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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 3 of 13 Next

System Design, The Playfield

The Holy Trinity – Paddle, Ball and Blocks

Although it will seem remedial to mention this, all Breakout-style games have at least three things in common – each contains paddles, balls, and target objects for the balls to hit. When dreaming up a new Breakout-style game, there’s no right answer as to which you should design first. If your game is based around an incredible variety of targets, then coming up with your core targets will suggest the type of paddle and ball you’ll need. Conversely, if your game play revolves around a “super paddle” or novel type of ball, then the initial properties you dream up for these will suggest properties for the other playfield objects.

Blocks and Playfield Scale

When designing prototype levels, one of your first tasks will be to determine the scale of your blocks (or other target objects) versus the size of your playfield. Smaller blocks make it easier to design representational levels and complex play areas (see Level Archetypes below). Larger blocks make level design a faster process, but also necessitates you provide a wide variety of block types in order to keep the level from looking boring.

Once you have determined a scale for your playfield and blocks, you can work out the low/average density of blocks on a level. 50 blocks? 100 blocks? 200 blocks? 400 blocks? This will help you determine the required striking power of your ball/paddle (see Ball Speed and Damage below) as well as the types of blocks and power-ups that would be most appealing for your game.


The empty space surrounding your blocks (voids and playfield background) should also receive some thought. Voids highlight and contrast your target object structures, and also determine how interesting the ball’s motion will be. Cramming too many blocks onto the screen can overly restrict the ball’s motion and create a boring start to the level. If you plan to crowd a level, think about using power-ups, switches and bombs to quickly create (and reshape) voids.


While a simple black background provided good contrast for classic Breakout level structures, contemporary games contain animated backgrounds, or backgrounds that interact with the ball as it passes through (for example: having the ball illuminate the background image/texture).

Play Speed

Is your game “slow and sneaky” or “fast and furious?” The base speed of your ball and the base horizontal movement and striking speed of your paddle will have an impact on the perceived character of your game. Thinking about them upfront can help you avoid having to change audio/graphics to suit a game whose character has changed due to major speed adjustments. While there is no need to lock your game to a single play speed, you should always rely on play testing to determine the best speed(s) for your target audience.

The Paddle

One of the most important initial decisions you can make is how your paddle handles and how its surface rebounds the ball, as this will determine the amount of control your paddle offers the player. Throughout the development process ask yourself “When missing the ball, does the player’s frustration center on their lack of skill, or do they blame the paddle?”

Paddle Speed and Size

Here are two important rules to remember. (1) The greater the paddle’s horizontal movement speed, the easier it becomes for the player to reach the ball. (2) The wider the paddle striking surface, the easier it becomes for the player to hit the ball upon reaching it.

Let’s take a closer look at two paddle archetypes: Slow/wide paddle vs. Fast/narrow paddle. Although functionally able to deliver similar amounts of coverage, they do not deliver the same type of play experience.

Slow/Wide paddle – The slow/wide paddle will provide a more casual game play experience, with the player needing to anticipate the ball’s return trajectory but not worrying a great deal about the point of contact (where the ball hits the paddle), due to the wide paddle surface.

Fast/Narrow paddle – a fast/narrow paddle still requires the player to anticipate the ball’s return trajectory somewhat, but the small size of the point of contact instills a continuous sense of jeopardy. This creates substantially increased tension as the player attempts to intercept the ball for a return volley.

Thus a “purist” game with static levels and very few power-ups might want to have a slightly narrow, slightly slower paddle. While a game with many moving objects and power-ups on its levels might want to provide the player with a slightly faster and larger paddle since there are probably many other things competing for the player’s attention.

Moving blocks make it very hard to judge the ball’s return trajectory, so if your game uses a lot of moving blocks, you should probably increase the initial size of the paddle. Of course, as your game progresses, you can always introduce effects that shift this balance around…

Paddle Bump

Paddle bump is an interesting addition to the list of paddle abilities (seen in Funkiball Adventure, LEGO Bricktopia). It allows the paddle to move upwards slightly in order to address the ball sooner. This allows the player to create a much wider range of shot angles and often allows the player to power-up the ball, increasing its striking damage and speed.

When introducing paddle bump you need to take into account five things: (1) How far upwards the bump takes the paddle. (2) How fast the paddle can bump upwards. (3) How fast the paddle returns to its normal level. (4) Whether or not the bumping paddle powers up the ball with increased speed, splash damage, etc. (5) Whether or not repeated paddle bumps continue to power up the ball to higher levels of velocity and damage.

Paddle bump has several benefits. Most importantly, it allows players to have a greater degree of control over the ball (as shown in the diagram below). The amount of control over the return angle does not appear to be much in the context of a single strike. However, when multiplied over hundreds of strikes per level it turns out to provide a considerable advantage over a completely 1-dimensional paddle. If paddle bump also increases ball speed, it can provide a further boost to control which is very useful on non-static game levels. (Note: if a powered-up ball hits an “unbumped” paddle, try demoting the ball one step towards its normal state.)

Paddle bump also gives the player something to do while they are waiting for the ball to return. This may seem strange, but idly bumping the paddle can be a lot of fun! Especially if there is an associated visual effect and sound. Think of it as tapping your foot to a catchy tune.

Finally, paddle bump makes the game feel more dimensional. Instead of locking the player to the exact bottom of the screen, the player is given a little wiggle room to advance into the playfield. (Note: for an example of a game that does not use paddle bump, but still allows the paddle to advance into the playfield, see Nervous Brickdown for Nintendo DS, from Arkedo.)

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