Having not taken a regular course of level design outside those offered by the experiences of life and trial and effort, I now endeavor to document the phases of level design and polishing that went into Lab Bunnies, now available in the AppStore.
Steps in Brief
- Hand Drawn Designs
- Constructed in Level Editor (at times by another person)
- Game Tested and Tweaked for Playability by original designer (in case the original design was untenable or not fun)
- Level replayed many times to gauge correct time and movement bonuses
- Decorations were added (by original designer or another)
- After all this, a series play testing revealed a some levels that needed further improvement or updates.
A few step technically preceded these, but there were more game design steps, then particular level design tasks. These tasks included mapping out the different game elements and mechanics, and the sequence to introduce them. Assuming all were done well, I will now with a few sentences I will expand these steps, as undertook them.
Hand Drawn Designs
To be frank, this was the most mentally taxing for all who undertook this step. Taking into account, the designated game mechanics, the desired difficulty and general configuration of the level, the level designer would draw up the level. At times, it might seem that placing platforms, and characters on a piece of paper is a seemingly easy task, but it is not.
Mostly, for the levels I particularly created, I worked backwards through the level. Seeing in my mind the last few movements the player might take, I would add a difficultly or hazard to impede the player. Then I would work a few more step backward,
The second way I might craft a level was by starting with an interesting looking orientation of platforms, and work out a desired sequence for the player to follow across the platforms. To do this I would place various hazards or prizes in the path to lead, or lead into a trick, the player through the level.
Construction in Level Editor
Regardless of how the designs were placed onto paper, the next step was the more mechanical translation of the designs into workable levels in our level editor. To increase the velocity of this task, numerous templates and guides were made for those crafting the levels in Level Helper, http://www.levelhelper.org/. The different physics properties, and other game dynamics as could be done by the editor were handled at this level.
The person responsible for constructing the level would also briefly test to make sure that any moving or mechanical animations were set properly. They would also check to make sure that various tags and meta data was correctly configured, but they would not attempt to play test and/or balance the level. If the sequence of the level was to be fully lacking in entertainment value, that would be asserted and fixed in the next step.
Once constructed (and placed under a revision control system), the original designer would undertake tuning the level, moving it from theory to hopefully a fully engaging and fun level. Since in Lab Bunnies the possible movements are precisely determined, the first task is to make sure that the design was accurately translated from the hand drawn (if not done by the same person), and then make certain that it was indeed even completable. Adjustments would be taken if it were not.
Once satisfied that the level was passable, we would then go through a few different axis to determine the entertainment ("was it a challenge or a chore?", "was it engaging or tedious?", "was it puzzling or just a pain to finish?"). Working through the solution to the level many times with these ideas in mind, adjustments would be made.
Determine Challenge Thresholds
Once the level feels very stable, we still won't lock it in place, but we will start the points balancing for the level. Each level has fixed point values given for completing the levels with all the carrots collect and bunnies ending safely. This is automatically configured and doesn't take any extra effort.
Where the balancing occurs is for the high scoring. We wanted to enable players to differentiate themselves from others, but with the fixed point system, there wasn't a way to do that.
We determined that the number of hops used, and the time elapsed could be used to create a supplemental score to add to the regular points accumulated throughout the level. Since also give our three stars for high scores, we needed to find the appropriate threshold number of hops and seconds to award the the third star.
To do this we would play the level over and over, trying to get a faster time with fewer hops. Since we designed the level with an optimal path, generally we knew how to finish the level, but at times an even better solution would be found. After each play, the debugger would spit out the time and # of hops, and we would average those and figure out where the 90% spot was, and use those to award the last bonus star in the game.
The reason we don't like to make any adjustments to the level once we get to this phase, is if we have determined the correct hops and time balance for the level, if there are any adjustments, the hops and times might need to be re-balanced again.
Adding the Decoration
The last step is to add the no physics, non-active decorations to the level. This step once again was usually done by a different person then the original designer. Honestly, the eye for good layout and balanced placement was often lacking in the level designers. So would send it over to the more artist team members for this final step.
Obviously, there was followup play testing for all the levels by people outside the team. Also, the entire game was replayed when the iPhone 5 came out. The x-axis physics were slightly adjusted to accommodate the screen size. About 20% of the level had to be tweaked, resulting in double checks of the hops and time bonus thresholds.
Please check out Lab Bunnies and determine for yourself if our work resulted in polished and enjoyable levels. Various Level solutions can be found on our site, which will also let you get a feel of the variety of levels we crafted.
Originally Published on my Tech Wanderings blog.