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Steps to Aid in Level Design

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This is a guide to help new game designers work out how to plan and execute a level design that works. Often I found that simply trying to hop into a new level and build it based off a loose idea in my mind leads me to almost immediate failure almost every single time. It is frustrating. So I have over time developed a clear process that helps me successfully work out how to do level design that works for me by breaking it down into steps.

The Idea

Obviously every level starts as an idea. This idea will be spontaneous or deliberate. Either is perfectly okay! This is where you dig out a notebook and keep these written down, or even better drawn down in rough form. Don't worry we will refine them later. These game level ideas should be organized into their own notebook or sketchbook so you can find them later.

If you cannot come up with ideas, the best ideas are to look around your environment. If you live in a city, maybe that city corner you drive or walk by is a good environment for a game, or if you live somewhere more rural - that old barn in that field? The point is to make yourself more observant of what resources are around you to generate new ideas. Remember, ideas right now are rough concepts, not full blown levels.

Setting, Location, and Theme

The next step after you have an idea to come up with the setting, location, and theme to frame your idea in. This further takes the idea and gives it greater bounds, allowing it to grow in your mind into it's own environment. The three points here are:

  • Physical location of your level. Is it a city? Rural town? Indoor or Outdoor? Past, Present, or Future?
  • Actual location of your level, the more specific location of your environment within your physical location defined above.
  • The theme of the environment, this is abstract and defines stuff such as time of day, weather, atmosphere, mood, and other elements that bring your location into focus and what makes it feel the way it does.

Purpose

Quite simply put, why are you set on doing this level? What drives you?

Features

What features does this level have for the player? Questions to ask will be:

  • How does this level stand out visually or technically?
  • What game elements are the focus of this game level that make this environment unique?
  • What will the player experience in this environment?

Make a list :)

Research and Reference Studies

Take some time looking around and studying architecture and environments that meet your above needs. Collect, study, and constantly refine your ideas based on research. Remember, now is the time to refine and improve your concept. What you are looking to collect are references of the following things:

  • Anything that matches your location
  • Anything that matches your environment
  • Anything that matches your style design
  • Props that match your style design

Now is also the time to start to start sketching out unique design ideas and putting these on paper for later reference. These studies allow you to ask questions about props or designs now rather than later.

The Story

Now that you have your environment, what is it's story? How is the player entering the environment and what story leads them there? What story shaped the environment before the player got there? These are important questions to jot down in your notes.

The Goals

Goals come in three real forms:

  • Objectives
  • Obstacles
  • Set Pieces

What objectives will the user have to complete?

What obstacles will be the players way?

What events will happen (set pieces) along the way?

Focal Points

Focal points are used in any environment to orient your player. What focal points can you use to keep your player feeling directed and not lost while in your environment?

Mapping (on Paper)

Take some paper, and draw simply a top down view of your environment, make sure to note all objectives, obstacles, set pieces, as well as focal points. Also note any unique sections. This is your visual guide when building your level out.

Mapping (a List)

Now take your map you drew, and make a list of all the elements on it. This list is your working list of things to do.

Now are you are armed with an organized blueprint of a level design!

Now you can finally sit down and execute that wonderful level design! Let me know what you thought of this rather succinct guide on level design :)


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