The Three Building Blocks of Great Level Design
Level design in three easy steps
Continuing from my previous post about environmental vs. level design, it’s time to drill down further and discuss what makes a level work in a video game. When I think about good level design, regardless of the genre, there are three key aspects to discuss.
A few years ago I wrote a post about what I learned about level design from Super Mario Maker. In that piece, I talked about the idea of a level having a theme, or some kind of mission statement. When you’re thinking about a level or a challenge, you want to come up with something to make it stand out.
Maybe this is a level with a stealth section involving light, or a boat chase, or using gravity. Whatever the case may be, you need some kind of hook for your level. You can’t just design a level with everything in it; there needs to be a focal point.
That focus can also come from the environmental design or storytelling. From the previous post, I brought up Blighttown in Dark Souls and how the level design was an extension of the environmental storytelling. Psychonauts is another good example of this focus. Every stage had the same basic elements in terms of gameplay, but they feature vastly different structures to make them stand out.
Being able to focus on a specific point helps when it comes to defining the scope and detail of your level design, but the next point has to do with the purpose from the player’s perspective.
A good level in a video game must test the player. This can come in the form of puzzles, boss fights, or any other kind of design you can think of. You can also factor in a growing difficulty or progression curve into the proceedings. The player should not feel like nothing is changing as they play your game.
There are plenty examples of video games where the same challenge is repeated for multiple levels without any change. Classic arcade games are the biggest example of this; where you’re going to do the same thing for each level, but maybe the enemies are a little more dangerous.
For a level to have great design, it needs to keep the player on their toes. Drilling down further, the designer should do their best to try and keep the difficulty or complexity curve within the level growing steadily. You don’t want a level to get easier as the player goes through it.
One trap to watch out for is designing a level that is too removed from the rest of the game’s challenge. An infamous example was the library stage from Halo that shifted the pacing and challenge away from the rest of the design.
An example of doing it right would be the Mr. Freeze part in Arkham City. The game’s only “stealth battle,” it tested the player in a different way while still holding to the game’s core mechanics.
If you’re going to do something completely different, then try to limit it to a section or make sure that the level is not as long.
Figuring out how long a level should be is just as important as the game length, and that takes us to the final point.
The final point has to do with knowing just how long you should make your game. Every level in your game must be unique from one another. That “uniqueness” can come from mechanics, enemy types, puzzles, and so on.
What you need to understand is that the player should never feel like they’re repeating content or challenges within your game. If your design can only allow for eight unique levels, then your game should only be eight levels long.
I’ve played my fair share of puzzle games where they focus on changes from puzzle group to puzzle group. This can work if you’re still focusing on a progression curve within each grouping.
Getting down to the level itself, a well designed level should have each section be unique from one another. If the player is just repeating gameplay to draw the level out, they’re going to get bored.
With that said, games that are built on storytelling and environmental design can get a pass when it comes to repeating gameplay events if the story or surrounding context is different.
In the Uncharted series, the player’s basic game systems don’t change dramatically from beginning to end, but what’s happening plot-wise does.
Just a Start:
As I discussed in the previous post about environmental vs. level design, the best games integrate both aspects into their design. While I only spent a few minutes on each point for this article, we could talk further about each point separately.
To wrap up: What are examples of some of your favorite levels in great games or bad games?