Level Design: Introduction

What is Level Design and how do you do it? A short overview of the types of things level designers consider to construct compelling experiences.


(You can find the original post here.)

What is Level Design?

This post is an attempt to shed some light on what the mysterious art of "level design" really is for those who don't already know. I'm also going to walk through my process of designing levels in Class Rules.

"Good" Vs. "Bad" Level Design

The Three Core Game Beats  

Level Designers craft the game experience and are directly accountable for the "beats" that players progress through as they spend time in the game universe. What does good level design feel like? I could say something vague like "it feels fun," or I could try to get academic with a response like "an ideal state of flow," but I will stick with my fallback and a tried and true example: Super Mario Bros. 1-1.

The Perfect Level

What makes this level "perfect"?

The opening screen of Super Mario Bros 1-1


For one, it teaches you all of the fundamental skills in the game within the first frame. The frame is simple; there is a Goomba who will teach you how to fail and progress, and a combined total of seven brick and question blocks. The question block furthest to the right also happens to be holding one of Mario's favourite mushrooms.

(Shameless Plug Time: Huffington Post/Hand Eye Society Superstar Al Donato, CBC Super Mario-whiz Jonathan Ore, and I spent a whole Built to Play podcast discussing this very subject if you want to hear more.)

Using these basic tools (and without any on-screen instruction), the don Shigeru Miyamoto was able to tell us how to jump, attack, find power-ups and secrets, fail, and succeed as Mario in a single frame--purely through the power of level design.

But, so what?

A primary goal of level design is to lead to player through an experience. This is difficult because as designers, we really have no control of how a player chooses to interact with the environment they are presented with. In the world of game design, challenge should be balanced with reward and obstacles should be met with ample time to prepare for them. Of course, there are exceptions (I can hear the cries of the Super Meat Boy fanboys now), but even in those cases there maybe be other aspects outside of the gameplay itself that constitute rewards (achievement bragging rights?).

The point is, players have to feel compelled to play to participate in your game in the first place. Further, how a level designer chooses to build a level depends on the type of tools available, and what needs to be accomplished in the level. A level designer works through the language created by these conventions and mechanics of the game in order to construct a way of communicating with the player.

Diagram of Enticing Player Action

Another goal is to make that experience usable, purposeful and/or enjoyable, and look good. This is what makes the truly spectacular level design stand out. Designers are tasked with balancing the path they've made through the level with making it look, and (in my opinion, most importantly) feel good.

One might ask how one measures how a game feels, and the easy answer is: play one and see if you like it. The long answer is that it is really quite difficult to determine, and can not necessarily be met by overarching "one-glove-fits-all" objective criterion. However, there are certainly some major factors that help levels play well. These include (among many others): making sure the metrics of the environment reflect how the player moves the character, balancing challenge with reward, and giving players the tools to overcome the challenges that they are faced with.

Hopefully all of these things should be evident while I construct my own levels.

In the next part, I walk through the process of building the very first scene that will be in the game.

Please comment if you have any questions, thoughts or suggestions!


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