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Level Design in Video Games

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Could you imagine playing a video game with no quests, no
dungeons, no goals, and no world? Why, that would be a rather sad game to play,
I think. Core requirements of games this day in age definitely involve quests
and level design. Both are vital to gameplay, immersion, and game
cohesion. Today I am going to tell you a
bit about level design (as one is needed for the other to be successful) and
different ways to go about level design.

What are Level Design and Quests?

I have three simple words for you: Designing of spaces.
That’s exactly how to define level design. It is the combination of physically
designing where a player character will go in the over-world, as well as
dungeons/temples/caves etc. that they will explore during their quests. Speaking
of quests, I will give a brief definition: An event the player must overcome,
solve, or otherwise conquer to receive a reward. This reward can be
materialistic or simply further advancement into the game. It is important to
have obstacles for the player to solve or conquer to make sure that questing is
actually an interesting and enjoyable experience.

How is Level Design Accomplished?

It is important to understand that level design is very much
a part of immersion and, even if the rest of the game is on par, bad level
design can completely deter someone from playing your game. Something I have
learned through my few years of game design is that you will never notice
miniscule details that make an engaging game atmosphere, but you sure as heck
will if they are not there. Your mind is used to certain things – for example:
A subway station in New York in my mind is dirty, full of people, loud,
advertisements covering the walls. Each person has this pre-determined image of
every type of person, place, and thing that they know about. If you make a
subway station set in New York with pristine white walls, hardly any people,
and quiet as death, your player will immediately pick up on the things that are
not present that their mind is otherwise used to. This is vital to remember
when adding, ‘fluff’ (extra stuff to make things look occupied or otherwise
detailed) to your level.

Core mechanics are also an element that must be put into
account when level designing. The actions that you can perform as a player are
the core mechanics. Usually, they are the verbs of the game, such as: run,
jump, shoot, climb, bite, etc. This happens to be where quests tie in as well.
Through the use of core mechanics, a player character will complete quests. To
accommodate this, keep in mind the idea that level design’s purpose is to test
the player’s abilities with core mechanics. This concept I learned from my
Professor, Jeff Howard, in his book
Quests:
Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives
. A prime example of
level design can be taken from the movie Inception. The ‘Architects’ represent
level designers. It is their job to build the world around the other peoples’
abilities on the team (core mechanics). If you’ve never seen that movie,
definitely go to YouTube and search for a clip of Cobb recruiting Ariadne to be
his new architect. Not only is her end design innovative, it also demonstrates
iterative level design – quickly making new designs and scrapping the old to
find the best fit.

Macro Level Design

Macro level design is based around the over world. Types of
things that you will be designing are the placement of countries, cities,
towns, as well as bodies of water, mountains, or any other terrain that might
exist inside your world (Howard). A widely known example would be
Skyrim – most of its terrain being
mountains and snow. This is something to be sure to make consistent within your
world to prevent confusion unless you have a valid narrative reason why out-of-place
terrain is where it is. Quests come into play with the terrain as well. In
macro level design, obstacles that you will use for quests will include all
different types of terrain such as lava or the arctic tundra.

When designing placement of cities, Howard suggests the use
of hubs. The main city being the player’s first hub, this is where they would
receive their first few quests. As the player becomes more capable, they may
move to other cities that are smaller hubs and are further away from the safety
of the main hub.
World of Warcraft uses this type of design with their cities,
making it progressively harder and longer to travel for quests as you become
more powerful.

Micro Level Design

As one might assume, micro level design is the act of making
dungeons, caves, or other explorable places for players to do quests in. These
areas are specific to certain parts of the over-world and will include
obstacles such as enemies, traps, puzzles, dead-ends, and branching roads. Within
micro level design Howard introduces ascending, descending, labyrinthine, and
mazes (Howard).
Here I shall briefly explain how each works and an example of a game which
demonstrates that type of design.

Ascending:
As the word suggests, ascending design means upward travel. This type of micro design
is nice because the player will
automatically know that they need to continue
upwards if they are in a tower which only goes up. This eliminated the need to
drive your player through the level.
Oblivion uses this in the main story-line
for the Oblivion gates.

Descending:
Opposite ascending, descending is the act of designing downwards. It shares the
same convenience of not having a drive for the player to go through the level,
as it will already be known to them that they need to plunge deeper to
continue.
Dante’s Inferno is the best
example of this, as you travel deeper into the pits of hell to save your love,
and it is clearly known descending is the only way to progress.

Labyrinthine: Labyrinths
are known to have only one solution. This is representative of games with
linear progression. There may be many pseudo paths to follow, but only one will
progress you within the game. The first twenty hours of
Final Fantasy XIII exhibit
this type of level design, being very linear. Remember: linear gameplay is not
bad, but it must be accented with explorable paths to create the feeling of
choice and adventure within the player.

Mazes: Much like
labyrinths, mazes have many paths. The difference between the two is that mazes
have more than one way to be solved – sandbox or branching dialogue games.There needs to be a bit of a driving force
here, that can be implemented with different types of quests, and there lies
the importance of quests within games.
DragonAge:
Origins
does a great job with maze design. Not only are you allowed to
travel where ever you wish on the over-world map, but once the four main quests
have been given to you, you may choose the order in which you do them.

In Closing

As an integral part of game design, it is important to know
the basics of level design. The information I have provided are just the core
bits of knowledge used to make a decent level. The best way to synthesize this
type of information and learn more is to ‘actively’ play video games – playing
while paying very close attention to details. Note the things you don’t like,
the things you do, and reasons for both. In my experience it is most fun to
play games you already have before while doing this. Give it a try, you might
be surprised to see what types of details keep you the most engaged.

Source: Howard, Jeff.
Quests: Design, Theory, and History
in Games and Narratives
. Wellesley, MA: A K Peters Ltd., 2008.

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Our Verdict

Mariah Beem
I am very fond of video games, which is why I chose my major of Video Game Design with focus on Narrative. The idea of being able to make people feel the way I do about games through my own game is my main goal. I want to be able to give gamers a way to connect and be brought together by an experience that could be powered by elation, sadness, or even fear. It is emotions such as those that hook people into games and make them want more. By connecting a well-thought story with mechanics, character design, level design, and even audio, a game can be unstoppable - and ridiculously fun to play. I believe that narrative design is not a static thing. For narrative to be done well, it must be fluid and dynamic - something that is able to be changed by the player. Whether that be by choices, the knowledge the player gains from exploring, or simply who the player talks to, the story must bend and change and grow. This is why I want to be a narrative designer: there is definitely more to it than meets the eye, and I love a challenge.

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