The Level Design Document

How much is too much?

4 years ago, when the only thing Unreal to me was how my MP3 player could hold more than 20 songs at a time, I have struggled to understand the concept of a level design document. To this day, after 2 degrees and a handful of industry design documents, I still do not fully understand what a level design document should contain, and whatever information is found between the Red Bull stained pages, how much detail should be included?

Design after design has had either too much or too little information and I’m starting to lose faith that there is a middle ground of hope in this minefield of the term “flow”. If there is, please, throw me a metal detector. Now of course there are two sides to this story, isn’t there always? So I’ll start by dissecting to the two and giving each side a chance to weigh up the pros and cons battle. Firstly, we’ll start with what information I think should always be included in a level design document.

Where is the game?

A wise man (A myth from the UCLAN game design studio) nailed this phrase home every time a ‘know it all’ second year handed him a game design which failed to include a game. We’ve all fell into this unforgiving trap of thinking a quick top down sketch of a potential level passes as a level design. We are wrong to think this and therefore get snagged in the trap until the wise man comes along with his plastic sword and goatee (are you painting a picture yet?) and rescues you from the zone of 40%. Analogies aside, this is a very dangerous thing for a designer to do when designing a level. First things first we need to establish what happens in the level. What are the epic moments? Does this happen in any other levels? If people say “the level where that badass thing catapults you off the ground into the tower thing where you kill 100 demons before somersaulting into a bed of straw”, will people know that was your level? Start by compiling a list of key events, things that are unique and awesome to your level. This will give you a good foundation to start your design. So where is the game? If you do not know what happens in your level then find out before you start putting portholes to hell into Spyro the Dragon.

Pace yourself

Pacing is important, even your girlfriend will vouch for that. Once you have the ‘key events’ list sorted your now ready to tackle the design. I would still suggest laying off the graphics tablet, mouse or indeed pencil if anyone can remember what those led based instruments are until you have thought about the pacing of your level. Too many designers brush over this as if it was an insignificant crack on the windscreen with the mentality “no one will notice”. We will notice, and your level will transform into a sponge for fun, soaking up gameplay left right and centre. A way around this can be one of two ways, two of two for all you eager game designers. A time pacing chart, such as the one shown below, can give instant visual feedback about exactly what is happening in your level and the intensity these events are going to provide. Now, for all you mathematicians out there, this is not an exact formula, but it works. It allows you to think “oh, there’s too much jumping in this section, if I save it for a later part of my level it will break up repetitious game play and add variation ” in which case you can pat yourself on the back and grab a cold beer, preferably not in the workplace, of course. Pacing is everything and using a core set of mechanics multiple times but in varied ways is the secret to good level design.

Dad jokes can only get you so far

Another way to pace a level was, as far as I’m aware, invented by Wise Man number 2 (not in hierarchy for disclaimer reasons) . This method works in second year games design at the University of Central Lancashire, and continues to work once you’ve thrown your cap into the air never to be seen again. Games can become complex pretty quickly and if you don’t keep tabs on what the player is doing in each section, pacing can pick up momentum and before you know it pass GO picking up £200 for the trouble and turning your title from ‘Game of the year’ into another Dynasty Warriors. A way to avoid this is to create a list of your core mechanics. This, for most genres of games will include jumping, running, walking, triple back flip into a plie whilst counting backwards from 100, you get the idea. You then create a list of secondary mechanics, these are things that may be specific to your level, say you have an underwater section where the player is pulling triggers, that would be included here. And thirdly, you include Events. These are things that we have mentioned previously, if something badass happens, write it in this column, if not, then rethink your design.

Once you’ve compiled your lists, hopefully not leaving the chubby kid until last, you can then start to turn it into some kind of flow. Number your core mechanics 1-50,000 or however many you have, and give your secondary mechanics A, B, C values and use mandarin when out of the English language, game designers dig that.

Now comes the tricky part, you need to walk through your level in your head thinking about what the player is going to be doing in the different areas of your level. This is more of a visual tool so I’ve decided to paint a picture with a 1000words, see the badly drawn image below. Adding a time scale value for how long you think each section is going to take is a good indicator for how many minutes of gameplay your level will consist of.

It is completely up to you which method you use to pace your level, you may even have your own way of achieving similar results. But in all cases you must think about the pacing of your level otherwise players will get board very quickly and instead load up Call of Duty in their vertical disk trays when they have 5 minutes to spare.

In a similar way to a beginners attempt at a level pacing, my word count got pulled out from underneath my caffeine fuelled fingers and I lost track of time. I will use this eagerness as a badly placed cliff-hanger and write about the ‘detailed’ side to a level design document in Part II, hopefully being posted in the near future.
I hope that people find this interesting as I feel there are a lot of useful tips in there that I use when creating level designs and hope you feel the same.

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