"Beginner's Guide to Designing Video Game Levels"
This tutorial from Mike Stout has nothing to do with Microsoft but everything to do with game development. If you've ever wondered how to get started building your game levels, this is a must read...
In this tutorial, I'll explain how to design levels for video games, based on my experience as a designer for the Ratchet & Clank, Resistance, and Skylanders franchises. I'm not going to dive deep into individual concepts, but rather give an outline of the high-level process I use when designing a level.
I'll walk you through an example level I'm creating from scratch, so you can see typical results from each stage of the process.
- In Step 1: Understanding Constraints, I'll walk you through common limitations I always look out for while designing levels.
- In Step 2: Brainstorming and Structure, I'll show you how I decide what goes into a level.
- In Step 3: Bubble Diagrams, I'll introduce you to a visual method for outlining what goes into each area of your level.
- In Step 4: Rough Maps, I'll talk about how I flesh out each bubble from a Bubble Diagram to figure out what goes into each area. I could write an entire series of tutorials about how to do this, so we'll only go over the basic outline here.
- In Step 5: Finishing the Design, I'll talk about moving on from your basic design to create final spaces. This is also a huge topic that could be further explored in a series of tutorials, so for scope I'll keep this very basic.
1. Understanding Constraints
At the beginning of a design, the hardest part is figuring out what is going to be in a level. As a designer, you get to decide a lot, but you don't always get to decide everything—especially if you're working in a large team.
On a large team, most of your constraints are going to come from other people. There will be business constraints, franchise constraints, audience constraints, legal constraints, engine constraints, and so forth. Most of the time, these restrictions come from far away up the chain.
Closer to you will be the constraints applied by the vision of the creative director, art director, and anyone else involved making decisions at that level.
If you're working on your own as an indie, you're the one who will be making these decisions, so you still need to understand your constraints very well.
2. Brainstorming and Structure
Coming Up With Ideas
Once I'm clear on my restrictions, I start brainstorming. For example:
- We want a lot of interiors, so I decide this will be an underground base.
- Helicopters get into the base via a long vertical shaft, so I'll start the level at the bottom of one of these.
- The bad guys wrecked the place coming in, so the place is torn up. Several of the areas should be wrecked.
- I want to do combats with enemies at differing heights, so I want to have at least one really long stairwell fight sequence.
- This is not a real level design, so I'm going to make it absolutely linear so my examples in the article are as clear as possible.
- And so on...
. Bubble Diagrams
Before I commit a bunch of time and effort towards making a final design, building something in-engine, or even starting to think about individual areas, I always want to have a sense of the overall level and how it flows. This keeps me from making mistakes and having to rework my designs as much.
To visualize the whole level and how its areas are connected, I make a Bubble Diagram.
4. Rough Maps
Flesh out Each Bubble
Once I've got the Bubble Diagram finished, we know what's going into this level, and we know how each area is connected each other area.
The next step is to run down the list and create a rough design for each bubble. I almost always do this on paper or in Illustrator, because that's how I learned, but I know a number of great designers who do this kind of thing in-engine to get a better sense of the space. Whatever makes you work fastest is best here.
Below, see an example of what one of the bubbles (specifically Bubble 3: Tight Corridors) looks like after I've designed it out on paper (top-down):
5. Finishing the Design
This step is when I finalize how all the areas connect to each other in physical space. All of the transitions are completed, and I've finalized the heights and distances of everything.
Different designers do this step in different ways. A lot of designers like to dive straight into the engine and build this stuff out, which is great. My preference is usually to finish the 2D map, since I tend to be a bit slower than most when constructing levels in-engine and this speeds me up. The best way will be whatever makes you work faster and makes your end product better.