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Beginning Level Design Part 2: Rules to Design By and Parting Advice

It’s the level design, stupid. In the second of his two-part series, Tim Ryan builds upon the level design theory he laid out last time. This week, he generously shares not one, not two, but 20 rules to design by, plus parting wisdom for aspiring level design gurus.

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.)

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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.

Heroes of Might and Magic II
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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.

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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.

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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.


11) Make it unique.

Although it is easier said than done, the ability to create unique game elements is very rare these days. Yet at least in level design, you have a chance to combine elements in new ways and tell different stories. And besides, no good game completely ignores its predecessors or the competition, and you shouldn’t, either. Sometimes it’s useful to play the competition in order to identify aspects of your level that you think are lacking, or spot where your level is better. You often come up with new ideas to add to your design palette. You may find that your level idea has never been implemented before, or you may get inspired to try something new. A level doesn’t have to be completely original to have uniqueness. Your individual tastes will emerge in your design, and that alone will make it unique. Hopefully, the differences will fill a void in your own and other players’ experiences. However you do it, uniqueness sets your level and your game apart from the others, ideally in a positive way.

12) If the player didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.

Don’t assume all players will read dialogue or mission descriptions, and don’t rely on their observation skills, powers of precognition, or capacity for logical deduction to understand what is going on in the level and what they should do. Players must see what is happening to understand it. The old proverb "a picture is worth a thousand words" is entirely accurate in level design. To a certain extent, you are bound by the art and animations, but a lot can be accomplished with observable AI behavior, enemy and object placement and settings, and the revelation of terrain.

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MechCommander
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For example, a mission from the recent hit MechCommander starts off with you on the opposite side of a meandering river from an enemy convoy. You have to destroy the convoy before it reaches the exit point by racing to convenient jumping or crossing points, as the mission description tells you. In its infancy, the level started the player far from the river and the enemy. If you had not read the mission description or bothered to look at the tactical map or mission objectives, you would not have a clue as to your objectives, and you certainly wouldn’t perceive any sort of urgency. You wouldn’t know what the enemy was up to, or why. By the time you got through exploring and fighting a couple of battles, you’d lose without any idea as to why you lost. Maybe you’d try again and read the mission description, or perhaps you would just turn the game off.

The level was changed to put the river and the starting point of the enemy convoy within your line of sight as the level started. Right away, you see your target and perceive the problem of them being on the opposite side of the river. Soon after you exchange missile and laser fire across the river, you realize that the convoy will not slow down to attack you, and you find yourself in a race to cross the river and cut them down before they get away. The whole objective and core game play of the mission is revealed in seconds without any words or confusion – just with insightful revelation, positioning, and enemy behavior.

13) See through the player’s eyes.

Players usually watch most closely those objects that appear on a level’s "event horizon." The event horizon is where new terrain is revealed and where enemies are engaging the player. Changes in the event horizon often trigger a reaction from players or influence their decisions, and changes elsewhere may not get noticed immediately.

For instance, if an enemy unit suddenly appeared in the middle of previously revealed terrain, it may not attract the player’s attention, at least until a blip appeared on the radar or the new unit attacked one of the player’s buildings. However, if the enemy unit appeared where new terrain was being revealed, it’s likely that it would be noticed right away. Likewise, a building isn’t really looked at except when it’s initially revealed.

While some players spend time examining previously revealed terrain, most people do not, and it becomes even less likely when the game takes place within a 3D environment. Players usually only observe what is in the "here and now," and you should put yourself in their position to ensure that you don’t put imperceptible events in your level.

14) Fulfill player expectations.

Players will have certain expectations about your level based on what they may have already seen or been told. While it is fun and challenging for a player to experience the unexpected, you have to be aware of their initial expectations. This makes it easier for you to ensure that you are either meeting those expectations, surpassing them, or tossing them out altogether.

