Thomas King

Level Design Blog

Developing my Rule book (#1)

Recently, while I’ve been finalizing the content of my portfolio and throwing myself into every GDC level design workshop ever made, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the methodology I employ in my work. So, I thought I’d write a small piece dedicated to how and why I choose to use certain theories and practices in my designs and why I believe, if you’re starting out as a level designer, you should do the same! This is somewhat inspired by  Dan Taylor’s GDC talk - Ten Principles for Good Level Design.

Side note, these may seem relatively basic to some of you and I get that! But, I think that a lot of juniors (myself included) need to recognize that understanding the rules and methodology utilized in your own work is an extremely important process to go through. This will help you to gauge an idea of how and why you design levels in the way you do. In turn, allowing you to continue improving and adding new strategies to your arsenal of design (I wish I’d done all this on day one, would have saved me a lot of time).

Disclaimer - These rules are not for everyone or every game! These are personal to the way I develop spaces and things I want to use in the styles of games I hope to develop for in the future! If your making a procedural 2D side scroller or similar this list will not apply to you (Or it might who am I to judge!)

Rule 1 : (Verticality) ‘You see that up there…’

Way back in my first year of university when I was getting into level design, all of my concepts used a BSP cube spaced out as a large, flat floor with maybe a few buildings. I look back and cry! Although, yes, you could say I used verticality because it has 2 floors at different levels, in reality, the space looks unnatural, was boring to play and got scrapped immediately. Reflecting upon this gave me the incentive to find out why. Why is it that, if you build a space in this way, all these things occur?

How often are spaces flat in reality?
If you live in the real world with roads, people, that sort of thing, generally no space you see is absolutely flat. There are hills, bumps, cracks, indents and so much more that make up any scene you look at. So, if you are wanting to create a world in game that’s somewhat realistic why would you not do the same. Creating a more natural space gives the player prior knowledge and experience of a space, letting them explore the level in the same way they would in reality.

Levels of power
One of the critical things I believe in human psychology is viewing things at different heights leads to a very different results for how the player feels and reacts to different circumstances. Below I’ve detailed my hypotheses as to how and why this is. I’ve then detailed how I believe these space can be used effectively.

  • Underground

    • I think if you stick the player below ground level it leads to a sense of claustrophobia and negates any sense of power. A simple explanation is that naturally as humans we aim high and this can be seen by the most powerful member of a company sitting at ‘the top‘. Aiming high is something humans do so sitting a player underground gives a sense of scampering about, like rats, and can be used to create this sense of danger in games.

      A good example of this I’ve seen recently is Sekiro. It has the player go underneath a house to overhear a conversation. At this time the player has no weapon and if spotted will be killed. It uses the environment in this way alongside the lack of weapons to highlight your characters vulnerability within the situation.

  • Ground floor

    • Sticking a player at ground level creates a sense of regularity. It put them in a frame of mind where they are no more or less powerful than those around them because they all sit on the same plain of existence. This is also the most natural position a player can sit at because generally day to day people walk around and view things at ground level.

      A clear example of this is if you look at multiplayer FPS levels, and more specifically their spawns. As a rule of thumb, spawns should sit at even heights to begin with in order to create a sense of an even playing field. Have you ever played a  multiplayer level where you were fighting entirely uphill against your opponents throughout the fight? No, and why? Because it would feel unfair, placing you on the back foot every time you spawn.

  • Above Ground

    • Finally I believe from a psychology sense, if you place a player above ground, it gives them a sense power and control. I think this is because it allows them to see larger quantities of the map, including paths , escape routes, allow them to plan attacks etc. It gives the player a psychology advantage and therefore can be used to promote these ideas in gameplay.

      A game that has always done this well is Assassins Creed. I remember chasing and tracking people who were on the ground whilst I sprinted across rooftops and it made me feel like an absolute boss! Recently, they’ve introduced the eagle as a mechanic for the player to view portions of the map without having to physically go into it. This is incredibly cool and adds to this idea of control and power with the ability to plan out routes and kills before they even happen.

      Another game that deserves a call out is Dishonored 2. I recently watched a video (Click here to watch) where a guy reviewed the level design in Dishonored and showed that wherever you spawn, 9/10 the players can teleport to a rooftop or ledge. Whether this was a pillar of design they used I don’t know, but it’s absolutely fantastic and adds so much to the game in terms of route/escape planning.

