Friday, 22 February 2013

Task 16: Level Design

At its most basic, a game level is the space a player moves around in.

In most games, the path of the player is actually fairly linear, and in simplest terms the level involves guiding the player from point A to point B. This means that when designing levels, the most important aspect designers have to think about is how the player will move through the environment, including how their movement will be directed or impeded by obstacles such as secondary objectives and enemies.

Many games only have a single path the player can take if they wish to advance the game. Sometimes this linear gameplay is obvious because the player is funnelled towards their goal by the scenery, whereas other times a seemingly open environment will have invisible constraints that force the player to visit certain sections in a set order with - most this often simply the player’s limited ability to jump.

Linear gaming like this is not necessarily bad, and such railroading is generally judged differently depending on the genre.  In platforming games especially, discovering the limits of these constraints is a large part of the gameplay, and with many combat-orientated games the player doesn’t want to be constantly getting lost while fighting enemies. (Conversely, some puzzle games will use combat specifically to make the puzzles arbitrarily harder – the puzzles in Amnesia take very little brainpower, but are difficult to complete while your character’s curled up in a corner crying.)

Non-linear gaming can take several different approaches, with different types of dynamic gameplay. Games such as sandbox games make every effort to give the player freedom, at least within the set parameters, while some games simply provide more than one path for the player to take.

Sometimes this is a feature built into individual levels, with multiple ways of solving a given puzzle. For instance, in Deus Ex each level environment is fairly open with multiple paths the player can take depending on their preferred play style, whether they decide to sneak around and pick off enemies one by one, or to charge in head first.

1)  Kill now or 2) Kill later
It could be argued that - by nature of giving the player control - any game is non-linear, as no two players will do exactly the same thing. However many games actively work against this, for instance by blocking off areas the player has already been through or killing the player if they try to go off course, so from the point of view of a level designer there is certainly a conscious decision.

It’s difficult not to think about the context of a level when you think about level design, partly because the environment will have a large impact of how the level feels to play.  A good demonstration of the difference between level design and environment design can be seen at the beginning of Portal 2.

The first few levels – the puzzles and the positioning of key elements - are often identical to those at the beginning of the first game, but with the overgrown scenery, open spaces and organic lighting, the environment is very different. Subsequently, while in Portal these levels felt almost claustrophobic, in Portal 2 the exact same level designs give you a brief sense of freedom and healthy dose of déjà vu.

Portal 1 vs. Portal 2

I only just discovered you can add captions.
Portal is in fact often taken as a parody of the idea of level design over story; highlighting the lengths games sometimes go to explain level design and puzzles within the context of an environment. The game makes little effort to disguise the purpose of the ‘testing chambers’ as anything more that the puzzles they are, leaving the developers open to fully explore the possibilities of the genre without having to justify everything. In fact, the developers published some tutorials detailing the process.

I’ve found that games often fall into one of two extremes – although that might be due to my own polarizing preferences for genre, since I tend to go for either RPGs or platformers.

On one hand you get games like Portal, where the puzzles seem to have been given the most leeway and the environment has been slotted in around it. In particular, I remember one of the Prince of Persia games where there are some very conspicuously placed tree branches. Sadly I don’t have a screenshot, but take my word for it that their attempt to incorporate the environment into the level design failed spectacularly. Games like Uncharted are also occasionally guilty of this, although they do seem to be getting better at it, perhaps because of more flexible game engines.

At the other end you get games such as Skyrim and other RPGs, where a large proportion of the gameplay mainly comes from the context of the story and the visual aspect of the environment. Not to say that the environments in these games aren’t somewhat concerned with playability; in my post about environment design, when discussing how level design is blended into the environment I talked about how most Skyrim dungeons provide a shortcut back to the entrance. However, in these games level design often takes a backseat to put narrative behind the wheel.

Following the path to the right and jumping down takes you back to the entrance.
That’s not to say context is entirely removed from level design. Some portion of the feel of a game still comes from the layout of different elements, and both environment and level design can lean on one another. Narrow spaces can create a feeling of urgency, or give the player a sense of objective, and large spaces can either give the player a feeling of freedom or leave them feeling vulnerable. 

Vertical space can also have an effect on the player, climbing up and climbing down invoke different emotions, and can be used to support the narrative. A player will probably perceive moving upwards as more effort than climbing down and expect a larger pay-off, even if the gameplay is almost identical.

Often the context of the environment inspires the level design, for instance Assassin’s Creed takes the concept of climbing buildings and weaves it - seemingly effortlessly - into the environment, the gameplay and the level design. Rather than using buildings simply as props or background scenery, the game takes the concept of a sprawling city and tailors the gameplay towards the environment. There are some conspicuous gameplay elements, but these are mainly minor things, such as boxes and flagpoles placed to help you move fluidly.

Much of level design is simply about balancing different interactions, constantly giving players something do without the tasks becoming repetitive or boring. This is where predicting the path the player takes becomes important, as it allows the level designer to make a vague timeline of player activity. Long distances between points translate to long periods of the player just moving around, and forcing a player to backtrack through the same place multiple times becomes tedious.

Of course, it’s impossible to fully predict how a game will feel without playing it through, which is where blocking out levels and play-testing comes into play. Creating fully fleshed out environments is expensive and time consuming, so to get a feel for the gameplay early on the development designers create a white-box, a very basic outline of the level without all the visual aspects. 

White-boxing levels allows play-testing almost from the very beginning of production, and most importantly the environments can easily be changed to improve the player’s experience. The developers get a better idea of what the game will be like to play, and when the art team begin to flesh out the visual part of the game, they know all their assets will actually be used.