Level Design Document

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We enumerate a set of principles and guidelines for levels built for Open Surge. Even though level design is not an exact science, the idea behind this article is to empower and direct the creative and artistic efforts involved in the design process. Modders and other game developers can also benefit greatly from the ideas described in this document, as many of the findings apply to the level design of platformers in general (see also: how to use the Level Editor of Open Surge).

Motivation

Research has found that rhythm and pacing play a very significant role in the player's enjoyment of a platformer[1]. The concept of rhythm is key in level design, and it shall be emphasized throughout the whole article. Open Surge levels have the following design goals:

  • Provide a fun & child-like play
  • Bring about a compelling experience
  • Show good aesthetics

It is also desired that levels evoke a feeling of nostalgia by leveraging a retro gameplay inspired on the 90's.

Concepts

Rhythm

A simple way to understand rhythm in a platformer is to think about a roller coaster. In such amusement ride, the player first experiences a build up of energy, an increasing of tension, as the vehicle goes up. That experience is followed by the release of that tension and energy, as the vehicle goes down in high speeds. In that moment, the player gets to experience the release of all the stored energy, which gives him an amusing thrill.

In our context of level design, we'll say that the build up of energy, followed by the release of tension, is called a cycle (rhythm cycle). Just like on a roller coaster, a cycle is followed by a period of rest. Then another cycle begins. A full ride has many cycles, and each cycle may be endowed with peculiar features (e.g., differences in scenario, speed, and so on). Similarly, a game level is composed of many cycles: areas of the level that are designed to give it rhythm, keeping the player entertained.

Rhythm cycles are supposed to be short, and each one must bring a certain challenge to the player. Just like in music, a cycle may be reused throughout the level (albeit with variations). To design an enjoyable level would then be comparable to composing an enjoyable music: there should be rhythm and pacing, and the result should be pleasing to the ears.

Gameflow

Level designer Cliffy B. says that design techniques are governed by the concept of gameflow: like the "Carrot on the End of the Stick" metaphor, the player will first be challenged and then rewarded for completing tasks[2].

The level designer is responsible for placing the reward in front of the player: he will first create a task and then encourage the player to complete it. This might be done in a multitude of ways: for example, the designer might let the player decide how much trouble he's going to be facing in order to get a certain treasure placed in the level. Also, the designer might place certain pickups strategically in the level, so that the player is guided to visit unexplored areas, and so on.

Principles and guidelines

Levels must have rhythm

According to Sonic Mania dev, a good level design requires thought about pacing and rhythm[3]. Just like a music (or a roller coaster), first there is a build-up of energy and tension, a crescendo.

  • e.g., the player gets to face tricky platforms and enemies

After the crescendo, you have a release of that stored energy.

  • e.g., the player runs at high speeds throughout loops and slopes

We want to accomplish a full release (so that the player gets a feeling of WOOOW!!!). After the release, there is a rest period. Then another rhythm cycle begins. Pay attention not to break the momentum (release) of the player with spikes, bottomless pits or other undesirable elements!

Levels must have energy

Conjure up a feeling of enthusiasm and then put it in the level! Works with no energy get nowhere. Get the juices moving! Feel the enthusiasm! Feel the energy and make that level really fun! Designer Cliffy B. has well said that "it is the mystical 'life force' that makes a good game fun"[2].

Keep things moving

High speed ("electricity") is one of the key features of the aimed design, as it contributes to a compelling experience when it's part of the rhythm. Even when the player is not moving at high speeds, there should always be some kind of movement going on in the screen. This includes: moving enemies, animated bricks (scenario elements), animated backgrounds, and so on.

There must not be any sense of monotony, dullness or boredom, in any level, at all. That being said, there may be a small rest period between two rhythm cycles (build-up and release). However, even when the player is resting, the game world is animated.

Contrast and wide spaces

Level objects must be arranged in such a way that the overall scene is pleasing to the eye. Make sure there is contrast and "harmony" in the level design. The overall aesthetics must not be dull.

In addition to the visual pleasing elements of the level design, wide spaces should be emphasized. Think big! Levels must not feel "claustrophobic". Rather, they should feel big and expansive, as if there is no "ceiling" or "bottom" to them. Even though closed spaces may be present occasionally, they must not be too tight / confined. The usage of tight spaces must be done with care and with a clear design objective in mind; their frequent usage is discouraged.

Provide multiple routes

Levels in Open Surge have a beginning and an end. To clear a level means that to go from its beginning to its end. That journey may happen in multiple forms and is far from being linear. There must be multiple routes that the player can choose from. Different routes have different challenges, are endowed with different difficulty levels and also let the players control their velocity differently. Additionally, different routes intersect and interact with each other (i.e., there's frequent branching).

Level designer Dan Taylor, from Square Enix, says that good level design is "fun to navigate" and "is easy medium and hard", meaning that the player can set the difficulty dynamically[4]. Article Sonic Level Design[5] introduces the following terminology:

  • High route: the highest route on the map is not the fastest, but is the richest one in terms of rewards: invincibility, 1-ups, and so on. Even though it's harder to stay on this route, it's a compelling place for explorers to be on.
  • Low route: the lowest route on the map and usually the slowest one. It may be the most dangerous route, as it often includes most obstacles and hazards (spikes, traps, etc). These are usually submerged on water zones. Less seasoned players may end up on the low route (e.g., by falling into a pit), so the difficulties mustn't be unforgiving.
  • Average route: the main route that lies in-between the others. Usually the fastest one. It intersects and interacts with the other routes, so that the player moves up and down like a roller coaster.

