To create moments in our game that will have players talking about it months after they’ve finished it, each encounter needs to be slightly more challenging and innovative than the last. Keeping gameplay fresh motivates players to continue to the next encounter and hopefully finish the game – still wanting more!
Some of the following ideas discussed come from several sources:
- Josh Bridge’s The Anatomy of a Combat Zone
- Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces
- Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City
- Brian Upton’s Narrative Landscapes
And remember, there are always exceptions to the rule. The following ideas presented here should be guidelines to help us develop games. We should always re-evaluate them for ways to improve the process – keeping in mind, of course, how to keep it simple and focused.
What is a Level?
Most will say it’s the physical place the game takes place in. It’s actually the medium through which the game is presented to you. Without the level there is no game. It’s so much more than simply a location. Consider it the vehicle that drives the game to new gameplay. It affects the speed, style, and skills the player will encounter moving to the next event.
Why are Level Designers Needed?
In today’s market, people pride themselves on being specialists who excel in one area. A good level designer understands layout — a great level designer is a jack-of-trades and understands all aspects of game development. Don’t confuse someone who constructs a level with someone who pulls an experience together.
Level designers are conscious of not only the layout, but how architecture, lighting, and composition affect the player’s emotional reaction to the moment. They need to tell stories without dialogue and others time provide compelling dialogue. They need to be able to code, script, and design gameplay. They also need to build models and understand timing and animation.
Level Designers are the glue for Art, Audio, Gameplay, and Story.
Some believe an environmental artist who plays games is the essence of a level designer. After all, artists can create the layout, envision the gameplay, and monitor performance. Unfortunately an artist will always choose aesthetics over gameplay. That’s their job in an age where screenshots trump gameplay in the media.
A typical team has 2-3x more environmental artists than level designers. Don’t let that imbalance suppress gameplay needs without offering equal or better gameplay. After playing the game for a handful of hours, players will pay more attention to gameplay than how stunning the graphics might be.
Artist should be considered co-developers, however. It’s important for them to be part of the level design process from the beginning. Concept art influences a level’s development. By sharing the evolution with them they’ll become part owner and defend the effort when other people poke it before it’s ready for review. Never asked them to contribute without understanding how the game will use their efforts. A simple change to the look of something can completely break the game.