Monday, 3 December 2012

Elements of Game Design, Part 7: level design

I’ve designed a few levels… in games such as Timesplitters and Super Smash Bros Brawl and to say the least the results have always been pretty comical… for five minutes…

Every time I design a stage in these sorts of games the results have always been fun for a little while before becoming absolutely sick of them and wanting to play the default stages chosen. I naturally end up making symmetrical type stages because for some reason my brain wants me to create a certain pattern within the stages I design.

My infamous ‘Sam Bored’ custom stage in Super Smash Bros Brawl is a clear example of bad level design! It’s funny for the first 5 minutes, and then all these problems occur such as ‘not being able to die easily’ and ‘people hiding at the top of the stage on springs!’ Though it’s not very much to play with and we’re limited, I never put any thought onto what would make the level fun to play other than ‘put everything in symmetrically!’ So I guess I’m’ saying it’s not that simple to create a good stage without thinking it through.

Nowadays thinking back to those times I think to myself “why were they so boring to play so quickly? Looking at the game stages that the game developers created, there are many of them that aren’t very symmetrical unlike my designs. When I think about it, it’s been the stages that don’t have a symmetrical design that intrigues me the most and keeps my interest peaked. For example in Super Smash Bros Melee, one of my favourite stages would be the Hyrule Temple stage

Because of the way it’s designed, I find its essentially roughly 3 different areas to battle on. Whereas I can understand the need for balanced stages for the use of tournaments and what not, I’ll be talking about level designs for campaign driven gameplay rather than multiplayer focused stages.

With story driven campaign level designs, you want to keep it challenging, engaging and different. The levels are pretty much your virtual assault course; I’d personally find it dull if the assult course I had to run was just a straight line of nets to trample through. I would want to hop on wooden logs, scale walls, climb monkey bars and swing on ropes! All of these keep me interested and engaged within the course itself.

Of course if it’s like a challenged mode or something that isn’t considered the main story point of the game then I wouldn’t really mind because it’s a side mode but I wouldn’t personally play it for very long if it was that mundane.

Back in the times when the next stages of games were just a difficulty boost, games usually only really needed one programmer and the profession for a dedicated level designer wasn’t particularly required. Generally the player needs to be kept engaged and immersed within the game world as well as in some way directed towards the goal. Just like visual composition certain elements can be used to dictate the player mood and feelings, perhaps even have the player’s actions affect the areas around them. 

In a game called Left 4 Dead 2, I particularly found it interesting on a stage called ‘Hard Rain’ where you would run through the first half of the stage as you would in the other stages. However the gameplay started to change half way through.
The first being that you have to traverse back the way you entered from. Now you may think that’s a bit lazy, but the whole feel of the stage has changed completely.
Firstly the whole area has darkened and the mood changes completely and definitely look more sinister than the previous warm sunset feel.
Secondly it’s heavily raining and the sounds effects further build upon the atmosphere as well as thunder storms that create waves upon waves of zombies running directly at you. The once ‘peaceful stroll’ through the stage has become filled with hazards that impede your journey back such as floods.

Many of Left 4 Dead’s level designs are very good examples (in my opinion) of great level designs. The backdrop of the story definitely leads to many elements they can naturally include within the game and level designs.

I find that depending on the game types and genres, there are different elements to how a level or stage should be designed. Such as a competitive fighting game may end up shifting towards a more balanced stage for competitive one on one games where as games like Super Smash Bros is designed to be a party 4 player battle royal so the level designs will naturally be more quirky and interesting.
Levels that involve the gamer interacting with the stage like Gears of War cover system have always added that depth and realism to the game.
Mortal Kombat is another game that cleverly involves the stages for their fatalities. Players have always had fun with being able to interact with the stages like that and add that depth towards the gameplay rather than just solely being a backdrop arena.

An upcoming game called ‘Injustice: Gods Among us” is a 1 on 1 fighting game that actually involves using parts of the background to their advantage. This trailer shows off a few of those elements adding another depth to the gameplay.
For 1 on 1 competative fighters, it's rather unusual to be able to utilise parts of the stage mid battle so it will be interesting to see how it works out.

I guess where I’m getting at is that levels that look great and suit the game genre, subtlety guides the player towards the main goal and has interactivity in some form or another are the most interesting ones for me.

A gamer like myself however loves to run away from the actual objective to explore and see what I can find, ignoring the hints of the direction I ‘should’ be going. Halo 2 and 3 was a particular game that I remember breaking many maps in and the developers have left Easter eggs and secrets intentionally in broken parts of maps. I guess not every player wants to play by the rules and have joy in breaking them, something which I'm sure the level designers are aware of!

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