Since I’ve been working on my game a lot as of late (let’s just say I’ve been on a very tight deadline), I thought it would be valuable, mostly for myself, to write down how I design levels so I can have a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Every person has their own preferences, techniques, and “unique” ways in which they go about this so please take this with a grain of salt, especially since I’ve only made one finished game. Now, let’s dive in.
First off, designing levels will obviously depend on the game’s genre. Since I’m currently working on a puzzle game, this design process will mostly pertain to that but it may very well bleed into other genres. So, since I’m making a puzzle game, the first thing I decided to use was graph paper. Before this I just prototyped in the game engine itself, but several months back I found that designing your levels on paper is actually a lot easier since you’re able to quickly iterate and erase/insert things on the fly versus in-engine.
The image shown above is a picture of me thinking of an interesting mechanic for the first area of my game. Every level in the game is 11×9 tiles (it’s a grid-based puzzle game), and each tile corresponds to a square on the sheet. I found this to be immensely useful because you can choose what exactly goes on each tile, and the movement of these objects can be expressed with simple arrows (at least for my case). On average, it takes me about a day to design 8 levels. Then after that day, I spend half a day going over it and making sure the puzzle solving meshes thematically with the corresponding area. If I’m not satisfied, I just throw it out and start the area’s puzzles again. To be frank, I feel very lucky when I stumble upon a good level. So I guess the moral of the story is to leave luck to heaven, and make sure to give thanks to your muse! (I totally didn’t copy those phrases from other people)
As far as I know, there’s no “formal” way of going about this. I think up of interesting mechanics and write them down. I model them, write out the details, and then draw them into my 11×9 level grids. One of the hardest parts is object placement, which can take hours depending on how the player will interact with them. Once I have a solid mechanic, I realize, wait, this is actual shit. So I erase it and think of another. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. I scoured the web to find anything related to puzzle design because every time I design puzzles I feel like I’m shitting in the dark (is that a saying?), but unfortunately I came up dry for resources that would help me out. So in the end, it’s a lot of trial and error and even then I don’t fully know if the mechanics I have on paper is a good until I implement them into the game.
The above picture is a completed puzzle (after about ~4 iterations). The amount of iterations wildly varies. Sometimes you get it on your first try, other times you get it on your 11th. I think the average amount of iterations per puzzle depends on the context of the puzzle, but I do believe that you can decrease that amount by creating more puzzles and gaining experience. Or go to a game design school. BAHAHA just kidding.
Well, writing this out has helped me out quite a bit. I rarely write blog posts anymore, and I want to change that. I plan on formally announcing TV King when I have a solid prototype and I’m aiming at the end of July. I literally haven’t put out a game in 3 years other than prototypes, so I’m excited to be close to finishing an actual game. I’ve also been working on a little 2D game engine, but I’ll leave that for another post. Until next time!