在过去数年我有幸在许多出色的游戏工作室就职。令我惊讶的是每个工作室都采用了完全不同的关卡设计方法，即使其基本内容极为相似。有些工作室采用了逻辑化，近乎机械拟 的方法构建关卡，而有些公司则是一骨脑地抛出多个理念，寄希望于某些理念可行。虽然每种方法都有其优势，但我发现要创造兼具逻辑性和创新性的关卡，还是需要一种规范关 卡设计核心元素的方法。我从自己的设计背景中寻找灵感，想起了Dieter Rams的《优秀设计十大原则》中的内容。虽然这些原则是产品设计的极佳指导，并且加上一点创造性的诠 释，将其直接运用于关卡（和任务）设计确实需要一些魄力。但在此我要将其作为一个宽松的模版，以便创造设计出色电子游戏关卡的十大原则（游戏邦注：有些原则还适用于系 统和叙事设计），并列举一些出色的游戏案例，说明这些原则的可行性。
这看起来像是一个相当明确的引导……但重要的是要理解“直觉”与“趣味”间的区别。尽管游戏应该让玩家在穿过关卡的基本过程中毫不费力，但导航式的玩法也可用来创造趣 味。可以将特定区域隐藏起来，增加关卡深度，以及玩家探索游戏时的重玩性（只要你提供了必要的视觉或叙事线索），或者创造一些让玩家迷路或困惑的区域，以便制造一种剧 烈的紧张感，如图2：
我有个导师曾经告诉我，优秀的交流碎片好比是一个被破坏的圈圈。作者创造了这个圈圈，但却给读者留下一些由他们自己去填补的空隙。但要谨慎处理这个空隙！如果它太渺小 了，读者就不会注意到；太大了，你就可能失去读者，因为他们无法连上这个圈圈。那么我们该如何创造这个圈圈和游戏关卡中的空隙？首先要认识到关卡中的三个关键叙事方面 ：
关卡设计师应小心创造显性叙事内容，因为这正是组成我们“圈圈”的要素，而隐性、突发性内容才是创造“空隙”，令关卡与众不同的最重要元素。使用“环境提示”将故事融 入游戏世界，并以“隐性”故事激发玩家的想象，让玩家通过玩法选择（游戏邦注：包括使用哪种武器、走哪条路，用什么方法解决问题等选择）来创造“突发性故事”（如图4） 。这些元素允许玩家以自己的行动和想象来填补“空隙”，这总比将一切东西都端到你面前更有益处。
（图5：《天际》——该游戏中的Dark Brotherhood任务并没有指明你如何杀死目标人物，只是告诉你必须杀死他们。游戏还提供额外的奖励目标（例如杀死目标之后隐藏尸首）， 允许玩家设置自己的挑战难度）
游戏设计元老Mark Cerny曾告诉我们，要为玩家呈现一系列并列的目标，允许他们自主选择完成顺序，每完成一个目标就提供对之后目标有益的奖励。这种方法可以让玩家获得一 种控制感，Cerny的作品《Ratchet & Clank》系列就体现了这一点（见图6）。
（图6：《Ratchet & Clank》——在原版游戏中，玩家会面临一系列可任意选择探索的星球。每探索完一个星球，就可以收集到一个有利于探索下一个星球的道具，其关卡设计包 含了一些首次玩游戏时无法解琐的机制）
Raph Koster在其《趣味理论》一书中说明了人类大脑如何根据周围环境来处理信息，并将其转化成之后更易于处理信息的模式。从玩游戏角度来看，这说明我们很大一部分乐趣来 自学习知识，连续掌握不同的机制。Koster提醒我们，如果玩家理解了这种模式，很容易就掌握了游戏机制，他们很快就会厌烦并退出游戏。只有优秀的关卡设计才可能避免这种 情况。
优秀的关卡应该引进新游戏机制，或者调整旧机制令玩家重新评估自己已经掌握的技能。游戏应该让玩家在整个游戏中持续评估自己所学到的技能，确保每个关卡都能呈现新鲜玩 法。Bethesda的Todd Howard在DICE 2012 Keynote Address演讲中就以学习 – > 玩 -> 挑战 -> 意外这一循环来衡量《天际》关卡设计。这不但是本原则的延伸，还引出了下一 个设计要点……
已有许多文章探讨过如何使用经典的Aristotelian技巧来衡量游戏。标准的高vs低强度，探索vs战斗，休息vs行动等“过山车”曲线是一种评估关卡设计的优秀基准，也是保持玩 家粘性的重要工具，但其持续重复性会迅速成为一种例行公事。对于交互式媒体来说，我们还有更合适的衡量技巧，但即使是设计很到位的关卡，如果没有一些意外的起伏，也难 以给人留下深刻的印象。
这里的意外不一定是很大的震撼或情节转折……其核心在于急剧上升的不确定性，用游戏设计大师Alex Mandryka的话来说，它就是趣味的根本。从关卡设计上来说，意外可以是独 特的环境，可以是传授玩家新机制的时刻，将山穷水尽转变为柳暗花明，或者难度曲线中的急剧变化。（见图8）
（图8：《死亡空间2》——当Isaac返回在《死亡空间2》中的Ishimura时，他在15分钟内不会碰到另一个丧尸。这种节奏变化创造了一种极端紧张感……令人意外的是，这种设计 产生了一个开心的结果：这个关卡中的怪物太大了，无法置于原版游戏Ishimura布局中的任何地方，所以关卡设计师只能将其置到玩家到达转输中心时……而此时玩家才走完了一 半的关卡！）
（图9：《Urban Chaos》——在你完成游戏之后观看谢幕画面时，游戏突然又重启了，你发现自己在游戏中干掉的恶棍复活了，他们知道你住在哪里，并决定执行报复计划，令沉 浸在其中的玩家战栗不已，这种落幕方式真是太棒了，这也难怪其开发商Rocksteady能够如此成功。
