How to make a map...really awesome...

I remember my first RPG ever, predating anything done on any game engine. Tales of Terror as it was called, or TOT as I referred to it, was about as terrifying as a game programmed in GW-Basic could be, which is a loose way of saying not-at-all. What it did have was some pretty graphics at the time, and by pretty, I mean hobbled-together using line by line code to draw things on screen. It was also fairly (see extremely) linear, giving the user no choices were to go, merely bringing him forward through the story, and having his choices be only what spells to cast at the various enemies encountered. In that regard, the game was more of a strategy game than an RPG. But it was enough to score me an A+ in my sophomore Computer Science class. And it was written in about three weeks. Not bad for a fifteen year old, eh?

A year later, I created an actual RPG, this time in Q-Basic, GW-Basic’s big brother, and while it still lacked any sophistication, it was, none-the-less, an RPG. Tales of Terror II: The Horror of the Haunted House on the Hill, which I lovingly referred to as THT (I guess that stands for Tales House Terror??) had a main character with stats, an inventory, and the ability to move around a map and explore, not to mention Active-Time Battles. Not an easy feat in Basic. It took my half a year to program, and crashed twice during the exhibition at the end of the year. But I still got another A+. Sixteen and already two games under my belt.

I’m getting somewhere with this, so bear with me.

For both games, the movement through the game world was very simple, and in the case of one of them, completely linear. At no point in either game was where to go an issue; however, at the same time, how to get there was almost completely non-existent. There was no exploration involved and no reward for risk. In short, you played the game and navigated from the starting point to the end. The End.

Not a ton of fun.

Fast forward to a few years later, when I am college getting my first degree, and ran across a little DOS Game Engine called VERGE. Starting with a well developed idea that was well documented (for those who are joining me from my last article, this was my first GDD), I started to make a lot of maps for a game I called Nexus Quest. Unfortunately, all this new-found freedom of working within a game engine put me in a bad spot, I could easily create really large maps and felt the need, harkening from my Days with Basic, to fill them with mazes.

So thus, my first game engine driven game was filled with mazes that had lots of dead-ends. Mazes nobody wanted to navigate.

Fast forward once more. When I first began work on Lost Legacy: An Animania Story, I had a really good idea for a dungeon in mind, a really good idea for a dungeon with a nifty set of traps, and some side-scrolling action stages, and a cool bit of dialogue, and a miniquest of rescuing your party, and a big boss battle to awesome music. This was the year 2000, I was several degrees older and many degrees more organized, but I really didn’t plan that dungeon out. It never made it to the cut of Lost Legacy that exists today.

The purpose of this longer than usual Opening Anecdote is to say that there is a part of Game Design that is always underestimated by the beginner, and often underestimated by the veteran. That is the topic of Level Design, which is defined as the ‘creation of levels—locales, stages, or missions—for a video game’ Source: Wikipedia . To expand, it’s the designing of the world that the game will take place in, divided either by geographical location, game stage, or specific mission.

If Art is the right-hand of Game Design, and Programming is the left hand, then Level Design is the Chinese Finger Trap that the two thumbs are caught in. It joins aspects of both Art and Programming, at the same time is also dependent on the two, and yet vastly influences the two. Some Game Designers will tell you that Level Designers are the ones that take the art from the Artists and the code from the Programmers, and make it apply to the game. And yet, the vast majority of people who start out in Game Design not only take Level Design for granted, they vastly under prepare for it. The results are some truly beautiful games with ingenious code that play like a bad hack of Adventure, not that I’d ever actually insult the game that inspired me to be a Game Designer.

So how does one correctly do Level Design. Well, like anything that has the word ‘Art’ associated with it, there is no one true way to do it. Level Design is as much an artform as it is a science. That means that some of you will never be stellar Level Designers, simply because you don’t at the ‘eye’ for it; however there is not reason that one cannot, by following a simple procedure, become a good Level Designer.

As I lead you through the steps of Level Design, I will use my demonstration game, Spirits of the Deep to illustrate examples. I will also give a note for each point at the parts that are almost purely artistic and not something a scientific process can help you with. When that does happen, though, I will include information on things that I do to help with those parts.

This article will not include NPCs, Encounters, Dialogue, or Events. Those are all part of the next article, on what I’ll call ‘Actors’. Also, I highly recommend that you read through this article completely before attempting to do anything in the Game Engine of your choice. The reason will eventually become apparent.

