Level Design Primer 10: The Revenge of Planning Out Levels

I want to take what I’ve talked about so far in terms of non-linear level design and show a practical application. Thus, I’m going to do another “Planning out your Levels” article, this time showing my process behind the level design from Treasure of the Abandoned City, specifically the space between starting the game and actually entering the city.

You can play the game here:  http://renegadesector.com/games/archive/most-recent-episode/treasure-of-the-abandoned-city/

The level was in the planning stages for a good few months before I even seriously started working on the game. In fact, these early sketches of the layout comes in the middle of a bunch of Venusian Vengeance related sketches in its notebook. The basic idea was to play around with multiple elevations in a top-down level. It would be a 3×3 square of zones, with 3 elevations which were originally going to be connected by caves. The idea was that the level would open up more and more over the course of making your way through. You’d need to collect a series of triangular keys to open the gates to the city. There were also two gates blocking off parts of the left and right sides of the level which would need to be opened by pressing buttons somewhere in the level. A lot would change between this stage and the final level, but there were a few elements that would stick:

1: Keys spread around the level that the player has to collect in order to open the door.

2: Straight-shot from the beginning of the level to the city gates, at which point the level would start to open up.

3: Multiple elevations

4: Gates blocking off side-paths from the central path from the start to the goal, which the player would open over the course of the level.


Once I brought the artist Todd Luke on board, and work on the game began in earnest, I opened up my tile editor and made this map blocking out the overall layout of the level. Note that the grass tiles represent the gates, the grass-patch tiles represent the keys, the sunken skulls represent the buttons which open the gates, the stones show the partitions between zones, and the tar-pit tiles show areas which would…well…be tar-pits. This layout is much closer to how the final level would look.

One of the biggest goals I had in designing the level was always letting the player see the keys and buttons before they’re expected to find them. Notice that on the straight path from the start of the level to the city gates at the top, the player can see, but not reach, four out of six keys, and both of the buttons (right next to the gates that they open). There are two keys that the player can’t see from the central path, and they are both visible on the way to get to the keys and buttons the player has seen. The bottom-left key is visible from the path to the bottom-center key, and the bottom-right key is visible from the path to the bottom-center button.

I also had the idea that leading up to each key and button would be a specific “challenge area,” which would be a pocket of linearity where the focus would shift from exploration to combat (or, in one case, a puzzle), with the prize being the key or button.

At this point I had a fairly clear idea of the overall layout of the level. My two next steps were figuring out some of the challenges and how to pace them, as well as beginning to block out the actual layout of each area in the editor.

Todd and I started coming up with enemy designs, which meant I would have something to populate the challenges with. I knew I wanted to take advantage of the multiple elevations by having an enemy which could attack the player on the ground from up on top of a cliff. I wanted it so that when the player finally gets up into the cliffs, they can finally fight these enemies face-to-face. These became the rock throwers.

The first enemy introduced in the level is a golem that can roll up into a ball and leap at the player. I introduce the enemy on its own, and place some cover between you and it, to give the player a chance to find out that A) that it can jump over cover in ball form and B) in ball-form, it acts like a projectile, in that if you are hiding in cover, and it jumps over you from the other side, it won’t damage you. I also offer a small side-path where the player can pick up a couple items if they fight a couple more enemies.

I throw a couple more ball enemies at the player before introducing the rock throwers. I place the first one on a cliff where it’s very easy to avoid it’s rocks, as it throws horizontally and you can walk across. The time you spend in it’s line of fire is brief, and if you are paying attention, you can find locations where the boulder hits the top of it’s bounce and thus where you can walk through without fear of being hit. I then have another rock thrower where you have to go through a narrow passageway which is being threatened by its rocks, meaning you’ve got to get a bit of a better handle on the timing (and if you’re feeling brave, you can go a little further to grab another item). Finally, the player reaches the city gates. The city gates have a built in visual cue that lets the player know they need to collect triangular keys, and they should have already seen four of the six keys they need at this point. In fact, they can see two of them from the area directly outside the gates.

When working on non-linear levels like this that contain multiple zones, I like to make composite maps so that I can see the level as a whole. This is one I made fairly early in the process:


As you can see, the middle path was pretty well defined. The first two areas were pretty much set. The third area (right before you get though the gates) would change when I decided I wanted to have another area to focus on the rock throwers, thus both cementing them further as a thorn in the player’s side, as well as provide a space later on where the player could fight the rock throwers that they had been tormented by earlier.

There’s one pre-key challenge area pretty well-defined in the bottom zone, to the left of the center path, but other than that, I’d mostly just blocked out areas on the left side of the map. By this point, I’d decided to extend the tar-pit area to most of the south-west part of the map, and make it visible from the path to the left-side gate button (which opens the gate to the tar pits). The player gets to see an area significantly different from the area they’ve been in so far (and they might make the connection with the tar-pit area they were able to see leading up to the first key they saw in the bottom-center zone).

Here’s another composite from further in the process:


By this point I’d at least blocked out every zone, and some were looking like they would when the game was finished. I’d changed the top-center zone to give a stage to the rock-thrower enemies, I’d filled out the swamp area (they key isn’t there yet, but it would go on that patch of land below the cliff which leads to the bottom-center key). I also put a small tar-pit on the way to the left gate-button, with a couple of tar golems in it, in order to introduce the tar golem before they would be swamped by them in the tar-pits. I had also decided to theme the area in the center-right as a sort of ruined outpost, thus making it into a sort of landmark, and also helping to break up the area visually.

This brings us to the final version of the map:


As you can see, in addition to filling out the remaining blocked-out spaces with challenges, I did a fair amount of detail work, adding in rocks and shrubs and patches of grass. I also added in a number of shortcuts which the player could open up as they went, reducing the amount of back-tracking through challenging areas the player had to do.

All in all, the planning process for a non-linear level contains many of the elements of planning a linear level, but it also has other considerations on top of that. I was still planing out challenges for the player, trying to introduce the player to enemies at a reasonable pace, and keep the challenges and environments varied. However, in addition to that, I used layout and gating mechanics to show the player what I wanted to show them and introduce the player to the elements I wanted to introduce them to before letting the player open up the level and have more freedom.

Next time around, I want to talk about another way to get the player to see more of your level.

<–Part 9: Navigation Through Non-Linear Levels  ——– Part 11: Designing Around Failure–>

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