Beginning Level Design Part 2: Rules to Design By and Parting Advice
by Tim Ryan [Design]
This article is the second of a two-part series that covers theories behind level design and suggests a set of design rules. The intention is to aid gamers who want to design levels for pleasure or pursue a career in level design.
Level design is the data entry and layout portion of the computer game development cycle. A level is, for all intents and purposes, the same as a mission, stage, map or other venue of interaction that the player in. As a level designer, you are the presenter of all the labors of the programmers and artists and chiefly responsible for what most believe to be the most important part of a game, the game play. This article will give you insight into developing good levels for any type of game, whether they are military missions for your horde of tanks, aerial encounters for a flight simulator, a dungeon for a role-playing game, a board for a puzzle game, or a map for a world conquest god-sim.
In last week’s article, I discussed the theories behind good level design. This article formulates a set of rules for level design and offers some parting advice to aspiring professionals.
20 Rules to Design By
1) Maintain the vision.
The “vision” is the core idea of the game design. It’s what the producer and lead designer express when selling the game and what they impart in the so-called “concept document.” It’s also what they expect you, the level designer, to understand when building your level. It’s very important that this vision is communicated to you very clearly. If the producer and lead designer have not expressed to you what they want, then you need to coax it out of them. It will save you a lot of time and grief in the end.
When designing your level, you must maintain the game designers’ vision. If you deviate from it you risk rejection. While designers cannot always describe specifically how to accomplish their vision, you must try to figure out ways to truly express the vision they are looking for. If you cannot maintain and express the vision, then either the vision is imprecise or unpractical, the design tools and palette are insufficient to the task, or your skills are not up to it. In any case, you need to address those problems if you hope to construct a successful level in a timely manner.
2) Learn the design palette.
One of the first things you need to establish before you begin your machinations is the design palette. The design palette includes all of the art and game play elements at your disposal.
Knowing what elements you have to work with and how you are to use them is imperative for good level design. Get instructions from the artists (if you can) and play around with the art in a test level to establish the look and feel you want. Talk to the programmers and find out what the technical requirements and limitations are, like what data parameters need to be set, what scripts need to be written, and what to do in order to keep within memory and processing-time constraints.
The design palette goes beyond art and code as well. It includes all the player and enemy forces and their behaviors, game play objects such as power-ups, switches and weapons, buildings that perform a game function such as turrets, power stations and walls, and game play puzzles and possible solutions (the so-called “bag of tricks”). Ideally you will have time to learn how to place all of these elements with your design tools (such as an editor) and play with them before you begin a real level.
The lead designer, in order to save elements for other levels, may restrict your design palette. It’s up to you to figure out how you can work with what you have in a way that will maintain the vision of the lead designer and producers. If you cannot, ask them for advice. They may provide some guidance or use their power to give you some more design elements.
Sometimes it takes a fresh look and imaginative effort to use design elements to their maximum potential. When you find you don’t have enough design elements to fill a level, experiment with untried combinations and layouts. You may stumble upon some new game play puzzle that you can add to your design palette.
For example, you may run out of ideas for using turrets, and after considering your options, you might discover a that particular combination of fixed turrets and enemies in a certain placement presents a balking defense to the player unless he takes advantage of ranged weaponry or provokes the enemies to pursue him beyond the range of the turrets. Once you’ve introduced this scenario into your level, the design of the subsequent levels could include that particular puzzle.
One grave mistake that all designers make at some point is to create mazes. Why is that a mistake? Mazes are one of the first forms of puzzles introduced in computer games. It’s old now.
Because all it takes to make a maze is placing walls or other terrain that blocks movement, it’s the easiest game play to create. It is sort of a last resort when you are fresh out of game play elements and ideas. When you get to this point, stop. Try to improve your design palette by coming up with new ways to use existing elements or by pushing the game designer to create more.
Pushing for more design elements is a good way to earn both respect and disdain from coworkers. Unfortunately, it’s your job. But make sure you do present your good ideas to the lead designer. If an idea has merit, he’ll try to get it in the schedule. Just remember that implementing ideas often involves the commitment of both art and coding resources, so don’t be surprised to hear “no” for an answer. The best ideas are often the ones that reuse existing art and involve little to no coding. If you can make it all work with your own scripts, that’s even better. When development reaches the alpha stage of the project (when all the coding and most of the art should be done), don’t expect any new game elements.
I’ve seen producers make the time for particularly good ideas as a project nears alpha, but it usually comes at the expense of the artists’ and programmers’ sleep. That’s the reason why pushing for more design elements can also earn you the disdain of coworkers. Try to understand that new ideas take time to evaluate and develop. Don’t make a jerk out of yourself by getting insistent. Instead, keep those ideas on the back burner for the data disk or the sequel.
3) Have fun while you work – it will show.
The joy you experience when conceiving and implementing your level will convey to the person playing it. Sure, there will be frustration when deadlines loom and level editors crash at the worst possible time. There will be game bugs and frame-rate issues that will force you to rework levels and strip out what took hours to place. But it’s easy to ignore all of that when you are doing something that you know is going to be fun. Remember, there are thousands of people who will play your level and never know what you went through, but they will certainly feel the joy that you put into it.
