Gmack’s Gaming Rants: 2 : Key Elements of Level Design

Now, this one is more so for the developers out there, as that’s who I’m really trying to aim this at. It won’t matter too much if you’re NOT a developer, but I’m just saying that you’ll probably get more out of it if you have the mindset of a game developer, and specifically a fellow designer.

With that out of the way, allow me to explain why I’m making a rant about level design. It’s not because I played something bad with poor level design, or anything like normal. This was made because I felt like it, and I feel like if I can spread a bit of good healthy opinion on level design, I want to. Plus, I’ve been putting a lot of work into the level design of my game, Ultra BotBoy, so I guess maybe this is just me reflecting on my work, and how I do it. Whatever the reason, this article is about level design.

Level Design can be based upon a great many things, and will vary infinitely between genres. However, I usually classify a few different main key bases of which you can usually design “levels” of your game. These are risk & reward, mystery, and player prediction.

Risk & Reward is pretty self explanatory; the player makes a risk, but if done right, they receive a reward for taking said risk. Most platformers specifically take this route, typically, and arcade games, definitely. Take a game like CastleVania for NES for example. CastleVania does this by making every movement a risk. The levels all used a combination of player prediction and risk-&-reward as you had to predetermine your jumps and attacks in order to bypass the area, and if you took the extra minute to look or grind for that Boomerang Cross or Holy Water, you could plan out your path, and usually you could do better in the stage by taking the chance of losing more health in order to get them, thus giving the player a reward to strive for, and giving them a fair risk to get through. Player Prediction will be explained more later, so hold out on that, but I feel like that’s a good way of laying out how a game can use risk & reward.

As to how YOU use r&r in your level design is all up to you. If you’re making a game with powerups, a way of using this would be to put more obstacles around a specific gain. Let’s say the gain is something that will make the rest of the stage easier. If it looks appealing and stand out, the player will grow curious, and want to pursue the gain. It seems like common sense, but this can be used to make a whole game.

For instance, let’s say I’m making a dungeon crawler game. Say the player comes across a crossroads. when investigating both paths, there seems to be a straight path, but more enemies, which can be easily dispatched if the player chooses to gain more levels. However, the opposing path seems to contain a puzzle, but a treasure chest behind a wall, meaning the player must solve a puzzle in order to obtain the loot. This gives the player incentive to explore the dungeon more, thus making them more non-linear in return. Or, let’s say there are, again, two paths, but this time, one path is longer, but has some small chests the player knows will contain no real important loot. However, the other path contains a mini-boss, but leads to a shortcut, making backtracking for the player much easier. This is an excellent way of using risk & reward in a way that the whole game can operate within.

Now to move on to Player Prediction. This is also self-explanatory, as this involves prediction the movements and judgements of the player. Several games use this, good or not, like Cat Mario, and Unfair Platformer(I’m not recommending them, but they are examples). This one is more of a supporting element, as anything can use this. I’d assume Player Prediction is a given, too, when making levels in a game, but I guess not, as I’m seeing so many games that don’t use it. Oddly enough, CastleVania made Player Prediction the major factor in how the levels were designed. It’s essentially how it predicts how the player will act and play. Enemies like the Medusa Heads are using this directly with not only the movement pattern, but also where the pattern begins. If there are a lot of platforms placed precariously above a death pit, then giving the area challenge can come in the form of preventing the player from rushing, and paying attention to what’s happening in-game. As I know, this is probably one of the best examples of Player Prediction.

How you can use this one to your advantage is just using your imagination. Come up with neat ways in which you can have your game predict the player’s choices. Granted this is broad, so I’ll provide another example. How about if the player is in a jail, and if they try to attack or get too close to people, they’ll get attacked? When getting attacked, the enemy patterns predict where the player will be moving, thus creating a difficult experience, but not to be blamed, as you can trick the system if you pay attention.

As for mystery, this one does take a little explaining. Mystery basically involves a little mix of r&r combined with player prediction, but not in the way that CastleVania did, but more so in the way that Minecraft does. It involves heavy theming, so unless you really want to put a lot of work in this, I don’t recommend this as the main design element in your levels if you’re not making it the focus. I’m not saying you can’t, but I wouldn’t do it. Mystery is where the player is given about 100 choices at once (maybe not that many) and they have the entire time to do what they want with it.

This creates open-world adventure games, and this is the element they use to design it. You need to incentivise your world, and give it depth. Make the world not just unique, but also a bit mysterious, as the player is marvelling, but almost afraid to take a risk. Surprise the player by shoving them into a grassy field with ambient music, where everywhere they look are monsters and animals, then in the distance, let them see a dungeon of some kind. If they walk in, they obtain a weapon from a treasure chest, and now the monsters are that much more scary. It involves slowly empowering the player from 0% to 100%, and few games manage to do this successfully. Games like Minecraft(in it’s beta, but that’s another story), the Elder Scrolls games, and Metroid Fusion are great examples, I highly recommend you try those if you want to study this yourself.

With this info, what you do with it is your own decision. Will you make that open-world adventure game with the element of mystery in mind, or will you make the Shoot-Em-Up game where the paths branch, allowing the player to experiment with the more difficult paths for better rewards? It’s all up to you, as a developer, to deliver those games, so make it happen. People don’t have to like it, only you do; don’t pursue a project you don’t enjoy making. Anyway, that’s all I have today, so until next time guys!

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