What Good Level Design Means for Players
Players are the consumers who paid good money for your game or dedicated a half-hour of on-line time to download your custom level. If you are working or have desire to work for a developer or publisher, the consumers are those giving you your dream job. As any modern business school will tell you, creating an affordable product that satisfies the consumers is what it takes to make it in business. As a level designer, you must become very aware of what satisfies the consumers if you want to be successful.
A player buys a game to escape from his or her reality. Good levels and hence good games will immerse the player and suspend their disbelief. From the moment the title screen comes up, you have their full attention. From that point on, they should see and do nothing that reminds them that they are anywhere but in the world you have them in.
You must furnish a setting and actors that meet the players’ expectations. That is, you need to design a map that not only looks like it could fit inside the world they are playing in, but contains elements that help to draw that reality in the players’ heads. A player’s sense of escapism and suspension of disbelief can be ruined by a variety of common errors. These include bugs such as graphics glitches or crashes, but from a design standpoint, these also include inappropriate content. For example, a McDonald’s Golden Arches on the skyline of a medieval town is obviously out of context. Similarly, if a player is told by a character to hit control-T on his keyboard to teleport, then it would remind him that he’s typing at a computer and not in some fantasy realm. Generally, to maintain the players’ sense of escapism all content should be appropriate to what would be seen, said or done in the game setting.
Challenge – Testing the Players’ Mettle
Players buy games to be challenged. If there is no challenge, they might as well be interacting with their word processor or spreadsheet software. Challenge should always come in the form of testing the players’ skills at the core gameplay. A shooter should test their aim and reflexes. A wargame should test their tactics. A strategy game should test their strategic sense. Some games successfully combine forms of gameplay to offer a variety of challenges, such as Command & Conquer, which has both planning/building and tactical gameplay.
Command & Conquer
Challenge comes from difficulty. The trick to good level design is to present challenges that are difficult enough to merit the players’ attention and make their heart or mind race, but not so difficult as to always leave them failing and disappointed. It’s a delicate balance based on what is perceived as the median player skill, and it is a variable constantly adjusted up until the game ships.
Like a good television show or book, the game must maintain a player’s interest. The introduction of conflict, the revelation of the setting or back-story, the acquisition of new assets, the display of new art, and the increase in difficulty must all be deliberately spaced to keep the player interested and looking forward to the next level.
One boring level can be the kiss of death to a game, especially if it’s one of the first few levels. Game reviewers and most players only give a game that much time before they praise or trash it. Good level designers have learned to be objective about their own creations and when asking themselves, "Is this fun?" The hard part for many designers is that what they find fun may not be what the target market finds fun. As a level designer you need to understand the core gameplay, which is part of the vision expressed by the producers and lead designers. You need to try to understand and become that target market.
Something that helps designers tremendously is to play competitors’ games. Often producers and lead designers will name successful games that they are trying to emulate. Play and study those titles. Make sure your levels entertain, thrill and excite you as well or better than the competition’s levels.
Frustration can also kill a game. Players stop being entertained when they encounter technical problems like slowdowns or graphics glitches. The level designer can avoid a lot of these bugs if they pay attention to technical limitations and to the instructions of the artists on how to place the art. Designers can, of course, create their very own frustrating bugs, like broken AI scripts or door triggers that never trigger, or missions that don’t always end when they are supposed to. Even worse, designers can create what are commonly called "show stoppers". Show stoppers are unbeatable missions or unsolvable challenges or unavoidable traps that frustrate players. A good level designer can spot these problems and resolve them with careful and rigorous play testing before consumers get their hands on it.
Player’s don’t like playing, or indeed, buying, the same game twice. Of course, like Star Trek fans and readers of the prodigious Gor science fiction series, some players will continuously buy into the same formulae or even the same game with just slight variations in plot, setting, characters and art. The same can be said for level designs – people don’t like playing the same level twice. Not only does it ruin the entertainment value, it also fails to spark the imagination. It’s therefore incredibly important that levels introduce some variation in the plot, challenge, setting, and characters (i.e. the enemies).