I've had a blast working on The Legend of Trykon this week -- building levels has always been my favorite part of video game development. I wanted to explore my level design process a bit more deeply ahead of the game's release!
My Level Design Framework
I’ve got a bit of a formula that I use when designing levels. I wish I could remember where I first read about this technique because it has served me very well over the years. The formula goes as follows:
1. Break down the mechanics of your game into their atomic elements.
2. Create some sort of scenario or puzzle involving each mechanic by itself, to introduce it to the player.
3. Introduce the mechanics in various combinations of increasing complexity.
So for example, if you had mechanic A and mechanic B — create a puzzle involving mechanic A to introduce it to the player, then create a puzzle involving mechanic B to introduce it to the player, then create a puzzle where you need to demonstrated an understanding of both A and B together. By no means do you need to follow this formula exactly — but when trying to lay out the basics of a level or when trying to brainstorm new ideas, I’ve found it to be a very useful framework.
I really need a name for this — I guess for now I could call this technique “Mechanic Combinations”.
So I applied the Mechanic Combinations technique in The Legend of Trykon. The first step of this framework is to figure out what my mechanics actually are. Well, as I broke them down, I saw the core mechanics as this list:
1. Pressing switches to make something happen.
2. Falling into a hole and having to restart a room.
3. Using keys to open doors.
So if we take a look at that list and we use the Mechanic Combinations technique, maybe we could map out our level in this kind of way — first, we introduce each mechanic:
First room: Have a door that can only be opened using a switch. player needs to understand the switch can be pressed.
Second room: Have a narrow walkway that the player has to navigate. Make it precarious enough that it’s reasonably likely they’ll fall in. Now they know what happens if they fall in a pit.
Third room: Put a locked door near the entrance to a room, so the player knows they need to hunt for a key. They navigate the room and open a chest which contains a key, and they unlock the door.
Now that we’ve established these mechanics, we start to devise rooms that use them in combination:
Mechanic 1+2: Player needs to navigate narrow pathway to a switch, which then creates a bridge to the exit door.
Mechanic 2+3: Put a treasure chest at the end of a narrow walkway, and have the player navigate to get the key they need.
Mechanic 1+3: Hide a switch in a room that contains a locked door — and then have a switch which causes a chest to appear. Inside that chest is a key for the door.
Mechanic 1+2+3: Have a switch at the end of a very narrow walkway which creates a bridge to a second narrow walkway with a second switch. Pressing the second switch generates a chest with a key.
And there we go! Now we’ve got ideas for seven different kinds of rooms. By no means do we need to include each suggestion, nor do we need to put them in this specific order — but at least now we have seven atomic building blocks in terms of ideas to work with.
Another thing that Mechanic Combinations are great for is assessing if your game is complex enough mechanically — if you’re struggling to identify viable or interesting scenarios, maybe your set of mechanics isn’t complex enough. For example, looking at the above scenarios, to me they seem like they don’t really have enough variety or intrigue — a lot of the tasks revolve around navigating narrow pathways and finding a switch, which may not contain enough challenge to make the levels interesting to the player. After looking at this list, I made the decision to add more complexity, which motivated me to implement pushable blocks. I also decided to introduce enemies to increase the challenge. But this at least gives me a good starting point to make these decisions.
You can also adjust for the difficulty of each of these stages — for example, you could make the solution to a certain puzzle less obvious by having a switch in one room affect the state of some object in another room, or have the player complete an objective for a key that they have to then remember to use elsewhere in the dungeon. This technique is meant to be flexible -- it's most a brainstorming technique, a starting point which you can then tweak for the specifics of your game.
Now that I’ve outlined my process for designing rooms, you can probably see elements of this technique in the actual levels of Legend of Trykon: once you enter the first room, you’re introduced to enemies. If you go into the left room on the ground floor, there’s a big narrow-path setup with a switch that needs to be pressed. In the right room, there is a small statue-pushing puzzle. Then, later on, once you’ve found some keys and unlocked some doors, you can find rooms where understanding multiple mechanics at the same time is a requirement.
This idea of Mechanic Combinations might seem a bit basic or obvious once it’s laid out, but I find myself returning to this framework of thinking time and time again when I’m brainstorming levels or puzzles. I hope some of you find it helpful! And if you have any thoughts to add about how you brainstorm levels, I’d love to hear about it!
That’s all for now! I’m going to work on polishing up The Legend of Trykon and I look forward to sharing the results soon. I'll be back tomorrow for my recap article for The Legend of Trykon!