电子游戏是逃避现实的天堂，应该是纯粹而简单的。玩家会愿意逃到一个比他们生存的世界更加世俗的地方吗？关卡设计师不应该要求玩家做他们在现实生活中就能做的事——你 的任务目标应该是避开平庸的、重复的活动，总是给玩家有趣的、好玩有活动。这听起来似乎很明显，但甚至最优秀的游戏开发者有时候也会忘记这条最基本的原则，正如喜剧演 员Dara O’Brien所说的。
(《Red Faction Guerrilla》：用枪破坏桥的支架，相当直观，让人觉得强大。)
为了让玩家真正觉得自己强大，他们的行为必须在游戏世界中有显著的效果。在低级的、直接的水平上，这可以是与游戏世界中的物品的交互活动（或更通常的，推毁物品），但 如果这样还不能使玩家立即获得破坏的满足感，你可以把你的关卡做成脚本，以其他方式反映玩家的影响，像《inFAMOUS 》中的帝国城和新玛莱的市民。
（《ImFAMOUS 》：因果系统被完整地结合到开放世界的关卡设计中，玩家被迫在分散的副线任务中做出道德选择（分散炸弹和拯救市民，或者引爆炸弹获得能量），平民会朝你的 敌人或者你扔石头，这取决于你的游戏风格。）
然而，这种方法并不总是管用的，所以设计良好的关卡必须允许玩家自己管理难度，即灵活地使用风险和奖励。完成关卡或任务的基本路径必须让一般水平的玩家觉得节奏合适、 挑战适中（有一定的惊喜），但还要有一些针对技术水平高的玩家准备的路径（或针对新手的选择）。无论何时玩家必须做出路径选择时，都应该明确地使用关卡语言让玩家知晓 风险和奖励，确保玩家是在知情的情况下做出决定。
（《Burnout Paradise》：高水平的玩家可以冒险走捷径，即图中被黄色障碍挡住的路。捷径的难点在于路径狭窄，从游戏镜头看，奖励可能不太明显，也就是节省时间和爽快感 。）
这个原则在赛车游戏中表现得很明显，但同样适用于其他类型的游戏，如射击游戏或RPG；在后者中，这些高风险/奖励的元素可能表现为放在难以接近（但容易看到的）的位置的 强力武器，或有背对着玩家的守卫的旁路（擅长潜行的玩家可以偷溜过去）。这些捷径也可能表现为谜题，需要玩家多费一些脑筋才能想到，甚至可以插入可选择的、次级目标（ 游戏邦注：如寻找U船指挥官并杀死他以解锁强化手枪），从而增加游戏的重玩价值。
有空可以玩一玩《天际》的Bethesda工具箱或《辐射》，你会很惊讶：这么小的团队怎么能够做出这么多出色的内容……这都是模块化的功劳。这么高程度的模块化可能不一定适 用于所有游戏，但在不同程度上可以运用于所有游戏。制作《荣誉勋章》时，制作人要求我们制作“战斗时刻”——时长为30秒到5分钟、战斗玩法紧凑的片段，我们可以用它们快 速制作原型和重制，拼成不同的情境，最后做成许多有趣的关卡。这使设计师得以花更少的时间制作更多但仍然有趣的内容。
（《光晕3》：在这个关卡中，Master Chief要穿越一片大沙漠，之后还要返回来！但是，制作团队给Master Chief 一个超级坦克，使返程的旅程别有趣味。）
（《古墓丽影》：在她的最新冒险中，Lara Croft穿过狭窄、封闭的洞穴、植物蔓生的原始丛林、令人头晕目眩的山崖……各个空间都是精心挑选的，旨在引发玩家的不同情绪反 应。）
事实上，玩家对关卡的情绪反应确实太重要，所以在一开始设计关卡时就应该考虑到。为此，你要挑选可以使玩家产生你所需要的情绪的空间指标、剧情元素和游戏机制。想产生 困扰的感觉？让敌人AI追赶玩家。想产生愉快的感觉？让玩家在开阔的路上奔跑。想产生绝望的感觉？让玩家在有限的时间内解决几乎不可克服的困难。所有这些都可用于引发玩 家的情绪性反应。
（《英雄连2》：在这个任务的最后一幕中，玩家的小队被迫返回教堂。玩家陷入困境，必须抵挡纳粹直到援兵到达。怎么知道坚持到什么时候？计时器？不是。纳粹的剩余数量？ 不是，敌人是杀不绝的……是玩家小队的命值。只有当玩家快丧命时，援兵才会出现。也许有些不公平……但这个玩法有效地使玩家在面对无尽的敌人时产生绝望感。且当最终获 救时，放松的感觉也更加强烈！）
Ten Principles of Good Level Design (Part 1)
by Dan Taylor
The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Over the years I’ve had the privilege of creating levels at many great game studios. One thing that surprised me was that each of these studios had a totally different approach to level design, even though the basic content was extremely similar. Some had a logical, almost robotic approach to constructing levels, whereas others just threw as many ideas at the wall as possible, in the