It is possible for a level to include more than 3 routes. Four or even five routes can be created (even mini-routes throughout the level are possible). Regardless of the number, it's important that each route keeps the player entertained with a combination of speed, gimmicks and challenges, and that the routes interact with each other.

Slopes are key

Use the built-in physics engine to your advantage. In Open Surge, slopes should be used in abundance to emphasize the rhythm cycles. Combined with high speeds, slopes and loops must be thoroughly used in the level design. Long sections of flat, dull surfaces should be avoided. Just make sure you don't go overboard with the loops, as they must be part of the rhythm.

Additionally, keep in mind that loops shouldn't be placed on the levels just for the sake of it - they must contribute to the overall level design[5]. For example: the top of the loops can include rewards and can be used to help the multiple routes of a level intersect. Also, loops can have different formats and you can even invent your own.

Finally, when dealing with slopes, the art should be aesthetically pleasing. There shouldn't be visual discontinuities between adjacent bricks.

Keep the difficulty controlled

We want the player to be hooked by a compelling experience. The gameflow can provide the player a sense of accomplishment as he gets through challenges and receives his rewards. This helps to motivate him and to encourage him to continue playing the game, even if he fails a few times. However, the difficulty must be controlled, otherwise the designer may inadvertently destroy the player's motivation or make him lose interest, because the game is too hard[6].

It's important to avoid giving the player unnecessary frustration. Do not place cheap traps throughout the levels. Do not impose unnecessary difficulty and never, ever force him to cope with a huge sense of loss. Did the player fail to jump through multiple platforms and have to spend very few seconds getting back there again? Not so bad. Did the player fail to jump through tricky platforms, went into a bottomless pit without seeing any checkpoints for the last few minutes, and thus was forced to go through the same level all over again? Terrible design!

Don't break the momentum

When the player is moving at high speeds, do not break the momentum for no reason! In areas of high speed, do not place cheap traps, such as spikes, enemies or bottomless pits, as those are likely to bring about frustration and break the rhythm.

Note: pits must be used with care. Also, explicit signs of the pits are to be avoided. The level design itself should suggest the existence of a pit. If the pit isn't obvious (or if it breaks the momentum), there should be no pit.

Gimmicks

Gimmicks are interactive, level-specific objects that are meant to enhance the experience of playing the game. They provide an excellent opportunity for creativity, as they bring fresh elements to the gameplay. Often, they positively surprise the player. Examples include: elevators, oil machines, ice generators and so on. A more creative example: a gimmick might transform the player into a sea creature[7], so he can get into areas that would have been too difficult to access otherwise.

Levels should have a lot of gimmicks, but shouldn't be centered around them! Gimmicks can certainly be interesting, but the designer mustn't forget the core mechanics. Gimmicks should add value to the level design. Also, they shouldn't be repeated too often[5] (so they don't lose their novelty).

Additionally, the player must easily understand what the gimmicks are all about. If a gimmick is not obviously clear by itself, it should be redesigned or avoided altogether. It should be emphasized that while a particular gimmick might look "obvious" for its designer, it might not be so for the actual players. Therefore, to know for sure you might want to test it.

Puzzles

Even though the game is focused on speed and dexterity, an occasional puzzle or exploration activity is desirable, provided it doesn't harm the other design principles. There must be a sense of constant progress, constant movement, and the player must not be made to feel confused (in other words: when designing puzzles, be friendly).

Example: you may want the player to collect certain special items placed in the level. There must be a sense of direction in the level itself, some hints, so that the player never gets confused or bored, having to run around in circles.

Create, evaluate & repeat

We want quality gameplay. You might very well apply the principles just described, but after having created a first version of your level, ask yourself (and others): is it fun? Really fun? If not, go back to the drawing board and try again. Repeat as many times as necessary. Practice makes it better.

If you simply apply the design principles mechanically, without true understanding or without a feeling of enthusiasm or "juice" on your part, the result is likely to be mediocre. Remember: "it is the mystical 'life force' that makes a good game fun"[2]. That's why level design is also art!

References

  1. Smith, G.; Cha, M.; Whitehead, J. A Framework for Analysis of 2D Platformer Levels. In Proceedings of the 2008 ACM SIGGRAPH symposium on Video games.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Bleszinski, C. The Art and Science of Level Design. Available at: http://www.economics.rpi.edu/public_html/ruiz/EGDSpring12/readings/The%20Art%20and%20Science%20of%20Level%20Design.doc
  3. Sonic Mania dev says good Sonic level design is all about slopes. Available at: https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/305337/Sonic_Mania_dev_says_good_Sonic_level_design_is_all_about_slopes.php
  4. Ten Principles for Good Level Design. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNEe3KhMvXM
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Sonic Level Design. Available at: http://forums.sonicretro.org/index.php?showtopic=28302
  6. Nicollet, V. Difficulty in Dexterity-Based Platform Games. Available at: https://www.gamedev.net/articles/game-design/game-design-and-theory/difficulty-in-dexterity-based-platform-games-r2055/
  7. Banjo Kazooie all transformations. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDqTaNVfQrY