Level Design Concepts
This document is a summary of concepts involved in level design. It is intended to be useful for any student studying game art or design.
Why Players Play Games
People play games for a variety of reasons. They may play games to escape or to be immersed. They may play games to socialize. Or, most importantly, they play games to have fun. How much fun a game typically causes players to have is often referred to as the games "fun factor". Specific Issues affecting fun factor Include:
- Fairness as perceived by the player
- Novelty of play (Including the exploration of the in game worlds.)
- Balance of rewards to challenges (ie. Ratio of enemies to health.)
- Communication with others
- How understandable the game is (If the player can't understand what the game is about, or what the goals are, the game will probably not be very much fun.)
- Emotional effects (Such as suspense or surprise.)
- Quality of story, realism and immersion
How Levels Fit Into The Overall Game
Levels are generally part of a larger game, including the games user interface or "Frontend", which often contains level select screens, splash screens, option screens, and other screens that don't represent gameplay. It is always important for level designers to be conscious of how any level will fit into the overall gameplay. Designers should ask themselves how the level will start and how it will end. (Does the player go directly to another level, or go to some kind of other screen? Is it different for each level?) Common Methods of starting and stopping levels include:
- Ending upon a voluntary player initiated exit (Sometimes this is because the player is giving up. Somtimes it is because they actually want to play a different level.)
- Ending when the goals are attained. (See the next section for examples of goals.)
- Ending when player has failed (Historically, this was often followed with a "game over" graphic or screen.)
Goals For The Player
Most levels generally contain goals that the player can complete, and often the player must complete these goals before finishing the level. Games can include the following types of goals (among others):
- Reach end of stage
- Rescue Non player character
- Defeat other players
- Reach a certain score
- Have a score better than the opponents
- Defeat / Kill opponent(s)
- Solve a specific puzzle
- Collect a number of items
- Hit a combination of switches
- Combinations, such as accomplishing mission objectives
- No specific goal, as seen in sandbox style games or MMORGs. Perhaps optional goals are available or the goals are an emergent aspect of the game.
A game will often give breaks to the player to avoid fatigue, since too fast a pace without breaks can cause the player to loose interest. For example, often games will have parts between levels, such as cinematics, progress summaries, or item/level selection screens. In fact, even individual levels can be broken down into even smaller sections. (Checkpoints being one possible example of splitting up a level.) Here is one example of how pacing is used, and how the player can be given breaks in gameplay. In the popular game Street Fighter II, each fight acts as a "level" for the player. The sequence for each level is approximately as follows:
- Before the level there is a map screen showing the location of the next battle.
- There is a screen showing both characters faces with the verses symbol between them.
- When it moves to the fight screen there are some titles before the fight actually begins.
- The first round of fighting begins, this is the first actual gameplay listed in this example.
- After one of the players wins (or in the event of a tie) there is a short noninteractive sequence showing the characters, and an announcement as far as which character, if any, was triumphant.
- Successive rounds occur in the same way as the first one did.
- Finally, when the fighting is over, a screen shows the victorious character speaking to his defeated opponent.
- The entire sequence then repeats for the next round.
Many games share the same common types of levels. A short list of these could include ice worlds, fire worlds, and dessert worlds. Some of them may be cliches, but since they tend to lead to a lot of fun variation in gameplay, they are often used anyway. Many level clichés exist, the most common of which in modern games is the presence of crates/barrels, which in itself is sort of a running gag in the industry. ( There is actually an entire game rating system based on the amount of gameplay time before reaching the first crate or barrel.)
Story is very important in some games, but not very important in others. For example in a role-playing game, the story may be the main feature, while in many sports titles, the story is practically nonexistent. It is crucial for the designer to determine the importance of storytelling in the game and its levels. Common methods of developing story in games include:
- Cinematics and cutscenes.These are generally pre-rendered sequences, though they often also appear rendered by the game engine itself.
- In game scripted sequences (player temporarily looses control, and the avatar performs actions independently)
- Progression and revelation through interactions with characters and places directly in games, with no loss of control. Sometimes this can involve a cinematic or a scripted sequence in which the player’s avatar is not immediately involved, or only “remembering”.
Games will typically progress through the story (and thus the levels) in some combination of three different ways. The first and simplest method of progressing through gameplay is through a linear method in which progression through the levels is always the same. The story always involves the same events happening in the same order, only allowing for minor deviations such as the player failing the mission and needing to repeat it. This method limits the interactivity available, but allows the authors to tell a story in a conventional manner, much like a movie. Non Linear and Sandbox styles of gameplay are often used when designers want to give more control of the story to the player. In these systems, actions that the player takes will affect the future events or order of events that occur in the game, thus altering the story. This method is very often more believable and immersive; however, it does make planning complex stories difficult for the designers since there are so many variables involved.
The word immersion refers to the idea of the game encouraging the suspension of disbelief on the players' part, making players feel more like they are actually inside the game. Like story, immersion is important to some games and less important to others. For example, in a simulation style racing game, realism and immersion would be very important. While in a science-fiction arcade style racing game, realism and immersion would be unimportant compared to the fun factor of the game.
Arriving at a Solid Design For A LevelIt is usually best to start designing a level by using simple tools. Examples of such tools would include pens or pencils, paper, rulers, and graph paper. This is generally the best way to start because it makes brainstorming easy. Often, simple 2d software can be as easy as a paper and pencil, especially if you have access to a touch screen or tablet/pen based input device. The advantage of 2d software over paper is that as you design, it is much easier to reorganize and recycle the components of your design using copy/paste. It also allows you to use templates and recycle old designs, etc, which can often save time. Once your 2D designs illustrate your level well, you can move into 3D design. Some experimentation can (and should) also be done using 3d software. Generally you should move to greyboxing in 3D as soon as you know how to rough out your plan in 3D. It doesn’t make sense to tweak things too far in 2D planning since you can’t test gameplay there anyway. Thus, the best general workflow is as follows:
- First, brainstorm and make extremely rough ideas on paper.
- Then use 2D software to create more detailed plans (or draw them if you prefer).
- Finally, rough out your ideas in 3D.
Copyright Joe Crawford 2009 Level Design Concepts by Joe Crawford is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.
Using the Level itself as a tutorial for the player often the best way to learn seen in many modern games helps new players and avoids the need to read a manual Other elements commonly used in games: Comedy and Parody (braid's use of famous quotes). Flags for the level structure or platforms different parts of the environment will react to player differently, or cause the player to react to them