Monday, November 15, 2010

Level Design 101

Level design is crucial to a game in so many ways. It delivers the environment for the gameplay mechanics, helps storytelling, provides atmosphere, and it looks pretty. Now levels, do more than this, but I'll just focus on these aspects in order to limit the size of this post. There is a lot more to each of these subjects and I could go into a lot more detail on them, but let's just try and cover a few key points in broad brush strokes for now. If I get a lot of interest from people about one particular subject (or all of them), I might dedicate a post (or more) to it.

Looking Pretty
Let's start with the superficial (but important) value of the "wow! factor" when creating a level. Creating gorgeous looking levels is something that players will really appreciate, because they'll admire the scenery and look at the glorious vistas that you've created for them. As much as you get people complaining the "graphics aren't everything", big titles that don't look aesthetically appealing will get lambasted for their lack of visual quality. There is a reason that games advertise using the most gorgeous screenshots they can find: it's because those screenshots attract attention. Memorable landscapes (particularly near the beginning of the game) help to draw players into the the fictional reality created by the game.

Crysis. It's pretty.

Providing Atmosphere
Atmosphere increases player immersion and their engagement with the level. It's the surroundings, the lighting, the sound, the visual effects, all the things that combine to evoke an emotional state in the player or provoke an emotional reaction. If you've ever jumped because of a scary moment in a game, felt your heart racing because of the action or tension, or felt a sense of wonder and admiration, then you've experienced good atmosphere. Atmosphere reinforces the dramatic force of the level or the current actions of the player, their allies or enemies.

Helping Storytelling

As atmosphere reinforces the player's emotions, the levels can also help increase the player's cerebral engagement with the game and reinforce the setting. This can be signs that reiterate the setting, whether it be a billboard sign for a majestic location (which the player will visit later in the game), or a destroyed building to let the player know they arrived at their location too late. Clever level design can be used to push the plot forward without any dialogue or text. Let's make an example: A player is told that they will be able to receive help overcoming their adversary from a nearby village. Upon arriving at the village, the inhabitants are missing, but the player finds the corpse of one of their enemies. This is good because it helps tell the story, but also raises questions: Are the villagers dead? Were they captured? Are the enemies still nearby? I'm sure you can think of more questions, and each question and possibility can help make the player more interested in the level and the game.

You don't need Alyx to tell you something strange is happening.

Gameplay Mechanics
Overlook this aspect at your peril, as it really needs to be considered in order to keep a game engaging. Make sure your player has enough room to maneuver during any combat that might occur. Try to avoid situations where the player will face instant death if they make a wrong move, because that is a recipe for player frustration and hence anger. If the player is supposed to move about stealthily, give them plenty of hiding spots and shadows so they can. If the player is supposed to rush at the enemy all guns blazing, make the level open and provide "incentives" to keep them pushing forward. Make the level help the player to achieve their goal, or even better, actively encourage them to do so.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I've kept all these of these comments very brief, because there's a lot that could be said on each of these subjects. But if you're making a level, try and at least give some thought to each of these aspects and how your design will help support each of them.

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