Gaming: Level Design

So, this is another foray into an aspect of gaming. Today it’s level design, as you can probably guess from the title. Can’t think of a good introduction today. Anyway, here I go;

The Corridor.

This is the easiest type of level to design. It is a long, long tube, down which the player walks. No matter how you might disguise it, the game is effectively on rails, and unless it is a rail shooter, you’ve done something terribly wrong. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Final Fantasy XIII.) However, this is the cheapest form of game to make, as you effectively have a series of 2D shooting galleries, if you “fix” the view of the player.

Branching Corridors.

Here you have the same set-up as the corridor above. However, there are now different paths you can take, either simple ones (through a firefight) or more complex ones (an alternate level). If the straightforward corridor above was Time Crisis, this is House of the Dead. This now only gives the player the illusion of freedom (as most of the levels should be unchanged, even though they might have made seemingly significant decisions, it also gives the game replay value, which is always good for any game.)

The Boxy Path.

Now, this, at the outset, looks identical to the initial “Corridor” set-up. A long path, full of environments where you get shot at. But now there is more freedom for the player. Where before there was a shooting gallery, you can now move about. There may even be multi-level environments. The player can move around, react, and there is now a lot more freedom. But now, of course, it gets a lot more expensive, as you have to model things which the player could not have seen before – parts of the ceiling, and areas of the walls behind and below the player, as well as the vistas. This is Doom-style gaming. You have one route to follow, and you cannot deviate from this. Unfortunately, as well as this being Doom-style gaming, it is also the way modern Triple-A shooters seem to lean towards. A great step backwards. They look lovely and photorealistic, though. And brown. And covered in lens flare. (Sigh)

Boxy Boxy Paths.

This is to the “Boxy Path” as “Branching Corridors” is to “Corridors”. However, the main difference is that, as well as being multilevel (gotta love that) it is also full of different ways to play through the level that can interact with each other a lot more than from the normal rail-shooter style. This also allows for more hidden paths, and for you to put more freedom in a smaller space. Continuing with applying this to games, this would be more like Quake – lots of paths, lots of secrets, and hardly any of them are pointed out to you. However, you still move through the same areas no matter which way you go through the level, and there are several segments per level that you have to do. This set-up is not a sandbox, but it gives the illusion of one, whilst remaining easier and cheaper to make.

The Sandbox

This one is where the level stops being scripted, but instead is created, and left at that. For every level there are many, many ways through, some of which are radically different to each other, utilising different skillsets and gameplay styles. If you want to determine whether a level is a true sandbox or not, is too test whether there is anywhere you cannot go, or is unlocked later, or “locks” later. If so, it is not a sandbox. Take Deus Ex, for example – one of the finest sandbox games out there. Each skill you have gives you different ways to play through the level, and your fragility makes you make serious choices about where to go. Nothing is locked, and with minimal points allocated to each skill, you can go just about anywhere. The “locking” comes from the fact that you can never max out all of your skills, so that’s where the replay value comes into play. Also, look at Medal of Honour: Airborne. It’s “gimmick” was that you spawned dropping out of a plane above the level, and had several objectives to achieve – take out the AA towers, kill the Nazi Commander, etc, etc – but when you dropped out of the plane, the level was laid out below you, and you could choose to land anywhere in the level below – rooftops, back alleys, next to said objectives – which meant that the level designers could not script as much as you could if you had to play through the game linearly. Instead they had to make better AI and hope for the best. Unfortunately, this came out at the same time as the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and this discipline of level design fell by the wayside due to poor sales, and it has not been revisited by any big-name studio as of writing.

General Level Design Stuff.

Space is of the Essence – you, really, want to design as little as possible, while creating the longest game possible. It means you can polish what you have created to a higher shine, and make more levels. That is why so many games let you see where you are going to go before you go there, as it means that they have to create a new vista, and can instead just copy and paste the later level. Or they might make you try to find the Blue Key, and then go all the way back to open the Blue Door, then try to find the Red Key. This is sloppy design, and is just a cheap short-cut. Instead, use your environments, by making them wide and deep, and make the paths through be both vertical and lateral. See the Storm Drain level in Mirror’s Edge as a good example. You spend 10-15 minutes climbing up this huge cylinder, criss-crossed with catwalks and struts, until you finally get to the top, and open a small door. F.E.A.R. does this a lot, too. When you fight through a warehouse, you fight through the whole warehouse, and every room that you can see, you can go into. You don’t have to be too shrewd with your level design, but then, you don’t want to end up like Halo 3, where the smallest room cost 300 man-hours of work, and you sped through it in 5 seconds, at most.

Variety, Colour and Rainbow Goodness.

Next time you are going to buy a game, look at the colours in the pictures on the back of the box. They will be brown, brown, brown, and black. The same goes for the enemies, and for the players. What you really need is colour and variety. Rainbows optional. Paint everything in technicolour raiments, and bright and cheery scenery. This will not make things more “realistic”, however, as the colour palette for that is very reduced, but, for a fun game, it will provide both contrast and allow you to make your various enemies look unique. If the player can immediately differentiate between the enemy, his allies, and the terrain, that is always good. For example, compare Gears of War to the first Unreal. In Gears, all the enemies, environments, vehicles and allies are brown, to the extent that it becomes hard to tell what’s what. In Unreal, there a huge, multi-coloured monstrosities, vivid outside environments, diverse indoor arenas, and a whole medley of kaleidoscopic weaponry.

Also,remember, if your level is large and colourful, then it is very hard to get lost, or not know where to go. You can get the brown cathedral area confused with the brown warehouse area, and the brown castle area (all of which might feature in a single level), but it is a lot harder to get the electric-blue water area confused with the lush, green tropical area, or the arid yellow-red desert area.

I can’t think of a good outroduction either today. Well, that’s it. Have fun.

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