Players’ expectations can change throughout a level as you feed them more information. If you build up certain expectations and fail to follow through on them, the level can seem confusing or barren. If you elect to surprise the players by tossing out their expectations and revealing the unexpected, be sure it’s important for your level, because the players will certainly perceive it as important. For example, it you tell the player that they are in an industrial building and they don’t find any industrial equipment, they’ll get confused. They’ll wonder if they are in the right building or if they’ve missed any floors. Unless it’s important to the plot to surprise the player, you should either change the mission description or insert a few industrial machines into the level. Likewise, if you want to surprise the player with the existence of alien technology, you probably wouldn’t want to put it in an industrial building, because alien machines wouldn’t necessarily look much different from other machinery. You would be better off putting alien machine in the cellar of an old barn, where it would really grab the player’s attention. Sometimes, it’s only by taking the player’s perspective that you can perceive their expectations and identify aspects of your level that need to be improved.


15) Balance the difficulty for the median skill level.

Players of varying skill levels will play your game. While you can try playing your level as a bad player and again as a good player,you will probably not draw any significant conclusions about your level in this way. You’ll probably just conclude that "players who are bad should expect to lose." The problem is that "good" and "bad" are vague terms.

The only way to identify what skills players will really have when they begin your level is to determine their median skill level. The median skill level of a player starting your level can be determined by using low- and high-water marks that previous levels have established (or, if it’s the first level, from previously played games in the same genre). You can quickly deduce what minimum skills a player has based on what it took to complete the previous levels – that’s your low-water mark. To determine the high-water mark, you have to gather feedback from people who haven’t played any level beyond yours. This can be difficult, however – if you are basing the high-water mark on the abilities of individuals in your test department or the extreme game geeks that show up to the focus groups for a free game and pizza, your high-water mark might be skewed too far towards the extremely talented players. These hardcore players are not only talented game players in their own right, they also tend to learn from one another while playing, so no one is ever going to play as badly in a group testing environment as they would if they were playing the game by themselves at home. You’re better off identifying the best player, setting that person’s skill level as the high-water mark, and using deductive reasoning to determine the low-water mark. This establishes the median skill of players approaching your level, and with this knowledge, you can play test the level at both extremes and identify where it needs to be made easier or harder.

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16) Know the players’ bag of tricks.

Each player has his own "bag of tricks" – strategies and tactics for solving puzzles or challenges that are put before him. This bag of tricks includes battle tactics, scouting methods, preferred armament, their choice of allied forces, their choice of targets, their construction strategies, and so on. When designing a level, you can assume that the player will use some of the tricks from his bag to beat your level. However, don’t assume that a player knows a one particular trick yet. Look at the earlier levels in your game and see if players have been taught the trick yet. If they have, feel free to use it, but be careful not to rely on an overused trick, as it makes your level boring. If players have not been taught the trick yet, then be careful not to base your level’s solution on its use.

17) Learn what players may bring to the fray.

Have a thorough understanding of what players bring with themselves to your level, in terms of forces, weapons, spells, skill ratings, and so on. It’s not uncommon for designers to underestimate or overestimate what players will be equipped to do as they begin the level. Study the previous levels in your game. Look at the asset revelation schedule (see rule #9). Examine play testing statistics. Estimate what players may be able to afford or build. Then balance the enemy forces and other challenges accordingly.

As the game evolves over the course of time, keep an eye on the design of previous levels and make sure that they don’t change significantly – that can throw off the balance of your level or spoil your core game play. For example, if a designer working on the level prior to yours arbitrarily threw in a jet-pack, and you had already created a treacherous, 20-foot wide river to coax the player into a cool bridge encounter, it would ruin your whole level.

Be a watchdog over the design of other levels, because it will protect the integrity of your level. Worship the asset revelation schedule so that you don’t ruin someone else’s level, and nobody can spoil yours.

18) Be the adversary.

To a certain extent you have to be sadistic to the players. You should enjoy being the adversary, and think from the AI’s perspective. This will help you make much more realistic opponents that a player can understand. Players naturally put a human face on the AI, and so they expect the AI to behave like a human. When you script the AI to behave in a human fashion, it helps players successfully strategize and often draws them deeper into the game. It also evokes a little fear in players, as they don’t expect a game AI to recognize their weaknesses. As the adversary, you need to provoke fear in players and prey on their weaknesses. It’s what makes the game more challenging, fun and fulfilling.


19) Play test, play test, and play test some more.

