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G-Factor
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« on: July 03, 2010, 06:55:41 AM »

Do many of you find it easy to prototype your game mechanics and get 1 or 2 levels up and running, then find it really difficult to make another 5 levels, another 10 levels while keeping the game fresh and fun? Do you lose motivation and do something else, or do you put your level designer hat on and concentrate?

I've seen a LOT of indie games start out looking very promising but never go anywhere. The gameplay/teaser trailer always looks cool but so much time is spent on perfecting the tools and mechanics that when it comes time to actually build the rest of the game, the team realises that they've just hit the most challenging and draining part of game development; building the content. I think the importance of level design as a skill is often overlooked. When we talk about making games we normally talk about the big 3; Design, Art, Code (or 4 if you include sound). When we talk about Design we normally mean mechanics design. When someone says 'I have a cool idea', they are almost always talking about a mechanic or story idea. I'm not saying that coming up with cool ideas are easy, but I think it's even harder to come up with cool levels that use those mechanics.

Using Braid as an example (which I mentioned in another thread), I think designing the levels must have been a much much harder task than coming up with the 5 or 6 time mechanics of the game. I think this is why there are so many indie games that don't require a great deal of level design to create. Match 3, time management, tower defense, hidden object can all increase in difficulty without manually designing the next level. You tweak some numbers...more enemies spawn, you have to achieve more points, you have less time to do it in...and voila, it's now harder. But creating increasingly difficult levels by manipulating the mechanics in clever ways such as in braid takes a special skill to achieve.

How do you rate yourself as a level designer? Do you find yourself developing games that auto-generate levels because you struggle to hand craft the levels yourselves? Or do you genuinely prefer to work on those types of games? I'm asking this because I'm working on a game with hand crafted levels and it gets really difficult to come up with 'another' level. I believe most puzzle mechanics have a 'finite' number of variations and after that, you cannot create any more unique puzzles.

So when it comes to level design, the first question is whether you have the determination to milk the mechanic for all its worth (I think a lot of people give up here because this is the hart bit). The second question is whether the game is even going to be long enough before you hit that cap. I suppose this is where sub-mechanics can help. Each world in Braid has a different sub-mechanic.
« Last Edit: July 03, 2010, 07:09:46 AM by G-Factor » Logged

Mipe
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« Reply #1 on: July 03, 2010, 07:08:23 AM »

I am taking the lazy route.

Procedural generation.  Durr...?
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Jonathan Whiting
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« Reply #2 on: July 03, 2010, 08:07:10 AM »

I'm not really clear where you're going with this post, it's a bit of ramble.

Yes, good level design is hard.
Yes, level design is important.
Yes, some people seem to stumble when they reach the point where they just need to churn out the content.

Me? I love it.  Level design feels like the closest activity to pure game design as you can whilst still being productive.  The best advice I can give is:

When writing the games make the physical act of making levels as simple as possible, ideally you shouldn't even have to leave the engine. Games like Cube, Alex 4 and the trackmania titles are great examples of this.  Failing to do this makes the whole experience tedious, and your best ideas are often forgotten by the time you get round to them.

Keep level design in mind whilst developing your core mechanics.  The situations you describe "even harder to come up with cool levels that use those mechanics" or "I believe most puzzle mechanics have a 'finite' number of variations and after that, you cannot create any more unique puzzles" sound to me like symptoms of core mechanics that aren't doing their job.

If a cool idea doesn't create obvious exciting level design opportunities, maybe it's not that great after all.  If you keep on having to add mechanics to keep things interesting the mechanics that you do have probably aren't meshing very well together.  It's worth noting that whilst Braid (which is a great example of level design) expands itself using sub-mechanics there are still very few mechanics in total in the game.

Practice lots and lots.  Level design is hard, but it's like coding, or art, you get better, but you need to be prepared to sink hours and hours in to get good.

