Unfocused Dude

Writing about things that i give a damn about

An older piece touching on level design

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I wrote this more than a year back but never had the chance to post it somewhere. Here it is in unedited form – i still stand by these lines…

So, the guys at programming offered you all the items you need to start creating your level(s), like the enemies, weapons, bosses, features, and most important at this stage, the editor. The artists provided you with tons of textures, character animations, doodads and cutscene-specific assets, etc. The Lead Level Designer (and/or the Lead Game Designer) gives you the green light and provides you with a rough draft on the general ideas you need to keep mind of so that your completed level fits into the story and the general difficulty curve of the game (included, but not limited to unlocks, story elements, dialogue, new enemies, npcs, weapons, new features, limitations etc.)

This is basically level design – you take a lot of separate elements from code, art, sound, design, and put them together in a level (hopefully) creating an unique playing experience and look.

That’s the technical part anyway, but how do you succeed at Level Design? How do you know what’s right and what’s wrong in doing it?

I’d like to make a reference to what Andrew Loomis calls “Intelligent perception”, a term I’ve first read about in one of his “drawing lessons” book. Intelligent perception tells us from the start if a drawing, or game for that matter, is good or bad, where does it lack, where could it be improved. The funny thing is that this perception thingie rarely helps you put into words what you “feel” about a drawing, game, movie, or book. You just know it. When a character has a foreshortened hand that you feel is wrong, it usually the case. If a 3d model has strange texture and makes the entire model look awkward, there’s a problem. If you’re looking at a game, you can tell either you like it or not, but you can’t really put your finger on the flaws or the good points except for the most obvious ones; you just know.

Due to the fact that there is no “unified game theory” to give us all the good and bad things about game and level design, we have nothing but some general basic rules which we can use to start building a level (we’re talking about single player levels, action/platformer/rpg games for the moment).

1. A level needs to be balanced – not too easy, not to hard, just about right. You can achieve that by testing and refining, then testing and refining some more (by you, but additional opinions are always welcome, because people tend to be subjective about their creation and not recognize even basic flaws in the level). And even when you’re sure, give it another test run and see if there’s anything standing out as bad and smooth it out.

2. A level needs a game play flow – a good rule of thumb is that you need to have the player relax between tense action moments and let him just browse around or explore. A level where there’s a continuous fight from start to finish with little or no chance to rest and do something else except fighting the enemies is very stressful for the player. Use a pattern like this: action/exploring/action/cutscenes/action/dialogue/action…. Etc. Keep different action moments separated by “other” things the player might do and has to do. Travel between fights, do a puzzle, see a cutscene, look for treasure, make his jaw drop when looking at the environment as he’s moving towards the next fight, etc. (it all depends to the features and mechanics of that particular game).

3. A game level is a living world – you need to make use of ALL your assets to make the game world believable. This ranges to making effective use of doodads (ex: put signs at crossroads, birds flying here and there, animals moving about, leaves rustling in the wind, floatsam on the water) to using NPC and/or enemies as part of the world, not just the ones that give you quests/try to kill you. For example: two NPCs are talking; an enemy that charges you but then a NPC helps you by toppling a boulder over him; coming from a corridor into a room where an enemy walks in your field of vision but not noticing you, etc. Having the feeling that this IS a believable world, where enemies/NPCs behave in various ways and react to you, and there are a lot of things happening like weather, environment animations and such, ultimately creates a better (immersive) experience for the player.

4. Give the player some time to integrate new features (controls, abilities, enemies) before introducing another new one – it’s rarely a good idea to unlock several abilities or new enemies in a short span of time. It’s much better to give the player the time to integrate this new ability or enemy into his “system” before adding a new one and confusing him further. Why is that? We (humans) need time to learn how to properly use a new ability and dealing with a new sort of challenge, and we can do that by having to deal with these new features a few times, thus making sure we know how to use them before tackling a new challenge.

5. Play a lot of games and try to analyse their levels from a technical point of view, by asking yourself questions like: “why was that level/campaign so successful?”, “was it really necessary to use those annoying “push button” puzzles between fights?”, “how did they manage to create intense and involving encounters?”, “were the mini-boss and boss enemies correctly placed along the campaign/story?”, “were those optional quests any good in terms of value or time?” and things like that. Try to realize what worked and how did they manage. A good experience would be for example to take a Campaign from Warcraft 3 or Starcraft and play it from start to finish, keeping notes about it. The questions I gave you are a good starting point, but there are much more questions you need to answer to, and those are different for each designer.

6. Level design – the more you do it, the better you get at it. It really helps playing around with the editor and doing whatever crosses your mind. Start small, do a simple level to test the editor – make a single player mission where you need to defeat several enemies or destroy an enemy building or some such. Next, give your side the possibility to build structures and take the game to a new objective, like destroy the enemy base, or defend your own base from multiple avenues of attack. Each level you do will teach you something, both technical (editor related) and design-wise. Later, time attacks, special objectives, side quests, there are plenty of options down the road.

7. Read any article or book on general game design and level design. There are always useful tips in each and every article about design. But, try to integrate what you learn in your levels, and see how those advices and tips work for you and your game/level.

That sums it up for now. Even if it touches on general Game Design, and not all advice are related to RTS maps Level Design, I hope these things can help anyone trying his/her hand at Level Design. I don’t really like how the entire post came out in terms of words, sentences, general structure but perhaps later I’ll review and rewrite some of the parts I don’t like that much.


Written by unfocuseddude

25/04/2011 at 9:24 PM

Posted in General

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