In this ongoing series, I’ll take you behind the scenes into how I designed a level, to hopefully teach something about level design and the processes we use as level designers.
Rovey is a 3d action adventure, in which you have to collect three items on each level to advance to the next level. It takes inspiration from old school 3d platformers like Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie and others.
Whenever I start work on a new game, I always try to see what the design doc/leads’ pillars for the game are, in terms of aesthetic, theme and especially emotion. What is the overriding emotion of this game? Is this supposed to be a difficult game, a relaxing game, a narrative game where the mechanics take a backseat? Knowing that the lead took inspiration from 90s 3d platformers told me that this game could be more challenging to the player, and more focused on action and dexterity, as those games often were, instead of smoothing challenges to make it easier for players as would be appropriate in a more narrative driven game.
This led to the second challenge, which was; what was the unique hook of this level? As this drew inspiration from Super Mario 64, I decided to follow the design template modern Mario level design uses. That template is:
- Introduce a concept in a safe area where the player can fail without consequence.
- Test the player has grasped the concept by having them demonstrate mastery over a dangerous environment.
- Twist the concept by adding in some other constraint, mechanic or ability on top of the base one.
- Finally, discard the mechanic to make way for another one in the next level.
This template aids quick levels designed to be played in 5-10 minutes and provides a variability of challenge.
But wait, I hear you ask, why use a Galaxy era design pattern if the inspiration was Mario 64? Players often equate newer designs with their nostalgic ideas of old games, forgetting the bugs, sharp edges, and past-generation design decisions those games made. This design template reflects a modern players’ understanding of 90’s 3d platformers, seen through rose-tinted nostalgic glasses.
Here is the level when it was given to me by the environmental artist.
Here is the final design I made.
The level lacked interesting player feel and structure at first. I added in a circular flow to the level, so that the player was progressively challenged throughout and then after a mechanical finale, deposited back at his spaceship, where the level could be completed.
For the mechanical hook, I decided to go with flipping platforms, a genre staple. I made a few variables in code to control the flip speed, wait time between flips, and a timing variance, so each platform wouldn’t be flipping at the same time. This allowed me to tweak the platforms enough to create a wide variety of difficulty for the platforms.
The height of the platforms also allowed the player to see the structures in the distance, helping with pathfinding and creating “weenies” the player would naturally move towards.
I knew the player in each level had three magical MacGuffins to find to advance the plot. This gave me an easy mechanical hook, as I could craft three mini areas that progressively challenged the player.
Next I set up my three areas, following the design template. Here is my first island, where the mechanic is introduced, the flipping chain is short and there is safe ground under the player. There are almost no consequences for failure for the player.
The second set I put over water, with a more complex set of flipping platforms, with one safe zone between flipping sets. This ramps up the mechanical difficulty and tests that the players grasp how to navigate the platforms.
I also put a choice of paths here for the player, something I always try to do when I can. This adds to triangularity, the concept that risk, reward and fun are closely correlated. There is a shorter path that is more difficult, with fast flipping platforms, or a longer path with slower platforms. Safer, but with more opportunities to flub a landing.
Finally after navigating through a set of islands the player reaches the third set of islands. These islands have fewer safe zones, more platforms, and faster platforms. Some of the platforms also move, thus twisting the initial mechanic and adding another degree of interest and difficulty to the original mechanic.
Finally I give the players one last choice- to go the long but safer way back, retracing their steps over the island back to their ship, or to take a much faster but potentially more dangerous route that leads directly back to their ship.
The trick here is that the finale platform sequence is designed to look hard and get players’ heart rates racing as they have to move quickly, but it’s actually not as hard as it looks. After the hard platforming of the third set, I tried to design the finale platforms as a sort of cathartic release, a Nathan Drake, last second, hand-grabbing-the-edge-of-the-train kind of experience. This takes the players back to their ship and ends the level.
Rovey is free and available to play here: https://tfunk.itch.io/rovey.