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Level Design - Balancing function and aesthetics

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by zeman97, Oct 27, 2014.

  1. zeman97

    zeman97

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    I have always enjoyed level design, every since "forge" was released in Halo 3, I've been trying to improve my level design ability.

    However I run into a constant problem, balancing function and aesthetics in the same level. I usually just end up with a primarily functional level that has no aesthetics or I end up with a good looking level that plays horribly.

    How do yall handle the task of level design? (More specifically for shooting games)
     
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  2. PJRM

    PJRM

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    My own experience:
    I worry about the mechanics of the game first! Only after it is running straight, I worry about touching the design.
    One thing at the time.

    Hope this helps.
     
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  3. TonyLi

    TonyLi

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    ^ I'm going to contradict myself with those three words. In a recent thread, I said I read Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design once and never went back to it. I'm going back. :)

    Schell's thesis is that you're ultimately designing the player's experience. This strikes me as a good criterion to evaluate level design. First identify what you want the player to feel -- reckless freedom in a wide open environment? Rushed, paranoid scampering through claustrophobic tunnels? To me, the latter suggests dark, tight corridors, low ceilings, maybe slimy, echoey, and dripping, with lots of ambush spots. Looking at it this way feels like it ties mechanics and aesthetics together -- the aethestic is functional and fits with the intended gameplay.
     
  4. RJ-MacReady

    RJ-MacReady

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    I made 40 levels for a game where you slide penguins and ice blocks around called Puzzling Penguins. It's free on your local app store.

    After a few levels I started realizing that it was quite limited. I asked the original programmer if he could add more penguins, turns out it was already a supported feature he had just never tried it.

    I tend to design levels based on a theme. Going in a big spiral, backtracking, thinking outside the box, trying something unlikely to work even though it's obvious, team work, etc. I like to make the player feel like "oh... duh" when they solve the level. Maybe it's my smart ass nature.

    I think you start with the feeling you want them to have when they finish, and work backward from there.

    This causes you to find ways to stretch the boundaries of what is possible in the game beyond your own original understanding.
     
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  5. TheSniperFan

    TheSniperFan

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    Shooting games?
    As far as level-design goes, I think we can all agree on something:

    I highly recommend you (or anyone really) to play the Source mod "Underhell". It has some of the best level-design I have seen in the last couple years (on top of being f*****g awesome). Instead of relying on quest-markers, the levels guide you to your goal naturally. If they don't, it's on purpose and you're suppose to explore the environment.
    If you decide to give it a shot, make sure not to quit during the prologue. Compared to Chapter 1, it's nothing.

    Man, to me Underhell is what Deus Ex is to others. As soon as I start talking about it, I get the urge to reinstall it another time. I must resist though. Once I get my Rift and this game gets Rift support....boooooy. I'm not going to leave my room for a couple of days. :D
     
  6. PJRM

    PJRM

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    Between these 2 topics there is the "Game Design Document". I always make up it before start working on it.:)

    Everything: the mechanics, aesthetics are both described on it! So i work on the mechanics thinking about the aesthetics. but only start working hard on aesthetics after the the mechanics are over. To me... it's like an dependency. Without mechanics, aesthetics won't work properly.:p
     
  7. TonyLi

    TonyLi

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    I agree regarding gameplay design. (I'll add that iteration -- a willingness to test variations and update the GDD -- is the key to ending up with the best general gameplay mechanics.)

    For level design, on the other hand, I think Schell nails it. He did, after all, help design some high profile "levels" (rides) for Disney. My takeaway from The Art of Game Design is to start with a clear concept of the experience (for me, a specific feeling* -- paranoia, power, cleverness, etc.) you want to give the player. This guides the level-specific aesthetic and mechanical design so they support each other, leaving the player with a feeling that the level just works right.

    [*EDIT: "a specific feeling" sounded vague and hand-wavy to me at first, but I realize now that it's a fairly concrete criterion. Say you want the player to finish the level feeling clever. Instead of throwing a random tunnel or a tower into your level "just because," you can look at each element and ask, "Will this help the player feel clever?" If not, maybe it doesn't belong. Or, from the other end, you can brainstorm elements that will help the player feel clever, such as a catapult that they could get creative with, lobbing monsters or themselves over walls; this suggests walls layouts that support using the catapult. I think this works better than making a generic gray-box level that plays cleanly and then trying to "texture map" emotions onto it.]
     
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2014
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  8. TonyLi

    TonyLi

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    James Shasha just posted "Thematic Level Design in a Non-Euclidean Space: Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor" on Gamasutra. (I'm pretty sure Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is being made in Unity, BTW.) This stood out:
    This strikes me as a good, concrete example of starting with a primary experience, and letting it direct both aesthetics and mechanics.
     
  9. zeman97

    zeman97

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    Sep 22, 2012
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    One big issue i have is with the prototyping stage, how much should the level be complete? Just cubes, untextured objects, or simple textures, any effects? Its hard to explain but i dont know where prototyping should end.
     
  10. TonyLi

    TonyLi

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    I hear you. My vote would be to prototype the bare minimum necessary to convey your intended core experience. This will vary based on the experience you want to convey. For the Moroccan bazaar Shasha mentions in his article, to me this would convey the feeling with a minimum of effort: a high-walled maze of cubes, all with a single Moroccan rug texture, lots of wandering capsules to represent people, and a looping audio clip of a crowd. The rug texture conveys the vibrancy of the environment. This would be a quick prototype to implement, allowing it to get in front of testers quickly before you've invested a lot of effort into scene details. For another scene, maybe textures wouldn't be necessary to convey the feeling, and you could gray-box everything.
     
