You can also find this article on Gamasutra here.
Dependence between different game elements is an often-overlooked but fundamental component in any great design.
This article will deal specifically with the link between level-design and core gameplay.
This is important for three reasons:
- It stops your mechanics from becoming boring as every new environment offers new ways or new opportunities for how you use them. It creates variety.
- This variety allows you to create a narrative of pressure throughout your encounters.
- It makes the player feel excited to look at a new area and wonder how they can take advantage of it to have fun.
The first point is fundamental. We've all played a game that eventually got boring, even though we at first enjoyed it. Often this is due to the game mechanics becoming repetitive. As designers it is our job to give players many interesting, challenging and varied situations to use them in.
Linking level design heavily to core mechanics is one way of doing this. You want space and verticality to play a part in how it feels to play your game. To give a more specific example, in a combat heavy game you want it to be a completely different experience to fight in a corridor, as it is to fight in an open space.
This allows you to create variety without having to teach the player anything new, without having to complicate your core mechanics.
Gears of War is a good example of this. Enemies attempt to flank you, and so the combat experience changes drastically depending on how restricted the space is, and what the distribution of cover is. It is a good example too, because while space may vary the combat in other games subtly, Gears of War really pushes this into the forefront of the player's mind. It’s clear and readable. This aspect of the design is made as noticeable as possible so that players can make meaningful decisions based on where they are – should they run, flank, look for a different weapon or push on.
When you have successfully created core mechanics that heavily rely on the surrounding environment, you can then use this knowledge to design your encounter flow.
Perhaps you want the player to enter the level in a calm moment, then have the pressure build to a crescendo before rewarding them with something fun and easy at the end.
Taking a simple combat example you might want to…
- (Calm moment) Start with some nice open environments
- (Build the pressure) Slowly have them close in
- (Crescendo) Then at the hardest part of the encounter have the player flanked by enemies positioned in high positions, giving them the height advantage.
- (Reward) You emerge onto a balcony, this time with the height advantage in your favour – where the low cover offers the enemies no protection against your potshots.
This allows you to build your levels from specific narrative requirements – what is the player supposed to be going through at this point in the story? This will help level designers work towards a goal, rather than scratching their heads over the dreaded blank piece of paper.
The other very important effect this has may sound trivial, but personally I think it's very important. It is the excitement the player gets when they truly understand how different levels can mean whole new types of fun, and it’s the feeling you have when you walk into a new area of the game and start thinking about how you might use it to your advantage.
I often liken this to a child walking up to a playground they’ve never been to before. They know what a slide is, what a climbing frame is, and on seeing this new play-area their minds start working – they get excited simply by the prospect of what they will be able to do there.
So with this in mind it becomes more important to think about how you present each new area of the game. Think about the reveal, and about the readability of your interactive level components.
Also take this particular point with a pinch of salt – this readability is something I like personally as a designer. I think it adds a great deal, but it is definitely a preference and not a hard-and-fast rule.
So to wrap up, some simple questions to ask yourself:
- Do my game’s core mechanics change significantly based on level layout?
- Are we calling attention to how the environment affects core mechanics?
- Are we presenting this to the player in a way that makes them feel excited about a new environment?
In the next few articles I will continue to talk about the dependance between game elements and how this can be used to create variety with your core-mechanics, before wrapping up with a working model of design aimed at story-driven character-action games.