Welcome to the second part of the Level Design First Blocks Series. I hope you enjoyed the first part as we discussed a role of an LD in all the stages of development and routes to becoming a Level Designer. If you missed the first part then please click the link to read it now: (Part 1)
In this article, I am going to go through some of the best practices in level design. Please note these are not all of the best practices and not all will apply to every game you make. These are not rules so please add or take them away as you see fit. There are plenty more practices and each one I could talk about for hours. Yet for the purpose of this post, I do not want to overburden you and make you think you have to focus on 100+ things. Now that is out of the way let us begin:
Is all about finding the right moments to have a down or upbeat. As shown by the graph above, it is not all about having a straight line to the top. Let us say we are creating a call of duty style of game, the pacing would be about controlling how often we throw the player into combat. Good pacing is about allowing the player to have those moments of calm before the storm. If the player just constantly fought without a breather, they would be stressed and not appreciate the combat as much or be able to explore the world, just constantly seeing bullets heading towards their direction. So allow for moments where players can have a time to think and plan strategies for their next move. Imagine if you were listening to song and it was all crescendo, it would not be a good song and you would not appreciate it. Songs provide a build up before the crescendo preparing you and then you enjoy those down moments as they make amazing moments even more amazing because of the contrast.
One of the best methods to give your level more agency is giving players choices. These choices can be as simple as branching paths. Making the player feel like they had a say, creating the illusion of that players are not going in directions we the designers tell them to go which is fantastic. It does not need to be something like another path but maybe players can solve a puzzle or combat encounter in a number of ways (Zelda BotW and MGSV are great examples of this). These are all choices, so remember to give players …... Ice cream (no you know what I word I am looking for) Choices.
One of the main reasons players par take in games is for the challenge. This is one of the hardest balancing acts to get right. If a level is to easy then players will breeze through it and never want to go back again, then they will instantly forget that level. On the other hand if the game is insanely hard, players struggling to get past a puzzle/encounter they will most likely rage quit, but will remember your level (For the wrong reasons). Yet when the difficulty is done just right the feeling of accomplishment is fantastic, we feel like a genius, as if solved the missing equation for time travel. Find the right area and your level will be loved.
Think about how you want the player to progress through your level, simple puzzle (with no instant fails) at the beginning, yet towards the end, puzzles should be extremely challenging with the high possibility of a results in failure.
In level design, it is more than likely that you will want the player to go somewhere or solve something, the way LDs do this through level design is with sign posting. This can be crafted in a number of shapes and forms, from actual signs to a giant building in the distance, or even yellow ledges telling us where to climb. By using these techniques we can help guide players without being too intrusive, keeping the player immersed within the games world. When you are testing your game remember that you know what you are doing, yet for others who have never played your game it may not be as easy for them, resulting in lost players. Never forget this point!
This goes hand in hand in hand with sign posting, whenever there is a change in your level which is the result of the player, then you must make it super clear that a change has been made! From a red light switching to green, a sound effect etc. You need to make sure that this information is always clear to the player. Again a real crucial element and it easy for this to slip through the cracks, but please do not let it.
Environmental story telling:
Narrative is handled in a multitude of ways but one that will impact LDs is environmental storytelling. It is a really nice way to lead subtle clues for each player to interpret in their own way.What is Environmental storytelling? An example is a scene where players come into a room and they see blood on wall with bullet shells on the ground. With the back door open. Players can either think someone died here and the body has been taken away, or that someone has been shot and they escaped through the back room. My favourite part of this narrative method is how it is a two way conversation. Most of the time players are told “This is what happened” yet with this it is open for interpretation.
You will work closely with your artist to create your story, and I am sure you people will create something amazing.
Depth not Breadth:
In your levels you may get a chance to introduce a new mechanic and/or a new enemy type. If this is true really try to find simple ways to build upon! Don't just throw in loads of new mechanics or enemies and think yh the more stuff in there, the better it is! No this is the opposite, you should pick one and find new and exciting ways to make the most of the mechanic.
Think about how you can bring life to this element throughout your level, from something simple at first to something which now takes more time to figure out. Always think about how you can take something and use it in 100 ways rather than 100 new things and use them all once.
Now the term ‘Flow’ has another meaning in terms of game design and Jenova Chen has some great thoughts and examples on this. Yet what I mean is slightly different, it is not about the balance of challenge, but how the player flows through the level. Imagine it as water flowing through your level, would it flow at this point or would it crash. An example of bad flow is when you are traversing through a level and then suddenly you have to do a 180 degree turn, the player has suddenly lost their momentum and possibly their line of site to the next area. Flow for level design comes from all the points above, when you see the player move through the area, ask yourself they are ‘flowing’ through the level or is there a dam blocking them.
Sorry I could not come up with a better name for this. This is a point where players get a vantage point (not necessarily for combat) allowing players get a lay of the land, if it is a combat area then they get to see the choices open to them, flanking routes or explosives they can use to take out a group of enemies. If it is for puzzle it may be used to show the overall puzzle layout so players can make a mental map for themselves when they come to tackle the puzzle. Now these points do not need to show the whole layout but for example just ¼ so when the player is on the ground level they are still discovering new routes to take. Again this will not apply to every game out there but giving players a chance to plan something out and executing their plan again makes them feel like a badass, even if it does not go to plan this still creates an exciting feeling within players.
Sense of life:
The Level in which you are making will more than likely take some inspiration from real life, or have some life forms who are living there or once lived in your level. If that is the case then for an example let’s say you as the player are going through an abounded office building which has been untouched. When you pass through the office, its layout makes you zig zag through all the desks, instantly you will be broken out of the immersion because no office layout like this exists.
Questions to ask yourself when designing a space which has real life routes are:
- What was this used for before the player visited?
- Where is the bathroom? Everyone needs a place to sleep, defecate, and eat.
Keep these things in mind as this will make your levels feel so much more believable. Final point on this, if you are making a multiplayer level and you are thinking, nah this does not apply to me. Then take a look at a game like Overwatch see how the direction of vehicles in a level goes in correct directions as if people used to drive on those streets, or in London you can take shortcuts through shops, all of this adds up and brings life to their levels.
There we go team, you now have ten best practises to help guide your level to the next level. I cannot wait for you to discover even more, best practises. I hope this helps and stay tuned for part three where I discuss personal skills which will help you grow into a great level designer. If you have enjoyed this, and want to see more of I work then please visit my Author page below to see more.
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If you like what I have done here, and want to hear more then please check out my Podcast Level Design Lobby: