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Level Design: An Enjoyable Time Beating My Head Against The Wall

What I got out of a quick forray in to level design.

My brief exposure to level design has taught me something.  Level design is a LOT of work.  Level design is fun, but it’s a LOT of work.   

For those that talk to me on a regular basis, I’m sure I’ve already mentioned the ten pages I spent designing a small level of third person shooter/RPG kind of thing.  That was the most enjoyable nightmare I’ve ever had. 

Sketching out the level on the back of a handout was just the beginning.  When I started I had this really awful, rough idea of some generic military base.  With this sketch in mind, I started thinking about how I could actually play the level.  I realized the level I had made was extremely boring.  This is when it got fun.  I realized my level was without aim, a player would just kind of stumble around from random enemy encounter to random enemy encounter, with some vague goal that had no real purpose.  I realized my player needed a bit more focus and would probably appreciate at least a little history with the end boss, instead of just blindly wandering in to his lair to fight him. 

So instead of just having this big military base with some buildings you could wander in and out of, I added three gates to block progress and act as sort of a mini-goal.  These gates would remain locked until a switch at the top of a tower was thrown; the catch of course being that to access the tower, you would need a cardkey.  We’ve all done cardkeys and locked doors before, and while I felt just a little dirty, it gave the player incentive to go explore the buildings I had placed around the level.  The fact that I knew the player would now be forced to enter these buildings made me realize they were bland.  The more I spruced up the buildings, the more I got in to it.  Maybe the big room in this building would be a specimen collection area.  Maybe the specimens would escape.  Maybe now instead of just fighting generic soldiers, there would be a third entity in the mix for the player to deal with; while being shot at by the soldiers, now there’s these awful little melee monsters running around to worry about.   

So now I had two monsters, and a level with a bit more purpose and flow.  But two monsters?  Kind of dull.  Why would all these soldiers be running around without say… a medic?  So now I had a third enemy type.  Not only was this one a threat at range, but they would revive fallen enemy soldiers.  Now we have a deadly ranged threat, a medium ranged threat that revives enemies, and very quick melee threats.  Not bad. 

So that just leaves the boss.  I decided just fighting “Strong Soldier Guy” would just be really boring.  I wanted someone you could really put a face to.  Someone you could actually be like, “Really?  You honestly think you can stop me?”  That’s when I came up with Colonel Placeholder.  The good Colonel would introduce himself by blowing up the final gate, denying your freedom.  Of course then he’d slink off to his area, ready for the showdown. 

Now I had my sketch and a few solid ideas to play with.  Next up was the task of transferring it all down to paper.  My appearance description of this level was so detailed, I honestly think someone could draw my exact sketch just from reading it.  I made note of everything: papers on the walls, chairs knocked over, pipes on the ceiling, stencils on crates, I mean everything.  When all was said and done, I had five pages of just visual description alone.  With only 12 hours to work on that, I feel like I had to leave a lot out.   

Backstory was the next big part.  It was fun, as I wrote I got to get more in to this level.  This is stuff I doubt the player would ever see, but I feel it really helped define the level.  You really got to know Colonel Placeholder, and really understood his methods and how he worked.  I only came up with about a page and a half of backstory, but again, I’ll blame the time crunch.  I promise I wanted to put more. 

Rules of the level, attributes, behaviors, all that came next.  Lists and lists of just stuff the level did, enemies, where they appeared, in what configuration, and how many at a time.  It was actually really cool when I set a rule for checkpoint spawns, and then listed out where each checkpoint would be.  Just little things you never think of as a player, now you get to think of as a designer.  I was constantly thinking if the checkpoints were too generous, or maybe not generous enough.  I’ve had plenty of frustrating moments in my first person shooters dying, and just wanting to break controllers realizing how much I had to repeat. 

All in all, I spent every moment I wasn’t in class over the past two days, about 12 hours total, making this level.  It was a lot of work, but I really had a blast doing it.  Showing others the tremendous amount of work and detail I put in to this felt fantastic.  It’s great finding work like this that just really makes you want to show it off. 

I think that’s it for me for today.  If I get any feedback from my instructors on the level design doc, I’ll be sure to tack that on as a comment.  Take it easy all, until next time.

 -TJ

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