Writing this I'm left wondering if there would be use in some sort of forum-based Level Design Workshop of some kind for people who struggle with this side of game development.  I might be up for leading/organising something like that.  Let me know Smiley
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G-Factor
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« Reply #3 on: July 03, 2010, 09:06:56 AM »

I guess what I'm asking is, do people consider level design as a necessary part of development when making their games. Or is it generally;

1) I've got a cool idea
2) I've got a coder
3) I've got an artist
4) Cool, we should be able to make this game no problem
5) Wait...I didn't realize it was going to be this hard making 50 fun levels.
6a) I'm going to persevere and make 50 fun levels
6b) Quit...next game

I see a lot of games failing to go beyond the conceptual, prototypical phase and am wondering whether people underestimate the amount of work there is to do AFTER getting the game mechanics done.
« Last Edit: July 03, 2010, 09:10:26 AM by G-Factor » Logged

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« Reply #4 on: July 03, 2010, 09:15:55 AM »

I generally find myself making 2-4 levels, deciding "hey, this is a pretty cool gameplay mechanic, I bet there's a lot of potential here" and then never revisiting it. Possibly that says more about my motivation than it does about level design though.

Writing this I'm left wondering if there would be use in some sort of forum-based Level Design Workshop of some kind for people who struggle with this side of game development.  I might be up for leading/organising something like that.  Let me know Smiley
This would be very cool and I'd definitely be interested in taking part in something like that.
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« Reply #5 on: July 03, 2010, 09:40:22 AM »

Quote
I generally find myself making 2-4 levels, deciding "hey, this is a pretty cool gameplay mechanic, I bet there's a lot of potential here" and then never revisiting it. Possibly that says more about my motivation than it does about level design though.

Why exactly do you lose motivation at this stage? You find level design boring? You have lots of ideas you want to prototype and can't stick to working on the same project for a significant amount of time? I'm just intrigued to find out why projects seldom get beyond this stage. Why do people simply stop working on a game if they truly think it would be good  Wink

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« Reply #6 on: July 03, 2010, 09:49:38 AM »

I think what Jonathan said about making level creation as simple/easy as possible is really important. There should be as little friction as possible from the idea for a level to getting it in the game and playing it. Depending on your level size I'd say around 10 minutes max to get the first playable draft in there. For the game we're making right now (highly level based) it takes about a minute or two to get a level going using the Ogmo editor. (highly recommend it!)

As for the "is it a part of development?" I feel like it's pretty damned important, but I recognize that people work differently. Some devs like to make tools for users to make levels and then they can prune those into a set of levels. Again I agree with Jonathan that it's the closest thing to "pure game design" that we have (sort of) traditionally. And having an understanding of all the nuances and difficulty curves is quite important. There's definitely a lot to learn and think about when designing a game's levels, but I feel like all of those lessons are kinda fun to learn, or at least pretty interesting. Maybe that's not everyone though.

I think that most people do stumble on the "now i have to make a dozen levels" because making levels can be tough without a polished editor. And if your game requires something more specific that doesn't exist, then making that polished editor can be quite a task. But I'd say it's pretty much worth it _every_ time.
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Draknek
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« Reply #7 on: July 03, 2010, 05:13:01 PM »

Why exactly do you lose motivation at this stage?
I'm not really sure, I haven't thought about it a lot.

I don't find level design boring, but I do find it takes a very long time. A good level takes me a lot of testing and tweaking: making sure that it's beatable; checking I haven't left any ridiculous shortcuts; retesting to make sure one fix hasn't made another part impossible.

So I burn out on level creation quite quickly. The task of making 20 or so levels does seem incredibly daunting, because I know I'm not capable of just churning them out quickly.

It doesn't help that I don't focus on any one project for very long at a time though.
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« Reply #8 on: July 03, 2010, 05:26:21 PM »

i too enjoy level creation far more than engine or prototype creation

perhaps that's why my games tend to have a lot of levels: immortal defense had 100 levels (although each was about 3 minutes long) and saturated dreamers will have a huge worldmap.

it'd may be fun to one day try work with someone good at programming/engines/prototyping and make levels to flesh out their design. often i see a game by, say, cactus, and i want to just take their code and make 100 levels in their engine. i felt that way most strongly with cactus's "arms" game (which isn't listed on his site but is a poppenkast contest game), but have felt it to a degree in every '1 or 3 level prototype' game i've played
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« Reply #9 on: July 04, 2010, 04:31:00 AM »

Yes! Are you kidding me? Level design is by far the funnest part! It's exactly what you make all of those tools and objects for, isn't it? Even with ProGen - a PG game is only as good as it is fun - you still have to "procedurally generate" fun content; and that still factors into good level design.

