Level design has evolved greatly over the past 20 years, the following contains a list of 10 Core Principles and Learnings that MAD-GFX will endeavour to adhere to with Europa Descents Surface, Subsurface and Alien level design.
GOOD LEVEL DESIGN ...
1) IS FUN TO NAVIGATE
Create a clear visual language (+ throw in chaos)
Traversing a level presents the player with many different gameplay vectors: Observational - The act of surveying your surroundings. Strategic - The act of processing your observations to a plan. Navigational - The act of traversing the level yourself.
For a smooth and enjoyable experience the player should always know exactly where to go, which is why its important to develop a consistent visual language that clearly guides the player through the critical paths. (through the use of light, geometry, colour and animation)
Play with Intuitive to navigate and Fun to navigate, encourage freestyle exploration (This helps to create depth and replayability)
Introducing confusion can provide tension.
2) DOES NOT RELY ON WORDS
Use implicit and emergent narrative rather than explicit
Use Mise-En-Scene/Environmental Narrative - The art of telling the story through the environment.
Experiment with ’The Broken Circle’ paradigm - using the three types of narrative present in level design:
Explicit - Information that is called out to the player through cutscenes, text, spoken dialog (Circle)
Implicit - Information that the player figures out themselves by looking at the environment (Gap in the Circle)
Emergent - Information that the player constructs in their own head (Gap in the Circle). Enable emergent narrative by providing player choice (freedom of mechanic use)
3) TELLS WHAT BUT NOT HOW
Use clearly communicated objectives that players can complete in any way or in any order they want
The player should be in no doubt as to what they need to do when they go through the level, provide clear objectives (waypoints/other navigational aids)
Experiment with Nebulous Objectives and provide the player with multiple techniques and mechanics to complete. Encourage improvisation.
Players should be presented with Concurrent Objectives that they player can complete in any order, further more on completion of one of those objectives player should receive a reward which either makes the other objectives easier or modifies them in some way.
4) CONSTANTLY TEACHES
Keep the player engaged by continuously introducing or subverting new mechanics
‘The Theory of Fun’ - Raph Koster: “The human mind enjoys processing patterns for storage and retrieval later” / embrace this pattern analysis - Prolong this through good level design. Each level should introduce, showcase or subvert a key mechanic (Use holistic design to control pacing throughout the entire game)
Bethesda Mantra: Learn -> Play -> Challenge -> Surprise. Teach the mechanics explicitly, provide a safe area for the player to experiment with the new mechanics, introduce a threat or compelling objective to challenge the players mastery of that mechanic, when the player feels comfortable with the mechanic surprise them in some way.
5) IS SURPRISING
Don’t be afraid to take risks with the pacing, aesthetics or any other elements
Keep things fresh by not falling into routines, don’t rely on rollercoaster pacing method as this becomes predictable.
Fun is created through uncertainty, flip the player in and out of their comfort zone. Experiment with being subversive - take an existing game design paradigm and flip it (e.g. inverse/disrupt pacing).
Take Risks - Grey-box and test ideas (early in development) for feedback.
6) EMPOWERS THE PLAYER
Video games are escapism, let the player feel the impact of his actions
Deliver the fantasy (Players want to be badasses), avoid dull menial tasks.
Design levels to show the players influence on the world illustrating the the consequences of choices.
7) IS EASY MEDIUM AND HARD
Use Risk/Reward so that the player can set the difficulty dynamically
Design multiple pathways through levels. ‘Basic path’ - easy/medium challenge, clearly called out ‘High risk’ paths with an obvious reward.
Use a layered approach (increases replayability) with rewards in clear view that provide navigational risks. Provide alternate paths for flanking or bypassing tough challenges (perhaps with a puzzle for cerebral skill Vs tough conflict)
Experiment with clear objectives with hidden paths and secret areas that are called out with a visual cues
8) IS EFFICIENT
Design for modularity, bi-directionality and nonlinearity
Be aware of constraints: Technical limitations of hardware (Thermometer) Real world constraints (Production schedule, number of people on your team etc)
Use Modular Design - Create a series of mechanic driven encounters that you can string together to make multiple levels. This is useful for players as they have a series of identifiable events to master mechanics. Create modifiers and variables that can break up repetition (increase challenge / surprise)
Use bi-directionality to reuse artwork (avoid backtracking unless mechanics/experience changes with each pass)
Experiment with nonlinearity, provide implicit objectives that require intuition and exploration to complete (Collectables can take advantage of this) Do not use this method unless your clearly call out these systems/rewards in advance (if possible tie these into the main narrative thread).
9) CREATES EMOTION
It begins at the end with the desired emotional response and works backwards to select the appropriate mechanics to elicit that response.
Use architecture and spatial empathy to induce an emotional response. For example: tight corners to reduce view, verticality both up and down, twisting/labyrinthian paths to create confusion, large spaces for isolation and epic scale, the transition between small and large to force the player to view a specific vista.
Use AI to assist, e.g. an NPC that hunts the player for the feeling of persecution.
Modify core mechanics and goals to increase tension, objectives in difficult to reach areas that then provide vistas and other rewards (new paths).
10) IS DRIVEN BY MECHANICS
Above all it showcases the games mechanics through the medium of the level to reinforce the uniquely interactive nature of video games
“Books let you IMAGINE extraordinary things, Movies let you SEE extraordinary things but Video Games let you actually DO extraordinary things” (source unknown) Great level design is driven by interaction of game mechanics, game levels do not just provide the content or the setting for mechanics they provide the very reality in which they exist.
A games level is the metaphysical medium through which the gameplay is delivered. Levels should be a gameplay delivery system who’s primary function is to leverage your mechanics to create a great experience.
Find creative ways to re-use and modify mechanics through level design variance (new abilities unlocking previous content/paths)