Designer Series: Level Design I

I believe a lot of consideration should be put into creating an environment, 2D or 3D, for players to engage with in a game. For most games, these environments are exclusively what we call “levels”, though there are other cases that fit outside that term. For this series, however, I’ll be focusing on levels designed in Unity™ with a PvP or TvT (player versus player, or team versus team) type gameplay in mind, and a perspective camera similar to the view that isometric 2D games attempt to recreate (situated above the player, angled 45° downward, but with otherwise fixed rotation). Fortunately, I consider this an angle that removes two components (among myriad others) typically associated with F/TPV (first/third person view) level design that can take an absurd amount of tweaking and optimization: shot composition and sight lines. As a result, I feel I get to focus more heavily on spatial composition, flow, and cover/encounters. I will go into these topics assuming scale of all visible game objects and players has already been dialed in, at least to what I consider a workable state.

Note: I won’t be touching on much related to the general surface appearance of a level or its visible game objects in this series, but I would like to start a series at a later point about materials, textures, rendering, and general appearance.

Spatial composition refers to the arrangement of physical objects in a level. This aspect of level design works complementarily with flow and encounters in the type of levels I’m building, but also with many other variables such as player speed and size, lighting, and more. When laying out physical objects, you may consider whether what you’re designing is more a ‘creation’ or a ‘re-creation’ (terms I use for fictional versus non-fiction or more real-world scenes). This is obviously a spectrum, but early game planning/storyboarding should provide you with enough grounding to build out your levels without losing coherence between them. The level design for MEGAWEAPON is fortunately tied to a lot of real-world-analogous scenes that have easy references for determining layout and player scale. Still, beyond that baseline there exists a lot of room for optimization.

Flow is pretty self-explanatory, but is absolutely tied to both spatial composition and encounter design. How easily can your player(s) maneuver through the level? Is there something about the level that unintentionally impedes ease of control or heavily biases navigation decisions? Is there anything about the level preventing crucial information from making it to your player(s)? Is cover arranged in a way that helps players, either in their tactical movement about the level, or by allowing for more freeform or emergent encounter zones? Granular answers to many of these questions come only from play testing and getting a feel through familiarity of where a level’s sticking points or unpopular areas are.

Beyond static objects that may impact this ease of movement, we eventually want to incorporate area-denial elements to level design as well. This might include environmental player damage hazards, automated traps or turrets, or various other methods intended to force meaningful and tactical decision making in a split-second.

For shooters, cover can be considered essential. Even a cactus in an otherwise barren desert can act as cover, but without this element, a typical shooter loses practically all appeal in my book. Cover doesn’t just enable emboldened offense; with the right cover placement decisions, a level designer can determine where the majority of encounters take place, the average size of specific encounters, how long an encounter in a certain area might last, and other direct gameplay impacts. Though there are many types of cover, the two primary definitions represented in MEGAWEAPON are hard full cover (versus half — only relevant with tactical crouching) and some soft cover. Hard cover will block most if not all projectiles and all players from passing through, whereas soft cover acts as a visual obscurement the player and projectiles can pass through, such as tall grass. The latter tends to be utilized for ambushes or sometimes even as a personal safe space for you to just grab your ankles while rocking back and forth, sobbing uncontrollably to the approaching storm of unrelenting violence. Either way, getting the balance right here also benefits from knowledge of intended weapon and projectile types as well as all associated details referenced above.

Assault Bae at work

As you might be noticing, there’s much about designing a game level that involves the “intertweaking” of things. There is no default template for fast-paced PvP player speed/level scale, but we have a lot of good experience that helped us find a good starting point to launch from. And Unity™ has an integrated physics system that defaults to Earth’s SPHERICAL gravity with standard unit measurements comparable to the real world. There might seem to be a lot to learn in making any game that hasn’t been made before, but this is the process for beginners and seasoned pros alike, and I believe it to be one of the primary reasons you see so many engineer types get comfortable in a career of game development; there’s just something so satisfying about solving problems in the pursuit of creation.

This series will continue with a related post, so keep an eye out. Thanks for reading!

What my boss think I do, but it ain’t