafting benches or other useful amenities can be found here
In an MMO it can naturally gather players in a certain spot, which allows them to trade, talk & team up
Scripted sequences can be really cool but are resource intensive. When you can’t populate your entire world with those, at least you can increase the chances of your players coming across them. Ideally you can trigger those along a clearly defined path towards a weenie.
Getting a glimpse of something wonderful or intriguing not only guides you in that direction, but also helps building anticipation, which makes the pay-off so much more rewarding.
Imagine playing an RPG, and while approaching the base of a mountain, you see a huge dragon in the distance landing on top of the mountain. Even though the dragon is often out of sight while you make your way to the top, you hear the deep rumble of its growl, clanging of swords and blasts of fire bleeding out over the edges of the mountain top.
Finally reaching the top of the mountain and facing off with the dragon will feel vastly more climactic than simply stumbling across a dragon ‘randomly’.
Especially in large and open environments, it’s likely that players get lost. Occasionally that leads to wonderful discoveries, but when a player too often can’t find their way to their objective or struggles to even find their way back to where they came from, this can lead to a lot of frustration.
Large structures, tall trees or even a smoke plume in the distance create reference points for the player to judge the distance traveled and whether or not they’re headed in the right direction.
Pro-tip: Add shortcuts and/or additional rewards as an alternative to the main path indicated by the weenies to reward exploration.
Weenies applied in video games
The Citadel in Valve’s Half-Life 2 is almost continuously visible throughout the game. Though the game has a heavily linear nature, this weenie still has a very prominent function.
‘The Citadel’ from Half-Life 2
Every level where the citadel is visible, the player gets closer and closer to it. Not only does this build anticipation for the climax of the game, it’s a very unobtrusive way to mark the players progress without bloated menu’s or UI elements.
All titles in the Assassin’s Creed series make extensive use of (often real-world) landmarks.
Havana cathedral in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag
When a player is drawn into a new area and reaches the viewing point atop a landmark, they’re rewarded by the map revelation of that particular area, accompanying side-quests as well as often stunning views of their surroundings.
Breath of the Wild
For a masterclass in weenies I recommend having a good look at Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The world is absolutely dotted with iconic landscape elements and structures.
“Twin Peaks” in Breath of the Wild (left) and stable design (right)
From the design of the Sheika Towers and stables to Hyrule Castle in the center of the map, everywhere the player goes there’s visual guidance and weenies enticing them to go and explore a bit more.
Additionally, the central weenie bearing an obvious resemblance to Disneyland’s castle: Hyrule Castle, fulfills three roles:
Visual orientation guide (prevents the player from getting lost too much).
Drawing the player in and encourages to explore.
Constant reminder of the end goal and builds anticipation for the final confrontation. This gives additional meaning and weight to all progress made in the game.
Keep an eye out in the games you play for those iconic landmarks, but also pay attention to the real world around you. Monuments, church towers, interesting architecture or a mountain in the distance greatly influence how we experience our journeys.
Whether you want to guide players to a specific area in your level without obtrusive way-points/markers or simply make their journey feel more like an adventure; being more aware of how to create organic feeling weenies for your environment can greatly enhance how players experience your game’s world.