hope that something would stick. Whilst each approach had its advantages, it occurred to me that there must be a way of formalising the core elements of good level design in order to create levels that are both logical and innovative. I looked to my classic design background for inspiration, and was reminded of Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design. Whilst these principles serve as a fantastic guide for product design, and, with a bit of creative interpretation, high-level game design, applying them directly to level (and mission) design required slightly too much force.
Instead, I’ve used them as a loose template, to create ten Ramsian principles for designing compelling videogame levels (with the occasional detour into the realms of systems and narrative design) supported by some examples of great games in which you can observe these principles at work…
Good level design is fun to navigate
In most cases, the player’s core method of interaction with your level will be navigation – the process of actually traversing the level. Careful layout, lighting, signage and other visual cues should create a natural “flow” to the level that guides the player instinctively through it. From an aesthetic aspect, a game’s levels should all work together to create a consistent visual language, through the use of colour and form, that the player can learn, to progress intuitively through the level (Fig. 1).
Figure 1: Mirror’s Edge – in DICE’s seminal 1st person parkour game, the entire art style is geared to guide the player elegantly through the level. Even the screensavers on office computers help to point the player in the right direction.
This may seem like a fairly obvious guideline… but here it is important to understand the difference between “intuitive” and “fun”. Whilst basic progress through the level should be effortless, navigational gameplay can also be used to create fun. It is entirely appropriate to hide areas from the player, to add depth and replayability through exploration (as long as you provide the necessary visual or narrative clues), or to create areas where the player feels lost or confused, to create a sense of dramatic tension (Fig. 2).