4) A level will only ever be as good as you imagine it.
A great sculptor doesn’t begin chiseling a block of stone until he envisions in his mind what the completed sculpture will look like. The same is true with level design: there’s no point in beginning to design your map if you can’t truly see what you’re working towards. You might have a vague idea about what you are trying to make, but to start designing away without a clear vision can lead to a lot of wasted time and effort. Bosses aren’t really keen on wasted productivity, so try to get your level nearly right the first time, so you don’t have to toss it all out and start afresh.
This isn’t to say that you should leave some time to experiment, but the core idea of the game play for your level should stand on its own. It’s also best to choose a core idea that leaves a lot of room for a variety of game play. When you implement the level, establish the core idea with broad strokes, and just make it work. With that done, decide if the idea has merit and whether you want to go further with the level. If so, fill in the fine details and experiment with subtle game play details. Often it’s the subtler elements and details that make the difference between a good level and a great one.
5) If there’s no difference, what’s the point?
Having multiple routes to the same goal is a good way of giving players choices and a sense of freedom while still ensuring they end up at the same point. Yet, if each choice exposes the players to the same types of enemies, the same rewards, and the same risks and costs, then players will only get frustrated and bored when they discover that there is essentially no difference. When presenting choices to the players, there should always be some non-aesthetic difference in game play. The difference might be the introduction of different challenges, a sneakier route, traps, hidden power-ups, higher elevation for better map revelation, or just better tactical position. It’s important not to present the same choices to players multiple times. Otherwise, what’s the point in offering them a choice at all?
6) Cater to different playing styles and abilities.
When presenting options, challenges or puzzles to players, try to offer multiple solutions that cater to different player styles and abilities. Some players play conservatively, while others like to play it risky. Some people are cautious and like to reveal as much of the level as possible before proceeding into conflict, while others just jump right in with guns blazing. Some take the straightforward route, while others look for the sneaky way. Player styles may be completely unique to your game or type of game, and you should try to identify those modes of play early on. Make sure you design your level with all the different play styles in mind, so that everyone has fun.
Don’t assume that every player is going to play your level the same way. Be conscious of how difficult it can be if a player doesn’t figure out alternate or ultimate solutions to your level. Players’ abilities at handling conflict and mastering the game play vary, and people learn at different rates. Offer easier but less rewarding solutions to your level, but make sure the players know what they’re missing if they opt for the easy solution. This encourages them to replay your level and try harder next time.
7) Reward player imagination and efforts.
Players like to experiment and explore. The more solutions, secrets, alternate paths, and so on, that you provide in your level, the more satisfied players will be. It’s a great feeling when, as a player, you come up with a not-so-obvious solution that succeeds. Remember that players almost always go off the main route hoping to find shortcuts, hidden caches of goodies, or other unexpected items. When designing a level, try to think about what players may want to try, and give that to them. When they say, “What if…?” your level should respond with, “Yes, you can.”
Nothing is worse than designing what appears to the player to be a challenge, alternate solution, route or secret place that offers no reward. Players try to interact with everything, and when the interaction is pointless, frustration results. Interactive game play objects (e.g., moveable crates or exploding canisters) which serve no purpose tend to frustrate players.
Players may try for minutes, or even hours, to figure out what they are suppose to do with these objects. Don’t let players down in this regard.
For example, in a Quake or Unreal level, imagine if a player saw some rafters just at the edge of his jump range from a narrow ledge and said to himself, “Ah, a challenge. I wonder what’s up there.” If those rafters served no purpose in the game, the player might spend an hour trying to jump out onto the first rafter, only to repeatedly fail in his efforts. The player might quit and feel let down, or even worse, this might pique his curiosity even more, and his resolve to get out there might harden. If he ultimately made it and realized that there was nothing up there, he’d get annoyed both at himself for wasting time playing the damn level, and at the level designer. So, when designing and testing your levels, look out for these “black holes of interaction” and get rid of them. Or, better yet, give them purpose by rewarding players who expend the effort to figure them out.
8) Pay attention to level pacing.
Pacing is the introduction of conflict and tension, plus what some like to call the “adrenaline rush.” This follows closely the Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis model that we know from stories and films. The tension builds as the player (the thesis) interacts with the antithesis, and it crescendos right before the synthesis, where the reader, watcher or player breathes a sigh of relief. (Or, alternatively, the player may get grim from his failure and restart the level, pretending it never happened.)
Because games are interactive, forcing a certain pace into the level can be difficult. What if the players don’t do what you want them to do? What if they take too much time? What if it’s too easy and unexciting when it’s played slow or too intense if played too fast? There are some things you can do to remedy this without taking all the interactivity out of it.
Time limits add tension that’s immediately perceptible by the player. A time limit can force a player to move more rapidly, or adopt tactics that you want him to use, such as splitting forces to achieve multiple objectives. You can put in an artificial time limit – like a mission clock, a puzzle-solver clock, or a turn time limit. You can institute a realistic time limit into a level, like the time it takes a certain enemy or ally unit to move to its exit point, or the time before enemy reinforcements arrive to overwhelm the player.