1. Conceptualization – Defining the Level

In order to begin designing a Level, you need to understanding what it is that you are designing, and in a detailed way, not a generalized way. If you have already created your GDD, then you have already completed this step. If not, then you need to complete this step. This may seem like a trivial aspect of Level Design, but it is actually one of the most important steps. Let me use an example to explain this better.

Let’s say that you are creating a fantasy-style game, and you are creating the obligatory and cliché ‘starting village’. But what encompasses the ‘starting village’? Is it the area of the cottages and huts only? Is it the huts, cottages, and the farmland they use, or is it the village proper and the surround countryside, like a few hills with a babbling brook cutting through them, and a small cave in a nearby bluff where the old wise man lives.

See? The devil is in the details.

So you need to define what this level is, and how it relates to the overall Game World. Write down, either in your GDD or in a separate document, what the concept of this level is, what its boundaries are, and the environments contained within it. Be descriptive, for even if you are the only one working on the game, the detailed descriptions will help you to create a better looking world when it comes time to actually map it out.

There is a special kind of level called a Home Level, a level that other levels can be reached through. This can usually also be called a World Map, but that is not always the case. A good example of the exception is the hallway of Castle Oblivion in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. The hallway contained an orb which allowed the player to transport to identical copies of the same hallway, but attached to doorways leading to the levels already completed, thereby allowing the player to access any level of the game previously completed. While the hallway would indeed be called the Home Level, it is by no means a World Map. Don’t limit yourself to a World Map, unless you really plan on having your players romp about the game’s world, which is common in RPGs, but not required.

For Spirit of the Deep, I went ahead and wrote the description for the first Totem Dungeon:

The First Totem Dungeon is located within the Ancestral Mound, and is a two layered level that outwardly resembles a barrow. The exterior is fitted with wooden posts and hemp-rope barricades to ward off intruders, while carvings of wooden guardians are staked on top of every three posts to provide with spiritual protection. The wooden carvings are of the animal spirits, such as the wolf, bear, eagle, snake, coyote, and buffalo. The actual mound itself rises up to fifty feet, and is covered in small graves marked with stakes of buffalo bone, and spottily covered in weeds and several forms of ivy. The entrance to the level is accessible from the eastern side, where pressing on the eagle carving’s head will cause a six foot by six foot depression to open, revealing a set of stone steps going down into the dungeon.

The dungeon itself is made deep within the earth, and needs to look like the interior of an Aztec Tomb. Stone floors with grooves in them for various traps, similar stone ceilings, as well as stone walls covered in fresco and mosaic patterns along the middle third of the wall, traveling parallel to the ground. On several occasions, the dungeon’s floor plan open to a larger room, where floating platforms, which look like larger versions of a single floor tile, can move the player amongst hanging ledges that, again, look like larger versions of the floor tiles. These ledges typically suspend over the floor of that dungeon’s room, or an open pit leading into a black abyss. Doorways between parts of the dungeons are large stone square archways, with slabs of stone, etched with markings of the Tribe and the Totems, serving as doors that are opened by sliding upwards into the ceiling. The walls are periodically lined with torches that cast a pale blue light.

As you can see from that sample, it is much easier now to create a map with a firm idea of how it will look…

Artist Tip: Language doesn’t come well for everyone, especially when writing for others. If you are the only person who will be designing this level, it’s okay to skimp a little on the wording, but not much. If you are writing this for someone else, then you absolutely need to be descriptive. (If you’ve already written your GDD, this should be nothing new). Searching the internet for pictures of what you need is a good start. Another good start is to take a digital camera and go photograph real-world locations that are similar to what you are trying to create. If you can remember from the first article, Inspiration, this is a good time to revisit real-world locations that may inspire you. Just bring a camera, if you can, to preserve the memory of the location. It will help you tremendously when describing the location, which in turn will help you with the next step.

2. Mapping – Literally making a map of the level

Sorry, we’re not actually in the game engine yet, but we’re almost there. First off, take your description of the level and put it in its own word document. Then save it under something easy to remember. I recommend a three to four digit number with leading zeroes, then a short name. Trust me on this, it’ll come in handy later.

Now you get to take that description and turn it into a real map. For those of you who have had expansive experience with games such as Dungeons & Dragons, any of the early Bard’s Tale or Phantasy Star games, and just about any game with the words ‘Mech’, ‘War’, or ‘Craft’ in it, mapping should be a breeze. If you’re groaning and wondering if I’m talking about graph paper, or hexagonal graph paper, you’re about to become the most disappointed person in the entire world. That’s exactly what I mean.

