When to Start Level Design

When designing a game, there’s always that question of “when should I start designing levels?” This is something I’ve had to deal with a lot, since level design is my favorite part of the development process. When I was getting my bearings as a designer, I tended to jump the gun on Level Design. I’d get the basic mechanics in, get a couple enemies in and then churn out a bunch of levels. The problem was, after a while, I’d run out of ideas for levels, and just start making boring spaces with enemies scattered around to fill up space.

I’d lost track of what the point of level design is, and it made me realize something. I realized that what makes designing a level fun and interesting is the same thing that makes playing a level fun and engaging. I have the most fun designing levels when I can throw in a new enemy or obstacle, combine enemies and obstacles in ways that I haven’t done before, when I can lay out a precise way to lead to a certain type of challenge, and when I can arrange a level for interesting navigation.

If you start designing levels to soon in the process, you’ll run into the issue of not having enough content (enemies, obstacles, items, ect…) to combine into interesting encounters. You won’t be having fun, since you’ll be designing small variations on the same set of encounters, and the player won’t be having fun because they are playing small variations on the same set of encounters.

What I’ve found to be helpful is to write down brief descriptions and diagrams of my level designs as I’m working on designing game objects. That way, I get a sense of how many enemies and what sorts of obstacles I need. And then once I do design the actual levels, I’ve got a clear goal to accomplish for each area. And that goal is going to parallel what the player’s goal in that area is. “Introduce Large Melee Enemies” becomes “Learn to fight Large Melee Enemies”, “Show the player an important item somewhere out of reach” becomes “figure out how to reach the important item” and “Create a series of traps that require excellent timing to get through” becomes…well, you get the picture.

So, remember, if you’re not having fun designing the levels, the player probably won’t have fun playing them. This means making enough mechanics and content to fill the amount of levels you want with interesting combinations of challenges.

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