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    Beginning Level Design: Part 2 - Tim Ryan


    This article is the second of a two-part series that covers theories behind level design and suggests a set of design rules. The intention is to aid gamers who want to design levels for pleasure or pursue a career in level design.


    Read Part 1 of this series here: 


    Level design is the data entry and layout portion of the computer game development cycle. A level is, for all intents and purposes, the same as a mission, stage, map or other venue of interaction that the player in. As a level designer, you are the presenter of all the labors of the programmers and artists and chiefly responsible for what most believe to be the most important part of a game, the game play. This article will give you insight into developing good levels for any type of game, whether they are military missions for your horde of tanks, aerial encounters for a flight simulator, a dungeon for a role-playing game, a board for a puzzle game, or a map for a world conquest god-sim.


    In last week’s article, I discussed the theories behind good level design. This article formulates a set of rules for level design and offers some parting advice to aspiring professionals.


    20 Rules to Design By

    1.  Maintain the vision

    The "vision" is the core idea of the game design. It’s what the producer and lead designer express when selling the game and what they impart in the so-called "concept document." It’s also what they expect you, the level designer, to understand when building your level. It’s very important that this vision is communicated to you very clearly. If the producer and lead designer have not expressed to you what they want, then you need to coax it out of them. It will save you a lot of time and grief in the end.


    When designing your level, you must maintain the game designers’ vision. If you deviate from it you risk rejection. While designers cannot always describe specifically how to accomplish their vision, you must try to figure out ways to truly express the vision they are looking for. If you cannot maintain and express the vision, then either the vision is imprecise or unpractical, the design tools and palette are insufficient to the task, or your skills are not up to it. In any case, you need to address those problems if you hope to construct a successful level in a timely manner.



    2. Learn the design palette

    Follow the link at the end to read this portion of the article


    3. Have fun while you work – it will show

    Follow the link at the end to read this portion of the article



    4. A level will only ever be as good as you imagine it

    A great sculptor doesn’t begin chiseling a block of stone until he envisions in his mind what the completed sculpture will look like. The same is true with level design: there’s no point in beginning to design your map if you can’t truly see what you’re working towards. You might have a vague idea about what you are trying to make, but to start designing away without a clear vision can lead to a lot of wasted time and effort. Bosses aren’t really keen on wasted productivity, so try to get your level nearly right the first time, so you don’t have to toss it all out and start afresh.


    This isn’t to say that you should leave some time to experiment, but the core idea of the game play for your level should stand on its own. It’s also best to choose a core idea that leaves a lot of room for a variety of game play. When you implement the level, establish the core idea with broad strokes, and just make it work. With that done, decide if the idea has merit and whether you want to go further with the level. If so, fill in the fine details and experiment with subtle game play details. Often it’s the subtler elements and details that make the difference between a good level and a great one.


    5. If there’s no difference, what’s the point?

    Having multiple routes to the same goal is a good way of giving players choices and a sense of freedom while still ensuring they end up at the same point. Yet, if each choice exposes the players to the same types of enemies, the same rewards, and the same risks and costs, then players will only get frustrated and bored when they discover that there is essentially no difference. When presenting choices to the players, there should always be some non-aesthetic difference in game play. The difference might be the introduction of different challenges, a sneakier route, traps, hidden power-ups, higher elevation for better map revelation, or just better tactical position. It’s important not to present the same choices to players multiple times. Otherwise, what’s the point in offering them a choice at all?



    6. Cater to different playing styles and abilities

    Follow the link at the end to read this portion of the article



    7. Reward player imagination and efforts

    Players like to experiment and explore. The more solutions, secrets, alternate paths, and so on, that you provide in your level, the more satisfied players will be. It’s a great feeling when, as a player, you come up with a not-so-obvious solution that succeeds. Remember that players almost always go off the main route hoping to find shortcuts, hidden caches of goodies, or other unexpected items. When designing a level, try to think about what players may want to try, and give that to them. When they say, "What if…?" your level should respond with, "Yes, you can."


    Nothing is worse than designing what appears to the player to be a challenge, alternate solution, route or secret place that offers no reward. Players try to interact with everything, and when the interaction is pointless, frustration results. Interactive game play objects (e.g., moveable crates or exploding canisters) which serve no purpose tend to frustrate players. Players may try for minutes, or even hours, to figure out what they are suppose to do with these objects. Don’t let players down in this regard.


