Hi, I'm a game dev student and I'm going to create a 3D Puzzle Platformer for my thesis. Can you give me some tips on Level Design? I've played lots of those kinds before, but now I feel like I know nothing about them. Thank you in advance.
Let me preface this by saying that level design is a really deep subject, and that there are plenty of people who spend their entire careers working on the concept of level design. There is no way I’m going to be able to cover everything you’re going to need to know, so I’ll just try to hit some valuable core techniques and principles in my experience and hope that it helps. If you aren’t sure about something or have more questions, feel free to ask further.
#1. Provide opportunities to use the mechanics
Games are about teaching the player how the mechanics work, and then letting the player use the mechanics to have fun. You want to give the player an opportunity to use the new mechanics you give them in a way that makes sense. You always want to start by giving them the most obvious way to use a new item, skill, power, or whatever. Make it as simple as possible, and do it at least three times to help hammer home how it works. You want to make it feel familiar to them so that they will be able to recognize when they can use it, and when they cannot. Repetition makes things familiar, but too much repetition makes them boring.
When plotting out the critical path to your level, you want to mark where they have to use a game mechanic to progress. If they aren’t using the mechanics enough, you’ll want to add more opportunities to use them.
#2. Give players things to do. Keep it varied.
Avoid making players use the same mechanic multiple times in a row unless you’ve just introduced it. Try to keep a good mix of things to do by revisiting old mechanics as well as using new ones to keep things fresh. Start by constructing a critical path, and then mark points along the path where the level design might branch out and offer additional ways to get through. Not every level needs these options, but you should have them available to give players some choice and a sense of agency. Choosing which mechanic to use to overcome an obstacle is an excellent way to do this.
Make sure the players don’t go for too long without doing something, but don’t make them have to do things constantly either. That can cause player fatigue. Vary it between segments with a high number of things to do, a low number of things to do, and just rest times where the only thing to do is walk around at their leisure, preferably with something interesting to just look at.
#3. Always draw players forward through the level
Incentivize the players to progress by showing them new things, preferably in the direction you want them to go. Bright lights, shiny objects, interesting colors, notable contrast in environment to where they are, treasure just out of reach, and even obstacles are your tools for this. When they enter a new area, they should never feel confused as to where to go. There should always be at least one clear option for where to go next. If there is more than one path, they should be easily visually differentiated.
Remember, bright colors and lights will attract people. Dark colors and dim lighting will repel people. Moving objects will attract attention over static ones. Flashing lights are very hard to miss. Audio cues are another excellent avenue to notify a player that something is going on. Use these to your advantage to draw people through your level.
#4. Not every reward needs to be obtained immediately
Dangle rewards for the player in front of her in highly visible ways, but don’t always let her immediately obtain them. Sometimes they should be rewarded for making it this far, but other times you want to tell them “you should remember this place and come back later”. It’s an excellent way to showcase different use cases for a particular game mechanic that you’re in the process of introducing. Remember that a reward should only be given if she has done something to earn it - used the mechanic, solved the puzzle, traversed the level, etc. Getting a reward after completing a challenge is one of the things that makes players happiest.
#5. Create opportunities to showcase mechanical synergy
After teaching the player how to use a mechanic at a basic level, build on it by making her use that mechanic in conjunction with other mechanics. It encourages her to explore how the different game mechanics interact with each other, which adds depth to the gameplay. You can utilize options like timing, location, scale, or other such things to add new variations that the player may not have explored.
#6. The player should be able to see a clear goal at (almost) all times
Even if a player is in the middle of something, there should be a clearly visible place that he wants to go next and a way to go in that direction. Getting lost is super frustrating. Not knowing where to go is super frustrating. You (usually) want to keep frustration to a minimum. Give the player something to head towards so that, once she is done exploring the current area, she knows where to go next.
#7. Theme is important
When you create a level, you should have a theme. It could be an ice palace, a dark dungeon, a seedy waterfront bar, a high tech office building, a military base, or any of a number of other things. Your visuals should match the theme, because the theme will help fill in the little gaps and details you may have forgotten or overlooked. A robot factory can have enemies that move mechanically, but an amazonian jungle would not. An ancient ruin might have climbable ropes and statues, but they’d probably seem out of place in a shopping mall. Try to pick a theme that works with your mechanics. It is easiest to get immersed into a game when both gameplay and theme work together coherently.
#8. Playtest, iterate, playtest some more
Get people to playtest your levels. Give them the absolute minimum of what they should know to play the game, and then step back and take notes. Bite your tongue and do not offer help or suggestions. If they get stuck and ask for help, give them the minimum necessary to pass where they are stuck. Observe and note what is working and what is not.
Where are the players getting stuck? What are the frustration points? What are they enjoying? Write it all down, let it rest for a little bit (a few hours to a day, to get a little distance), and then start analyzing and thinking about possible solutions. Try your new changes out and repeat the process. If possible, get testers who have never tried your game before. Pay close attention to what they try, and note what things seem intuitive to them. Is there any way you can take advantage of that intuition? Do you need to do something to discourage it earlier?
These are the main concepts I try to look to when I am creating a level. They have each served me very well over the years, and I hope that you can see why they are important guidelines. Good level design isn’t easy to do, which is why you see people making their entire careers out of it. I hope that this helps. Best of luck with your thesis!