Now, your map doesn’t need to be super-detailed, but it does need to be complete, and in order for it to be complete, something is needed, something that is of the absolute most importance to a good level. It’s so important that it’s going to get its own section later on.

I am talking about the Critical Path.

The Critical Path is the path the player has to take in order to finish the level. Even in the most seemingly nonlinear of levels, such as the expansive driving levels of Half Life 2, there is a path that the user must take to get to the ending. The Critical Path may have more than one branch to it, such as choosing two ways to go up a mountain, choosing one of three tunnels, and traveling to a dead end, flipping a switch, only to double back and reach the exit. The Critical Path may have more than one beginning and ending point, for those levels that players can enter from multiple points and exit from multiple points. For those optional areas that only exist to give the player rewards, the beginning point and ending point can be the same point. However, there must be a Critical Path of some sorts, else your map will suffer from confusing pathways, at the least, or just be unplayable, at the most.

It is with your Critical Path(s) in mind that you now map out your level, in pencil, taking time to consider multiple branches to your Critical Path. It is with this particular phase of Level Design that I introduce a personal philosophy that I have adopted within the past year. It’s called the Rule of Three. Totally optional, this rule helps a Level Designer do his or her best to make his or her level the best it can be, all the time. When faced with a chance to do something more than once, the Rule of Three states the following:

Whenever faced with the option of making more than one choice available to the player for any aspect of a level, an average Level Designer will only have a single, default option available, a good Level Designer will have two options available, and an exceptional Level Designer will have three or more options available.

So, if you choose to follow the Rule of Three, you should offer at least three branches to the Critical Path. If your level is outside, then the Rule of Three would apply to things such as difficult terrain, man-made obstacles, and overall direction to the ending point. The more creative you can be with your Level, the better the player’s experience will be.

Once the Critical Path has been mapped out, it’s time to go back and erase some of those lines and create Optional Paths. Optional Paths are paths that branch out from the Critical Path(s) and do not lead to the ending point(s); instead they lead to rewards, be they power-ups, score-increasing items, or just about anything that a player can choose to collect for a better experience. Again, the Rule of Three can apply here for those wishing to make an enriched and fun experience for their players. More work? Yes. More fun? Absolutely.

Watch what you put in those Optional Paths, though, and make sure that you don’t put anything there that should really be in the Critical Path. Generally speaking, it is in very poor taste to put an item necessary and vital to completion of the level in an Optional Path, and poor Game Design to put an item necessary and vital to the completion of the game in an Optional Path. It may tickle your sadistic funny bone, but your game’s overall quality will suffer from it.

Once you have mapped out your level, from start to finish, go back and revise it for content. You don’t have to add any challenges or puzzles yet, or even any rewards. Just look at the map and make sure it has a workable and plausible Critical Path and at least some Optional Paths.

Here are some common pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Mazes – The occasional hedge maze or maze of tunnels is okay. Note the word occasional. Unless you are clearly creating a Maze Game, or are the Level Designer behind the first Wild Arms game, people will stop playing your game about halfway through the first maze. Please note, a maze is not any dungeon with twists and turns. A maze is ‘complex tour puzzle in the form of a complex branching passage through which the solver must find a route’ (Source: Wikipedia). Stay away from using mazes just because you want the player to take a long time to get from Point A to Point B. Use a larger map instead.
    Useless Dead Ends – There is nothing in the world more annoying then going down a long, twisting passage, even when not in a maze, only to discover that the long, twisting passage ends in a dead end. And not a dead end with a treasure chest, a switch, a rare monster battle, or that hottie NPC you’ve been sent to rescue. No, this dead end is blank. Nothing there. Not even cake. See how annoying that is? See how frustrating and un-fun that is? Good! Don’t do it.
    Too much to do – One thing that can make a level truly terrible is to give the user so much to do that they end up playing your level just to never have to look at it again. You know what I’m talking about. A dungeon that never ends, a puzzle set that has over a hundred different components, or a series of tasks that lead to a series of tasks that lead to a series of tasks that lead to a series of tasks. There is such a thing as simply being able to enjoy your level, in which a player plays the level and has fun, and being overtaxed with things to do is not a challenge, it’s a way of losing your player’s attention.
    Not enough to do – The inverse of the above is when you have a lot of maps that are gorgeously laid out, with exquisite detail, and the player just runs through them. Always. There is nothing to do in any of the maps. Just move along. Don’t get me wrong. It’s actually nice to have a break every now and then, where my character can just stand there, view the scenery, smell the coffee, and catch his breath. But the sixth or seventh map in a row? You know that this is supposed to be a game, right?
    Very large maps with lots of dead space – Argh! This one drives me crazy! I love large maps in games, especially ones with lush and richly detailed scenery, or with objects and nuances so exquisite that I it could be real. And there are very few things that annoy me more than when I realize that the entire level has large patches of dead space. That is space where nothing is happening, it space devoid of detail. No one wants to stare at the top of their character’s head while they run across the level for five or so minutes with nothing interesting happening, and no one wants to run across an unimpressive terrain with no valid point of reference.

