When you think about video game design, you can think of it in terms of a jigsaw puzzle. Not only does each piece need to be placed in the correct location, but they all eventually have to fit together. The end result is, of course, some kind of image that is now only visible because all the pieces of the puzzle are there.
While some people think the gameplay puzzle piece, or the story puzzle piece, is the most important, most would argue that the last puzzle piece you can’t do without is the level design piece. Good level design is in many ways the heart of a game; without it, everything else doesn’t work.
This holds true whether you’re talking about a high-profile action adventure game like Uncharted or a simple 2D platformer like the original Super Mario Bros. While good visuals are great, and breathtakingly detailed environments are cool too, all that will matter to players is how fun the levels are.
The following are a few tips you’ll find useful if you want to captivate players with not just your visuals, gameplay, and story, but level design as well…
Give Players Something New To Look At Once In Awhile
One way to guarantee that players get bored of your game’s levels is to make them look at the same things over and over. We know creating new objects, enemies, and other content takes time, so we’re not asking you to make every single thing in your game unique. However, players catch on when they kill the exact same enemy a thousand times, or see identical trees spread out throughout your game.
The fact is, gamers these days expect to see more variety simply because technology has advanced. However, offering players different scenery has always been important. Nintendo only had bits and pixels to work with, but that didn’t mean they made every world in Super Mario Bros. 3 the same; you have desert, water, clouds, ice, etc.
When it comes to story-driven games, changing the scenery is necessary to make players feel like they’re actually progressing or getting closer to a goal. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves did this well by having you go from the rain forests of Borneo to the war-torn streets of a Nepal city, eventually ending up in the snow-covered Himalayas.
Give Players Direction Without Holding Their Hand
One of the difficulties of designing levels is finding a balance between making sure players can figure out what to do (or where to go) next without forcing them. In other words, just as many players are likely to get frustrated over getting lost, as there are players who will get bored if the next step is always laid out for them.
Good level design means the player went down a certain path, or toward a direction, not because it was the correct way to go, but because something caught their interest. A good example of this is Banjo-Kazooie, a game that nearly twenty years later still boasts some of the funnest worlds of any 3D platformer.
No matter where you go in any of the nine words in Banjo-Kazooie, there is always something intriguing that urges you to explore. From a giant crocodile head in Bubblegloop Swamp and a haunted hedge maze in Mad Monster Mansion, to a dog-shaped Sphynx in Gobi’s Valley, you always want to investigate what each area has in store for you.
Reward Players Whenever They Deserve It
When your average player discovers a hidden path that’s easy to miss, or a tall object that took time and skill to get onto, they expect some kind of reward. It can be more health, ammo, an extra life…anything as long as the spot isn’t empty.
That is why a lot of games feature some kind of collectible that isn’t necessary to complete the game but still makes players feel accomplished for collecting them. Some examples are the Green Stars in Super Mario 3D World, feathers in Assassin’s Creed 2, and all the extra spaceship parts in Pikmin.
You can even go the extra mile and offer special rewards like a secret room, optional boss, or something that adds to the story. The Bioshock games, for example, have audio diaries hidden throughout each area that aren’t needed to complete the game, but offer narrative details that you otherwise would never learn about
Don’t Throw Your Levels Together
One of the easiest things to do when it comes to level design is just start placing random content in hopes that it turns out. You start grabbing whatever looks neat from the built-in library of the game engine you’re using, and start dropping rooms, corridors, enemies, and more.
Like anything else that just gets tossed together without any planning, your levels are going to be less than stellar if you do it this way. Since the purpose of levels are to move the game forward and keep players interested, you should always create them with the utmost care and thought.
You can tell a level was carefully designed when it offers different paths for players to reach the same goal and gives players various options to choose from. Even the very first world of Super Mario Bros. has moments where you can either continue forward or go down a pipe; hop across a gap or take the high ground by jumping on blocks.