Programmable Series – On The Level

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Level design is one of the most significant aspects of the game design process – its impact on a game extends beyond simply the look and feel of the environment. However, its importance is often overlooked when considered alongside other game mechanics. As you work on how your characters will jump, shoot and run through the environment it’s important that the motions of the characters feel natural in relation to the locations they are placed in. This is where level design can greatly help a game to stand out. A good layout can enhance the overall experience of your players, while a poor layout can feel tedious or even obstructive when moving forward. The structure of each level is critical to any game’s overall design.

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The key issue with level design is that it is both subjective and relative to the style of game. Some would argue that straight paths and linear corridors make for bad levels, but consider your experience when playing an arcade beat-em-up such as Double Dragon. Within the context of that particular title and genre, linear stages are incredibly helpful in asserting the game’s progression and pacing. It all depends on what is the most organic way of achieving a sense of flow of progression.

Anyone who has played a Sonic the Hedgehog game can attest to the frustrations of speeding through a level – something the game claims to champion – only to lose momentum or hit a dead end and then have to backtrack in order to progress. As you design levels for any type of game, you’ll want to keep in mind where the players can go and what potential road blocks they will encounter. It’s not a bad thing to implement boundaries or to keep players on track – at the same time your game doesn’t need to be completely open either. If you find that there are going to be dead ends or complete halts to progression in your game, you can still make these areas interesting by occupying them with an interactive element such as a power-up item or collectible. By using this approach, when a player encounters a stop in momentum they will still feel like they are making progress by finding something, even if they have to do a little backtracking to get back on course.

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Level design is really about keeping the player interested in continuing on. Although they may have the overall goal of finishing the game by meeting an objective or defeating a monster, they need a reason to move forward in each level. There should be something interesting at almost any given moment. These could be enemies, items, bonuses or even just an interesting piece of scenery! If the player’s attention is captured by an object, then that will keep them on track and drive them forward naturally. The early Mega Man and Mega Man X games are great examples of this – there is almost always something on the screen so once you’ve collected an item or defeated an enemy on screen, you’re left wondering “what lies just ahead?” and that’s what keeps you going. It’s always interesting.

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Keep in mind the abilities that your player character has, as well as the enemies you incorporate. Can your player double jump? Do your enemies fly? If so, you may want to add more vertical sections to your levels. Does your player have a dodge move, or a dash attack? If that’s the case, you may want to add traps or obstacles that compliment those types of abilities and give your player something interesting to overcome. As you build your levels you can incorporate more elements that provide a unique challenge for your player. You could even combine obstacles that your player has encountered in previous levels to help keep them on their toes.

For example, let’s take your common pit-trap that the player character can fall into and die. It could be simple enough to avoid with a jump. Let’s also say you have a rock that rolls toward the player, that could knock them back, but that again can be cleared with a jump. The rock obstacle could be placed directly after a pit, which could potentially knock the player back and causing them to fall into the pit-trap. This simple combination will get your player thinking more cautiously about the standard method of jumping over an obstacle. They may have to be quicker in their decisions to jump in order to avoid both obstacles. Alternatively, they may need to jump back over the pit to avoid the oncoming rock and regroup for a moment. Either way, a combination as simple as this can keep levels interesting as well as ramping up the challenge a bit. This is not a fix-all for every scenario but it is an effective use of existing environments and level design. Be sure not to overdo it though – if you start throwing everything at the player all at once then that is more likely to cause a stop in progression instead of adding a twist on past experiences.

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The abilities and functionality of both player and enemy characters may inspire other elements of your game’s design, including its levels – you might decide to add new features, mechanics or enemies themselves based on how your levels start to unfold, in ways that you may not have thought of before. Gunvalkyrie serves as a strong example of using level design based around player and enemy abilities. As a result of the main character’s equipment, most notably a jet pack, the opportunity is presented to make use of vertical space. Said jet pack also grants the player the ability to boost ahead at high speeds, which allows for long corridors – something which would otherwise have the potential to appear uninteresting – to become a valued part of each level. These designs of long paths and high platforms allow for both ground and aerial enemy types. Though the levels are mostly unique, they are generally built as canyon-like areas with many long and narrow connecting sections for crawling enemies to creep into, broken up with wide open areas offering large vertical spaces for flying enemies.

John Romero‘s infamous first-person shooter Daikatana does quite the opposite of this, which makes it a good subject of study when it comes to level design. Daikatana starts off with many narrow spaces, but includes flying enemies – this makes them as hard to find as to fight, as enemies are often positioned above the player before it is even discernible where they are coming from. The game also incorporates a companion system in which an computer-controlled partner follows you around the level. As the levels become decreasingly coherent as you progress, it is very common for your companion to get stuck on stairs, run into walls or simply refuse to move. Additionally, many levels require you to do significant backtracking, causing more chances for your partner to become stuck. This quickly becomes a stop in game progression due to the fact that your companion must exit each level with you. These are situations that could have been rectified by a more careful approach to level design or, as noted in a previous instalment of Programmable Series, are mechanics that may have been better left out, altogether.

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As you design your levels, remember to keep them feeling organic to the setting as well as to your player’s abilities. Take note of the pacing and progression, while minimising any stops in game play. Keep your player engaged and moving forward with interesting things to find or interact with. By keeping these things in mind when approaching level design, you’ll be building levels that not only stand out, but that your players will want to revisit time after time.

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About Mike C Clark Jr (Chemical Taint)

*Indie game developer, specializing in classic and arcade style games. I design games primarily for personal computers and handheld/mobile devices. *Musician and part-time music producer. Focused primarily on rock, metal and industrial music.
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