For Spirit of the Deep…well…I drew a map of the first Totem Dungeon. If you all really want to see it, I’ll upload a scan of it and edit this article to show it to you all.

Artist Tip: You can never practice too much, or learn too much from others in this phase of Level Design. Just playing other games and keeping an eye on how others map out their levels can give you a succinct advantage in creating your own. Never hesitate to learn from other Level Designers’ examples, nor to use someone else’s map as a starting point for your own test maps. This is a learned skill as much as it is talent-driven, and the more you do it, the better you will get.

Once you have revised your map and are satisfied with it, it’s time to put it in your engine. But before we do that, let me go back to that part of the level I said was going to get its own section:

3. The Critical Path – The most important things you will map!

What can I tell you about the Critical Path that I haven’t already? Plenty! Entire books and thesis papers have been written about the Critical Path; but seeing as this is a 101 article, and not something more in depth, I will only go over the basics. Do not skip this section if you want to be a serious Level Designer, as the Critical Path is probably the most important thing you will ever learn in Level Design.

First off, let’s look at the theory of the Critical Path more closely, and with that theory, the definition.

“The Critical Path is the path the player has to take in order to finish the level.”

Looking at the definition a bit more closely, we can see that the Critical Path is more than just a path through the level, as a cursory glance at the definition may lead us to believe. In reality, the Critical Path is the path through the level’s story. It is not just the physical movement through the level, it is the movement through the interactive story that the game is trying to tell. To further explain this, I will use several examples in several well-known games:

In the introductory level to Bioshock, the player must swim from the wreckage of a crashed airplane to a small island, enter a bathysphere that takes him underwater into the undersea city of Rapture, witness a normal person getting murdered, move through some wreckage and claim a wrench, watch as an ally remote kills the thing that murdered the person previously mentioned, make his way up to a vending machine that will dispense a power-giving drug, take the drug, obtain a new power this way, make his way along a rafter while watching the interactions between Little Sisters and Big Daddies, navigate a few hallways, and finally come to an elevator leading to the first game level. Wow! That’s a lot of story for just moving around for five or so minutes. Granted, it’s a bit on the linear side, with very little room for exploration. However, that is a good example of the critical path leading the player through a level’s story. Let’s try another one.

In the Traverse Town level of Kingdom Hearts, the player must start in the first district, talk to a shop owner, move to the second district, move to the third district, move back to the second district, move back to the third district, and talk to the same shop owner again. However, during this exploration, the player can jump along the roofs of buildings, explore an Inn, explore an alley, explore a large house, buy and sell at the Item Shop, and talk to several people. However, as the player progresses along the critical path of moving between districts, short cut-scenes occur with the characters whom will soon become the player’s main allies walking around. In this example, there is considerable room for the player to feel that they are actually exploring the town. This is a good example of allowing exploration, and yet having the Critical Path lead the player through a level’s story. Let’s look at one more example.

In the Calm Lands level of Final Fantasy X, the player has to go from the south end to the center, fight a duel with an NPC, then go to the north end. However, within the Calm Lands are a variety of minigames, from races to monster hunting to recruiting, and much more. You can just stop the story and play minigames for days in the Calm Lands, and yet the story does continue as the player moves along the Critical Path. This is a good example of allowing a heavy amount of exploration, and yet having the Critical Path lead the player through a level’s story.

Now, there are a couple of things that I hope you have noticed with the three examples given.

First is what I call the Rule of Proportionality, which states that the amount of exploration available along a level’s Critical Path is inversely proportional to the number of Story Events along a level’s Critical Path. While this is not necessarily a rule to live by, it’s a very good rule of thumb to have when designing a Critical Path. The reason is purely ease of design – you want your player to enjoy the experience of your level, and the more they have to do in order to complete that experience, the less guess work they want to do. There are exceptions to this rule, such as the type of game and theme of the game, but it’s a good rule of thumb to learn with.