Controlling the movement speed or distance a player may traverse in a turn drastically affects game play pacing. While you cannot just arbitrarily change this in your level unless you are doing a puzzle game like Tetris, there are other ways you can play with speed. Often terrain affects movement speed, such as swampy ground that slows you down, a highway that permits you to speed up, or an obstructed and twisty route that slows your progress. Giving units different movement speeds and/or movement restrictions can slow or speed up the players, if they have to travel with that unit. For example, giving the player a slow, heavy tank will encourage his forces to slow down to the tank’s movement speed, and making the player guard a fast-moving ATV will force him to speed up.
Pacing can also be set by the enemies’ speed. For example, in a POV shooter, the player may have to chase down an elusive ninja who’s trying to escape from a lord’s castle. In a side-scroller, the boss monster can be made faster or slower. Whenever a player has to move and act faster or slower than he’s accustomed to, it builds tension. By using these various methods to manage tension through movement speed, you gain precise control over the pacing in your level.
9) Reveal assets carefully.
Keeping the player interested in the game requires careful asset revelation. Assets are the game’s eye candy, such as terrain objects, enemy and friendly units, upgrades, puzzles, and so on. All but the simplest games try to reveal these assets gradually to players, so as not to overload them on the first level, and to keep them interested in going on to the next level.
The lead designer will usually have guidelines for what new assets your level will introduce. Try to make these new assets a centerpiece to your level, somehow associated with the core game play. Their introduction should be dramatic or significant, and ought to portray the uniqueness of the asset.
For example, if you are introducing a new power-up that makes the player invisible, then make that invisibility a pivotal part of the solution to the level. If you are introducing a new enemy that flies, set up an encounter where this creature alone attacks the player in an environment that demonstrates the benefit of flying. If you are introducing a scattergun, make the gun available somewhere in the middle of the encounter with the flying enemy, so the player can see the dramatic difference in the effectiveness between his rifle and the scattergun against flyers.
The position of assets within the level is extremely important. Positioning power-ups, booty, and other loot – commonly called “gimmes” – establishes goals for players to move towards.
Gimmes are often the reward for the challenges you put between them and the player. Careful spacing of enemy encounters and game play objects, such as turrets, bridges, fuel drums, and so on, keeps the player interested in exploring and completing the entire level. A lull in the introduction of assets can encourage the player to turn the game off.
A good example of careful asset revelation within a level is shown in Heroes of Might and Magic II. At every turn, your heroes reveal a little more terrain and more assets to investigate, acquire or conquer. This revelation is what some call an “event horizon,” because it triggers and inspires players. New assets that appear on the event horizon keep players interested.
Unfortunately, an example of bad asset revelation can be seen in the same game. Heroes of Might and Magic II sacrificed its diversity of assets to make an individual level interesting, but in so doing, nothing new was left to be revealed in subsequent levels. With nothing new to reveal in later levels, the designers merely tinkered with the quantity and alliances of enemy players.
This scenario raises a very good question: Is it okay for a level designer to ignore the other levels in a game and use any and all of the assets he wants in order to make his level better? The answer is no. If the natural progression of asset revelation from level to level gets broken by one particular level, then the other levels seem weak in contrast. It also forces other designers on the project to redo their levels, and that causes havoc and wastes time. The next thing you know, that one level has set a precedent that the lead designer did not intend. Having just finished a game project on which this happened, I can vouch for how much a level that breaks the asset revelation can screw everything up.
10) Challenge the player.
Your job as level designer is to challenge the player. A level isn’t truly satisfying unless victory is at times uncertain. So you have to present challenges to players that really test their mettle and make them uncertain of their victory. When doing so, you have to cater to different player abilities (see rule #6) and to increasingly skilled and equipped players. Where your level is positioned in the game timeline or “level progression” should indicate how difficult it needs to be. In the first few levels, players learn how to play the game, so these levels should be a little forgiving. Levels at the end should be the most difficult to coincide with the increased skill and player resources.
There will be times when you find that your level, although it plays really well, doesn’t quite fit into the progression. It may make the levels before it or after it seem too easy or too hard. There are a number of solutions to this problem.
•You can scale up or down the difficulty in your level without grossly changing the game play or the fun factor.
•You can ask to reposition your level in the game. This isn’t always an option if you have a tight story line, however.
•You can make your level a sort of “change-of-pace” level. Change-of-pace levels are usually easier than the previous level but subject the player to an unusual limitation, so they remain difficult in the fact that the player is using untested skills. An example is the “Tanya” mission in Command & Conquer: Red Alert, where you no longer control a large number of tanks and troops, but instead one super “Rambo” soldier.
In some games, levels are grouped together into modules, like missions within an operation, floors in a dungeon, or regions on a planet. While the subsequent modules should generally increase in difficulty, the last level within a module may be more difficult than the first level in the next module. This is because there’s a natural pause and release of tension that players experience when they’ve achieved very important objectives in the last level of a module. Players are not ready to jump right into the intensity again and often appreciate an easier mission to catch their breath.（source:gamasutra）