Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How to improve your levels

Today I'm going to talk about how budding level designers can help improve their level design. If you're not interested in making your own levels, you may not find this terribly useful, but it may cast some light on why the process of level creation is so incredibly time consuming.

This part is easy, and your homework for this is to go play some games. Really, it's that simple.  However, you need to be paying attention and you need to look at games from more than just your chosen genre. If you want to learn about how level design can and should support gameplay mechanics, go play some multiplayer-centric first person shooters. Look at maps from Counterstrike, Unreal Tournament 3, or Team Fortress 2. There are some great examples from these three games, but feel free to look at other maps as well. Moreover, consider maps that both work and don't work, and then take the time to decide why. Why do particular maps result in stalemates or levels that are mostly empty apart from one frenetic killzone? If you're not as experienced in level design, make sure you consider the use of height differences in the level, as this is an area that is frequently overlooked and/or misunderstood by beginners. Breaking down level design is an interesting but very complex subject, so for the sake of brevity, I'll leave it as a topic for future discussion.

Don't fire up your level without putting pen/pencil to paper first. Sketch out your level design! In professional game studios, concept artists create draft images of particular "shots"  that they believe should be the game to help convey the setting or instill players with that "wow!" feeling they get from looking at an amazing level. Even if you can't draw well (and I am terrible at sketching images), you should at the very least have an overhead map of the functional aspects of your level. Where are the trees/buildings/rocks/stairs/etc? You don't have to fill in every detail, but you do need a basic idea of how the level is going to play out.  An overhead map should allow you to concentrate on how the level is going to support and enhance gameplay mechanics, and should help you quickly help identify areas that could annoy the player because of repeated backtracking or a sense of being railroaded.

It doesn't have to be complex. But do it.

Do it. It's that simple. Make up a mock of your level in bare terms as quickly as possibly. There's no need to fill in the space, or even necessarily have the space exactly how you will in the final level. The main idea is to get an idea of level flow, size, and spatial considerations. Ask questions like: Is a hallway too long, too narrow, too straight, or too steep?  Is the level too linear or too non-linear? Does the player have enough space to move around? Can they see or work out where they are supposed to be going?  When doing a prototype, focus entirely on function, not on form. Don't even bother texturing, and only add lighting so you can see what is going on in your level. Make sure the level "works", then start creating in earnest.

I'll make a Dragon Age specific note here and say that you should make sure that you include at least one model in your level before trying to do the process of building lightmaps and using "Post to Local". I had a protoype level without a single mesh model that appeared to cause an infinite loop during the post process.

This goes hand in hand with prototyping and revising your levels, but you need to make sure that they are fun. You want your players to have fun, right? Then you should make sure that when you're playing a level you've made, you're having fun. If you're building for a multiplayer game, try and get a few friends to help test as well, even if the levels unfinished. If you can't do that, put in bot-pathing and test if yourself. It's not perfect, but it's better than nothing.

Good multiplayer maps require lots of testing

Throw Away
At some point, you'll end up creating something that doesn't work. It's that simple. Every level designer has done it. Any level designer that claims they haven't, isn't really a good level designer. IT might be a long section where the player feels unnecessarily herded down a linear path, it might be a level where 50% of the mapis never visited by players, or it might just plain suck. Don't get disheartened, but instead realise what is wrong with the design and then ditch it to create your next level. Do not fall into the temptation to try to continually patch up a level whose core design doesn't work. You'll end up with a level that feels like it has been patched up, at least not without likely spending more hours to fix it than it would have done to create a new, better level from scratch.

Budding writers are told that their first few books are always terrible, and they need to get the first few out of the way before they can actually write something good. As a level designer, take that same approach. Prepare to throw away your first few levels, particularly if you're new to level designing or the particular toolset you're using for level creation. On that note, if you're working on a new mod or game, do not start by creating the first area that the player will enter. The first level (or at least one of the first levels) should be very visually appealing to grab the player's attention. Delivering them your first attempts in level creation for the game is not a good means of doing this.

These are a few small tips for improving your level design, but there are plenty more ways to get better. Still, all the theory in the world means nothing if you don't practice. So get stuck into that level editor!


  1. Dammit, I'm going to use that image in my next post!

  2. useful high level advice.

    I know I had a series of camera shots in my head more then an actual level.

  3. That image is worth a thousand words when speaking about the evolution of level and game design, pigeon. Great find!

  4. On the left we have "Game I would play" and on the right "Game I would not play". On the other hand the first pic in your blog post looks much closer to the pic on the right.

  5. Hold on... is that first screen a map of an Alan Wake level?

  6. Nevermind, it's not... It just looked too familiar...

  7. The level on the left is from the original Doom.