Second is lack of branching in the Critical Path mentioned in those examples. That is not to say that any or all of those examples didn’t have branching, but when branching in a level, avoid branching at the story events, unless you want the story to branch as well. The reason is purely logistical – you want your player to experience the story’s events in a certain order, so the level must present them in a certain order, and if it is possible to skip a step, or complete a step out of order, you risk your story being told incorrectly. Like before, there are exceptions to this rule, such as a story driven solely by character choices, but, like before, this is a good rule of thumb to learn with.

As I’m sure you are seeing by now, the theory behind the Critical Path is much more complex than traveling from Point A to Point B. It is telling a story along a line (or path!) that culminates in your player reaching some goal or ending (the end of that level) that results in either the continuation of the game’s story, or its conclusion.

Now does that mean that every single level has to have a Critical Path that is riddled with story events that submerge a player into a fully in depth story? Of course not. Let’s look at the first level of Bionic Commando: Reloaded, affectionately called ‘Area 1’. All this level does is have the player fight some enemies, learn how to use computer hacking, unlock a door, and kill a Boss. There is no deep story in this level. In fact, the only story you get is a breath tutorial on how to hack computers, and a hint on defeating the Boss of that level. And here the very succinct Critical Path leads the player through it with an elegance that is worthy of the franchise.

Does this also mean that every single level has to have either a detailed Critical Path filled with story elements OR a high level of exploration? No, not at all. Let’s look at one of the latter levels of Bioshock. where the player has to collect a tonic to undo a mental effect inflicted upon him by the main antagonist. This level’s Critical Path is heavily laden with story elements, and every junction in the level reveal even more highly detailed information about the story. However, at the same time, the level is very big and allows for a high level of exploration, plenty of those Optional Paths we talked about, with tons of risks and rewards. It was, quite possibly, my favorite level of the game.

So now that we have the theory of the Critical Path firmly understood, let’s talk about its application. Unfortunately, this is where a lot of art comes in and slaps aside procedure, making it difficult for me to explain the finer points to you. Over the years, however, I have compiled a list of steps that I find make the development of the critical path of a level much easier. I believe that while these steps are not universal, they work in most circumstances. For these examples, I will cite in my work for Spirit of the Deep how I handled the list’s elements.

  1. Look at the concept for the level you are developing, reading through it slowly and asking yourself the following questions: What am I attempting to accomplish in this level? What part of the story of my game is being revealed in this level? What will the player characters learn in this level? What will the player characters accomplish in this level?

    For Spirit of the Deep, I answered this way in reference to the first Totem Dungeon: I want to have Eric earn his first totem and learn about his grandfather’s devotion to the spirits. I want the story elements of Eric having flashbacks about his grandfather to occur in this level. Eric will learn about his grandfather’s link to the Totems and how he is, by proxy, linked. Eric will gain his first Totem.

    Once you have answered your questions, refer back to the concept and ask yourself the following question: Given my concept, how will the player characters accomplish and learn what is detailed in the above bullet point?

    For Spirit of the Deep, I answered this way in reference to the first Totem Dungeon: I want to have Eric see visions of his grandfather in past work with the Totems at three different points within the dungeon, as well as at the end right before gaining the First Totem.

    Once you have answered that question, you are ready to being drawing your map. But first, ask yourself the following question: Given everything that I have decided so far, what should the places on the map be where these story events happen, and how spread out should they be?

    For Spirit of the Deep, I answered this way in reference to the first Totem Dungeon: The first story point so be halfway through the dungeons, the second should be three quarters of the way through the dungeon, the third one should be right before the Boss Room, and the last one should be right after the Boss Fight. I want the first one to be in an obvious mid-point room. I want the second one to be in a small room linking two puzzle rooms together. I want the third one to be in front of the Boss Room’s Door. I want the last one to be in the Boss Room.

    Once you have answered that question, draw out the places where the story elements are revealed, evenly spaced on the graph paper. Don’t worry, you can redraw your map if you don’t have things placed properly. Now with an accurate and fair representation of how things will be spaced, ask yourself these questions: How can I link the story element places together in a way that will flow well? How can I make movement through the level, from point to point, enjoyable?

