The title is a bit of a no-brainer, isn’t it? After all, bad level design isn’t going to keep your players engaged; only solid level design can do this. Even so, it’s shocking how many instances of poor level design you run into. Generic, barebone levels that feel more like an afterthought than a carefully designed level, it’s imperative that you take great care to design every facet of your level. No matter if you are designing a small 8×8 room with only a few clay pots and a rub or a huge, open field for your players to run amok, every level needs to:
- Feel inspired.
- Serve a function.
- Have meaning to the overall arc of the game.
How can you do this? It starts with…
Of course – plan your levels
We’ve all played vaporware (games quickly developed and released for profit). The bane of players everywhere, if you want a perfect example of what happens when you don’t plan levels properly and opt for cookie-cutter, generic level design, play a vaporware game (i.e. 95% of the movie/television tie-in games released on a console in the last 15 years). The level design is usually atrocious, and it’s one of the major reasons why players cannot stay engaged in one of these games for very long.
It is crucial that you plan every level and room before you implement it into your indie game. Every area must have a purpose, must have a reason for existing, and if it doesn’t? It’s simply taking up space. Remember: the best levels enrich the experience of the player. The tighter the level design, the better your game will be.
Lead the player (but not too much)
Levels that are designed the best lead the player without the player even knowing it! It’s a hard trick to pull off, so you have to be discrete. When the player is standing in the level, they need to have some idea as to where to go without a guide telling them where to go. For example, if the player needs to read a scroll sitting inside of a dungeon, you need to design the level in such a way that they can pinpoint the direction to walk, where to turn, etc. without any intervention on your part.
That means no arrow pointing where to walk. A map? That’s fine, but don’t hold the hand of the player at all times. It’s one of the things that took me out of the later Fable games. Players hate it when their hand is held and told which direction to walk in. It’s pointless – especially when good level design can fix this problem!
If you want a modern example of awesome level design, I urge you to play Divinity: Original Sin. It’s level design done properly without any handholding whatsoever, and there are a lot of lessons you can learn from the game.
Rewards, rewards, rewards
Finally, the best levels reward players. For example, if you design a part of a level to be challenging, once players complete the challenge, you need to reward them with a prize that reflects the difficulty of the challenge. Moreover, if you have optional levels designed solely so players can earn additional rewards, ensure that the rewards are suitable to the challenge. Players love to be rewarded for their hard work – so do it!
There’s a lot more to discuss regarding level design, and we’ll probably revisit the topic at a later date. For now, if you have any questions or comments about proper level design, let us know in the comments below!