So I've been reading Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans' Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design, and I want to share a little tidbit in the book regarding level design that I’ve found helpful, particularly in structuring design goals and evaluating design decisions.
Adams and Dormans propose that there are two different perspectives when designing a level-that of challenges or of layout. In the challenges approach, the designer focuses on building a hierarchy with groups of short-duration challenges combining to form larger challenges (229). The idea is for the designer to define the tasks that the player must accomplish within the scope of the level. According to the authors, this perspective makes it “easier to think about pacing and difficulty curves” (229). Creating higher pace would mean allowing the player to complete a succession of tasks in a short amount of time, and ramping the difficulty curve could translate to having a more complex hierarchy made up of nested tasks.
The layout approach focuses on defining the architecture of the level itself (229). This goes beyond simply the aesthetics and includes considerations for how the player may traverse the space. The authors suggest that this perspective makes it easier to think about the storytelling and atmosphere (229-230). How the player should feel and their emotional journey become a priority over the level’s mission. For example, when designing a level for a horror game, it is critical to examine how the level builds and releases tension, an integral part of the horror experience.
Creating a “perfect” level requires tight collaboration between both sides. If the focus remains purely on the challenges, the space can become extremely linear and uninteresting or even unrealistic. The same can be said for focusing purely on the layout as having a lack of objectives strips out the interactivity of the game. What works best is when the two sides can reinforce one another, like in Metroid or The Legend of Zelda. One way to do this is to create the level space first then layer the objectives on top (layout -> challenges). The other way to do this would then be to create the tasks first, and then map them to a space (challenges -> layout). The important lesson here is to prioritize the perspective that is more vital to the game and, more specifically, to the game’s genre.
Having the due diligence to deeply weigh and implement both perspectives will require a good deal of creative energy but will result in great levels. And just like how a great film is really just a collage of great scenes, a great game is a collage of great levels.
Recommended look: Chapter 10 of Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans' Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design.