    For Spirit of the Deep, I answered this way in reference to the first Totem Dungeon: Eric will enter into a long hallway that will split into a T-intersection, with cryptic instructions at the intersection. Exploration to the left will bring Eric to a large room with immobile platforms, while exploration to the right will bring Eric to a switch to make those immobile platforms move back and forth along various paths. From that large room, Eric will travel through a hallway with dart traps and blade traps. Next, Eric will enter a large room with more immobile platforms over a bottomless pit. Moving along the immobile platforms will lead Eric to a switch, the switch making the immobile platforms mobile again. From that puzzle room, Eric will enter the first story point. Then, from that room, Eric will go down a tunnel leading to a four-way intersection. Right and left will lead Eric to smaller rooms where he has to move a statue (one in each room) to face towards the proper mural. These two rooms each lead north to another equal twin set of rooms, each with a similar statue and mural. Those second set of two rooms are joined by a passage, effectively creating a square of the statue rooms. North of the initial four-way intersection, in the center of this ‘statue square’, is a large statue of the Totem Spirit. In here are the clues as to which mural for all room statue rooms, and once the statues are in the right place, the large statue moves. From there, Eric reaches a small room which is the second story point. Next, Eric will enter a large circular room with a giant sundial on a platform suspended over a bottomless pit, and three strong light sources of incremental strength which can rotate around the sundial via grooves on the walls. A set of levers rest on a small platform suspended over the pit. Eric must stand on the platform and manipulate the levers to make the sundial show the right pattern. Failure can be met by the platform dropping Eric into the bottomless pit. Finally, Eric enters a small room with the Boss Door and a Save Point. This is the third story point. Beyond that is the Boss’s room and the fourth story point.

    Map the level’s Critical Path.

Pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? Once you grasp the idea of the Critical Path, it becomes easier the more and more you practice.

Artist Tip: To reiterate: This really is all about practice. The more you do this, the better you will get. It helps to start with smaller maps like houses or simple dungeons, and slowly work your way up to big and complex levels.

Not that I didn’t hammer branching, or the Rule of Three, into your head during this section. That is because you will learn to do branching as time goes on, and I recommend you don’t have any Critical Path branching on your first level. Learn the basics, then slowly add complexity. You’ll thank me later, hopefully in the comments section of wherever you are reading this article.

4. Optional Paths – Things to do that increase reward…

It’s not really fair to make Optional Paths a full section, as there isn’t much on the topic that we haven’t already covered. Let me just give you some pointers I have learned through experience. This is a negative list, that is the list is filled with ‘do nots’.

  1. Don’t have Optional Paths on your first attempts at serious Level Design. Instead, focus solely on creating a solid Critical Path.
    Don’t feel like you MUST have Optional Paths on every level. This is a way to make levels more fun, not a requirement for every single level.
    Don’t never use Optional Paths. Nothing but Critical Paths are boring. Eventually incorporate them into your design scheme.
    Never have the reward for an Optional Path be required for completion of the level or game. I know we have gone over this, but it bears repeating.
    Don’t have more Optional Paths than Critical Path Points. This is more advice than a rule, and is built upon my personal preference to keep things balanced between story and exploration. Play around with what works best for you.
    Don’t put ANY story points in an Optional Path. Because at that point, it’s part of the Critical Path.
    Don’t have an Optional Path be rewardless. At the least, give them a cute vignette or something visual to appreciate. An Optional Path without some sort of reward is a dead end.

For Spirit of the Deep, I created three Optional Paths. The first one is a high platform in the first platform room, where a healing item is found. The second is an alcove in the second platform room, where a physical power up is found. The third is a magical power up located in the sundial room, where the player has to enter the inverse of the correct time to release from above.

Artist Tip: Like the Critical Path, Optional Paths get better with practice. It’s best to start small and give small rewards, then get bolder as your game, and your confidence, goes on. If you can distribute reward in a scalar and linear-incremental fashion from the Level Design phase, you will have a HUGE jump on game play balancing later on,

Guess what…!!!

5. Mapping – Putting the level in the game engine…

Yes! After four and a half articles of working outside the Game Engine, you are now ready to engine your Game Engine and start working. That means load up your RPG Maker, your Torque, your Unreal Edit, your Sphere, or whatever. Hopefully, you are familiar with the interface.

Feel free to skip this step for now, if you wish…

So, yes, once you have your Critical Path and Optional Paths, you are ready to create your map in the Game Engine. Do so, but don’t create every single bit of the level. Just create the rooms and the pathways, the Critical and Optional Paths. You have enough time, later, to make your level look beautiful.

