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Breaking Down Breakout: System And Level Design For Breakout-style Games
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Breaking Down Breakout: System And Level Design For Breakout-style Games

August 21, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 13 of 13

Tips to Manage Large Numbers of Levels

The simplest Breakout-style levels take only minutes to build. Moderately complex Breakout levels generally don’t take more than a day. Even an extremely complex scrolling level with tons of motion, power-ups, switches, etc, takes no more than a few days to build and test. Thus a single level designer can be very productive, building 100+ fairly complex levels in only a month or two.

As a solo designer working on a small project (about 60 simple levels), you might be able to get away with only using file names to keep track of your level contents and progression. But when working: (a) with a team of designers, (b) on several hundred complex levels, (c) over a long period of time, or (d) ALL OF THE ABOVE – you definitely need to keep detailed records.

Ensure Consistent Design

Distribute a list that outlines when/where in your collective level progression particular game features are meant to be introduced. For example: “Block Type 6 is an EXPERT object. Do not use in EASY or INTERMEDIATE levels.” If you have the time, build this functionality into your editor so that when a designer selects “EASY LEVEL” (from a dropdown menu) she only gets an EASY set of game objects to design with.

Ensure Consistent Description

Add a “level type” field to your level data. In your editor, populate a dropdown menu with several pre-defined values such as “puzzle level,” “boss level,” etc. If your level files are stored in XML format, this additional field will make organizing chores much easier by allowing you to use the Windows Start Menu search tools to aggregate specific levels. Having an embedded field is also a lot safer than only adding a “p” or “b” prefix to file names in order to identify level types (e.g., “pLevelName” for puzzle, “bLevelName” for boss).

Track Game Object Usage

If your game system is even moderately more complex than the original Breakout, you’ll want to keep track of the types of game objects and game play challenges used in each and every level file (e.g., moving triggers, scrolling, etc). Being able to sort, group and rearrange your levels using these stats will give you maximum flexibility when you have a very large number of levels.

Rather than opening each level file, counting blocks and other game tokens, and recording the result in an Excel spreadsheet, develop a utility that parses your level files, creating detailed stats of the entities found in them. Have the utility export the results as comma delimited text and transfer that into a spreadsheet. You can then use the spreadsheet’s sorting tools to quickly determine relevant groupings and progressions.

Also try pairing this game object usage data with the data generated from your playtesters (see Level Progression – subjective difficulty order). The combination will give you an extremely powerful toolset for tuning and ordering levels.

Tuning for Varying Demographics

A Breakout-style game targeted at the Nintendo DS (younger/hardcore gamer) will usually be quite different than one designed for the casual/downloadable market (more mature/often female gamer). While most Breakout games will fall somewhere in between these two extremes, here are a few things you can do to adjust your levels to favor one or the other demographic.

Casual gamers – use larger blocks, use more one-hit blocks, create a larger initial gap between your block formations and the paddle, provide a little ‘auto-targeting,’ provide a wider paddle, set initial ball speed to moderately slow, provide “visibility enhancers” for the ball (larger ball, distinct color, comet tail, etc).

Hardcore gamers – feel free to use multi-hit blocks or strange target objects, place block formations lower/closer to the paddle, use more unbreakable block and switch combos, use a smaller paddle, increase ball speed slightly with each consecutive paddle hit, use more power-downs, make power-up use integral, use more moving objects, use more Oddball-type levels, provide more Destruction and Avoidance-type play.

Some Final Things to Remember

Be Diligent – get into the habit of regularly replaying finished levels. The minutest changes to your game engine can wreak havoc with them. This typically happens in the 11th hour as you make adjustments to facilitate new game features.

Be Different – if you’re building a commercial product, be sure to differentiate from Arkanoid and your present-day competitors with distinctive features and play mechanics.

Be Clear – develop a vocabulary of design elements and then apply them consistently so the player won’t be confused (see Game Token Priority). This is especially important in the early levels when you are trying to communicate your game’s unique qualities.

Be Clever – educate players on your game’s specific features and then recombine existing features to create new play opportunities. This is a good way to get extra mileage out of your game and significantly increase the number of interesting levels you can provide without having to think up dramatically different play mechanics.

Be Merciful – if you’re designing for casual players, make sure the floor of your block formations (especially in the early levels) is a generous distance above the paddle. And make sure your ball is still visible at its maximum speed!

Be Cruel – always remember that a BORING SUCCESS is less fun than a GLORIOUS FAILURE.

Be Precise – if you’re designing for hardcore Arkanoid fans, make sure your ball mechanics are very tight and your paddle control allows the player to put the ball in a precise location (see The Paddle, The Ball).

Pay Homage – don’t be afraid to provide one or two moments of “classic” game play. Besides being a nod to the genre’s progenitors, this can also have the effect of accentuating play innovations made by your game (see link to Killer List of Videogames in Refrences).


First, thanks to Simon Carless at Gamasutra, for accepting this article submission. Thanks to the team at Large Animal Games for their valuable feedback on the levels I designed for LEGO Bricktopia. I’d also like to thank Fèlix Casablancas at Nurium Games for allowing me to interview him on physics-based level design, Josh Welber at Large Animal Games for giving insight into the ball simulation, and James Smith at Reflexive Entertainment for providing his input on level design tools. Finally, thanks to Dave Walls (Funkitron), Jorge Herdnadez and Todd Scott for their help reviewing this document.

References/ Further Reading

Gamasutra article, “The Father of Home Video Games: Ralph Baer” –

K. Salen and E. Zimmerman. RULES OF PLAY. The MIT Press. Pages 319-323, 2003

David Sudnow. PILGRIM IN THE MICROWORLD. Warner Books. 1984.

Killer List of Videogames, Coin-Op Museum Search (Ball and Paddle Games) –

The Dot Eaters –

Forbes article, “Bally Brings Pong to Casino Floor” –


Block Breaker Deluxe (cell phone) –


Funkiball Adventure

Excel Breakout (and level editor) –

Hyperballoid Complete

Jardinains 2

LEGO Bricktopia

Magic Ball 3

Nervous Brickdown (DS Lite) –

Plasma Pong – (

Pong & Breakout (coin op) – If you don’t have a local retro arcade, you can find these games here:

Ricochet Recharged


Super Breakout Video –

Article Start Previous Page 13 of 13

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