This is Part 2 of the level design series. Click here for Part 1, “Questions to Consider with Level Design”.
In spite of going into area creation with some idea of the final result, many novice level designers approach the actual formation with little concrete thought. Why does this level exist? What does it add? How long should it be? Any of those questions from before are asked often in retrospect rather than prior to actual creation. In other words, a beginner will just start to make something.
In writing, there are two kind of writers: freewriters and outliners. Freewriters will just write until nothing more comes out, letting the story “tell itself” and the character’s “move in their own directions”. Outliners will make an in-depth overview of the whole plot, and then find it hard to deviate at all, even when the characters and situations call for it.
Of course, these two extremes are not meant to be a binary. In fact, all writers find themselves somewhere on a line between the two, one more outliner than freewriter, and another more freewriter than outliner. Knowing about the two ends of the spectrum helps a writer understand the areas they lack: an outliner should try to focus on their ability to create unbridled, while a freewriter should give some more time thinking about and outlining major points in a plot.
Game designers, like writers, often find themselves somewhere on the line between haphazardly creating (freewriting) and intentionally crafting (outlining). And truthfully, though a lot of bad has been said about haphazardly building a level, neither one of these ends is all completely good and bad.
Haphazard Level Design
There are many reasons why a level designer might just start making something without direction, without it being a mark of inexperience.
Take a cave area in an RPG. The story basically dictates that the main characters are going to hide away from the empire in a cave, get lost and split into two groups, and then reconvene having bonded with the people they got lost with. It’s a powerful story moment. It lends itself to some interesting mechanics too: puzzles dealing with lighting, enemies taking advantage of the lack of party members, and rock-moving puzzles.
Everyone loves rock-moving puzzles.
The point is, when working on a team, some things are going to be decided for you. Out of your hands. Other times, you’ll make an area based off of concept art and need to “place down” a level on top of the area. Even working solo, sometimes your own inner writer will be getting to areas of the game before your inner level designer is.
The benefits to haphazard level design:
-Area almost certainly introduces a player to an aspect of the world. When an area is built before the challenges are added into it, the level can feel more real and lived in.
-New ideas can spring up naturally. Like with freewriting, sometimes a level wants to tell its own story. Maybe a mechanic that wasn’t planned for makes an appearance because, when making the level, it just “fits”.
-Designers don’t have to feel restricted. Although great pieces of art often do arise from restriction, there is value in the untethered mind.
-You can often create more in a limited amount of time. Without much thought, levels can flow like water. In many open worlds, a large portion of the game is made haphazardly because, well, there’s not enough time to plan everything out.
-Levels are sometimes truly bad and need to be scrapped. This can be a real source of wasted time.
-Levels might throw too many new concepts at a player at once. Without thought, each element could make an area feel confusing.
-Haphazardly designed levels often forget to connect to levels past and future. Built “in the now”, they might not utilize past skills or foster new ones. At worst, they might just exist without purpose.
With that said, haphazard design is truly a better fit for an experienced level designer, who intuitively knows how a level should be paced, and what kind of challenges need to appear.
Those aspects of level design, when handled by beginners, are often best done intentionally.
Intentional Level Design
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of the best levels are made intentionally.
That doesn’t mean that every inch of a level was done with precise focus, but rather when a level was being added, there was real thought being put into it.
“Ah, this is going to be the first level you go to after being granted the double jump skill. The very first section needs to let the player play around with it, and understand the timing. The first jump will be vertical, requiring the double jump. So if the player fails it, they don’t have to do any kind of backtracking.
“The second jump will be over a small pit, so that if they do fail, they have to backtrack to a small ladder and restart the jump. This adds some consequence, but not too much. On the other side of the pit will be some basic reward.
“Then we’ll get them feeling confident again with some ground enemies they have to kill. You know, ‘differences of kind’ and all that. But now we’ll pepper in a few flying enemies that can be hit more easily with a double jump. Show the versatility of the double jump.
“Okay, toss another pit like that second one. Maybe throw an enemy in it that shoots fireballs up. If the player doesn’t time their jump well, they might get hit by the fireball and fall in the put. But then they can just kill the fireball spraying thing and make the challenge easier.
“Now, we don’t want to focus entirely on double jumping. That’ll feel too gimmicky. So let’s slow things down with a little puzzle. Gotta light all these lamps in this cave. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, this is in a cave. Okay, so there’s this lamp lighting puzzle. Definitely don’t need to jump, but hey, feel free to. Maybe it’ll make this puzzle feel better.”
“What kind of puzzle, chief?”
“Eh, just make it. Doesn’t really matter. Haphazard, or whatever. Something simple.
“Okay, next up, a big pit. In fact, a couple big pits. Each jump is from one nice crystal path to another. Give the player a little spectacle. If the player falls, they die. This will ratchet up the tension a bit. But the checkpoint will be right before, so no big deal.
“Then we end on some simple jumps, a few challenging enemies, some nice reward, and the level end. The difficult jumps will be all behind us, and the challenging enemies will provide a satisfactory end to the level, but without testing any really new skills.”
This kind of a level will almost certainly be better than something made without thought. Things are being placed with order, and there’s very few pacing problems. The level is built to intentionally teach a skill and reward the successful learning of it. The big con is that the level will probably feel less “lived-in”. Like a Mario level, it will be mechanically interesting, but obviously designed. Art added to the level after the fact will attempt to hide some of this design, but cannot mask it entirely.
The benefits of intentional level design:
-Planning out a level will make a level feel better to play, 99% of the time. Everything will be placed with thought as to how it can build player skills and reward them.
-Thinking about a level and writing down how the level will play allows feedback before a level is made. It tends to be a lot faster to design a level on paper than within the game engine itself.
-Intentionally building a level often focuses on the core experience. While haphazard design can lead to things being added for no reason, intentional levels tend to not get bogged down in unimportant details.
-Thinking about a level for too long, especially on a small team, leads to games that are never finished. Sometimes you just need to make something.
-Intentional levels often feel built. It can take away from the believably of the world.
-If your design experience is limited, level designs will often all take similar form. Your typical “Introduction–>Expansion–>Twist–>Conclusion” doesn’t work and shouldn’t be used for every level. There needs to be enough to distinguish one level from another.
Regardless, my general feeling is this:
As a beginner, focus on intentionally designing levels. After you have enough experience under your belt, feel free to let instinct take the wheel.
If you find your levels are not working, take a look at them again and ask: why aren’t they working? Was there not enough thought placed? Too much?
The ultimate truth is that all design requires thought. It doesn’t just happen one way or another. Ask questions. Get the opinions of others. Be critical. Look at your creation from afar and see what it does well and what it does poorly. And from then on, reevaluate the methods that brought you to making that level.
At the end of the day, find what works for you. And go from there.