Depending on the game engine that you are using, you may have to create more than one file. For example, if using an engine like RPG Maker to create a six story castle, it would be optimum to create six files, one for each floor; however, for an engine like Unreal Engine, it would be better to create the entire castle’s interior as one large file. For now, focus on the translation of your level from grid paper to game engine, because the next part of Level Design requires that you have your map created and built.

Artist Tip: There is no right way to do this step. Some Level Designers will create their level with just the bare shapes and pieces. Others will add in static objects that they know will be there. I recommend you follow the philosophy of ‘less is better’ for now, because if the next step doesn’t go well, you may find yourself coming back here to redesign parts of your level, which is a major pain if you have a lot of details.

Some of you may be surprised to see that this is included as Level Design, but it’s actually, aside from the Critical Path, the most integral part.

6. Challenges and Solutions – What the player has to go through to succeed…

Once you have the entire map for that level created, that is to say it’s been entered into the game engine, either as one file or spread across several files, you are ready to begin the second most important task of Level Design, challenges and solutions. This is a step that may require the assistance of a programmer, depending upon the game engine you are using and what you are trying to accomplish.

A challenge is simply that, something that the player must overcome in order to continue or complete the level. It can be a battle, a puzzle, an obstacle that has to be overcome, or even an action sequence. In short, anything that offers the player adversity that the player has to overcome, is a challenge.

If you’ve been following this article accurately, you probably already know what challenges you want, and where. However, in the case that you do not, now is time to go back to the brainstorming techniques we talked about in the second article and get to work. There is no maximum or minimum to the number of challenges you can have each level, but the recommended number is no less than one, and no more than what is appropriate for the level’s size.

Unfortunately, this brings us into a gray area, and means we need to stop, and once again, consider the design of our level. When I create something that is small, I try not to have more than one or two challenges, while with larger ones, I try not to have more than five or six. This is a matter of personal taste, along with the genre of the game, the context of the level, and the challenge you are trying to provide. This is also a time when you, as the Level Designer, start to prioritize the challenges into some sort of order, so that when your testers play out the level, if it is too much, you know which ones to get rid of first.

I wish I could give more guidelines as to feeling out the number of challenges that is optimal per level, but it changes so greatly between game engines, game genres, and game themes that there is no set formula to follow. My advice is to keep an open mind and pay close attention to the feedback from your testers.

Obviously for some type of genres, the actual execution of the challenges will differ. For example, if you are designing an FPS game, a battle challenge will be a set of enemies appearing from what is referred to as a ‘spawn point’, and each spawn point will be a separate challenge; however, if you are designing an RPG, then areas of the map will have battles assigned to it through the game’s database, with a percentage chance of the battles occurring depending on a variety of factors, and each of those areas will be a separate challenge. Therefore, it is important to keep the genre of game in mind when designing the number, and layout, of challenges.

Moving on, once you have identified each challenge, start to work on the solutions for each challenge. This is where the ‘Rule of Three’ once again comes in handy. For each challenge, the average Level Designer will only have a single solution available, a good Level Designer will have two solutions available, and an exceptional Level Designer will have three or more solutions available.

Once again, we must take into account the genre of game. For a battle in an RPG, the only real solution is to defeat the enemy, although an innovative Game Designer, from the RPG’s foundation, will devise more than one way to defeat the enemy. For a Puzzle Game, the only way to complete a level is to solve the puzzles, although again, an innovative Game Designer, from the Puzzle Game’s foundation, will make it so that each puzzle can have more than one solution. The point of this paragraph? There is never a reason for a designer to have any challenge have only one solution, other than an unwillingness to have more than one solution.

So we have our challenges, and for each challenge we have at least three solutions. Are we done? Well, not quite. You’re going to want to record this information into that same oddly named document that the concept and Critical Path are written on. Just write down what each challenge is, roughly in order, with an identifier to show roughly where on the map it occurs, and then list each solution as a bullet point. This way, if you, or someone else, goes back later to edit the level, there will be some form of documentation on what was done, and what the solutions were.

For Spirit of the Deep, I documented the challenges and their solutions as thus: For both rooms with immobile platforms, Eric can either pull the switch or hit it from a distance to activate the platforms (2 solutions). For the hallway with traps, Eric can either dodge the traps, attack the traps with his tomahawk at the right moment and break them, or deactivate them by hitting a pressure plate on the ceiling (3 solutions). For the puzzle with four statues that need to face different murals, the only solution is to have them face the right murals, although this can be done in any order. (1 solution). For the sundial puzzle, Eric can either rotate the sundial with the switch, or push the sundial manually into place. (2 solutions).

