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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 6 of 13 Next

Level Design

Common Structural Archetypes

While most games add additional object types or possess level designs that go far beyond the simple blocks of Breakout, a surprising number still present the player with an initial level reminiscent of this.

A partially familiar first level can help ease casual players into a unique game system; especially if it’s radically different than previous Breakout-style games. However, if you’re going after hardcore gamers, you probably don’t need to “ease” them into your game system. They’re most likely familiar with the Breakout genre and are seeking out your game for “La Difference!” In this case I suggest you present a “signature” first level and make a strong initial impression. (Note: If you’re using highly abstract or unusual target objects, be sure to communicate their properties to the player.)

Common Level Archetypes

If you’ve played or seen a screen-shot of any Breakout-style game since the early 1980’s, you’re aware that Breakout level design no longer consists of simply placing 4-8 horizontal rows of blocks and calling it a day. Although that may be the classic formation of blocks most associated with Breakout-style games, there are many other level archetypes to consider.

Central Mass

A central mass of blocks surrounded on all sides by empty space. Often convex. Sometimes hollow. Tip: Placing a static target object within the central mass or several moving targets above the mass will create very different initial choices for the player. A moving target which circles the mass will introduce a compelling time-based element.


The classic… A wall of blocks, often bounded on the top and bottom by empty space. However, it can also consist of horizontal layers of blocks, separated by vertical space. It can stretch all the way from the left edge to the right edge of the screen, or can provide a small amount of wiggle-room on the sides allowing a well-placed ball to pass from the bottom to the top of the screen. Tip: Place power-ups into the core of the formation or along the top row of blocks to provide interesting objectives and to keep the structure from being boring. Concave formations on the lower rows of blocks can provide surprising initial ball dynamics (see Cavern below).


These levels consist of blocks arranged into vertical columns with variable empty space between each column. Tip: placing a mix of wedge shapes and target objects on the ceiling of the level (top of the screen) will create some interesting initial choices for the player.


A stationary mesh is usually a grid-like arrangement of blocks. When moving, a mesh might appear to be a central solid, columns or a wall in its initial arrangement; however, when the formation oscillates into an alternate arrangement (with some blocks offset) it becomes a mesh that can trap the ball, creating interesting ball dynamics. Tip: if your system supports multi-coordinate or logic-based motion for blocks, try to create meshes with 3 or 4 arrangements.


A bumper level is similar to a mesh, but the blocks tend to be clustered into fewer and larger arrangements at greater spacing. Moving bumpers also differ from moving meshes, in that bumpers tend to move independently, rather than as a unified whole. Tip: you can also insert actual bumpers into your game. LEGO Bricktopia includes special pinball-style bumper objects that cannot be destroyed by the ball.


A peek-a-boo level contains formations of blocks that hide behind other formations or that temporarily (or permanently) move on and off screen. Tip: if you game includes multi-coordinate or logic-based motion, try having moving formations reenter the screen from a different angle.


Think of these as your “signature” levels. Anything that expresses the unique qualities or capabilities of a particular Breakout-style game design/game system. This goal is to provide levels which players can only expect to see in YOUR game and which surprise naïve players by the disjoint they create with the accepted Breakout-style gameplay.


Diagonal formations of blocks, created with actual angled blocks or stair-step patterns of rectangular blocks. This is a refreshing change from levels filled with rectangular structures and provides an obvious use for the angled corners on isosceles trapezoid-shaped paddles.

Split Screen

A split screen level contains block formations that separate the playfield into two obvious regions (left/right, top/bottom, inner/outer). These can be static or animated, creating temporary split-screen conditions at timed intervals. There can also be a wall separating the regions (breakable or indestructible).


These are large concave formations that fill the sides and top of the screen, leaving the lower region and most of the center empty.


Used with horizontally or vertically scrolling block formations to create an area with discrete objectives that must be completed before scrolling to the next area (hitting a switch or getting your ball into a particular ball-trap). These types of levels can combine elements from the previous descriptions … just be sure to destroy all the blocks before initiating a scroll or the ball could get caught, dragged off screen, and make for unpredictable results!


Robots, pistons, wrecking balls, turtles … anything that visually approximates objects and silhouettes players are already familiar with. Be careful to ensure that your representational levels are as interesting to play as they are to look at.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 13 Next

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