My project takes both of these into account - I just hope it executes as rightly as it's supposed to! But I have a really good feeling about it, since I placed "level design" AHEAD of the actual object coding/handling. This way, I KNOW what they're supposed to do (objects AND areas, for that matter) before I build them.

Wink It does mean more work, I'm not gonna lie. But hopefully the end result will be WELL worth it.
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Maikel_Ortega
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« Reply #10 on: July 04, 2010, 05:58:44 AM »

I think that most of game designers love designing levels. They have been working hard on that game, and finally they're able to make it FUN. But i'm only guessing, i've never ever finished a game. Yet :D
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« Reply #11 on: July 04, 2010, 09:50:14 AM »

Level design is under documented and most tutorial are just bland or miss the point entirely.
Level is easy with the right methodology. The best books i can point you is Ed Byrne: http://www.amazon.com/Game-Level-Design-Development/dp/1584503696

But before level design and after mechanics there is an overlook step which is the "gameplay unit listing" where you try to find pattern of play. A level is just a string of gameplay unit and landmark. Each gameplay unit will be rated according to multiple parameter:

Quote
For each area I set:

The degree of spectacular (fancy things that is shown or that happen)
The tempo
The danger (how much harm i will get)
The difficulty (how much faster i can solve it)
The complexity (how much effort i need, straight road is simple but each turn add complexity without changing other parameter)

there is also two variables for each parameter: real and imply.
Real is the actual value of the pattern we would use.
Imply is what the setting actually suggest to the player.

For exemple a level set in a volcano with lava and fire all around, with fireball that fall and disappear just one tiles higher than some character jump distance, boulder that fall just right after the main character or just right in front while he run at full speed are example of IMPLYing Danger, just smoke and mirror but it affect the player perception.

By combining that you can quickly create interesting situations and feelings, interdependently of the nature of the game. You can even take cues of widely different genre or even medium

Planning is important, plan your area experience target first.
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Matt Thorson
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« Reply #12 on: July 04, 2010, 01:17:44 PM »

My entire development process is centered around level design. Usually what I do is develop mechanics, then design levels until I've exhausted all my ideas, then prototype new mechanics, repeat. Then I design levels that incorporate multiple mechanics at once, and interesting ways they can interact.

Then I go back and arrange the levels based on difficulty depending on what I want the difficulty curve to look like, and tweak levels etc. And I try to arrange levels so that the player is taught how all the mechanics in a logical order.

I do visuals and sound to fit the levels too, not the other way around.

As for level design itself, there's lots of approaches to it. Typically, I try to start each level with a concept. For example: "in this level, you'll have to jump across three falling platforms in a row without anywhere to rest" or "in this level, you'll have to wall-jump up a tunnel" or whatever. If each level starts with a unique concept, it will be focused and not end up as filler. Then you can come back later and reuse the concept but make it harder or easier for another level.

When you can't think of a concept, you should:
a) think of all the game mechanics you have and new ways you could use them, concentrate on the ones you haven't used much yet
b) think of using several game mechanics together and how they could interact in interesting ways
c) prototype new mechanics
« Last Edit: July 04, 2010, 01:27:13 PM by Matt Thorson » Logged

Jolli
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« Reply #13 on: July 04, 2010, 02:40:10 PM »

level design only boring if editor bad Sad
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« Reply #14 on: July 04, 2010, 03:19:48 PM »

Quote
My entire development process is centered around level design. Usually what I do is develop mechanics, then design levels until I've exhausted all my ideas, then prototype new mechanics, repeat. Then I design levels that incorporate multiple mechanics at once, and interesting ways they can interact.

