We take memorable levels for granted, and we have all of our favorites: from the levels of Super Mario Bros. 3 to the overworld of Link to the Past to the introductory train sequence in Half-Life 2 to heck, even the entire world of Fallout 3. Great level design throws you into the moment and never lets go, and when you experience great level design? You rarely know it because you are so invested into your game.
Incredible level design is the same as experiencing great music in a game: at the time, you do not realize it because it adds to the overall experience in a way that you are entranced by the game as a whole. Even so, it begs the question, “what makes a great level?” Take a knee, because I’m going to give you a few examples.
One dimension that makes a level great lies in how fun the level is to navigate. The most recent example of this in action is Grand Theft Auto V, in which players have gotten lost in the games’ world for hours as they explore everything the world has to offer. It helps that the world is huge, but there is also so much to discover. Literally, every step you take in the game can lead to a new adventure, a new discovery, which leaves players hooked in the process.
When developing a level that is fun to navigate – whether it is a huge, sprawling world or a series of short, platform levels – know that levels that are fun to navigate should not hinder other elements of your game. For example, if you are developing a platform game where the player is constantly running on roller skates, jumping over gaps, and so on, don’t create a level in which they have to stop and solve puzzles until they complete the level. This will kill the flow of the game, and players will want to stop playing the game the moment they arrive at this level.
Allow the Level to Tell Your Story
If your game relies heavily on a story, allow the level to tell the story of your game. If you have the chance, never tell the player new information about the story and overall world they are inhabiting (e.g. using dialogue to explain information to the player). Instead, show the player the new information. Speaking of Half-Life 2 once more, the opening train sequence followed by marching into City 17 speaks volumes to what is happening in the game’s world. Initially, you have no idea as to what is going on in the world around you, and while much of what is happening remains a mystery, what you see in the opening moments tells you more than any NPC could explain to you: the world is enslaved, you are essentially living in a city-state ran by an unknown dictator, and people are scared for their lives.
What is more interesting, if an NPC tells you this or you see it for yourself? You know the answer.
Levels can also help the player crafts their own story. The Deus Ex series allows players to make a decision in how they want to complete a level. Many times, players will be tasked with using the stealth route or running into an area guns-a-blazin’ in order to complete objectives. It tells a new story about what the main character is experiencing depending on the player’s actions, and it is an important element in your levels if you want to tell a captivating story.
Tell the Player What to do, not How to do it
Using this rule, a player will never be confused as to what they need to do. Sure, they may be confused on how to accomplish a task due to the challenge of it, but they are never confused as to the nature of the challenge. It is vital that you always inform the player exactly what they need to do, but leave it up to them to figure out how to do it.
Keep it New
I always found the Metroid and Mega Man games so enjoyable because you were always learning something new by way of earning new powers. A boss that was difficult to defeat originally? You could earn a new power and develop a new strategy to defeat them. That area in Metroid that was inaccessible originally? By learning a new power, you can access it, which then allows you to explore a new area.
‘Keeping it new’ by obtaining new powers and abilities can go hand-in-hand with navigating a rich, vibrant world as in the first example of great level design. The Legend of Zelda series has perfected this combination of navigation and ‘keeping it new’ level design ideologies, in that players are tasked with exploring a world that is intriguing, while obtaining new items that will aid them on their quest. It makes the game incredibly addictive, and can make levels truly captivating.
Scratching the Iceberg
There are certainly other ideologies that can make a level truly phenomenal, and these are only the beginning of the many level design ideas that are out there. The ideologies listed above are sure to make your levels incredibly fun in that they will keep the player coming back for more. In the end, isn’t that what counts?