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It’s rare that you’ll find yourself using every single level you’ve designed. Some of the levels will just be less fun or somewhat “out of sync” with the bulk of the levels you’ve created. This will certainly be the case if you’ve been evolving your game’s features parallel to level design; early levels may not utilize superior game features that were added late in your development process.
One solution is simply to adjust these levels to make them “introductory” and place them earlier in the game, sans complex game features. If they still feel too basic, introduce a new focus such as a static target, moving object or an obvious switch/trigger.
Before you decide to throw a level away, take a good look at it. Often, early levels will have some small part or structure that is worth salvaging. These bits and pieces can be combined to beef up your weaker level designs. So, if you find a few pearls like these, copy and paste them together in a consolidated level file for later use (if your level editor supports copy/paste that is…).
If you decide to merge a bunch of pieces into a complete new level, be sure that the disparate elements don’t appear schizophrenic when used together.
Once you have a set of complete levels, the obvious next step is to arrange them for the best playability. If you’ve been designing incrementally against a story or overarching design theme, you probably already have an implied level order. If you’ve been designing levels as independent play experiences, you may have a tougher time figuring out a sensible order. Below are a few suggestions to help you get started. Note that some of these may not make sense for the traditional console market, but could be viable in the casual downloadable space.
Smaller levels come first with larger levels last (e.g., single-screen levels before scrolling playfield levels). For casual players this can make your game more visually comprehensible and approachable. The downside is that you’re putting all that large, expensive-to-create work where many players may never see it!
When introducing power-ups, be sure to take into account the disparity in size between early and late levels, and note what types of power-ups would be most effective on a level of a particular size.
This order can be similar to size order, since larger levels generally take longer to beat. However, the intention here is to have the player chew through initial levels quickly to garner an early sense of accomplishment and develop an attachment to your play mechanics and audiovisuals. Remember to play test with a large sample of your target audience to determine average playtime per level.
This is the classic level structure of most games. Simple levels up front, with complex, tough-to-beat levels coming last.
In order to accurately determine subjective level difficulty, you can record play data from a large pool of play testers like: playtime per level, number of lives used per level, number of power-ups used per level, etc. The levels that consume an average of 6 minutes, 4 lives and 80% of stored power-ups are going to be a bit tougher than levels that average out to 90 seconds, 0 lives and no power-ups. The information you collect will also show you potential problems with your level designs like: (a) no one is able to obtain a particular power-up, or (b) a single, impossible-to-hit block is making your level take an extra 5 minutes to complete.
Be sure not to turn your game into a grind of progressively more difficult levels. Use stair-step (plateau) difficulty, allowing players to get used to a set of objects/enemies/objectives before moving on to greater challenges.
An interesting fact about most Breakout-style levels is that the entire level is visible at the start of the game. This means that unless you scroll the level or subsequently bring new challenges on to the screen, players can form a pretty accurate idea of the level’s potential play possibilities in the first few seconds. Since Breakout players in particular seem to live for this moment of revelation, arranging your levels in order of increasing visual impact (regardless of difficulty) will allow you to continually serve this appetite. This structure is probably best-suited to a game with highly representational levels (dinosaurs, robots, faces) where a big part of the payoff is actually the quality/complexity of the representation.
Put your most enjoyable content up front. While this order goes against the grain of traditional level ordering, it could help you convert more demo players into paying customers – many of whom may not play through even half of your game (even after they purchase it). There is a big downside however. Your game will have a relatively weak finish and perhaps rack up bad reviews. To counteract this you could simply discard levels that rate below a certain threshold, thus no level would actually suck…
Create a level access system that allows players to know in advance what the stats are for any given level (difficulty, overall quality, average duration, etc). Sort of like a menu, with ratings for each food item. This way players can pick and choose from the available levels and there are no surprises once they use up all the best content. (I seem to remember encountering this sort of system on a CD ROM compilation of user-created DOOM levels.)
BreakQuest has a menu that presents players with a small, cropped preview image of each level. While not large enough to show the possibilities of the entire level, these menu items still whet the player’s appetite by giving a hint of things to come. (However, this menu system doesn’t provide free level access, at least not initially. Since it still requires players to first conquer each level in a linear fashion.)
A good hybrid solution for level ordering is the following: (a) start with Subjective Difficulty, which should hopefully supply a good mix of sizes and playtimes, (b) intersperse with a Visual Impact (or Oddball, or Boss) level every 5-10 levels. Then (c) front load with several Playtester Preference levels to improve conversion rates for your demo. (If Playtester Preference levels don’t fit in with your subtle level progression, try calling them “bonus levels.”) Finally, be sure to add in a menu system that allows players to quickly replay any level they’ve already completed.