    For example, in a Quake or Unreal level, imagine if a player saw some rafters just at the edge of his jump range from a narrow ledge and said to himself, "Ah, a challenge. I wonder what’s up there." If those rafters served no purpose in the game, the player might spend an hour trying to jump out onto the first rafter, only to repeatedly fail in his efforts. The player might quit and feel let down, or even worse, this might pique his curiosity even more, and his resolve to get out there might harden. If he ultimately made it and realized that there was nothing up there, he’d get annoyed both at himself for wasting time playing the damn level, and at the level designer. So, when designing and testing your levels, look out for these "black holes of interaction" and get rid of them. Or, better yet, give them purpose by rewarding players who expend the effort to figure them out.



    8. Pay attention to level pacing

    Follow the link at the end to read this portion of the article



    9. Reveal assets carefully

    Keeping the player interested in the game requires careful asset revelation. Assets are the game’s eye candy, such as terrain objects, enemy and friendly units, upgrades, puzzles, and so on. All but the simplest games try to reveal these assets gradually to players, so as not to overload them on the first level, and to keep them interested in going on to the next level. The lead designer will usually have guidelines for what new assets your level will introduce. Try to make these new assets a centerpiece to your level, somehow associated with the core game play. Their introduction should be dramatic or significant, and ought to portray the uniqueness of the asset.


    For example, if you are introducing a new power-up that makes the player invisible, then make that invisibility a pivotal part of the solution to the level. If you are introducing a new enemy that flies, set up an encounter where this creature alone attacks the player in an environment that demonstrates the benefit of flying. If you are introducing a scattergun, make the gun available somewhere in the middle of the encounter with the flying enemy, so the player can see the dramatic difference in the effectiveness between his rifle and the scattergun against flyers.


    The position of assets within the level is extremely important. Positioning power-ups, booty, and other loot – commonly called "gimmes" – establishes goals for players to move towards. Gimmes are often the reward for the challenges you put between them and the player. Careful spacing of enemy encounters and game play objects, such as turrets, bridges, fuel drums, and so on, keeps the player interested in exploring and completing the entire level. A lull in the introduction of assets can encourage the player to turn the game off.


    A good example of careful asset revelation within a level is shown in Heroes of Might and Magic II. At every turn, your heroes reveal a little more terrain and more assets to investigate, acquire or conquer. This revelation is what some call an "event horizon," because it triggers and inspires players. New assets that appear on the event horizon keep players interested.


    Heroes of Might and Magic II

    Unfortunately, an example of bad asset revelation can be seen in the same game. Heroes of Might and Magic II sacrificed its diversity of assets to make an individual level interesting, but in so doing, nothing new was left to be revealed in subsequent levels. With nothing new to reveal in later levels, the designers merely tinkered with the quantity and alliances of enemy players.


    This scenario raises a very good question: Is it okay for a level designer to ignore the other levels in a game and use any and all of the assets he wants in order to make his level better? The answer is no. If the natural progression of asset revelation from level to level gets broken by one particular level, then the other levels seem weak in contrast. It also forces other designers on the project to redo their levels, and that causes havoc and wastes time. The next thing you know, that one level has set a precedent that the lead designer did not intend. Having just finished a game project on which this happened, I can vouch for how much a level that breaks the asset revelation can screw everything up.


    10. Challenge the player

    Your job as level designer is to challenge the player. A level isn’t truly satisfying unless victory is at times uncertain. So you have to present challenges to players that really test their mettle and make them uncertain of their victory. When doing so, you have to cater to different player abilities (see rule #6) and to increasingly skilled and equipped players. Where your level is positioned in the game timeline or "level progression" should indicate how difficult it needs to be. In the first few levels, players learn how to play the game, so these levels should be a little forgiving. Levels at the end should be the most difficult to coincide with the increased skill and player resources.




    There will be times when you find that your level, although it plays really well, doesn’t quite fit into the progression. It may make the levels before it or after it seem too easy or too hard. There are a number of solutions to this problem.


    • You can scale up or down the difficulty in your level without grossly changing the game play or the fun factor.
    • You can ask to reposition your level in the game. This isn’t always an option if you have a tight story line, however.
    • You can make your level a sort of "change-of-pace" level. Change-of-pace levels are usually easier than the previous level but subject the player to an unusual limitation, so they remain difficult in the fact that the player is using untested skills. An example is the "Tanya" mission in Command & Conquer: Red Alert, where you no longer control a large number of tanks and troops, but instead one super "Rambo" soldier.



    In some games, levels are grouped together into modules, like missions within an operation, floors in a dungeon, or regions on a planet. While the subsequent modules should generally increase in difficulty, the last level within a module may be more difficult than the first level in the next module. This is because there’s a natural pause and release of tension that players experience when they’ve achieved very important objectives in the last level of a module. Players are not ready to jump right into the intensity again and often appreciate an easier mission to catch their breath.



