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Level Design Part II: Abridged Reality (Lessons from Castle Grayskull & the Cat's Lair)

In part II of this series, we look for level layout inspiration from classic toy play sets.

Matthew Hodge, Blogger

May 24, 2012

8 Min Read

[In part II of this series (part I), we look for level layout inspiration from classic toy play sets.]

Level Design Part II: Abridged Reality (lessons from Castle Grayskull)


*Video Companion Note: I recorded a 5 minute companion video for this post on YouTube. It shows the toys referenced in this article, and how I'm applying my design ideas to my game. You can check it out here.


Let's stop a moment to ponder the structure of our real world. On a trip to one of our government buildings. I was on the 3rd floor, and I needed to get to the 2nd floor of the building next door. I walked down a hall way with signs pointing me to the elevator. In a daring leap of faith, I rode that government elevator to the 1st floor. I could now exit the building... Actually this sucks.

Man, the real world is BOOOOOORRRING!

In part 1 we examined a technique for conceptualizing our unique and fun environments, but now we're faced with a much less theoretical task. It's time to actually build the level. We need to think about every object, where it is being placed, and why.

Your core game mechanics are what keeps it fun. With that in mind, I find it best to list the areas of a level that you want the player to access. I then only build those areas and the paths that connect them. For my platform game, the paths and areas I build are designed to be fun for my core game mechanics first, with realism to the environment second. The end product is typically a layout that wouldn't make sense to the real world. The idea is that when they player is enjoying the experience, their imagination will fill in the gaps in my abridged version of reality.

So, what elements do we make, and what elements should be interactive? To answer this, we'll examine “Castle Grayskull”, the “Cat's Lair”, and our childhood imagination.

By the design of Grayskull!Image originally found at toysfromthepast.com

Castle Grayskull Playset

Let's take a look at the following design points:

  • Not to scale with other toys

  • Lack of stairs

  • Purpose for every accessible location

Scale is important. A human character that is twelve feet tall when compared to a car is going to introduce a dis-connect with the player; however, we can get some wiggle room with objects that are very different in size to begin with. Play sets change the scale because a 1:1 with the figures wouldn't be practical. I would require too much space, and not be easily moved Oddly enough the reasons for a scale skewing in games is very similar, especially in quick-play/mobile games. 1:1 scale means more areas and space to be accounted for. This is more work for the developer, and potentially decreases value to mobile players by not allowing them to complete goals in short play sessions; so, how do we effect scale without causing on obvious visual flaw?

For an example, large buildings in a platform game can be shrunken down, as long as the features of the building that a player would interact with are convincingly scaled. If the doors, windows, stairs, etc. are to scale, it isn't likely that one will notice or care that the square footage is off. This reduction of building scale would shorten the amount of time spent walking, create less areas that need to be developed, and be an overall benefit for mobile games.

Next, we''ll look at the lack of stairs. Why did the toy designer not provide the most practical structure for moving between floors? Space is the obvious answer, but they're also not an exciting feature.

If the feature isn’t exciting, it’s just taking up space. This principle of ruling out un-interesting features needs to be adjusted with your type of game. If you’re going for realism, you’d probably need to think of an interesting way to incorporate environment pieces one would expect from a real location.

The last point I want to make about He-Man’s fortress, is that every location a figure can populate has a purpose. If you see a piece of floor, you’ll notice it's associated with computer consoles, the throne, or the trap door. Up top we have a lookout position and defensive equipment. There isn’t any ledge/floor that exists just “because”. This should serve as a major design point for our levels. In the example of my game, meaningless areas can infuriate the player.

Platforming edges in

Platforming edges in

Imagine you are playing a level. You’re platforming along, and everything seems great. Then off on the corner of the screen you can see another edge. Your initial thought would likely be “hey, I wonder what’s over there. It’s got to be good”. Unfortunately for you, there is no reason to get over there. It was just put there because it made the scene look cool from a distance; however, you have no way of knowing that. You’ll likely spend a number of lives trying to get there before you get frustrated and give up (possibly on the entire game), or you’ll actually find a way to make it. If you do manage to get there, you’ll quickly realize that there isn’t anything to do or achieve. The level wasted your time, and worse, it didn’t provide a way back. Now you have to quit or die for all of your hard work.

The previous scenario is inexcusable. As level designers we must make sure that everything accessible exists for the player’s benefit. The next set of points I’d like to discuss are nicely illustrated by the ThunderCat's Cat’s Lair play set.

“Special item design, snaaarrf.”

Image found at actiontoys.com

Cat's Lair Playset

This play set offers unique lessons in interaction between the toys in the Thunder Cat’s line.

You’ll notice the back of the head has a seat for the action figure, with a trigger handle. The head of the lair can be rotated and aimed. The trigger activates an infrared sensor in the mouth. Above the layer’s main doors is a light senor. This detects when another toy’s infrared system has fired in the Lair’s line of site. When other toys fire directly at the sensor above the layer door, the lair records damage. When enough damage is taken, an alarm sounds and the doors pop open. The lair's head is a laser defense. If it hits the sensor on the enemy toy, it will pop apart.

So, the Cat’s Lair and enemy vehicles can shoot where ever they want, but it only has an effect if they shoot the designated spot that is designed to receive and react to the shot.

This is an important take-a-way. If we design a weapon or other interactive piece to our level, let’s make sure it has a specific and special purpose. That purpose should help the player enjoy the experience and progress through the game.

Again, depending on the game you’re making, your exercise of this principle will vary. For instance, in a realistic shooter one would expect the average weapons in their inventory to gain some reaction from whatever they use it on; however, even this genre has instances of special environment weapons that only work on other specific elements. Such as a large cannon that only damages a specific wall to allow the player to progress.

It is also important that level items meant to be used by the player are clearly marked. It should also be clearly marked as to where and how it should be used. In games this most commonly occurs as “red barrels”; though that is getting old. For my game, I promise to come up with something besides red barrels.

Now the question, “What is it that ultimately makes our levels fun and coherent?” It is the same thing that made those toys fun when we we’re kids. It’s our imagination.

As kids play with toys, it is a fluid experience. They don’t think about the fact that there aren’t any stairs to climb, and that they just leaped from the first floor dungeon to the second floor control room. It’s a non-issue. A child’s imagination seamlessly fills in the gaps in reality as they play.

Adults still have that child-like imagination; it just doesn’t get used as often. As game designers, we need to make a commitment to our players that we will design our games using imagination. When we’re feeling dry, it’s my recommendation to reflect and reconnect with the toys and games we played as kids. Let them refresh you.

If we make our core game mechanics fun, and the environment’s design plays well to it, an adult’s imagination will rekindle to fill in the gaps in reality. When this happens, the player will be enjoying the experience.

Part II Summary

Environments don't need to be true to their real world counterparts. By making abstract and abridged versions of reality, we create a smoother and more imaginative experience for the player. Toys and play sets are great sources of inspiration for creating play-centric layouts.

In this series I've discussed my methods for conceptualizing, and materializing levels. In the final part of this three part series, I will discuss good practices and ideas for the technical art development of levels. I'll focus on my game “The Legend of Sky” as an example, and I'll be using the Unity3D game engine. This next post should be a great starting point for sharing and discussing technical art design practices we've picked up.

See you in the comments and at the next article. Thanks for reading.

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