Guidelines for Paper Level Designs


Created by:                   Level Designer 


Approval:                     Senior Designer/Game Producer


Level designers should do storyboard versions of level designs before they begin creating the levels in the editor/game engine. Ideally, the designers will be familiar with the design palette, the level editor and game engine capabilities before they get started. Game level designs are created during the production phase, though they are based off of level design seeds expressed in the functional specification. These seeds are the core idea for the level and/or the basic requirements that may indicate what new assets are being introduced or what to limit the design to. It’s best not to do all of the paper designs at once, either, as the designers usually learn while implementing each new level.


The benefit of a detailed paper version is that it forces a designer to think everything through and express the fun and challenges before he or she implements it. It also ensures that the details that may involve more tasks for programmers, artists and sound technicians get documented and scheduled for completion before the designer begins working on the level.


For early levels, create a playable, prototype level first. It’s important to ensure that the tools and game engine are working well enough to develop levels. It should also serve as a guide to what can be accomplished with the editor and engine and epitomize the vision for level design. Following the first playable mission, level design can start in earnest.





The process of level design that works:


Step 1: Create a Level Design Database


This database needs to hold all information relating to each level, both text and graphics. Initially it will contain only brief level info from the Functional Spec and the level design seeds. As level are designed and completed, the database can be updated – this is important for consistent level design.



Step 2: Thumbnail & Discussion


The level designer conceives of a level layout that meets the requirements laid out in the functional specification and asset revelation schedule. He or she then produces a thumbnail sketch and discusses the concept with the lead designer. The thumbnail should be on a white board or a note pad. It is a visual aid in the discussion. It does not need to convey the entire idea or all the details for the level, as these often evolve during the discussion or get tossed out altogether.


The benefit of doing a thumbnail sketch and discussion rather than forcing a designer to first think everything through and document it is that it saves time. A senior or lead designer can in a matter of minutes determine whether a proposed level design has merit and give valuable advice that can drastically alter the design. A fully detailed and documented paper version can take days or even a week to put together. Depending on the skill of the designer, a designer might get sent back to the drawing board many times. This is especially true near the beginning of the project, when the designer is still learning what the lead designer / producer wants, and near the end of the project, when original, compelling level concepts are harder to come by.



Step 2: Detailed Paper Version


With an approved thumbnail and level concept, the level designer can work on a detailed paper version of the level design.



When completed, the lead designer, producer and any other principal decision-makers should subject the paper design to an approval process. They may approve it, throw in some changes, or decide to completely redo the level.


It’s also important that someone technical, preferably a senior programmer, review the paper design from a technical standpoint. This gives the programmers a heads up on what the level designers are going to attempt to do with the tools and graphics engine. They might add some features to the tools or make some code adjustments to make the level possible or just easier to implement.



Step 3: Creating the Core of the Level


The designers should establish the core game play of the level using broad strokes. They should get it to the point that it gives them the fun and challenge they envisioned in the paper design. The designer should then get feedback from the lead designer and producer, who will determine whether the level has merit or not. It may indeed prove impossible to accomplish what the paper design suggested, or it may prove to not be as fun as was expected. This is simply a review point in the level design that saves the designer time should drastic changes need to be made or the level dropped entirely.



Step 4: Filling in the Finer Details


Once the core game play of the level is established, everything else should just make it better. These are all the things that establish the setting, flesh out the level, and liven up the fun by providing more options, solutions, or surprises. Often new art or code assets may seem appropriate, so be sure the designers find out they can get them before putting placeholders in. Then update the paper design and task lists.



Step 5: Play Test


Have the designers play their levels and get as much feedback as possible. Be sure they keep track of all their bugs, feedback and tasks – these needs to be added to the level database.









Level Description Template


a) Level Name


1) Describe the level in referential terms that everyone can understand: "Blade Runner Metropolis",

"Spider King's Lair", "Atlantis, Third Stage (Waterfall)".


b) Environment


1) Appearance

2) Geographical features(Main and Sub-Areas)

3) Inactive (Background)

4) Active (Foreground)

5) Puzzles/Traps/Environmental challenges

6) Key area for artwork

7) Maps may be helpful

8)Team members who will be working in this area, and their specific duties. Include necessary technological implementation.

9) Production art


c) Main Goal of Level


1) Explains the purpose of the level

2) E.g., "Pascal needs to navigate through the Hellhole to rescue Auntie Garfungiloop, so she can give him the Jeweled Monkey's Head."


d) Level's Relevance to Story


1) How the results of the player's success or choices in this level affect the overall story (particularly in a game with a branching storyline)

2) How the level, and the events portrayed within, fit into or advance the overall story (contextual placement)

3) How these story elements are related to the player(through dialogue, in-game events, or framing cinematics)

4) Keep track of subplots


e) Characters/Enemies Encountered


1) Conversation/Dialogue

2) Nonpayer character actions

3) Attack moves

4) Physical Appearance

5) Brief character sketch

6) Relevance to Story

7) Technical description

8) Key area for artwork

9) Team members working in this area, and their specific duties. Include necessary technological implementation.

10) Production art


f) Actions/Animations Specific to Level


1) Explicit actions performed by main character to accomplish level goal(s): defeating a boss,

discovering a recovering an artifact, special abilities granted by powerups, etc.

2) Explicit actions performed by other characters in the level.

3) Terms like "run", "jump" are insufficient. It is important here to describe how a character jumps, and what he looks like while doing so

4) Team members working in this area, and their specific duties. Include necessary technological implementation.

5) Production art


g) Music for Level


1) Technical aspects(event-triggered, Redbook Audio, etc.)

2) Desired effect on players

3) Purpose of music (e.g. background ambience, tension building, or clue supplying?)

4) Team members working in this area, and their specific duties. Include necessary technological implementation.

5) Production art


h) Sound Effects for Level


1) Level of Realism

2) 3D aspects of sound

3) Hints provided by cues (e.g. T-Rex-shockwave thuds getting louder as something approaches) or sounds that result from certain actions (e.g. hollow sound resulting from shooting a false wall)

4) Scripted dialogue

5) Background ambience

6) Team members working in this area, and their specific duties. Include necessary technological implementation.


i) Items per Level


1) Powerups

2) Weapons

3) Any other items that the player can interact with—pushed, climbed, thrown, switched, clung to, hung from, triggered, blown up, ridden on, eaten, examined, etc.

4) Key area for artwork

5) Team members working in this area, and their specific duties. Include necessary technological implementation.

6) Production Artwork