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Keeping Your Players Engaged - Tips for Great Game Level Design

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Game level design is vital for establishing the story of your game and keeping your players engaged. Bad level design can ruin the overall game no matter how flashy the effects are or how detailed the models look. If you have poor level design, no one will enjoy playing your game. Let's go over some tips you can start implementing into your next project so your game levels will keep your players wanting more. It doesn't matter if it's a simple 2D mobile game or a next-gen shooter, level design is paramount. It is so important that in many game production pipelines, level designers are specialists who's sole purpose is to create appealing levels that move the game forward in a fun and challenging way. Whether you are creating the next greatest sci-fi shooter or a simple adventure 2D side scroller, you need great level design. Look at the Call of Duty series, one of the most popular video games to date. If you've ever played one of their multiplayer levels, you know there are specific areas on the map where you are bound to find one or two snipers hiding out, waiting for someone to run by. You also know where on the map most of the action occurs, the hot spot where the players flock to. There are also specifically designed pathways and areas for flanking and other maneuvers. These levels haven't been thrown together with detailed objects tossed about the map and flashy effects added to increase appeal. Instead each one of these levels has been designed from the ground up, each offering different choices for the player in such a way that the action never stops, and the player isn't confused by the level design. Plan out Your Levels Planning out your levels is the first and most important step in creating a great level design for your game. It can be tempting to go in and start placing random assets, corridors, rooms, enemies, etc., from the built-in library a lot of game engines come with. In order to create a level design that keeps the player engaged, you need to give it much more thought than that. You need to think about how this level moves your game forward. Where does it fit within the story arc? Plan out exactly where you want the player to go and the best way to get there. Are there different routes to take in order to get to the same result? What kind of options does the player have? These questions can help determine your level design. Once you have the plan for your level established, you can start building the level in the game engine.   Lead Lead the Player A good level design will lead the player, but won't give them all the answers. The player wants to feel like they are figuring something out on their own, but it also shouldn't be too difficult where you leave too much up to the player and it only becomes frustrating. You need to find that fine line of player discovery and level design influence. For instance, you can lead the player where you want them to go by having paths in that direction or have that area on the level more interesting. There could be an area where a light is illuminating much stronger or a more interesting piece of scenery, something that catches their eye and urges them to discover more. A simple example of this would be having a giant tower surrounded by enemies off in the distance. Chances are the player will want to explore that area, and quickly realize that is where they should be going. This is much more engaging to the player, instead of having simple instructions telling them to go here, kill that, and pick up this.   Scenery Vary the Scenery Find places in your level where you can vary the scenery. No one wants to see the same building 50 times, just in a different location or level. You can create a four-sided building, each side with a different look and texture to it, and display it at different angles to make it look like a different building on each level, instead of having the same one repeated over and over. In the same way, try avoid the copying and pasting of assets in your level. As the technical capabilities of the hardware games are played on increase, so do the expectations of the player. They anticipate seeing a variety of assets, all appearing different from one another.   Reward Reward the Player If you have an area in your level that looks important and there is some type of challenge to reach it, you should be rewarding the player, whether it's a little extra ammo, health, etc. This is especially true if you have areas on your level that don't really require completion in order to finish the level. This could mean a room with extra enemies that the player can choose to enter or not enter. If the player wants to go the extra mile and accomplish everything possible on your level, reward them for it. A lot of hardcore gamers like to replay levels and search every possible area to see if there was anything they may have missed so don't disappoint them by not giving them something for spending that time. A great example of this is in the Halo series and the hidden skulls in each level that, when acquired, unlock some type of ability for the player, whether it's good or bad. Each skull is very difficult to find, but it greatly increases the replay factor for each of your levels when a player knows there is an Easter egg hidden in each one.   Test Test the Level Another very important step to creating a level design is to have a strong testing phase. Get other people to test your map, and don't give them any pointers! You know your level inside and out so find people who have never seen it before and have them play through it. If any problems occur, take notes and adjust your level accordingly. Are there too many enemies in a room? Or maybe too few?  You also might see they're having problems figuring out where to go. This is the best way to determine if your level is working how you want.   Take a look at levels in games that you've enjoyed playing and ask yourself, "Why?" What made them good, and how can you accomplish the same thing? Level design is extremely important for the success of your games, but can be a difficult thing to master. Try implementing these tips into your next level design project to help you create even better levels. Keep learning about more ways to create better game designs with our Unity tutorials, UDK tutorials and CryENGINE tutorials.