  11. RockoDyne

    RockoDyne

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    Usually level prototyping is just for flow and to give you just enough to test play in it. https://www.assetstore.unity3d.com/en/#!/content/11919 is a decent enough tool just so you don't need to use only cubes and colorless objects, but at the same time not taking up all of your time.
     
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  12. Deon-Cadme

    Deon-Cadme

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    You should always consider game-play first but that doesn't mean that the artistic side have to suffer form it in any way.
    Single-player and Coop games is all about the enjoyment, you only have to walk make sure that every area adds something to the game experience. One area might be meant to give the player a chance to take a deep breath while a another area is designed to house a conflict or push the story forward etc.

    The time when level design becomes critical is in PvP games. A small mistake can unbalance the whole experience for all participating players.

    I typically begin a new level with pen and paper. It must have a grid and you need to decide what the size of each cell represent in the game engine. It is very common among level designers to define each cell in the grid as 1 x 1 meter.

    The next step is just to get your idea as fast as possible down on paper before it disappears. Don't think on balancing and I would recommend that you take a look at blueprints for a method to represent different constructions and objects.

    Now comes the iterative process, I would recommend that you make a copy of the last iteration so that you can make as many notes as you want without destroying the original.
    • Look at the paths - How far can the fastest character get if he continuously take the most effective path? Typically, a PvP map got certain locations where you want the different teams to end up meeting for the first time. You can easily determine the meetings points by counting the squares... Oops, one team only got 12 squares to point A while the other one have 28! One team will definitely pass that point before the other team reaches it... re-size areas of the map or add/remove content. You can finalize this by counting meters but that is a bit tiresome and should only be done when you feel certain that you might have a working map.
    • Look at the layout and ask yourself if a player or team have any obvious advantages? I generally start by just looking at large structures like walls -> then all the windows -> all the doors -> all the objects that can be used for cover. Add or remove things to balance the level and remember that people tend do dislike being shot when they round a corner, give them at least a meter or two before they can be taken down.
    • Finally consider the weapons and skills, especially ranged weapons like sniper rifles can wreak havoc on the level with their extreme range. Consider how a sniper sits at every position that give him cover, look at the location that he can fire at and ask yourself if his opponent will have a chance to notice the sniper or take cover when he gets shot at.
    Copy, draw and repeat as many times as you need to, consider different strategies like rushing, camping and so on. What if the players split into X groups that take one path each or if everyone moves together? Is there a way for players to move between the meeting points to provide reinforcements to their friends and so on. You can add paths that give players huge advantages as long as they come with something negative as well.

    When satisfied, the next step is called white-boxing. The idea is to build a fair representation of the level as fast as possible for in-house testing. Use primitive objects, finished assets from other levels that will be repeated are okay.


    This image from Google of a white box version is a good example of what something can look like during early testing.

    Just play the level, note down areas that doesn't work like expected or stuff that brake the balance of the game. Colors can be useful to indicate objects that can be broken, interacted with etc... its a good idea to develop a color guide for your studio and friends that participate in tests. Red = brakeable (maybe a few different shades to indicate states), Yellow = interactable etc...

    Go back to the drawings if you find big problems, adjust, update the level and play again.

    The next step is to dress the level when it is working. Replace the primitives with real assets for the game. Make it pretty, give players indications for which areas they can reach and which are closed. Add lights, consider the possibility that the latest god-ray might block the view of something important etc.

    More play-testing and changes.

    Finally comes optimization when you have gotten fairly far. Walk around the level and check the frames per second. Make sure that no player will have a frame drop if they stand at a certain location and looking in a specific direction. Make changes when necessary. This can even be introduced at an earlier stage if you got big, open levels.

    This is just a very short version but I think that I covered the major points... :confused:
     
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  13. XxbuddieizrealxX

    XxbuddieizrealxX

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    I would like to know what would be a standard level size for PVP FPS shooter. Like, on a scale. How large should I be considering this level's play size in my inspector/transform? Keep in mind I'm coping Destiny type PVP;););)
     
  14. TonyLi

    TonyLi

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    It varies by game. Some games are open world, so they go on basically forever. PUBG's maps are ~8km x 8km to fit all the players. CSGO's maps are much smaller. And of course it's not the size that matters but how you use it. This is an old article but still very good: Designing FPS Multiplayer Maps.
     
  15. XxbuddieizrealxX

    XxbuddieizrealxX

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    Lmao @ "not about tha size but how you use it"
    Thank you, I needed both tha laugh and tha information...
     
  16. newjerseyrunner

    newjerseyrunner

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    Jul 20, 2017
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    You can always add aesthetics. Perhaps you're quite limited with Forge (love Halo, but never used Forge) to what you can do, but with Blender and Unity, you should be able to make whatever you want assuming that you have the artistic skill.

    Most levels start with zero aesthetics. When the Halo 2 Map Pack came out, it was released with a documentary of how Bungie made the new maps and in it you can see that they are developing and testing without any textures or recognizable shapes at all. The level designer would place boxes, then the artist would go in and turn them into a Covanent ammo crate, or a pallet of fuel...

    I like it because it gives you infinite freedom with iteration. I like that if I discover that I want a ledge one block higher or lower or a a new corridor, I can just go into Blender and alter the mesh, replay it, and repeat. Without worrying about aligning textures or rebaking a UV map.