In this blog post I’m going to elaborate on a selection of tips and tricks that I’ve tweeted over the last few months from my account @TomPugh1112
These tips are methods that Level Designers use to move players, encourage progression and create areas of immersive gameplay. The tips I’m going to share are general bits of advice that work in different ways for different games.
As a Level Designer these tips should be interpreted in a way that is relevant to your level designs. Every game is different so every game requires a different approach.
This selection of tips are in no way “rules” of level design. As far as I’m concerned there are no rules, only guidelines that help create the best experiences possible. Every designer has their own approach to creating levels and solving problems so please take these tips and tricks as just that, and not some gospel of level design.
Each one of these “tips” could easily have a whole blog dedicated to it, and in the future I may write some. But for now I’ve tried to give as much detail in as few words as possible.
Tip 1: Have clear and consistent Affordances
An affordance is a rule that is created through your games level design. For example in “Tomb
Raider” the player learns that if they see a piece of wood or a old cart which is angled in the air, they know that they are able to use it as a launch pad to make longer jumps.
A simple real life example of an affordance is a door handle. A pull bar or a push pad on a door informs you what action you should take to open the door.
It is very important to have clear and consistent affordances (rules) in your levels. You need to build a trust contract with the player so that they clearly understand what they can and can’t do in the game. You should avoid breaking this contract. If you do you’ll cause confusion and frustration for the player. How annoying is it in real life when a door says push but really means pull?
There are times when your game may require you to break this contract with the player. In a survival horror game breaking affordances is a good way to create stress and put the player under pressure. Even this can be risky and may ultimately irritate some players.
Tip 2: Use Leading Lines
Leading lines are a technique that helps to guide the player’s eye towards a specific location, item or event.
Use leading lines to subtly move players in the right direction without the need for additional prompts or breadcrumbing. Leading lines can range from pipes on the ceiling, hedge rows or different textures on the floors and walls. Leading lines can draw the players eye to an important gameplay moment. These should be used in combination with lighting and other techniques.
For example you might have a new enemy you want to reveal to the player. Pipes along the roof and walls could be used to make sure players are looking in the right direction, while the area where the new enemy appears is nicely lit. These techniques in combination should control where the player looks.
Tip 3: Make use of the Architecture to shape the play space
You should always be looking at real life spaces and how their architecture can translate to level design. Architects have been doing the same thing as level designers for hundreds of years so it makes sense to examine and gain an understanding of architectural elements.
Architectural elements should be used to shape your level designs. Structural components are tools for organising and shaping a space. Think about what your architecture can do before filling a level with crates as obstacles.
For example, rather than placing crates in an open area why not position pillars that can still be used as cover but create a more believable space. By looking at real life spaces you can find ways of creating more believable levels with intuitive architectural elements.
Tip 4: Learn to Teach Mechanics
One of the jobs of level design is to introduce, pace and teach the player new mechanics when they become available.
This is something designers new to the field often get wrong (and sometimes more experienced designers too). You’re very knowledgeable of your game mechanics which means that it’s very easy to make a difficult challenge. Making an introductory challenge is often where mechanic teaching falls down.
You can use pacing techniques to plan mechanic introductions and the difficulty of skill gates. Get the pacing right and you shouldn’t have too much trouble with players understanding and trusting mechanics.
The rough sketch below gives an additional idea of how this works. An improvement to the sketch would be to make sure that when the player picks up their new weapon they have some targets to shoot at in the area, such as some tin cans for example. This gives them an opportunity to learn the shooting mechanics without have to be concerned about enemies.
Tip 5: Use Denial and Reward
Denial and reward is an architectural technique that is primarily used to enrich a person’s passage through a built environment. Architects do this by giving people a view of their target and then momentarily screening it from view.
This same technique can be used for progression in level design to enhance a players sense of progression. Give players a view of their objective, send them on a route where they can no longer see it, and then emerge them closer to the objective with a new angle of visibility.
This image shows how you might start a level using denial and reward. The player can see the objective clearly, they can see the path is blocked and are given an alternative route to take towards the objective.
In the following image the player will have a new angle of visibility and the objective being closer will reward them with a real sense of progression.
The Last Of Us uses denial and reward in the Pittsburgh chapter. The player is given a glimpse of the yellow bridge (their objective location) and then loses sight of it for a while until it comes back into view. This chapter shows how denial and reward can be used to make a journey much more interesting.
Tip 6: Give players a good starting point
How players arrive in an area will influence their first move. Start players facing the right direction and be sure their start position gives them visual cues and options on how to proceed.
The image above from Uncharted 4 demonstrates how you can craft the players starting position by giving them a clear view of the path ahead, leading lines and framing from the surrounding environment give a clear view of the objective location and the player can see openings and other options. This example uses multiple techniques but it is key to understand how all of these methods combine with the start location to give players a clear understanding of what they have to do.
Sometimes this tip can be twisted, but in a cool way. For example the players path or exit could be positioned behind or above them. As long as the player has clear messaging of this it can encourage map exploration and discovery which can create a very rewarding experience. Games like Uncharted have instances of this.
This can become a problem when you can’t control the players start position. In linear games it is easy to determine where the player is when a level starts and making sure they have clear cues can be done. But in an open world it’s much harder to be sure of where the players is.
One way this can be done is to create areas of linearity within an open world. A recent example of this is Horizon: Zero Dawn. Guerrilla have done a great job of funneling players towards mission areas and creating linear experiences during story missions. In some cases this has been done by creating two or three different entrances to a location. Horizon: Zero Dawn is an excellent study on open worlds for more on this I recommend watching the GDC talk Level Design Workshop: Balancing Action and RPG in Horizon Zero Dawn Quests where Blake Rebouche goes into more detail on their process.
Tip 7: Set up some boundaries
Boundaries are a way of showing players when they are transitioning between areas. There are two types of boundary - soft boundaries and solid boundaries.
Solid boundaries can be used to mark an area of surprise or enemy activity. You don’t want players to know what’s inside and you want them to clearly understand they are changing location.
Soft boundaries should be used to entice the player into an area. You want the player to be able to see what’s inside and this should draw them into the area.
Tip 8: Breadcrumbing
If you’re struggling to get players to go where you want you could try using breadcrumbs.
Breadcrumbing can come in many different forms including; a different texture on the floor, gold coins that put the player back on track and collectibles dotted along a path.
In the above example you can see the gems in Spyro are placed in this area so as to draw the player to a higher location I find this and the example below to be two subtle ways of breadcrumbing the player without breaking immersion.
Tip 9: Lighting
You can use lighting to draw attention to exits, points of interest and enemy locations and it can be used as an effective way to guide players through a level.
Lighting in levels should be used to highlight the following; exits, path guiding, enemy introductions and points of interest.
In the images above you can see that exits, paths and enemies are clearly lit and visible to the players. These examples also show how lighting can help set a tone for your levels.
Tip 10: Iteration is key
The key to a good level is iteration and constant play testing. The sooner you can get a blockout of your level into the hands of someone the better. It’s through this initial play test that you’ll see the problems, find the solutions and make a start on improving your level.
Don't be afraid to let people play your levels, after all that is why we make them.
Well thanks for reading this two part blog! I hope you found some tips and guidance that will help you with your own level designs. Remember these are guidelines, not rules.
I tried to go into as much detail as I could in as few words as I could. So if you want to talk more about a subject covered here, or not covered here then please feel free to leave a comment and start a discussion.
Thanks for Reading,