In this report I am going to be analysing and explaining the different aspects of level design and how it has changed over time as technology has advanced. I will be referencing to existing games and genres to support my points. I will also explain the different design choices that are made for specific genres of games and how the design process changes between games. I will cover many aspects of level design including it’s history, culture and social aspects. I will use all my work and research from Unit 12 and my blog posts that I have done over the past few weeks that cover the relevant information to produce this final report.
Historical Aspects of Level Design
Level design has evolved has changed a lot over time due to different game formats that people come up with. New technology and game genres have been popularised over time leading to an evolution of how we play and create games. The most early forms of level design appear in 2-dimensional platformers such as Super Mario Bros. While the game looks very simple and basic, there has been much though put into the design and layout for each level.
The placement of certain objects, powerups and obstacles are very important to ensure the player learns through the experience and is rewarded for it. Even the old Mario games used key design features that are still used today such as Nintendo’s 4-step level design. This design involves first introducing a new mechanic in a safe environment, the mechanic is then improved upon and put into more challenging situations, next the concept is made more difficult by giving it a twist towards the end of the level. Then finally there is a conclusion that involves getting to the top of the flagpole at the end of the level for extra points.
When 3D games came out, level design changed the design process. An extra dimension to work with added so many possibilities. The main origin of innovative 3D level design was from id_software’s Doom, Quake and Mario 64. 3D games in first person are one of the most popular types of games today as they allow the player get immersed in the world from a realistic perspective. This makes 3D better for story-based games as you can really lose yourself in the world. 3-dimensional levels are also much better at mimicking real world architecture as you are able to fully design and create buildings as they appear in real places.
One of the most modern large trends in level design is open world environments on large-scale maps of cities, islands or worlds. This type of level design creates huge areas that encourage exploration and travelling the virtual world. The design of open world is much more spaced out so you will find less hand-crafted areas and more empty space between important areas to act as a filler. I think open-world level design is less clever and creative but still very impressive and serves a purpose for specific games.
Social Aspects of Level Design
The social aspects of level design is more of a difficult topic to cover but examples do exist within some games. Creating social connections within the game world can be a challenge if you are not directly implementing multiplayer gaming. Games come up with interesting ways to link its community together with indirect events or other techniques.
The most obvious form of socialising within a game is co-op gaming. This can range from puzzle games to survival shooters where teamwork is key. Levels in co-op games are designed to encourage or even require teamwork to succeed. Players or partners will need to communicate with each other to complete goals and to play the game correctly.
Multiplayer shooters have their own principles for their level design. These games require teamwork with other players but less one-on-one cooperation than a co-op game. The levels are designed to hold larger amounts of players and have many areas that players must fill with their assigned roles. This works especially well with class-based shooters, the layout and design will have different areas that benefit specific character classes and roles so that a balanced team is needed to succeed and use the environment to it’s fullest.
Social media integration can be present in some games and levels. In Garry’s Mod cinema there is YouTube integration and other video websites that can be displayed in separate rooms for players to socialise in, the levels for this gamemode are designed so that you can have public cinemas or private rooms to watch Youtube videos with friends only.
Games such as Dark Souls connect players together indirectly through clever use of shared events. There are two bells that must be rung during the single-player story. When a player rings a bell, it can be heard by other players that are nearby in their own single-player games. This is to encourage players to complete the quest by hearing another’s victory. This is very clever use of level design and adding social aspects to the game environment. Another method Dark Souls uses to connect it’s players together is the use of bloodstains. Bloodstains can be found occasionally on the floor of the environment, upon inspection you are able to see the ghost of another real player moments before their death. This is to allow the player to learn from other’s mistakes and be more cautions of the area.
Nintendo’s Mario Maker is a standalone game that is about designing and building levels for the 2-dimensional Mario games. After you have created your level, there is a social media-like interface of everyone’s shared creations where you are able to download and play other people’s levels. You can like, comment on and share levels created in Mario Maker to your friends or fans so that they can play the levels too. This is a great game to create levels in and to share in a social environment.
Cultural Aspects of Level Design
The modding and level design community is huge on the PC platform. There are many individuals or teams of people that love to modify games and create their own levels for them and sometimes create their own standalone games built entirely upon another game. Fan favourites include; Quake, Unreal, Half-Life, Grand Theft Auto IV, Counter-Strike and Left 4 Dead.