Yeah that's pretty much my exact approach. I actually build levels until they start to feel samey then I add a sub-mechanic and repeat the process. It's not easy forcing myself to exhaust the mechanic but I feel that it is necessary if you want to discover all the interesting ways your mechanic can be used.
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« Reply #15 on: July 04, 2010, 04:46:27 PM »

If you can't possibly develop any more levels, get someone else to do them. Smiley
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« Reply #16 on: July 04, 2010, 04:48:19 PM »

That's also very similar to the approach I'm taking, too. I actually have a table laid out where I cross-reference my (11) different zones with the different genres; and each corresponds with a different experience I want to convey with each of them. Then, I took the core, necessary mechanics involved with them, and that's how I've defined the mechanics that I'm still in the process of creating.

Now, having re-cross-referenced the mechanics, I find that some can be tweaked and made suitable for other gameplay aspects as well; to take these basic themes and execute them with some variety about them; and looking at them mockedup also gave me some potential multi-screen piece-together influence I hadn't first considered - and now making a "jigsaw puzzle" of said elements (and making an effort to concentrate the screens in groups) is turning into a far funner-than-anticipated project in the design department alone. A one-screen pipe-maze, or incline-spring-curve sequence isn't all that interesting - but you put 3-8 screens of them together, and how does that look THEN?

Lately, I'm playing around with my different variables a lot too, seeing what nifty things I can make them do. For example, spinning a wheel does rotations based on (magicseed + day); and likely slot machine reel #1 will work the same way. I'm also thinking of making the "stop" on reels 2-and-on have a 20-25% chance at automatically "=reel1", otherwise simply adding another variable to the mix. Perhaps not as interesting or integral to gameplay as pipemazes or physics, but fun to mess with nonetheless.

But more to the point; the 2nd or 3rd post in my project outlines the different zones and the general theme they follow. Even if the gameplay mechanics themselves are arguably identical between the different zones, what's being executed within them is not. Wink Same can be said for the differing genres involved, too.
« Last Edit: July 04, 2010, 04:53:29 PM by baconman » Logged

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« Reply #17 on: July 04, 2010, 04:53:37 PM »

Procedural generation FTW! Algorithms don't ask for money, or food, and they can create a level in seconds!  Shocked
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Noel Berry
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« Reply #18 on: July 06, 2010, 10:23:50 AM »

I find making levels very hard. When you're first starting the game, and have programmed in the basic concepts, got some cool graphics going and some tunes playing, it's really exciting to start those first few levels. However, I tend to find after a few hours of doing this, it becomes tedious and not so interesting, especially in puzzle games or level based games (not so much in exploration games where you're creating a 'world').

Some people are able to keep making levels. I'm definitely not one of those people. By level 25/50, I start to have to force myself to sit down and make more levels, which is a bit of a shame, because the end result isn't as good. I often stop my projects at this point and call them done, even though I know that the mechanic could easily be used in double the levels I have. I often get the comment "needs more levels" on my games.


Writing this I'm left wondering if there would be use in some sort of forum-based Level Design Workshop of some kind for people who struggle with this side of game development.  I might be up for leading/organising something like that.  Let me know Smiley

I would love this.
« Last Edit: July 06, 2010, 10:27:41 AM by Noel » Logged

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« Reply #19 on: July 06, 2010, 02:00:10 PM »

Procedural generation FTW! Algorithms don't ask for money, or food, and they can create a level in seconds!  Shocked

Now, coding a procedural level generation algorythim that can make levels that don't just look like a bunch of random objects pasted all over the place and actually feel like there was some consideration for how to challenge the player in interesting ways, how to make the environment convey certain types of feelings (dread, lonelyness, peace, etc), now that would be a pretty monumental job.

Most procedural level generation tools tend to create very bland and boring levels, even on highly polished AAA games. Hell, Diablo 2 was a pretty huge game for its time, and every single purely random area is just as bland and repetitive as the last (though the fifth act in the expansion seemed to improve on that). Same thing with its spiritual clone Torchlight, where the hand-made floors are far more interesting than any of the random ones.

I think content/level design is an art in itself, much like coding, art and sound. It can't be half-assed or it drags the whole game down.
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