Level Design Up
I’ve been continuing to develop my 48 hour Ludum Dare game Breathing Room (here’s the post-Dare version I’ve been updating as I go). The hardest part of the game design process for me currently is level design. Fortunately this game provides a relatively risk-free environment in which to experiment and to formalize my process.
Good level design coaxes a player into first discovering then utilizing their abilities in a variety of situations. It requires balancing revelation and repetition.
The first few levels I make are really about discovering and internalizing the bounds of the abilities at the player’s disposal. How many blocks high can be jumped? How wide a gap can be cleared? With a tap of the jump button? With a longer press? In Breathing Room, how many blocks can be traversed after inhaling? While jumping or dodging threats?
Subsequent levels look more at interactions of the various pieces. How do threats interact with each other? With the environment? How can these interactions limit the player’s movement and define a path through a level?
These experiments aren’t intended for play by actual players but are an essential step towards understanding how to best utilize the level design building blocks at my disposal. The initial challenges conceived during this phase will probably be too difficult to be included in the game as is (at least in earlier levels) but can serve as a good point to work back from and may even suggest small code changes to timing and physics.
With this rudimentary undertanding of the possiblies you can then identify specific lessons the player must learn to succeed. Breathing Room’s primary lesson being: inhale to slow down threats.
Once you have that the first few screens are easy. You limit peripheral information and place the player in a relatively safe situation designed to prevent them from proceeding until they have achieved a basic mastery of the desired skills. The following screens should reenforce these lessons with variations on the theme (see Auntie Pixelante’s excellent article about Super Mario Bros. 1-1).
This is where my process currently breaks down. How long should each level be? With what frequency do I introduce new concepts and threats? At what stage do single threat introductory screens become patronizing rather than educational? Repetition is necessary for learning but at what point does the lesson become too repetitive? That last one is especially difficult to gauge since Breathing Room’s game mechanic encourages trial and error and I’m playing each level (at least) twenty times more than the casual player ever will.
I have a feeling that trial and error is the name of the game from this point on and a hope that experience will eventually start answering those questions before the handwringing sets in.