This article is the second of a two-part series that covers theories behind level design and suggests a set of design rules. The intention is to aid gamers who want to design levels for pleasure or pursue a career in level design.
Level design is the data entry and layout portion of the computer game development cycle. A level is, for all intents and purposes, the same as a mission, stage, map or other venue of interaction that the player in. As a level designer, you are the presenter of all the labors of the programmers and artists and chiefly responsible for what most believe to be the most important part of a game, the game play. This article will give you insight into developing good levels for any type of game, whether they are military missions for your horde of tanks, aerial encounters for a flight simulator, a dungeon for a role-playing game, a board for a puzzle game, or a map for a world conquest god-sim.
In last week’s article, I discussed the theories behind good level design. This article formulates a set of rules for level design and offers some parting advice to aspiring professionals.
20 Rules to Design By
1) Maintain the vision.
The "vision" is the core idea of the game design. It’s what the producer and lead designer express when selling the game and what they impart in the so-called "concept document." It’s also what they expect you, the level designer, to understand when building your level. It’s very important that this vision is communicated to you very clearly. If the producer and lead designer have not expressed to you what they want, then you need to coax it out of them. It will save you a lot of time and grief in the end.
When designing your level, you must maintain the game designers’ vision. If you deviate from it you risk rejection. While designers cannot always describe specifically how to accomplish their vision, you must try to figure out ways to truly express the vision they are looking for. If you cannot maintain and express the vision, then either the vision is imprecise or unpractical, the design tools and palette are insufficient to the task, or your skills are not up to it. In any case, you need to address those problems if you hope to construct a successful level in a timely manner.
2) Learn the design palette.
One of the first things you need to establish before you begin your machinations is the design palette. The design palette includes all of the art and game play elements at your disposal. Knowing what elements you have to work with and how you are to use them is imperative for good level design. Get instructions from the artists (if you can) and play around with the art in a test level to establish the look and feel you want. Talk to the programmers and find out what the technical requirements and limitations are, like what data parameters need to be set, what scripts need to be written, and what to do in order to keep within memory and processing-time constraints.
The design palette goes beyond art and code as well. It includes all the player and enemy forces and their behaviors, game play objects such as power-ups, switches and weapons, buildings that perform a game function such as turrets, power stations and walls, and game play puzzles and possible solutions (the so-called "bag of tricks"). Ideally you will have time to learn how to place all of these elements with your design tools (such as an editor) and play with them before you begin a real level.
The lead designer, in order to save elements for other levels, may restrict your design palette. It’s up to you to figure out how you can work with what you have in a way that will maintain the vision of the lead designer and producers. If you cannot, ask them for advice. They may provide some guidance or use their power to give you some more design elements. Sometimes it takes a fresh look and imaginative effort to use design elements to their maximum potential. When you find you don’t have enough design elements to fill a level, experiment with untried combinations and layouts. You may stumble upon some new game play puzzle that you can add to your design palette.
For example, you may run out of ideas for using turrets, and after considering your options, you might discover a that particular combination of fixed turrets and enemies in a certain placement presents a balking defense to the player unless he takes advantage of ranged weaponry or provokes the enemies to pursue him beyond the range of the turrets. Once you’ve introduced this scenario into your level, the design of the subsequent levels could include that particular puzzle.
One grave mistake that all designers make at some point is to create mazes. Why is that a mistake? Mazes are one of the first forms of puzzles introduced in computer games. It’s old now. Because all it takes to make a maze is placing walls or other terrain that blocks movement, it’s the easiest game play to create. It is sort of a last resort when you are fresh out of game play elements and ideas. When you get to this point, stop. Try to improve your design palette by coming up with new ways to use existing elements or by pushing the game designer to create more.
Pushing for more design elements is a good way to earn both respect and disdain from coworkers. Unfortunately, it’s your job. But make sure you do present your good ideas to the lead designer. If an idea has merit, he’ll try to get it in the schedule. Just remember that implementing ideas often involves the commitment of both art and coding resources, so don’t be surprised to hear "no" for an answer. The best ideas are often the ones that reuse existing art and involve little to no coding. If you can make it all work with your own scripts, that’s even better. When development reaches the alpha stage of the project (when all the coding and most of the art should be done), don’t expect any new game elements.
I’ve seen producers make the time for particularly good ideas as a project nears alpha, but it usually comes at the expense of the artists’ and programmers’ sleep. That’s the reason why pushing for more design elements can also earn you the disdain of coworkers. Try to understand that new ideas take time to evaluate and develop. Don’t make a jerk out of yourself by getting insistent. Instead, keep those ideas on the back burner for the data disk or the sequel.