Thursday, 12 April 2012

Level Design

In my opinion when designing a level for a game it needs to stick to one simple rule:- 

- Never cause boredom! 

From what I understand a game level always starts on paper. (Well it originally starts as an idea) 

The 'Level Designer' plots out the design and structure of the level bearing in mind features that make the level unique, such as focal points for orientation and more importantly set pieces that add to gameplay. 
These are usually obstacles or branching paths that lead the player to hidden items or keys which then enables them to proceed to the next level or objective. 

A great example of this is the map for Shadow Complex developed by Chair

The initial pencil on paper layout of the entire game

The finished in-game version of the entire map
As Shadow Complex is a side-scrolling platformer the map is laid out in the same format.


Here is a very rough diagram of a level in side and top view -

When creating a level the designer must consider -

- Where the Player starts
- Where the Enemies initially start
- Doors, Traps, Treasure Chests, Switches (Puzzles)
- Distinct Landmarks to aid in Navigation and orientation

Creating a legend helps others understand all the elements that make up your level design. 

Essentially what the Level Designer does is take an idea and make it a reality. 

A reality we can explore. They are the 'Shapers of Worlds!' 

From that stage the map would be given to 'Level Artists' and we get the Grey Box Level

(This video is from the Team Fortress 2 Art Pass Contest from 2010) 

This is where all the scale, pacing and variety of gameplay should be experimented with and focused. 
At this point it is still cheaper to omit unwanted or unnecessary areas of your levels.

It also a good idea to either create an additional room or an entirely new grey box level as a testing ground and experiment with all the game mechanics that make your level dynamic.


Predominately levels can be sorted into two different groups - 

- Corridor based (or Linear)

- Open World (or Sandbox)

There are some games that blur these two definitions but most games feature this type of level design. 

Corridor based levels are much easier for designers to build because trigger points and scripted events can be placed right in your path enabling the narrative to play out uninterrupted. 
Another advantage of using this type of level design is that the whole experience can be a lot more cinematic, aiding in the players increased sense of immersion. 

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception - Naughty Dog 2011
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception - Naughty Dog 2011
Bioshock - 2K 2007
Bioshock - 2K 2007
Bioshock - 2K 2007
Bioshock - 2K 2007
Metroid: Other M - Team Ninja 2010
Resident Evil: Revelations - Capcom 2012
X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse - Activision 2005
(A great Isometric game!)

Open World levels present a greater challenge to designers as they can be seen from nearly every angle. 
There is more emphasis on freedom of exploration. And quests can seemingly be taken up in any order. 
Scripted events are not always guaranteed to be as cinematic because there is a chance, a slim chance, that you may not even be facing in the right direction at the desired moment. 

But more commonly now these take place in key areas of interest. 

Or in Fallout 3's case they just whip your head around to whoever starts taking to you. 
(Most annoying) 

Aside from that, if well executed the scale of the world can be breathtaking. 

Red Dead Redemption - Rockstar 2010

Shadow of The Colossus -  Team Ico 2005

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Bethesda 2011

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Bethesda 2011

The epic scale of some games can be jaw-dropping at times. 
Especially when you check the map in your inventory. And you realise just how much further you have left to go.

H-6, I believe


I just thought I'd add an additional note that as a navigational aid the different hub towns that make up this world need to be visually distinct from one another, so the player can reorient themselves within that space. 

Both types of level need objectives to propel the player forward in their adventure and way markers (direction guides) help to remind the player exactly where they are heading and what that entails. 

This is usually done with icons representative of specific missions or with different colours. 

Dead Space - EA 2008
Isaac Clarke and his laser guide line.

 Fast Forward to 5:12 :) 

Borderlands - Gearbox / 2K 2009
The current objectives are displayed on the right hand side of the screen.
The Directional Guide is the green diamond on the compass bottom-centre. 

Mirror's Edge - EA Dice 2008
Follow the Red path
Mirror's Edge has a very visually distinct indicator of which direction the player must proceed. 
Your path was literally 'red' ahead of you. 

This is method of player directing is know as 'Flow Control'. 
Lighting, Geometry and Collectibles (Money, Health, Power-Ups) are used frequently in level design to guide the player along the intended path. 

Alan Wake displays this principle to great effect - 

Alane Wake - Remedy Entertainment 2010
 Diagonal lines lead us onwards.

Alane Wake - Remedy Entertainment 2010
Once again the geometry shows us the way to go. The exit is also illuminated by a much stronger source of light.

Alane Wake - Remedy Entertainment 2010
 Staying in the shadows is never a good idea in this game. 

Alane Wake - Remedy Entertainment 2010
Alan wake the Moth-Man of Bright Falls.

Alane Wake - Remedy Entertainment 2010
We have signs, lights and geometry all leading us to the main objective.

Alane Wake - Remedy Entertainment 2010
The angle of the road is leading us towards a strong source of light framed by the structure of the bridge. 


In conclusion, the essence of good level design is to make the player feel like they are making all the decisions, when in fact they are doing exactly what you wanted them to do. 

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