The Art of Level Design by Sash

Of all of my time spent on Mr Runner there is one thing which takes up most of my time – designing the levels.  I’d like to share a few lessons I’ve learned about level design that I think are really valuable.

1. Work out the feel of your game

Sounds simple, but its not. Mr Runner isn’t just a platfomer, it’s about conserving speed and momentum. Super Meat Boy is about very precise death-evasion. Knytt stories is about exploring. These are all platformers that have very different feels.
It’s important that you get a feel for your own game. When you work it out, this feel will be the root of all your levels. You’ll keep asking your self, does this level feel the way I want it to? For example, every level in mr runner you can do quickly by conserving momentum.

2. Only design levels that fit that feel

When I opened up Mr Runner 1 to the public, I let them design their own levels. Of these, only a handful were fun. This is because Mr Runner requires a very specific style of controls.

In Mr Runner, the controls are designed to be fun when you jump large distances, conserve momentum, time jumps perfectly, make big wall jumps. They aren’t designed to deal with very precise movements in small areas, stopping and starting, or waiting. The level design had to reflect this. It was never cramped, never required anything to finicky, and instead included large flowing movements that let you keep up your speed.

Put more simply, the game was never difficult because the controls were difficult. At all times, the player should feel as though it’s their fault they died, and this is almost entirely up to level design.

3. Every level has a unique theme

Its no secret that I’m a huge fan of Super Meat Boy, I have A+ the entire game and died more that 22000 times. Part of the reason that I love it so much is that every level is different while maintaining the same feel. Every level has something specific that the player has to do or learn, and no two levels look the same. Each level has a “theme”.

Now take a game like League of Evil, which claims to be the “Super Meat Boy” of the iPhone. I thought it was fun, don’t get me wrong. That being said there are 60 levels and it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. They use the same mechanics in the same way, with slightly different level lay outs – now you have to go Left, not right!

4. Keep it interesting

The player should always feel like they are progressing through the game. One of the biggest mistakes you can make when trying to achieve this, is to throw in a whole lot of levels without introducing any new mechanics.

In Mr Runner 2, I introduce three new mechanics over the 15 levels of each world and in the first world I introduce even more. Players will never have to sit through more than a few levels before they are faced with something that challenges them in a new and interesting way. Typically once a player feels like they’ve experienced all a game has to offer, there is very little incentive to keep playing. If the first level has all they’ll ever see – their patience will wear thin.

5. The WOW factor

There should be at least one bit in every level which makes the player feel awesome. A bit where they literally say outloud “that was cool”, even if no one is around to hear. The bit they want to tell their friends about. The bit they feel like a bad ass for surviving.

Let me give you some examples from Mr Runner: it’s when you first do a slide, when you fall really far and the screen begins to shake with speed, when you’re tossed and miss some spikes by a hairs breadth, when you boost for the first time. If you can’t fit a “wow” moment into every level, at least reward the player every few levels – thats why they’re sticking in there.

6. You are not your players

Don’t assume just because you find / don’t find a level fun, everyone will feel the same way. By the time you finish designing levels, you’ll be so good at the game that you’ll be missing out on an entire section of the learning curve. People’s experience when they first start playing will be very different to your own, so make sure you test it on fresh meat – people who haven’t played it for hours on end. Chances are you’ll need to make your game a shit load easier.

7. Start with a vertical slice

When you sit down to design a level for the first time, you want that level to reflect how the entire game will feel.

Starting at the beginning will force you to design it to be easy, and you’ll have to drop bits which will make it fun later on. Instead, try starting half way through. This will let you design a level which is in total harmony with the feel of your game, and you’ll quickly pick up on what is involved in making this harmony happen. Basically, aim to create a level which summarises why your game is fantastic.

8. Build yourself a comprehensive level editor

Building a level editor can be a chore, but not building one makes designing levels a chore. By making the best level editor you can, you’ll be saving yourself time and pain in the long run. Also, don’t feel afraid to come back and fix it up whenever you need to. After designing my level editor, I decided it needed an undo feature – so I put it in. I also wanted to have it auto save to clip board when i pressed s – so I put it in. These ended up saving me loads of time in the long run.


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