Hello! I'm Devon Wiersma, lead level designer at Jellyware Games for our little game called Bea the Bullet, a time trial game where you control a tiny character (the size of a bullet). In Bea The Bullet your goal is to fly through obstacles to reach your target in the shortest time possible, shaving off time throuh subsequent runs to beat your previous times. Think Trials, but with a free-flying bullet!
While the concept is still in early development, we had some concerns arise in regards to our scope. Our team is made up of five people: two artists, two designers and a programmer with each of us filling in other roles and helping with tasks of other disciplines where needed. However, the game will be in 3D and require a fair amount of art but we also hope to make a project which feels complete and is well-polished, so we can't afford to spend too much time on prop and environment art. Furthermore, neither one of our artists are interested in pursuing environment modelling in the future, so lightening that workload for them takes priority. As such, we want to ensure creating our levels is a simple and fast process, while not feeling too cut-and-paste from the player's perspective.
Our vision for the environment changed frequently over time. Initially we considered constructing levels which would be inside of peoples houses, but we soon came to the conclusion it was almost too boring a locale and somewhere our audience would likely be too familiar with already.
Since our art direction was still fairly unfocused, we considered a different environment which allowed for more player freedom - a public park with a ton of obstacles suspended mid-air; very abstract and Katamari-like. The intention of the floating obstacles was to constrain the player's vertical freedom and prevent them from flying around challenges altogether. But it wasn't long until we came to the conclusion that not only was this locale more unfocused and chaotic than we wanted our game to be, it wouldn't make the process for creating environment art any simpler for our art team either and just made more problems than it solved.
We then realized the solution to our problem was all around us - an office space. An office space has enough props (trash bins, cubicles, chairs etc.) to allow for interesting, quirky encounters without requiring too many unique assets.
But one question still remained: even with a standard locale like an office, wouldn't it still be time-intensive for our artists to create all the map geometry? We knew if we created modular environmental assets such as pillars and windows it would lighten the workload from them, but we also knew we could do better.
One key differentiator our game has over other time trial games is that the movement of a bullet allows for more freedom of exploration. Part of this exploration comes with the movement style - after all, you have more freedom in a flying game like Microsoft Flight Simulator than you do with something like Euro Truck Simulator. We want to encourage the player to explore their options when approaching a target - is it faster to fly beneath a barrier than over it? What about to the right? The left? Through it? Should I consider another, potentially quicker path altogether? We want the player to think about their options and freedoms to inform their path through the world, but how do they do that without already knowing the environment ahead of them?
While some of our references to similar games encouraged exploration in this manner, they also encountered problems related to it. Drift VR, for example, allows the player to stop their movement completely and turn sharply in different directions to explore the space. However, the player has to spend quite some time exploring the levels they're in before finding their target which feels a bit aimless and detracts from feeling like a bullet when you need to search around the environment for your mark.
Another useful reference for us is Slowdrive, which executes its level design in an interesting manner; the player completes three short levels individually and the fourth level following them combines all of them into one long track. This allows the player to use the knowledge and skills they obtained from the previous three levels and apply it to the final challenge, such as remembering where all the hidden or quicker paths are located to cut down on their run time from the final challenge.
We know that in order to create levels which can test the player's knowledge of the environment and their skills as well as minimize the amount of work required, we didn't need to make three separate environments at all. In fact, what if one environment is enough?
If we were to design a single environment which can contain all the levels the game will have, players will become more familiar with shorter routes in the world by experiencing them in earlier levels and be able to apply that knowledge to find new routes across the map. For example, if a player's obvious route to a target in an early level is an open window in one room, they could recall their knowledge of that window to take a shortcut in a future level too.
The process for creating this environment will require some testing, but it could be as basic as creating three separate challenges with one similar room and overlapping that room afterwards to build the whole environment around that focal point.
Creating one environment where all levels will take place in will theoretically minimize our problems:
That's all I've got for you for level design work on Bea The Bullet this week, but feel free to follow our Twitter for more updates as we push forward!
Thanks for reading!