Learning Level Design Across Genres

Recently, a friend of mine asked me if there was any difference between level design for RPGs and shooters. I immediately replied that programming and art don’t change depending on the type of game you’re developing, so level design wouldn’t either. It was the answer he expected, but couldn’t understand why he was having such a rough time with the dungeons he was working on for a project with his friends. His teammates said that his stuff just didn’t feel right, regardless of what he tried. I suggested he send me some of the stuff he was working on and let me take a look at it. (Note: Image below is not the actual level. Just an unrelated Google image).

It didn’t take me long to realize the problem. My friend doesn’t play RPGs. At all. He was trying to design a level for an FPS and toss in into a completely different game, and it wasn’t exactly working for. In trying to explain this to him and what he could do to fix it, I ran into an interesting question. How exactly do you define level design within a certain type of game genre? Considering how many games these days blend so elements from such different genres, how do you stick level design for any game into a particular category? My musing on this and looking at level design across many different games led to some interesting thoughts, which I figured I’d share. I also found it an interesting learning experience to take a look at or even try designing levels for a style of game that I don’t regularly play or work on.

The most important thing is to start with what kind of experience the player is supposed to be getting, and start every level with these guidelines in mind. You build each level looking for a different way to convey the same experience, just with different challenges or overcome or relying on different (or newly learned) abilities than before. For example, a casual game tends to be played in shorter bursts such as waiting to order food or during a commercial break, so levels are generally going to be smaller in scale and less complex. I find it helpful to make a bullet list to quickly refer back to when dealing with an unfamiliar style of game. Now, production levels in any project are going to be affected by the game’s plot and setting, along with the limitations set by the environment artists, technical restraints, and other stuff. I’m assuming that you are just working on levels purely for portfolio or hobbyist purposes to keep things simple.

I’ll start by using Sonic as an example because it’s a personal favorite in terms of level design. Sonic games, particularly the 3D ones, always fascinated me because the goal of their levels was to give the player a fast paced, exhilarating platformer experience. I find this so interesting 1) Because it’s such a departure from platforming in most other games, and 2) Because it has such broad implications for all of the game’s levels. For example, many platformers have hidden collectibles to give the players a reason to replay levels and explore every nook and cranny. Sonic games are not different, and have included them since the very first game. However, you can’t hide these in the level the same way that you would a level for another platformer. It would be okay to have an open field that the player searches for this item in, say, Super Mario Sunshine, but it conflicts with the intended overall experience of a Sonic game, which is consistent movement and progress in some form or another. You could think of designing a Sonic level as having more in common with a racing game than a platformer, in some ways. You always want there to be a path of some kind for Sonic to follow, so you have to hide them along an alternate route of some kind. 

sad sonic

In fact, it’s interesting to look at level design in Sonic games because it operates on such different rules from most other games, not just platformers. A level section that require careful planning and execution can feel like a failed concept in a Sonic because it clashes so strongly with the reaction you want the player to feel in a Sonic game. You could make an interesting case for the argument that the 3D platforming section in recent Sonic games (Colors, Generations, Lost World) are actually more authentic than the 2D ones. The 2D portions tend to use concepts like waiting on moving platforms or jumps that require multiple attempts more often, thus breaking the pace set by the 3D portions. This may be because the of the inability to see level sections that are visible at camera angles used in the 3D portions, or that the levels just happened to turn out that way. Here’s a video of a level from Sonic Colors to view as an example, picked mostly because I like the song.

For a second example, I’ll use Halo. So, Blood Gulch was a pretty popular map for the series (some form of it showed up in 4 different games in the series), and for good reason. It’s wonderfully simplistic, and works well for pretty much any game size. But it’s also a great example of what you want in a competitive multiplayer first person shooter level. An environment in which the players have multiple options to attack and defend, and can make use of a variety of strategies and weapons, both individually and in groups, in order to win. Most importantly, neither side has any sort of incredibly unfair natural advantage. Now, it is perfectly reasonable for different multiplayer maps to feel more entertaining in certain situations, like not having as players to keep small levels from feeling crowded. The goal is to create a variety of locales that all support the core experience you’re looking for the player to have.

Hopefully this should give you a few ideas if you ever working on a level in an unfamiliar game type. Of course, playing more of your game and similar games to develop a clearer understanding is always beneficial. The more you comprehend the fine details of the project you’re working, the better the product will be. But this certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t be a design levels for strategy games because you don’t live and breathe them. Just try to remember the core experience that you want the player to leave with. Beyond that, let your imagination take care of the rest, and in no time you’ll be large an in charge of level design for any game! If that doesn’t work out, you could always hire me as a contract designer. ;P

One thought on “Learning Level Design Across Genres

  1. Great post. Sometimes I don’t think that people really understand what level design actually is, and other times I think that it has become the new “idea guy” position. In the sense that people just go out and say, “I want to be the level designer.” without putting deep thought into what that actually incorporates. So much so that sometimes when people ask me what I do, I respond with, “I’m a ‘secondary mechanics’ designer” rather than a level designer. Because at its core that is what a good level design is. The level is just a frame and a container that should be designed to highlight the main mechanics and core loop of your gameplay. Good post. I’m glad that there is someone else out there that shares my point of view on level design. Keep up the blog good sir.

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