    11. Make it unique

    Follow the link at the end to read this portion of the article


    12. If the player didn’t see it, it didn’t happen

    Follow the link at the end to read this portion of the article


    13. See through the player’s eyes

    Follow the link at the end to read this portion of the article


    14. Fulfill player expectations

    Follow the link at the end to read this portion of the article


    15. Balance the difficulty for the median skill level

    Follow the link at the end to read this portion of the article


    16. Know the players’ bag of tricks

    Follow the link at the end to read this portion of the article


    17. Learn what players may bring to the fray

    Follow the link at the end to read this portion of the article



    18. Be the adversary

    To a certain extent you have to be sadistic to the players. You should enjoy being the adversary, and think from the AI’s perspective. This will help you make much more realistic opponents that a player can understand. Players naturally put a human face on the AI, and so they expect the AI to behave like a human. When you script the AI to behave in a human fashion, it helps players successfully strategize and often draws them deeper into the game. It also evokes a little fear in players, as they don’t expect a game AI to recognize their weaknesses. As the adversary, you need to provoke fear in players and prey on their weaknesses. It’s what makes the game more challenging, fun and fulfilling.


    19. Play test, play test, and play test some more

    Nothing surpasses play testing when it comes to ensuring quality level design. Although I’ve listed it as the19th rule, play-testing should be an ongoing process. You need to test your levels as you make them. It will save you a lot of time reworking your level if you can identify a significant bug or flaw in your thinking early in the design process. Plus, play testing is often where many level designers come up with some of their best improvements to levels. And don’t forget that only through rigorous play-testing you can spare yourself the embarrassment of your boss or your coworkers finding some really heinous and obvious bugs in your level. Testing your level is part of your job.


    One of the most rewarding activities in level design is watching other people play your level. Not only do you get an opportunity to see their reactions (both positive and negative), but you can gauge how close they come to the experience you strove for. You can observe their play styles, see how they explore and discover the various tricks, puzzles, traps and rewards. It helps you see how difficult your level is to people who don’t already know the solutions and don’t necessarily have your play skills. You can identify where your level is too boring or difficult, observe solutions to puzzles that you didn’t expect and thereby make them easier, or harder. There’s always a player who will do the unexpected, and when you come across this situation, don’t be afraid to ask them questions like, "Why did you go there?" The player may provide you with a great idea for improving your level. Watching a player test your level is definitely an opportunity you should never pass up.


    Always remember that play-testers are never wrong, though they may not be able to clearly explain the basis for their opinions or offer good suggestions for improving your level. Take their advice with a grain of salt, because they are not always the target market or the target skill level. Some of your testers may not be big fans of your type of game, or they might have played the game so much that they’re no longer good sources of advice when it comes to the game’s difficulty. You should get input from as many play testers as you can before you change your level, so that you can see if there’s consensus in the feedback. Reacting to only one player’s response, whether positive or negative, can spoil your level for the other players.



    20. Take the time to make it better

    Follow the link at the end to read this portion of the article



    The Myth of the "Every-Man" Designer

    The "Every-Man" designer is the person who thinks that he or she knows what every person wants in a game. Being human and of only one mind and heart, this is a very pretentious assumption. You should have the humility to recognize that your tastes differ from others and that you are not always right. Keep your mind open to feedback and fresh ideas, and consult with people who may have more experience than you. If you do not, your games will miss their intended market.


    Game design is a very hard skill to judge, being intangible, evolving, and not taught in any school. The "Every-Man" designers take advantage of this by putting on airs of great skill to put themselves into positions of power. Unfortunately, our industry is full of such people and they are often in a position to judge and change your work. I hope that by mentioning this here, early in your career, that you will not become one of them, because it can be a very unpleasant realization for you and your company that you don’t know what every player wants.



    Developing Level Design Instincts

    Level design instincts are what employers look for when they interview you. To a certain extent, employers assume you have some of these instincts if you have designed any levels at all, for they only come from practice. They are what you take from game to game and project to project, and they’re what make your job so special. It’s these instincts that let you immediately apply design theories and rules on the first pass of designing a level.


    You’ll know when you have developed good instincts when you can look at someone else’s level, or an early level of your own, and the mistakes will glare at you. All of the rules in this series of articles came from my own instincts which I developed over years of making games, making plenty of mistakes, and having plenty of realizations. You, as a beginning designer, will make plenty of mistakes. However, hopefully you will learn from these experiences and you will stick with it. Hopefully these level design theories and rules will get you a head start on a satisfying hobby or career in level design.



    Follow the link for the full article: https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/131739/beginning_level_design_part_2_.php



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    Article Preview: In the second part of his series on Beginning Level Design, Tim Ryan proposes a 20 rules for level design. Among them are 'Maintain the vision' and 'A level will only ever be as good as you imagine it'. Read the article for the full details.

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