Nothing surpasses play testing when it comes to ensuring quality level design. Although I’ve listed it as the19th rule, play-testing should be an ongoing process. You need to test your levels as you make them. It will save you a lot of time reworking your level if you can identify a significant bug or flaw in your thinking early in the design process. Plus, play testing is often where many level designers come up with some of their best improvements to levels. And don’t forget that only through rigorous play-testing you can spare yourself the embarrassment of your boss or your coworkers finding some really heinous and obvious bugs in your level. Testing your level is part of your job.

One of the most rewarding activities in level design is watching other people play your level. Not only do you get an opportunity to see their reactions (both positive and negative), but you can gauge how close they come to the experience you strove for. You can observe their play styles, see how they explore and discover the various tricks, puzzles, traps and rewards. It helps you see how difficult your level is to people who don’t already know the solutions and don’t necessarily have your play skills. You can identify where your level is too boring or difficult, observe solutions to puzzles that you didn’t expect and thereby make them easier, or harder. There’s always a player who will do the unexpected, and when you come across this situation, don’t be afraid to ask them questions like, "Why did you go there?" The player may provide you with a great idea for improving your level. Watching a player test your level is definitely an opportunity you should never pass up.

Always remember that play-testers are never wrong, though they may not be able to clearly explain the basis for their opinions or offer good suggestions for improving your level. Take their advice with a grain of salt, because they are not always the target market or the target skill level. Some of your testers may not be big fans of your type of game, or they might have played the game so much that they’re no longer good sources of advice when it comes to the game’s difficulty. You should get input from as many play testers as you can before you change your level, so that you can see if there’s consensus in the feedback. Reacting to only one player’s response, whether positive or negative, can spoil your level for the other players.

20) Take the time to make it better.

The more time you spend working on a level, the better it can get. It’s often the subtler details that separate a good level from a great one, so take some time to put them in. It’s one of the finer pleasures of the level designer’s job to perfect a setting or the choreography of a battle. The beauty of the electronic medium is that you can save different copies of your level and experiment with them. Try out different ideas from your own twisted mind or based on feedback from play testers. Don’t ever be content with your level until you’ve experienced the fun you originally envisioned. There’s often something you can do in your level to get that vision across. Take the time to figure out what’s lacking or what’s preventing you from having that ultimate experience. You are the only one who can make it better.

The Myth of the "Every-Man" Designer

The "Every-Man" designer is the person who thinks that he or she knows what every person wants in a game. Being human and of only one mind and heart, this is a very pretentious assumption. You should have the humility to recognize that your tastes differ from others and that you are not always right. Keep your mind open to feedback and fresh ideas, and consult with people who may have more experience than you. If you do not, your games will miss their intended market.

Game design is a very hard skill to judge, being intangible, evolving, and not taught in any school. The "Every-Man" designers take advantage of this by putting on airs of great skill to put themselves into positions of power. Unfortunately, our industry is full of such people and they are often in a position to judge and change your work. I hope that by mentioning this here, early in your career, that you will not become one of them, because it can be a very unpleasant realization for you and your company that you don’t know what every player wants.

Developing Level Design Instincts

Level design instincts are what employers look for when they interview you. To a certain extent, employers assume you have some of these instincts if you have designed any levels at all, for they only come from practice. They are what you take from game to game and project to project, and they’re what make your job so special. It’s these instincts that let you immediately apply design theories and rules on the first pass of designing a level.

You’ll know when you have developed good instincts when you can look at someone else’s level, or an early level of your own, and the mistakes will glare at you. All of the rules in this series of articles came from my own instincts which I developed over years of making games, making plenty of mistakes, and having plenty of realizations. You, as a beginning designer, will make plenty of mistakes. However, hopefully you will learn from these experiences and you will stick with it. Hopefully these level design theories and rules will get you a head start on a satisfying hobby or career in level design.

Tim Ryan is an independent game designer working under the pseudonym "Muse of Fire Productions." He has been working in the game industry since 1992 and published numerous games on a variety of platforms. His recent work can be seen in the hit PC game MechCommander. Direct questions or friendly comments to [email protected].

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8.1.22
Associate Marketing Manager - Walt Disney Games

Insomniac Games

Burbank, California
8.26.22
Accessibility Design Researcher
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