Figure 2: Modern Warfare 2 – the Favella level in MW2 is a maze of crazy buildings, with enemies coming at you from all sides. Is it easy to find your way out? No. Is it tense and exciting?
Absolutely! Modern Warfare’s Favella level is also an excellent example of verticality in level design, which can be an important aspect in making a level fun to navigate.
The main caveat while designing fun navigability is that it should not come at the expense of your other gameplay elements. Imagine the intense combat of Modern Warfare 2 in the crazy parkour levels of Mirror’s Edge… the navigational and martial elements of the level would be completely at odds with each other. There’s a good reason why DICE kept the combat in Mirror’s Edge nice and light.
And be careful not to fall into the same trap as Khan… always be sure to think in three dimensions when designing your level, and use verticality to keep
the space interesting and fun to navigate!
Good level design does not rely on words to tell the story
A mentor of mine once told me that a good piece of communication is like a broken circle. The author creates this circle, but leaves a small gap for the
readers to fill in themselves. But care has to be taken with this gap! If it is too small, the reader won’t notice it; too big and you risk losing the
reader, who won’t be able to connect the circle. So how do we create the circle and the gap in a game level? First it is necessary to understand the three
key narrative aspects at work in a level…
Explicit – this is anything that is called out by text or speech, e.g: a mission objective or cut-scene
Implicit – this is the story told by the environment through mise en scène (Fig.3).
Emergent – this is the story told by the player as he goes through your level
Figure 3: Bioshock – the city of Rapture, and the story of its demise, is brought to life in the player’s imagination through careful use of narrative props (posters, graffiti, corpses, environmental damage, picture walls, etc…)
Whilst the level designer should take care in crafting the explicit narrative, as it is this that forms our “circle”, it is the latter two elements that create the all-important “gap” and really make a level stand-out. The use of mise en scène physically integrates the story into the game world and stimulates the player’s imagination with implicit narrative, while emergent story is written by the player through the medium of gameplay choice: which weapons to use, which route to take, which style to solve a problem with, etc… (Fig.4). These elements allow players to fill in the “gap” with their own
actions and imagination, which is much more rewarding than having everything handed to you on a plate.
Figure 4: Hitman 2 – the player decides which story to tell: go in guns blazing and wipe everyone out… or sneak in, poison the fish and get out before anyone even notices you’re there.
Good level design tells the player what to do, but not how to do it
Having been given the power to tell his own story though choice of mechanics, the player must never be in any doubt as to what their objective is. This clarity is typically created by simple, explicit, text-based objectives, proper use of waypoint markers, and any other navigational aids you may have; your level’s objectives should be visually distinct, using location, form, lighting and animation to make them clearly stand out from their surroundings.
Having said that, as with navigational gameplay, there is some fun to be had with more open-ended objectives. Compelling challenge can be created through obfuscation of the means to completing an objective… as long as the actual objective is clear. This is another example of the “broken circle”. E.g: “Assassinate Vittoria Vici” (Fig.5)… the what of this objective is crystal clear… the how is not.
And on the subject of “how”, players should never be forced to use a singular technique to solve an objective; how they complete the challenges laid-out should be up to them, and players should never be punished for improvising a solution to the designer’s meticulously thought-through scenario. This is another requisite for good emergent narrative.
Figure 5: Skyrim – the Dark Brotherhood missions in Skyrim don’t specify how you kill your marks, just that you kill them. They also give additional, bonus objectives (like hiding the body afterwards), empowering players to set their own level of challenge.
Veteran game designer Mark Cerny tells us that the player should be presented with a number of concurrent objectives, which can be completed in any order, with the reward for each one providing an advantage for subsequent objectives. This approach gives players power over the order in which they complete their tasks, creating the feeling of control (albeit an illusory one). You can see this approach in his work on the Ratchet & Clank series (Fig. 6).
Figure 6: Ratchet & Clank – in the original Ratchet & Clank, the player was presented with a number of planets to explore in any order they choose. The completion of each planet resulted in the collection of a gadget (e.g. magnetic boots) that allowed subsequent planets to be played (or re-played) differently, through level design that included unlockable mechanics not necessarily available on the first play-through.
