Creating game levels from scratch

september 21, 2011 11:28am

My background is in first person multiplayer level design, I created competitive levels for over 8 years in the modification community, providing the theatre of war for thousands of competitive matches between rivalling clans. 4 years ago I shifted to single player level design, which I have done so professionally for 4 different companies, and is now something I also do on my own independent video game production here at Rotor Games. Here are some basic tips when you are designing your own level.

Story and setting
Before starting on a level, it's a good idea to know what kind of story you want to tell in the level, even if you're making a multiplayer level. If your level is part of a narrative structure it helps to define what needs to be conveyed and when. Narrative helps to provide structure, a clear goal, as well as providing incentive for the player to perform certain tasks.

The theme of the level is also part of the story. Consider what other theme's are used for your game. Picking a similar theme to other levels will enable you to reuse art resources from other levels which should speed up the level production. Also reducing the amount of themes provides visual consistency and coherency which makes it easier to produce and market the game, or allows players to feel at home in your level more quickly.

Aside from the theme, you can specify a setting. The setting may have some dynamic attributes like the weather, which you may be able to change as part of the design. Many modern engines provide a lot of control to the designer to change things on the fly, make sure you educate yourself about the technical possibilities of your platform and use these elements on your design palette.

Design concept
Once you have decided on a theme and story you should know what the player will experience in the level. In the design concept you plan how the player should experience this and where.

Some people prefer doing this on (grid) paper, in painting software, 3D mock-up software like Sketch Up, it really doesn't matter what tool you use, it's a personal preference to help you visualise the design and communicate your ideas. I personally prefer a combination of pen and paper and my game editing software to mock-up the space and get a feel for it.

The design concept is all about functional space, depending on your story goals, you will probably require several spaces with their own unique design prerequisites. The functional space for a top down 2D adventure game may be a lot different from the arrangement of objects in the 3D space for a first person shooter. How you connect these areas together will determine your level lay-out, which brings us to the next point.

Level mechanics
The level mechanics are locations within the game world which require interaction from the player within the context of the game rules. For example Capture The Flag (CTF). In CTF there are 2 identical teams, both teams have a base with a flag in it, the teams have a goal to take the flag from their opponents and bring it back to their own base to score points. In this example the flag is a level mechanic, a player carrying the flag is also part of this mechanic.

For the player to achieve their goal they are dependent on the level mechanics. The dynamics of the level are heavily influences by these level mechanics. What often makes a level interesting if to have a layout which provides a balanced challenge by harnessing the dynamics of the environment.

More examples of level mechanics may be: a machine gun post with a tactical oversight, a tank which needs to be escorted, a button triggering a timed puzzle, a boss character which requires a specific set of actions to be defeated.

Game mechanics
Game mechanics are the scope of interactions available to the player, for example, in a first person shooter the player is often able to: look with a limited angle, move around, jump, duck, shoot. For a multiplayer level designer it's also important to consider the mechanics between players, e.g. when they are being able to stand on top of each other. In other words the game mechanics are the possibilities and restrictions which apply to the player.

If you consider the layout the strategic area of the design, the real fun starts designing the level based on your game mechanics which is more on a tactical area. This is the more creative side of level design, which is real specific what your game and genre provides in order to engage your audience with fun challenges, puzzles and your core gameplay.

Art production, play-testing and reflection
Art production covers a whole new blog. Once the level is visualised in the concluding stage of level development; make sure the level delivers on your design goals. Is your level fun? Does your level convey the story? Do the players understand what to do? Is the level balanced? Do the visuals detract from what is important to the player? Etc.

After completing a level it's a good idea to reflect on the process and learn from it. How much time did the production of the level take? Can you speed up this process? What worked well, what didn't? Would the level benefit from a post-release update? Are there any bottle necks in the dynamics which provide unwanted challenges or exploits? Etc.

That concludes this developer blog for today! Make sure to follow us on Twitter, or Like our FaceBook page to receive occasional updates!


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