Employing verticality from both a composition and mechanical perspective vastly increase the players enjoyment and experience of a space. Therefore its why I use it as one of my most key rules when I designing and would argue every level design should do the same.

Rule 2 : (Micro-Tutorials) ‘I didn’t know this could do that…’

Recently I watched a video from GDC video (Click here to view) that talked about how Zelda uses micro tutorials in dungeons to allow the player to master a weapon/tool before they're allowed out into the main world to use it. This is something I did unknowingly in ‘A New Tomorrow’ on a smaller scale and when I actually consider this further I believe it a vital piece to any design.

I made considerations for my latest personal project (Click here to view) with this in mind. The gameplay is based on the latest Hitman games and to any of you that have played this you will be aware that Hitman has a variety of tools and disguises that he can pick up and use throughout playing.

Now, I believe the ‘micro-tutorials’ should sit in a nice neat game loop immediately after anything is acquired. For example, the introduction of disguises is absolutely critical to design philosophy of Hitman so straight from start point I’ve placed a guard with his back turned in a location far from any other guard, this alleviates any lasting consequences if the player messes up. The player can then sneak up and be prompted to use the Garrote, introducing them to this mechanic and showing how it should be used in an idealistic way. Secondly, when the player has incapacitated the character, in this case an infantry personal, there prompted to steal there clothing as a disguise and dump the body in a cupboard directly behind. By leading the player into this space immediately from the start point I’ve introduced them to 3 mechanics which they’ve then completed and mastered in a safe space so they can now employ them throughout the ‘actual level’.

I believe every game that features mechanics and tools the player can use should have a very localized safe space to trial and give the player confidence in the tool. Then, once mastered, set them free into the ‘real game space’ with no question on how to use said tool.

Rule 3 : (Self Evaluate) ‘Whys that cube there?’

If you read any of my projects pages you’ll know I’ve got a section called ‘The Whys’. This is something I’ve recently started to do with all my work and its thanks in part to Jeff Gange @JFGnorD (Check him out he’s great!). He did a small twitter thread explaining that level design as a discipline is all about the reasoning behind decision of design in a level. This is something I, and others, often don’t consider thoroughly when starting out and design a level sub consciously thinking about the design space rather than making it a number one priority.

This may sound incredible simple in principle but as I said something everyone ignores when starting out. As soon as I started asking myself why am I placing everything where I am, why is the scene composed and why are these AI here in etc. my work became functionally so much better and dramatically deepen my understand for what makes levels tick.

For example, I recently critiqued a few levels friends had made for an FPS game there making and the questions I continually asked were ‘The Whys’ and alot of the time they wasn’t a clear reasoning behind decision they’d made. After this, they both went away and made small changes based on creating reasoning for laying out spaces like they had and the maps played and they were happy for it (They also vowed to never ask for my critique again!). Hence its an absolute must for me when designing any space.

Rule 4 : (Global & Local Marking) ‘Look a mountain…’

When I delved into the world of game dev twitter I discovered some incredibly useful tips and tricks from a number of super talented people. One of the key takeaways I’ve had from this is the use of global an local makers in map design. I’ll quickly outline what they are then explain why I believe there so important and why I’ve added them to my rule book of map design.

What are Global & Local markers?
Markers on there own significance an area of importance that the player will or should encounter throughout the progression of the level.

Global markers outline the final destination the player will encounter within the game world rather than current area. My faviroute example of this is God War. From the very beginning, they use the mountain as a key story component to show the final destination and keep it completely visible from wherever you are in the map (whilst in Midgard). Global markers also bring the whole player able area together because they often sit at the last point in the map creating a very linear start and end point.

Local Markers outline areas of significant that sit within the current reachable environment. Again God of war does this very but for the sake of variety a game that also does this is The Last of Us. The use buildings, signs and rubble to push and guide the player around the level. There often always are used for narrative pathing and are vital to help keep the games flow consistent for the player.

Using markers, both global and local, help bring the seen and world together, incentive's the player and create clear pathing. Thats why I believe there so important to most but especially narrative style games (What I hope to go into eventually) and should be used consistently to really bring a game to life.

As I said before these things may not apply to you and you may totally disagree with me and thats fine! But as a baseline and a topic to start my blog off with I thought it would be interesting and I hope to add more rules to my list as I move forward with research and my career!