Good level design constantly teaches the player something new
In his book “A Theory of Fun”, Raph Koster explains how the human mind enjoys processing information from the world around it into patterns for easier processing later. In gameplay terms this implies that a large part of the fun is generated by the learning, and subsequent mastery, of your various mechanics. Koster cautions that if players understand the pattern and master the mechanics too easily, they’ll quickly become bored and stop playing. This risk of boredom can only be avoided with good level design.
Figure 7. The Legend of Zelda – every dungeon in every Zelda game is a tutorial for the new piece of equipment you find in it… with the dungeon’s boss being the final test (always with a clever little twist). The game’s final boss battle usually requires the player to use every single piece of his equipment to win.
A good level should either introduce a new game mechanic, or put a spin on an old one to make the player re-evaluate his or her established paradigm. On a larger scale, this constant learning should be measured out across the entire game, to make sure that each level delivers fresh gameplay. Bethesda’s Todd Howard outlines the Learn – > Play -> Challenge -> Surprise loop used to pace Skyrim in his DICE 2012 Keynote Address, which is not only a great extension of this principle, but leads nicely into the next one, which is…
Good level design is surprising
There have been many articles on how to use classic Aristotelian techniques to pace your game, and this approach has served books and movies well for aeons. Whilst the standard “roller-coaster” curve of high vs. low intensity, exploration vs. combat, rest vs. action, etc… serves as a good base-line for level design, and is important for maintaining player engagement, its constant repetition can quickly become de rigueur. There are pacing techniques that are more appropriate for an interactive medium, but even with great pacing levels will have trouble being memorable without the sudden spike in intensity that comes from surprise.
Surprise does not necessarily have to be a big shock or a plot twist… at its core, surprise could be considered as a rapid surge in uncertainty which, according to game design visionary Alex Mandryka, is the very essence of fun. In terms of level design, surprise could take the form of a unique setting, a moment that teaches the player something new about a mechanic they’ve already been using for a while, turning the corner to see a beautiful vista, or a radical change in pacing (Fig. 8).
Figure 8: Dead Space 2 – when Isaac returns to the Ishimura in Dead Space 2, he doesn’t encounter another necromorph for about fifteen minutes. This change in pace creates extreme tension…
Surprisingly, this excellent design came about as a happy coincidence: the monster this level was designed to showcase was too big to fit anywhere in the original Ishimura layout, and so the level designers couldn’t use it until the player reached the central transport core… which was half-way through the level!
Level designers should not be afraid to take risks with their design! Don’t just replicate a level from your favourite game… take an existing trope and turn it on its head! It’s only through trying something unusual (Fig. 9) that a truly innovative and surprising experience can be created. The trick is knowing how to manage these risks – design on paper… picture the final product in your mind’s eye… and create a playable prototype (A.K.A. grey-box) as early as you can. Show that your crazy ideas will work as soon as possible… or watch them get cut as your Alpha Milestone catches up with you!
Figure 9: Urban Chaos – after you complete the game, and sit through the credits, the game suddenly starts back up, and you find yourself getting some much needed R ‘n’ R at home.
Unfortunately, all the gangs you busted in the game know where you live and decide to exact their revenge! The player has to scramble through his home, grab his trusty sidearm from under the sink, and finish off the criminal scum once and for all! This post-credit surprise was beautifully executed… it’s no wonder that the developers, Rocksteady, went on to bigger things.
Following on from the principles discussed earlier in Part 1, let’s get stuck in to the final five, starting with…
Good level design empowers the player
“Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.” – Goethe
Videogames are escapism… pure and simple. Why would players want to escape to somewhere more mundane than their existing lives? Level Designers should never ask players to do something that they can easily do in real life – your mission objectives should shun banal and repetitive chores, and always be interesting and exciting! This may sound obvious, but even the best game developers can sometimes lose sight of this basic principle, as comedian Dara O’Brien points out.
Figure 10: Red Faction Guerrilla – taking out a bridge’s support struts with the concrete-eating nano-rifle is, quite frankly, freakin’ awesome.
For players to experience true empowerment, their actions must have a noticeable effect on the game world. On a low, immediate level this could be the interaction with (or, more usually, the detruction of) objects within the environment, but, if you don’t have the immediate gratification of destructible scenery, like Red Faction (Fig. 10), you can script your levels to reflect the player’s influence in other ways, like the citizens of Empire City and New Marais in inFAMOUS (Fig. 11).