The games industry has many famous level designers as well as many games that are praised for their amazing level design and environments. Games with great level design will include environments that compliment the mechanics of the game and the game’s story. Designers can have their own styles and techniques that are recognisable in their works.
The Source engine has a very diverse set of games that are loved by many. The engine is very easy to modify and add to and Valve have released their level design tools for free public use. This has lead to thousands of community creations for many different games. I have personally used this engine to create hundreds of projects for a diverse set of games.
To create linear stories players would design levels for Half-Life and Left 4 Dead. For competitive shooter arenas they would map for Counter-Strike, or for casual arena FPS they would build levels for Team Fortress 2. All of these diverse games are on the same engine and use the same tools to build levels for which lead to its massive popularity with the modding scene.
Communities for engines such as Source, Unreal and Unity have formed that love to help people learn and solve peoples problems. This very friendly approach has lead to the growth of peoples interest and create connections between players. There are many forums, chatrooms and youtube tutorials full of community members giving tips and helping out everyone with development of their levels and projects.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has a workshop that players can submit their own custom levels onto for users to easily download and play. Every few months Valve will select a handful of the best community maps and host them on their official competitive servers. They sell a pass to players for access to their servers running these maps (although they can still be played for free offline) and they will distribute some of the profit to the original level designers. This is a great way for map-makers to earn some money from their amazing creations.
Industry Aspects of Level Design
Within the games industry, there are many different markets with many different game genres. Each game genre will have their levels designed differently as they will require additional understanding and other ideas to work well with the game itself.
Platforming games will usually introduce different mechanics gradually throughout the game to increase difficulty and to keep the player interested. Well designed levels will usually sue something similar to Nintendo’s 4-step design philosophy as discussed earlier.
Story-based shooters are usually linear but will have overlapping parts of the level to add exploration and to cleverly make the world seem bigger than it actually is. Linearity is not a bad thing in level design but us just another genre of game or style of play. Levels for co-op games or shooters will have similar levels to the linear shooter’s levels but will have elements of teamwork and cooperating.
Multiplayer shooters have many crossing paths that are all built with balanced and fun fights in mind. They are designed so that players can make their own strategies and plans to do certain tasks. With map knowledge and memorisation through practice, you have the advantage. They are replayed over and over again so they must be balanced, fun and allow for many different strategies so the level will not get repetitive.
Open world games use real places a reference, everything is more spread out so gameplay usually revolves around vehicles or other fast method of travel. Procedurally generated environments are created with algorithms and code, they are usually used in survival games. This adds much replay-ability to the game and helps with exploration. Environments created by a computer are not refined or designed in a specific way, this will lead to more boring environments that don’t have any hand-crafted elements that are designed to be exciting to explore.
Randomly generated levels that use templates are a good balance between always-fresh and unknown levels to explore and hand crafted rooms that will not be boring, too easy or too hard. Combining both methods of creating a new level automatically gives the advantages of hand-made environments and the replay-ability of unknown worlds.
This term has been very productive and informative on my subject of level design. All of my unit 12 work and my research towards it has taught me a lot about some key principals of level design and how levels are created in the games industry. My practical work has let me experiment with different ways of presenting my work and trying new concepts that may expand my ideas on what to make and how to make it. My practical work has expanded my knowledge and given me some experience in level design and creating top-down blueprints or layouts for levels with many specific design choices in mind.
My research through my projects has proven to be very useful, I have watched multiple videos specifically on level design techniques to further improve my understanding of what makes a well-designed level. Through primary research I have analysed a level of one of my favourite games, after playing through it many times I was able to slow down and observe the environment, thinking about the design choices the developers may have made. I was able to get a better understanding of this level and now see it differently as a very interesting, diverse and creative level rather than a boring and easy tutorial section.
In this report I can use all of the knowledge that I have written up to help with my final major project. All of this information will be useful when considering what kind of level I want to create and what it’s target audience and game will be. There are many different points to acknowledge and study so that I can create a great level with all the right features for my project. This research and knowledge will give me an advantage when designing and creating levels from now on, in my college work and also my personal projects.