Artist Tip: Once again, I can’t teach you everything about challenges in one article. Like the Critical Path, Challenges are worthy of their own separate article. I don have one bit of advice for ‘feeling’ your challenges out, though. Don’t put a lot of battles in a puzzle heavy level. In other words, have your fight challenges and non-fight challenges inversely proportional to each other. I learned that tip the hard way during the creation of Lost Legacy, and promise you that following it will save you a lot of heartache.

Now for the big surprise…

7. Level Design Document – Snuck this in on you…

Yes, that is correct! If you’ve listened to me and resisted the urge, even when instructed, to work in the game engine, and instead have just been writing everything down, you know have the bare bones of a Level Design Document, one that you can refer to when creating your level in the game engine.

Documentation is very important for all aspects of game development, but Game Design and Level Design benefit from it the most (although I am sure that programmers will vehemently disagree with me). However, as I talked about in the GDD article, very few places have the design documents completely written ahead of time. Often, the GDDs and Level Design Documents (herein called LDDs) are created during the design process. This article, up to this point, did that very thing by tricking you into thinking you were just designing your level from scratch. A bit of a dirty trick, but hopefully you get the idea. You can write your design document while designing the level, and as long as it is before you start to map out the level in the game engine, you can make all the revisions you want and the only thing it has cost you is time.

The LDD should grow and change as your level and game changes. Do not think that just because something is written down, it is immutable. This is, much like the GDD article, just enforcing the need to be organized. Your game will do considerably better because of this organization, and you as a Game Designer and Level Designer will improve with every level you make.

The end is in sight! Now for what I consider to be the most fun part of Level Design…

8. Detail the Level – Making the Level come alive…

I originally thought of making this an entire article on its own, but then I realize that detailing a Level is much more of an artist’s touch than anything else. There is a certain amount of intuition to it that would undermine any attempt I could make at telling you what to do. Also, depending on the game engine being use, the types of details are significantly different. For example, RPG Maker, no matter what the version, does not thrive on lighting the same way a 3D engine would, and therefore relies on other things to create that feeling of realism. The Unreal Engine 2.5, despite all its robust power, can’t have objects just spontaneously change models as easily as a tile-based engine like RPG Maker. And the Oblivion Engine, despite it’s beautiful way at handling physics, can’t handle the particle effects that something like Unreal Engine 3.

So then, given all of that, what information, what tools, can I impart upon you to that will help you detail your levels better? Let me defer back to the very first article about Inspiration. There are several tricks I use when I am designing a level to get a list of things that level could benefit from in the way of detailing.

  1. Read a Book – Writers have a great way of describing things. Without the benefit of pictures, their words are the only thing they have to paint the world they are creating. Reading books can give you all sorts of examples of how something should look.
    Go to an Art Museum – I didn’t mention this in my first article, but I should have. Sometimes, looking at art that other people have painted can give you endless sources of inspiration in the development of a game. The same holds true with a level.
    Play other video games – Yeah, I know, this is asking the beginning developer to plagiarize, right? Not really. You see, if you have been following my series of articles on the Game Design Process, then you probably aren’t going to steal other people’s stuff. Why start from scratch when someone else has done the leg-work? If you have a tavern in your game, and you know of a game with a tavern in it, play it and see how they detailed their tavern. Take notes. Learn.
    The Real World – You may be surprised to learn that most Level Designers invest in a digital camera. Whenever they go somewhere and see something that inspires them for details, or just design in general, they take a few pictures and look at them later. I can’t tell you how many times I wish I had a camera with me when I was outside, forcing myself to rely on memory for something later on.

For Spirit of the Deep, I used the following source materials to draw inspiration from for the levels: The movie Apocalypto, the first dungeon from the Gamecube version of Tales of Symphonia, and some photographs I had taken of the Tom Sawyer Caves in the Magic Kingdom.

Artist Tip: There isn’t really much more I can tell you other than to practice, apply what we’ve gone over, and practice some more. The only way you can truly become a great Level Designer…is to design levels.

And here we are, at the end of another article, and hopefully with a completed level ready for its Actors. I recommend you go back and create a few more levels before continuing to the next article, and get really good and designing the basics.

After all, practice makes perfect…