Figure 11: inFamous – the karma system is fully integrated into the open-world level design, with scattered side-missions that force the player to make moral choices (diffuse the bombs and save the citizens, or detonate them to absorb their power), and a populace that will throw rocks at your enemies… or you, depending on your play-style.
For Medal of Honor Heroes 2, we wanted to make the secondary objectives more than just a shopping list of hidden Nazi dossiers, so we created side-missions where the player could rescue allied troops, trapped at certain locations hidden throughout the level. These troops, once freed, would fight alongside the player, which made him/her feel that there was a direct consequence, and reward, for his/her actions.
Good level design allows the player to control the difficulty
The difficulty of games is one of the hardest things to get just right. The standard technique of having Easy, Medium and Hard difficulty settings feels particularly arcane when you consider that players are asked to make this decision before they have even attempted the first level, and thus have no idea of which setting is appropriate for their skill level.
A systematic approach to this is to implement dynamic difficulty, most noticeable in games like Fallout & Skyrim, where the enemies become more powerful (and treasure more valuable) based on the player’s experience – thus adjusting the challenge on the fly, to suit the player’s competence.
However… such systems are not always available, and so a well designed level must allow players to manage difficulty themselves, through clever use of risk and reward. The basic path through your level or mission should be properly paced for a player of moderate ability, with the appropriate peaks and troughs of challenge (along with a splash of surprise), but there should be areas off the main path that present a clear opportunity for the skilled player (or an
easier option for those less adept). Whenever the player has to make a path choice, both the risk, and resultant reward should be clearly called out using the level’s language (as mentioned earlier), enabling the player to make an informed decision (Fig. 12).
Figure 12: Burnout Paradise – Skilled players can take a risk and aim for short cuts, which are clearly called out by yellow barriers (a recurring motif). Difficulty is indicated by the narrowing of the track, and the reward, which may not be obvious from the in-game camera, is a reduced time and a sweet bit of air.
Whilst the manifestation of this principle may be obvious for a racing game, it is still equally applicable to other genres, like shooters or RPGs, where these high risk/reward areas might take the form of a powerful weapon that is in a tricky to reach (but easy to see) spot, or a flanking route with a guard whose back is turned, allowing players skilled in stealth the opportunity to sneak past. These side-paths can also constitute a puzzle, requiring a little more cerebral skill to access (Fig. 13), and can even be worked into optional, secondary objectives (e.g. Find the U-boat commander and kill him to unlock the enhanced Luger), making them more apparent and extending your replayability.
Figure 13: Skyrim – The chest is clearly visible from the main path, but has no obvious access; players have to use a dragon-shout to leap a chasm (an advanced technique) and pick a lock if they want to collect the treasure. All the clues are clearly visible for the keen player who is ready to put in a little extra effort to get some cool swag.
Good level design is efficient
A game only has a finite amount of resources to draw from, ranging from hardware limitations (like system memory) to production realities (such as art capacity). It’s the designer’s responsibility to maximise the use of those resources, and create efficiency through good design. In level design this means not only using the whole animal, from nose to tail, but doing it quickly, and more than once…
Modular design is your friend – a smart designer won’t design a level, he/she will design a series of modular, mechanic-driven encounters, that can be strung together to create a level. And another level. And another level.
By applying simple modifiers to these modules you can create variation, building more levels with less work, and less risk. This technique also creates a series of familiar encounters that the player can use to learn and master your mechanics, while the modifiers applied to these encounters keep them fresh by providing increased challenge and surprise.
Take time out to play with any of Bethesda’s tool-kits for Skyrim or Fallout and you can quickly see how a relatively small team were able to create so much awesome content… it’s all modular. Such a high level of modularity might not work for every game, but it can certainly be applied to any game in varying degrees… For Medal of Honor the Producer tasked us with creating “Battle Moments” – sections of intense combat gameplay, ranging from 30 seconds to 5 minutes, which we could rapidly prototype and iterate on, before stitching them together in different contexts to make a number of exciting levels. This enabled the designers to build a lot more content in a lot less time, and still keep it interesting.
