Questions to Consider with Level Design

Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles to making a good game on a good schedule is making sure that everything that is made for the game ends up in the game. Many times, assets aren’t used for one reason or another. Maybe an asset fits an earlier idea for the game but not some later version. Or, plainly, it could be a placeholder. At the worst end of the scale, something might not be used in the end because it was ultimately without any redeeming quality.

ffxiiilevel2.png
In spite of FFXIII being rightly criticized for its level design, the areas were still fine to look at aesthetically. And they did fit into the world itself. While someone might look at FFXIII as a poster child for bad level design, I’d argue it’s biggest failing was in a lack of “differences of kind”. But that’s a story for another day.

In platformers, hand-made dungeon-crawlers, action adventure games, and RPGs, among others, level design can be one area in which lots of time can be consumed and yet poor quality assets result. What factors make or break level design? Why can be it so costly?

When approaching level design in any game, a few factors need to be considered prior to putting anything in the game.

  1. What is the purpose of this level?
  2. How does it relate to every other level?

Each of these questions still needs to be broken down further, to their more specific components.

  1. PURPOSE:
    1. Does this level teach a mechanic?
    2. Does this level introduce the player to an aspect of the world?
    3. Does this level attempt to challenge a player’s current skills?
  2. RELATION:
    1. How difficult is this level compared with the ones around it?
    2. Does it use mechanics previously learned?
    3. Does it fit in thematically with the areas around it?

There’s a lot to consider when looking at a level. Over time, game designers come to understand the process on an intuitive level, but the factors are all there. Beginner game designers might want to take a more focused approach, and actively think about what they’re adding into the game? Can you answer all the above questions?

Instead of going with Mario 1-1 or another common first level, let’s look at Route 1 in the first Pokemon games and see if we can answer the questions. I’ll put down my thoughts, but first see what you come up with.

route1

Does this level teach a mechanic?

Yes. Rather explicitly, because it’s the first game in the series, it tells you (and then you subsequently experience) the fact that wild Pokemon only appear in tall grass. Shallow grass and roads are totally safe. It also teaches the player about ledges they can go down, not up.

Does this level introduce the player to an aspect of the world?

The towns are all separated by these routes with wild Pokemon. While towns are safe, these areas are somewhat dangerous. Notably, the patches of random wild grass are most heavily concentrated close to the town. They get easier to manage the closer the player gets to the end, which could trick the player into feeling like they’ve already mastered some element of the wilderness.

Does this level attempt to challenge a player’s current skills?

As a first testing ground, an introduction to a mechanic is already challenging a player’s skills. While they’ve had the chance to move in relative peace in the first town, the combination of ledges and wild grass additionally challenge the player’s ability to move around the space itself. However, it doesn’t last so long as to completely frustrate the player.

How difficult is this level compared with the ones around it?

This level is much harder than the town, which had only one story battle, but with the player’s control of a level 5 Pokemon compared with the surrounding level 2-3 Pokemon, it shouldn’t provide too much difficulty. Even if the player gets tired, they can jump over ledges all the way back to the beginning, with the only bit of grass on the return route the patch right in front of the town.

pokemonblue.jpg

Does it use mechanics previously learned?

Combat is taught in the first town, and here it is on display. A direct connection with the information the player was previously taught. However, elemental weaknesses don’t have to be considered here. Just raw HP and damage matters most.

Does it fit in thematically with the areas around it?

This is the first introduction to the wild, right after it was previously discussed with the player. Artistically, it doesn’t look too different than the first town. Aside from it being a little short, and like many Pokemon areas, focused on design over realism, it feels plausible that this stretch of land exists. Like many RPGs, it does seem odd that someone raised in this world still needs someone to explain to them the dangers around the corner, but it’s a minor complaint.

Overall, the area succeeds. It’s a solid introductory zone. Likely, this area underwent some of the most intensive testing as first sections of any game are often the most scrutinized.

While I don’t know the personal development of this game in particular, many games and books will do much of their final editing on the first section once the whole game is in place to ensure that the initial bits reflect on the game as a whole.

As for why level design can be so costly? Well, that’s the result of imagination; of Haphazard vs. Intentional level design. And that’s a topic I’ll discuss next week.

This is Part 1 of the level design series. Click here for Part 2, “Haphazard Vs. Intentional Level Design”.

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