Although there is obviously a great deal of concepting, referencing and artwork that does into the visual design and aesthetics of a video game level, all this is not what I really think about when it comes to 'level design'. Reference and artwork can help form the ideas of a level and give a designer something to base their level around but they aren't the true design process.
When I think of level design I see it more as the blocking out of ideas, the planning and basic visualization of an idea. Level designers use basic tools to plan out a level, building it simply and without distractions to see how it plays, feels and to see if it flows. Its easy at this stage to change things if its not working or it doesn't feel right, something that would be much harder down the line if the level was hurriedly put together without thought and consideration. This is designing a level at its core.
|Blocking out a level|
Now I have a basic understanding of what level design is, I can begin to think about the different ways it can be done to fit a specific style of game and the way in which it is played. For example what works in one game, given its AI, weapons and player interface might not work well in another title of the same genre. Goldeneye N64 levels make poor Doom levels; Doom levels make poor Unreal Tournament levels; Mario levels wouldn’t work for Sonic and Sonic levels wouldn’t work for Mario. This means it is important levels are designed with the game play style and genre in mind, for them to work.
While researching the level design topic, I discovered several different ways of designing levels which upon reflection I can immediately recognize within games I have played. These include;
This can be used in games that focus on environmental realism. For these games, most of rooms, hallways, and open areas feel like they were laid out to feel as realistic as possible without emphasis for the player start, ammo/health boxes, or enemy placement locations. It provides a strong sense of immersion when it’s done well, as the buildings aren’t laid out linearly for mission objectives, but it can make for awkward flow that confuses first time action players.
|Crysis is an example of this method.|
|Halo is an example of this method.|
Other titles focus on flow of action. The player is rarely left wondering where to go next, since there are typically shots, yelling, and action taking place where he/she should go. This has been called the “Fireman’s Design,” since it results in the player rushing from point to point to “put out fires.” This requires a considerable amount of event scripting, and doesn’t leave much of an opportunity for the player to rest. This type of design can give the opportunity of a fantastic cinematic experience.
Some games lure the player around via exploration. Tomb Raider and Descent both relied at least in part on this “Curiosity Lure” (the player’s left thinking “maybe this pathway leads to the exit?”). Without careful attention to attractive landmarks in the distance, and clear visual distinction between different rooms, it can lend itself to arbitrary map layouts, leaving the player wandering in cycles through corners for the next area to search through. Tomb Raider, for the most part, succeeded in doing this well, whereas Descent did it very poorly.
|Tomb Raider is an example of this method.|
This method of level design is called such, because "breadcrumbs" are scattered everywhere by the game’s designers, and the player finds their way through the level by picking them all up.
In this method items of low value are placed around the map to guide plays and indicate where they have or havent explored. The level designer uses this as a way to show the player were to go.
This approach constantly rewards the player, and leads to most or all of a map’s areas being explored in turn. Care needs to be taken in a map designed with Reverse Breadcrumb to minimize the depth and number of dead ends, to avoid the player getting bored or stranded without any more items as clues.
|Zelda is an example of this method.|
The concept behind “Arena Traps” is to have the player fight battle after battle in isolated architectures. This avoids player’s using kill zones to take advantage of deterministic AI. It implies that the world has an overriding, malicious intelligence manipulating the player’s environment, but that works so long as the story takes the player to an evil dungeon, a trapped temple, or alien den.
Jumps, keys, physics engine exploits, and remote switches or time trip wires dominate puzzle based games. It’s rare to see an entirely puzzle based game anymore, but some degree of puzzle is more likely than ever to find its way into every game on the shelf. The Prince of Persia game series is one that uses this design method more than most.
When the player is stringed from one location to the next, but they feel like it’s their idea each time, then the level design is Disguised Linear. Done right, this describes a map that plays linear but doesn’t feel linear this can however significantly detract from the games re playability. On the plus side, it typically means the player won’t get lost, and the emphasis of the gameplay is on action or platform/key puzzles rather than exploration.
Most commercial games don’t follow any one formula. The most interesting games use a mixture of different level design methods that work well together, creating an interesting and balanced gaming experience.
Something interesting I found on this subject is a document written by Cliff Bleszinski from Epic Games, entitled "The Art and Science of Level Design", written in 2000, I found it to be an insightful read.