DIY: Level Design

If you want to be a game developer you have to get good at level design.  All of your game’s mechanics will be used within the borders of levels, and these borders will constitute the player’s “play area.”  Whether it's Asteroids, with a black background and roving rocks to target and shoot, or Super Mario 64, with multiple 3-dimensional playgrounds full of pits, traps, and enemies, your level design will dictate how, when, and why the player uses the mechanics you've given to them.

Asteroids' level design is based around the algorithms developed to spawn increasingly-difficult numbers of rocks and aliens within the screen boundaries

while visually messy by today's standard, Super Mario 64's level design remains at peak efficiency and replayability twenty years later

As such, you need to make sure the play area is both emotionally interesting and intellectually engaging.  Juice is always helpful with generating immediate emotional interest, but level composition is the only way you'll build something intellectually engaging.  Something that the player has to think about and learn from.  It's important to focus the player’s attention on the targets of your mechanics:

  • Levers

  • Harvestables

  • Paths

  • Treasure

  • Asteroids

  • Targets

The list goes on and on, and is really limited and informed by your mechanics.  For an example, let's say we have one mechanic:

  1. Use Switch

Using a switch activates another asset or condition somewhere else in the environment.

Using just this one mechanic we can make a fairly simple “puzzle” game, but the more we stretch our imagination with the level design for that mechanic, the more intriguing and interesting it can become.  For this example, we're going 3D.

Let's start with the most basic level we could build for our "Use" mechanic:

Top-Left: Unused Lever on left, closed gate on right
Bottom-Right:  Lever pressed down, gate opens

Here you can clearly see the lever, the gate, and the chests.  It would take maybe ten seconds for a player to assess this situation and complete it for the first time. There's very little emotional interest in the form of environment clutter or landmarks, and even less opportunity for intellectual engagement since the player doesn't have to think too hard to complete our puzzle.  Nothing visually or emotionally "pulls the player in".  Simply move to the lever, pull it to open the gate at the end of the path, then move through the open gate to obtain the treasure.  Boring.  Inadequate.

Press lever down, open gate, receive goodies!

You can really appreciate the plainness of the level in the first-person viewpoint here.  You see the target, use the target via the basic mechanic, and move in a straight line toward the objective.

Now let's get a little more intermediate with our level complexity:

Same deal, same mechanics, but we've partially hidden the objectives

This one is already a lot better.  We have several trees lining a path that's partially hidden by foliage and underbrush.  This forces the player to assess a larger visual area and focus on more detail than the first design.  Already their brain is firing more synaptically because of this, engaging their intellect.  The player has to look around and snoop across the scene and behind a tree to find the lever to open the gate.

You can get a much better understanding of that here in the player's first-person view:

Top-left: snoop around underbrush to find the lever
Bottom-right: watch gate open through more underbrush after pressing down the lever

By forcing the player to move we're already causing them to engage directly with our level, and engagement is inherently interesting.  It can still be boring without environment detail, and so we've begun to flesh out the level with environment assets like plant life.

Here's a more advanced level design for our simple mechanic:

Start on the top of a long slope, and find levers as you descend in order to pass through gates to reach the treasure objective at the end

Check this out.  Multiple levers are hidden behind multiple environment pieces and open multiple gates.  The levers are all hidden behind rocks or inside bushes that the player must hunt for.  In this "advanced" stage (for our simple purposes in this blog) we've begun adding corners and visual blocks for the player to navigate around in order to discover each lever necessary to move through the gates.  Progression here is linear but engaging, and we've added an additional treasure chest at the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th levers to further incentivize the player into advancing.

Each lever/switch of the advanced map in order

This sequence perfectly illustrates the progression of the player and the physical and visual barriers we've added after each gate.  I've snapped these pics after already positioning the first-person camera to discover each lever, in order to illuminate the positioning and trajectory of the player.  Moving through this scene is a kind-of enjoyable treat already, with no sound effects, visual wind, or added juice like particles.  There is no inventory system or harvesting mechanic coded into this, but the level design is off to a great start now and already resembling an environment we could block-in and add more detail and assets to.  We already want to explore more of this scene, and that's a huge green flag in the right direction.

This one simple mechanic ("Use") can keep us going for a long time and we can keep stretching out our imagination with it.  For example: a lever could lower rock outcroppings in the distance to reveal another lever the player must reach, or move entire sections of trees to reveal a huge horizon and additional play area.  Levers could stop waterfalls to reveal cave entrances behind them, and even turn braziers and wall sconces off/on to make an interior puzzle room more difficult in the darkness.  As the levels progress and advance, we could introduce timed lever scenarios, like swinging blades, falling floor panels, and oscillating walls.  Without even using written narrative, level design can play that role itself through the use of the single "Use" mechanic, as the levers reveal elaborate set-pieces designed to invoke instances of awe and wonder.  Level design goes on and on and on.

These are just a few design ideas to get your brain working within these depths, but always bear in mind that you don't need the mechanic-list and breadth of an MMO to make a simple idea very engaging or even beautiful.  Good level design over a plethora of mechanics is the game design equivalent of “working smarter, not harder.”  Always keep the player’s visual range engaged with landmarks and object placement and allow them to use their available mechanics in a wide range of instances.  Remember that all game design boils down to the intersection between mechanics and level design, and this will help inform you of the direction you need to take and the next step you need to make.

As always, I hope this has helped you consider the avenues for your own game design and given you food for thought!  Have a great week, keep building, and keep playing!