Level Design Primer Part 1: The Challenge

This is part of a series of articles on level design and what goes into it. More specifically, level design as it pertains to single player (or coop) games, and not multiplayer competitive games (that’s a whole other topic). I’ll start with the basics of building a level out of discrete challenges, and move on to topics including teaching through level design, non-linear level design, verticality, and environmental storytelling. I will also break down levels from existing games to analyze what is going on from a design perspective. I will also have interactive examples to demonstrate the concepts I’m discussing.

The Challenge

The fundamental building block of a level is the challenge. The point of a challenge is to test the player’s ability in using the abilities they are given in the game. In order to do this, the challenge needs an obstacle (or obstacles) which can only be passed by engaging with the game’s systems, and a goal to motivate the player to actually complete the challenge.

It’s useful when designing obstacles to think about the game in terms of verbs. In other words, what actions are available to the player? For example, in Super Mario Bros, the verbs are run and jump. Other common verbs found in games include fight, explore, talk, dodge, sneak, ect…. An obstacle should put a roadblock in front of the player that requires them to use one or more of these verbs to get past. You’ve blocked the player’s path to their goal, and now they must take action!

At its most basic, level design is about getting the player to interact with all of the mechanics you’ve put into the game. You set a goal for them to reach, and then you put an obstacle directly in their path to reaching that goal. The player will then figure out a way past the obstacle, using the tools you’ve given them, in order to reach the goal. In this way, level design gives purpose to your mechanics. If Mario were mechanically the same, but the level was one long flat plane with no enemies, the player might never jump or even turn around.

The goal is then their reward for getting past the obstacle. A goal can be simply getting further in the game. The goal could also be something that would help the player progress in the game, like an extra weapon or resources. In a jRPG, you might have a boss fight which is required to progress in the game. The challenge is fighting the boss, and the goal is progression to the next area. On the other hand, you might have a random battle, where the challenge is fighting a weaker monster, and the goal is getting experience points that make your character stronger. Sometimes games also contain challenges where the goal is something that doesn’t aid in your progression in any way, but gives you a nice bonus such as letting you unlock concept art or songs from the soundtrack. The point is that the goal must be something that the player has cause to want to reach. If you place an obstacle with no goal, the player will either avoid it, knowing that it serves no purpose, or feel cheated having gotten through the obstacle and received no reward.

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In this example, we have a goal with no real obstacle in the way. You can just run over and grab the star, which causes you to win. What we can then do is find the easiest path to reach the goal, and plop some obstacle in the middle of it.

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Now we have an obstacle that requires the player to jump from platform to platform to reach the goal. If they miss and fall into the pit, they have to start the level over. It’s still pretty easy, though, so let’s add a simple enemy in there, once again putting it directly in the way of the path to the goal.

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Now, in this example, you can either shoot the enemy to get past, or avoid it. I’ll be talking about how player choice can be created through level design in a couple articles. For now, note that this is a very simple way to go from a blank space to a level. Next article, I’ll talk about fitting level designs to the mechanics, and making sure your obstacles can’t be easily circumvented.

<– Part 0: Introduction  ——– Part 2: Fitting Challenges to Mechanics –>

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