Building the perfect game level
Developers are always striving for that perfect game level design. The best games have cleverly designed levels, interesting enemies and creatively built boss battles. Games that are presented too linear, featuring bullet sponge bosses and lack of direction to complete the game can turn a game from a solid 8 plus to a depressing 4 and below.
Firstly, it is worthwhile looking at the tropes of poor level design. Let’s start with my favourite series. Final Fantasy XIII has long since been ridiculed for it’s astonishingly linear game design. Nevertheless when you look at Final Fantasy X you would also struggle escape that linearity. So what makes X more well thought received?
Despite being incredibly linear, X has near perfect level design throughout. A game can be linear by concealing this linearity behind good pacing, variety and interesting environments. In X you have NPCs, shops, Inns, mini-games, side quests. There are also a multitude of ways you can build your characters in the sphere grid compared to the crystarium.
With this in mind I figured it was time we took at look at five tips that make the perfect game level.
1) Know your angles
This does not mean every perfect game level has to have angles that make it easy for the player to maneuver. Many games like Resident Evil and Crash Bandicoot thrive because their use of tricky camera angles. But it has to make sense.
Resident Evil succeeds as the camera angles add to suspense. Fixed camera angle hide the zombies on initial contact rather than permanently. As you round the corners, zombies will shamble into view shcoking the player. Utilising an adaptive free camera would remove this allowing you to potentially see the darling terrors before they see you. Thus removing the tension.
Crash Bandicoot works differently. The change being differing angles are prerequisites to the near perfect game level design. There are no pointless switches halfway through a level rather the level itself is build around the angles the challenge is delivered at.
For a perfect game level you need a camera angle that supports the game not hinder it. All it requires is thought and a bit of testing. Always ask yourself, does the angles further the delivery of the game level.
2) Perfect Game Levels are built to suit
I know! I know! The phrase above is inherently vague. The truth is, I wasn’t quite sure how to define it in written form. What I mean is consider everything. From the main characters’ size, abilities and capabilities to the enemies’ AI to the overall mood you are trying to encapsulate.
Your world could look aesthetically beautiful and cleverly built but once you add the main features such as protagonists and antagonists, it may not work. For instance, is your character too big or fast for the level? Do they jump too high? Do their abilities allow them to circumvent the rules of the game?
The same with your enemies? Does their AI act the way you expect? I am not saying Alien: Colonial Marines would have been an amazing game but the game was hampered massively by borken AI.
The mood can be governed by many things however the almost perfect game level design is key to this. Resident Evil 2 is probably one of the best examples of this. The lighting, camera angles, resources and enemy design are molded together perfectly to create a chilling isolated atmosphere.
I thought for a few minutes about how best to explain great pacing then I realised the perfect explanation was already there from the excellent Design Doc on YouTube! I definitely recommend checking out some of his other videos if you are interested in game design. To have a pacing that supports perfect game level design.
4) Why do Gamers Game!
I have a big problem at the moment. Many games are no longer games. They have become too realistic. Now, this is okay in games where you simulate interesting scenarios or situations that you will never find yourself in. On the other hand some games like to fill your time with menial tasks. Games with fetch quests and menial tasks need to be handled with care.
Even look at some of the bigger games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Sometimes the game goes beyond being fun and becomes a game where you feel like you are working all over again. Games are about a sense of escapism.
A perfect game level is fun and interesting, it rarely involves events you can do in the comfort of your own home in real life. At the same time the events have to be reasonable within the world that has been crafted. I coined a phrase in previous articles regarding relative realism. Even in a fantasy world there are rules and guidelines to how the characters reacts and the story unfolds.
Part of the reason the latest series of Game of Thrones bombed was because the story no longer became believable. Not in the sense of comparison to the real world but more in sense with the world had been build up from the start. Characters were enveloped in plot armour so thick not even Valyrian steel could penetrate it. Character arcs abandoned in favour of spectacle and certain characters (Jon Snow/Tyrion) nullified to accommodate other characters (Arya/Sansa).
5) Understand your limitations
Indie studios are well adept at achieving this and often result in perfect game level designs. They know their limitations and execute well within them. Often this is graphical, overcome by use of cell shaded or pixelated art. Sometimes these are complexity based whereby indie titles do no try and do too much with the game mechanics instead focusing on crafted a well written story as opposed to ground breaking open world and overly complex narratives. The footballing equivalent of keeping it simple.
One of the biggest successes of 2018/19 was the indie title “Celeste”. In the video by Snoman Gaming below Snoman discusses how the game is built on 3 simple mechanics and whilst beautiful lower budget art styles. I would definitely recommend checking out some of his other videos!
So there you have it. 5 tips to help you execute perfect game level design. If you enjoyed this why not check out some of my other articles including an analysis of pre-written game characters compared to character creation.