Your trusty art team will spend a considerable amount of time making your levels look amazing, when most of the time the player will plough through their beautiful work in a matter of seconds. Reusing areas of your level not only gets you more bang for your art buck, but alleviates the amount of level geometry you have to keep in memory. This can sometimes be referred to as back-tracking, which has a somewhat derisory connotation, and so, as a designer, one must be careful to make sure such spaces are designed for bi-directional gameplay, preferably with a key modifier on the second pass (Fig. 14).
Figure 14: Halo 3, Mission 6: The Ark – In this level, Master Chief fights his way along a large stretch of desert… and then all the way back again! But, as you’d expect from a team like Bungie, they keep it fresh… by giving the Chief a super-powerful tank to make the return journey in, thus using the same space for very different gameplay.
A good designer should use every last bit of the level, by providing implicit objectives that require exploration to complete – the skulls in Halo 3, the COG tags in Gears of War, the feathers in Assassin’s Creed… all designed to extend the gameplay time with no extra hit to level production.These collectible elements, along with the risk/reward paths and secondary objectives mentioned in the previous principle, will all contribute towards your game’s replayability, generating further efficiencies. But be sure that there is a long-term incentive for completing these gameplay objectives like a significantly different play-experience or a clearly telegraphed reward (new power-ups, weapons, etc…). Better yet, give them context by integrating them into your narrative like Astro Boy Omega Factor(Fig. 15).
Figure 15: Astro Boy Omega Factor – This GBA title is still one of the best examples of replayability ever made. Upon finishing the game on the first play-through, you get a somewhat unsatisfying ending… but you are flung back in time so you can use all the power-ups you have collected to access new areas of old levels, unlocking more levels and power ups, and the true, extremely awesome ending.
Good level design creates emotion
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court officially classified Videogames as art… which, according to the dictionary, makes them “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance”.
But this is slightly pragmatic analysis of what constitutes for art. From a purely subjective stand-point, I would posit that art is anything specifically created to provoke an emotional reaction; paintings, sculpture, photography, music, movies… are all created to encourage some kind of emotional response in their recipient. This is particularly true for videogames.
The classical art form that is, perhaps, most analagous to level design is architecture… and architects have been messing with people’s emotions for centuries. For example, architects will vary the height of windows depending on the motional response they are trying to evoke: place them below knee- height, and widows create a sensation of power and voyeurism… place them above shoulder-height, and they create a sense of persecution and encarceration.
Architects have adapted Mazlow’s Heirarchy of Needs (which are defintely too abstract for direct application to level design) into a series of very useful architectural concerns that can help deigners create an evocative space. These theories, along with the more traditional use of spatial metrics, can be used to create what I like to call “spatial empathy” witihin your levels, something which this year’s Tomb Raider does with aplomb (Fig. 16).
Figure 16: Tomb Raider – In her latest adventure, Lara Croft is taken from narrow, claustrophobic caves, through sprawling, epic jungles, to vertiginous mountain ascents… with each space carefully selected and crafted to elicit a range of varying emotions.
In fact, the player’s desired emotional response to your level is so important, that it should always be the starting point of your design. From there, you can drill down and select which spatial metrics, narrative elements and game mechanics can be deployed to best create that response. Want to create a feeling of persecution? Place enemy AI that actively hunts the player. Want to create a feeling of exhilaration? Engage the player in a high-speed chase on the open road. Want to create a feeling of desperation? Give players a time-limit and an almost insurmountable objective (Fig. 17). All of these devices, and more, have been used in games with the express intention of eliciting an emotional response through the game’s mechanics.
Figure 17: Company of Heroes – Carentan – In the final act of this mission, the player’s squad are forced to fall back to a church. Trapped in a corner, the player has to hold off the Nazis until reinforcements arrive. What dictates when this will happen? A timer? No. The number of Nazi’s remaining? No, there are infinite enemies… it’s the player’s squad’s health.
Reinforcements will only appear just as the player is about to die. A little unfair, perhaps… but this gameplay conceit creates a palpable feeling of desperation against overwhelming odds. And extreme relief when finally rescued!
Good level design is driven by your game’s mechanics
“Books let you imagine extraordinary things. Movies let you see extraordinary things. And videogames? Videogames let you do extraordinary things” – unknown
Above all else, great level design is driven by interaction – the game’s mechanics. Game levels don’t just provide context for mechanics, they provide the very reality in which they exist.
