Areas are where players interact with environment, story and gameplay. They require solid planning as they are among the most expensive — if not the most expensive — pieces of the gameplay puzzle a designer is assembling.
Here are some tips to help apply foresight to the level design process and (hopefully) minimize costly revisions.
All areas should have a purpose. Whether it is for players to grab the Statue of Awfulness or fight their way to rescue the disgruntled prince, there should be something happening. An area that the player just walks through with limited narrative or advancement purposes is a waste of resources. Determine the primary purpose of the area (the core mission the player undertakes there) and also think about secondary purposes (i.e., is this an area that the player can return to to harvest crafting components?).
Think about who (in the context of the game world) built the area. How long ago? Has it been abandoned or has it been used continuously?
All areas should also have a theme. This is the set of emotions that you hope a player experiences while in this area — i.e., horror, wonder, amusement. It is sometimes helpful to think of the area as the story of a character or a group of characters, those who built it and lived in it. What did they experience? What actions did they take? What implications are there for players who now explore the area?
Basically a great way to plan a strong area is to think of the area as a character. Design both in similar ways. Build a storyboard of pictures that match what you think the look of the dungeon should be (or if you have the talent, sketch examples). Place colors and monster pictures and map snippets on the storyboard. Really build a feel for it so that the designers and artists who make use of the area later can really understand what you want them to build.
Work with programmers and artists to understand some of the limitations of the area before you push too far ahead with planning. If you need the area to host huge battles involving large numbers of creatures, it might require simpler geometry (because more runtime resources will need to devoted to the creatures), or maybe even a more limited set of textures than you’d ideally like. Once you’ve identified the limitations build up a creature palette to go with the storyboard you made, highlighting the kinds of critters that this area should generally use.
A good way to get a feel for the flow of an area is to sketch a map (this is really essential to provide whomever is building the actual area with context). This sketch (and by sketch I mean something hand drawn and scanned, or something painted digitally, or created in Visio, or however you like to work — as long as it can become a digital file that can be placed with project documentation).
The sketch should include not only the physical layout but quick descriptions of what the player will encounter in the area. This is a cue to the level builder so they realize that the valley you added is more than cosmetic (i.e., it is a goblin ambush point) or that they cannot place a mountain where you’ve indicated the cyborg patrol will be. As you sketch consider how long you want the player to be occupied in the level and consider all the logic you worked out in the previous section. There is a lot of ability in the actual laying out of an area to dictate length of travel time and player engagement. The artists will change much of your area but the core flow, as you communicate it to them, must stay the same.
Some examples of flow types:
- Straight Line. The area is a linear path, usually carving through gorgeous terrain. Not a good idea for a role-playing game but effective in shooters or highly cinematic experiences where the designers need to have full control over where players will be when particular events occur.
- Winding. The area winds back and forth like a snake with little branching. It can be a good choice for a filler area, one in which you want to maximize the player’s travel time on the map.
- Repeat Offenders. This is a complicated form of area design in which this area is the end or start of many other areas, with the player only able to fully explore the full map through exploring other areas. Generally this kind of map occurs in fantastical settings — the player is able to see other portions of the area but access to them is blocked by material obstructions (water/air/et cetera) or magic. They need to backtrack into other areas to get access to those forbidden portions.
- Branch and rejoin. The area is basically linear but will have optional branches that once explored rejoin the main route.
- Wide Open. Just like the real world this type of area is free for the player to explore in any way that they want. To avoid confusion there should be numerous landmarks that are visibly from distances so that players can always orient themselves.
In writing traditional narrative young writers are often encouraged to consider the excitement level of their scenes and to try and stagger action scenes with slower paced scenes. Likewise when planning areas some thought should be spent on balancing out the different area types, especially in linear games (or linear sections of a game). For example having three winding dungeons in a row can get tiresome — and make some players question your creativity. Try to mix and match which types of areas players will experience in a row.
When evaluating your area look at simple ways you can enhance the impact of the overall experience. If this is a dungeon that is meant to be frightening consider adding a door that locks behind the player when they enter a particular area. Simply knowing that they now have to find a way out will add suspense. The audio work for an area can really enhance this aspect too — hearing footsteps in the distance, loud splashes, and hushed whispers can freak out a player.
Depending on the type of game you are making, consider whether this area needs puzzles and if so, what kinds make sense based on the other decisions you have already made. The goal here is to provide entertainment and minimize player confusion. Think about both the logical reasons behind the puzzle being constructed in the first place (say a gate) and the ways in which a player might try to solve the puzzle (how to open the gate).
When possible present obstacles before solutions. That is, if the player has to open a massive gate showing them the chains they need to use to manipulate the gate before they even find the gate itself can be confusing. Obviously there will be exceptions. A madman’s dungeon might intentionally disobey this rule, in this case as the designer you are intentionally trying to make the player confused. Just be careful that you don’t succeed too thoroughly.
It is (not) all about Gameplay
The area has to serve a purpose. And has to be fun. But it is also an environment and many players receive enjoyment from ‘seeing cool and new things.’ Don’t dismiss this. Consider places to have scenic views and discuss this with the artists. Having some sharp looking lakes that the player can admire or a break in a mountain pass that allows them to look out at the plains below or allowing them to watch the sun set on an ocean beach can really add punch to the game. Reflective moments, as long as they are few and effective, are important.
Consider creating a set of tools wherein non artist types can build their own levels. Having designers or more junior artists able to assemble levels, especially in role-playing games where exploration is a key component, can extend the game’s length and allow post release content to be generated more quickly (and with less expense). The upfront cost on this can be huge, but it is worth evaluating whether it is a good fit for the project.