It’s rare to find a game where concepts like space and territory don’t play a pretty gosh-darn important role, but often people get too caught up on rules, enemies, and fun explosions to pay attention to some good ol’ level design. It is by no means something that’s easily mastered, but here are a few basic pointers that can help any beginner do their job a lot better:
Know that level design is everywhere
Action platformers such as the Castlevania series and puzzle games like 3D Logic rely on level design to shape encounters and (with the latter) drive lesser mortals insane. This fact is nice and obvious, but other kinds of games rely just as much on good level design – even if the link is more abstract. Branching options in text-based interactive fiction can be considered “level design”, and even chess serves as a good example of countless game scenarios emerging from one initial layout.
Any game which is considered spatially driven (no matter how tenuous that declaration may be) can benefit from good level design. Be mindful of this.
Less is more
As the G-man once told Gordon Freeman: “The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.” When designing your own game, everything you lay down needs to be a potential Freeman: if you find yourself putting three spike traps into a narrow corridor, ask yourself whether you can achieve the same effect by placing just one instead. Always ask yourself which elements in your current level setup are game changers, and which ones could just be considered “spam”.
Sure, it may not sound like a problem right now, but every extra element that you place in your game has the potential to confuse or bore. Make players jump over a pit of lava? Cool! Make them jump across a hundred identical lava pits? They’ll probably come over to your house with a sledgehammer.
Go ahead and read or play anything to do with Anna Anthropy. That’s minimalism in action, and it works.
Place everything with a purpose. Everything
What’s the backbone of good level design? Enemies, pickups, and obstacles? Actually, it’s the stuff we don’t think about, like the placement of a single, inglorious wall tile. In this respect, the Megaman games are astoundingly well-designed: obstacles, ladders, cover, and platforms are all precisely placed to account for jump heights, enemy movements, firing arcs, and a whole combination of mind-boggling situations that make the difference between a newbie failing horribly and a veteran winning at everything forever.
A fascinating take on the idea is included in this blog post about reviving Road Rash which explains how its unusual use of the environment makes it a superior game. Think out of the box more. Better yet, think about the box itself.
A word in parting
Level design, as mentioned earlier, is a complex field – use these rules as a generalised starting point, but once you feel that you understand them, start breaking them! Discipline is not necessarily the same as limitation: if you feel a creative urge, go with it and see what happens.