I like to describe a game level as the meta-physical medium through which gameplay is delivered. This may sound fancy and contrived, but what it really means is that your level should be a gameplay delivery system, whose primary function is to leverage your mechanics to create a great experience. Topology, architecture, objectives, interactions, combat scenarios, etc… should all be designed first-and-foremost to highlight all your great gameplay systems.
To do this successfully, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of your game’s mechanics before embarking on your level design. This is not always possible when systems and levels are being designed concurrently… but you should at least have an idea of the sort of systems that are being built (as well as a trust that they will be built, so that you don’t find yourself wasting time designing around incomplete features that aren’t quite ready yet). The up-side in this situation is that the relationship works both ways: if you have a cool idea for your level, you can request the necessary gameplay
systems to make it work.
Figure 18: Deus Ex Human Revolution – the side-quests in this game were designed to highlight specific mechanics; in one mission the player has to use his ability to drag unconscious bodies to pull a drugged victim over a cliff and make an assassination look like suicide.
And when I talk about systems, this includes AI… something that can easily be overlooked, creating untold problems. A surprising amount of a level designer ’s time is taken up with bending mischievous AI to his or her will! Develop a relationship with your AI team… so you know what clever features they’ve got planned, and they know what issues you are having. Who knows… if you ask them nicely, they may even create special behaviours for that cool sniper ambush
Figure 19: Batman Arkham City – the Riddler challenges spread throughout the open-world, cleverly reuse existing mechanics, encouraging the player to find new ways to use his equipmet. This makes for some great design efficacy , as well as creating cerebral gameplay that fuels the fantasy of being the world’s greatest detective, and not just some guy in a cape who’s really good at beating people up.
Always remember that interactivity is what makes videogames different from any other form of entertainment: books have stories, movies have visuals, games have interaction. If your level design isn’t showcasing your game mechanics, your players might as well be watching a movie or reading a book.
And that’s ten! I want to be clear that in no way do I consider these principles to be definitive… but hopefully they are a good start to creating a base- line standard of quality and innovation in level design. I expect them to be continually refined and tweaked, much like a game itself.
To conclude, here are the 10 principles, summed up in my poor imitation of Rams’ succinct, simplistic style, for quick and easy reference when building your levels.Good level design…
Is fun to navigate – It uses a clear visual language to guide the player along the primary path, and creates interest through verticality, secondary paths, hidden areas and maze elements.
Does not rely on words to tell a story – Aside from the explicit narrative called out by story and objectives, good level design delivers implicit narrative trough the environment, and provides players with gameplay choice from which to create their own emergent narrative.
Tells the player what to do, but not how to do it – It makes sure mission objectives are clearly communicated, but lets players complete them any way they like, and, where feasible, in any order.
Constantly teaches the player something new – It keeps the player engaged by continuously introducing new mechanics all the way through the game, and prevents old mechanics from becoming stale by applying modifiers or reusing them in unusual ways.
Is surprising – Classic Aristotelian pacing is not always appropriate for an interactive medium, and it is not enough to simply pace all your levels to the standard “rollercoaster” model. Good level design is not afraid to take risks with the pace, aesthetics, locale and other elements to create an experience that is fresh.
Empowers the player – Videogames are escapism and, as such, should eschew the mundane. Furthermore, good level design reinforces players’ empowerment by allowing them to experience the consequences of their actions, in both the immediate, moment-to-moment gameplay, and in the long term, through the holistic design of all levels.
Allows the player to control the difficulty – It gears the main path toward players of basic ability, presenting advanced players with optional challenge through clearly communicated opportunities of risk and reward.
Is efficient – Resources are finite. Good level design creates efficiencies through modularity, bi-directional gameplay and integrated, exploratory bonus objectives that make use of the whole play-space.
Creates emotion – it begins at the end, with the desired emotional response, and works backwards, selecting the appropriate mechanics, spatial metrics and narrative devices to elicit that response.
Is driven by the game’s mechanics – above all, it showcases the game’s mechanics through the medium of the level, to reinforce the uniquely interactive nature of videogames.