Level Design: Concept, Theory, Practice Part 1

I’ve been reading Level Design: Concept, Theory, Practive by Rudolf Kremers, and so far its been really helpful.

What is Level Design?

Kermers starts out by showing the need for both game and level design to be linked to external and internal goals for the product. An external goal might be to make money, whereas an internal goal might be to make the player have fun.

At a basic level, rules exist to facilitate play, a set of rules do not create play.

I’ve struggled to find examples of abstract games, however Kermers points out the most obvious one of all. Chess is not representative of warfare, but is an abstract and simplified version of it.

When playing games, learning and mastering the game is “the drug” – the thing that makes us happy.

“Good level design teaches the player how to play and enjoy the game”

Level design and game design must both be strong to support each other and tie in together.

Teaching the Player

After player is taught a skill, it must be tested to show the player has learned it and can move on, and to provide a fun challenge

It is vital that the player understands the rules and limits to what their player character can do and how the environment can be interacted with or how it reacts to actions. For example, they need to know if the character can jump, how high, what they can jump on, if they take damage when they fall, if the environment is damaged when they land on it etc.

It is important to convey the game’s main objectives early on so players know what they are doing.

A success strategy is the actions a player needs to take to progress whist ensuring maximum fun. This might be pre determined by the developer or emerge from the player’s experimentation.

When teaching a player, it should be by example, be positively reinforced and fair. The game should not start with failure, and the developer should never taunt the player.

Skill gates make sure players have learned a skill while providing a challenge.

Covert teaching leads to better immersion within the game. Example of Halo:Combat Evolved, camera calibration done though testing a new suit.

A more natural way to teach is to leave the player to experiment in a safe space. The gameplay must work with simple self taught skills and an environment that encourages experimentation.

Goals and Hierarchies

All design decisions should come from the Success Definition, a

s in, what makes your game a success? A game success definition might be “Create an action horror hybrid that can be described as Dracula meets Terminator” whereas a level one would be “Train player’s combat skills throughout the level and bring up the players level of confidence in order to prepare them for the introduction of a new enemy creature.”

From the success definition, external goals can be drawn. These could be “be appealing to both genders”, “sell X amount of units” or “win a BAFTA”. These then drill down into internal goals, such as “empower the player” or “teach the player to have fun with the game” or “don’t break the player’s suspension of disbelief”.

The hierarchy should be considered as follows: Success Definition, External Goals, Internal Goals, Game and Level Design, Art/Code/Audio.

In the most successful games, all elements relate back to the success definition and goals.

Use these goals to create scale-able designs. Fulfillment of purpose is more important than cool features.

Level Design Structure and Methodology

Once the game’s hierarchy and goals have been decided, the flow and structure of individual levels can be looked at.

Linear levels give the designer a large amount of control over what happens in game, but can constrain the player and make them resent the game.This creates frustration. Story and puzzle games work particularly well within a linear structure as they deliver precise puzzles or narratives.

Semi Linear games let the player make their own decisions, then takes them to a bottle neck for important events. This is generally the best strategy as it leaves directorial control, but affords freedom to the player. This is also a suitable structure for utilizing the illusion of freedom. When using this stucture, consistency is important, so they player knows when they will be left and when they will be led. The player should have limited progression choices, but led to believe they have many.

Non-Linear levels leave all actions to the player. Complete non linear isn’t within my remit at all.

Level design methods – Annotated maps and flow charts.

Level arcs can be created using stuctures such as Freytag’s Pyramid, which descripes plays in a 5 act structure. Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Denouement/Catastrophe. Though normally used to describe Shakespeare’s works, Kremers uses it to explain the plot of Halo. There are a couple of problems associated with this though. It is oversimplified and restricting. Instead of using it as a plot structure, it should be used to visualize plot and analyse it.

Event diagrams are another method for level arc visualization. which show event type and impact. It can be useful to add duration to make sure there are no boring stretches. It can help to quantify emotional impact as the emotion you primarily want to put forward.

Consistency and using assets and game play to their fullest potential creates immersion. Reusing environments is recommended, but only if this doesn’t impact on readability. An example of this uses the whole level – players are able to go everywhere, but are guided around though barriers which open over time. The player must backtrack. While this uses assets well, it can confuse players. Creates layered gameplay and a real feel.

Shared Grammar and Level Design

It is important to be aware of the conventions of an art form when creating it. For example, when creating a film, the audience expects the hero to get the girl. Regardless of the writer’s thoughts on the convention (that its a sexist cliche that portrays women as objects, perhaps?) or whether they choose to follow it, they have to be aware that it exists in order to use or subvert it effectively. When general conventions, like chronological storytelling, are not followed in art, it is often seen as experimental or difficult.

Playing with conventions can communicate with the audience directly, as it plays with their expectations and conditioned responses.

Coventions that have become entrenched in media become part of the language of the medium. For example, screen distortion is now taken to mean a flashback in film. This doesn’t mean they can’t be broken, but it is quick symbolism if there’s something you want to tell the player with little exposition or text. Some games examples of this are: a cut scene showing a lever and a door implies a connection between the two, searching behind a waterfall may give you hidden treasure.


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