Challenge Design

The focus of today’s lab is to start thinking about your level design. In the past, we had students make a level design document in order to make their level ideas concrete. However, you already have a lot of work to do in this class, and this document was heavy on the designer just when you need art assets for your game. Therefore, we have demoted the level design to (two) communication labs this semester.

The main thing you are to do in this lab is to brainstorm building-blocks. for your level design. We called these design patterns in the level design video, and we review them below. We ask that someone take notes or sketch these ideas while the lab is ongoing. While you will not turn in anything for a grade, we will be holding a critique session on the following day (Wednesday) to review your work.

While this is going on, the TAs will be circling the room and occassionally giving their own feedback on your discussion. If anything is unclear about this assignment, or the document in general, please ask them. They have been through this process before (some of the TAs have done this multiple times).

Table of Contents

Building Blocks

A building block is a mechanic/challenge pairing that represents a single something that the player must overcome to solve the level. It is not the entire level, but only part of the level. Most levels are a sequence of building blocks. Sometimes, building blocks are put on top of each other so the player must overcome them simultaneously. But either way, the key to level design is understanding your building blocks.

To give you an idea of what we mean, consider the following storyboard from the 2014 game Beck & Chuck. In this picture, the player has to make it past a missile launcher. The missile launcher is placed at a choke point, restricting the players maneuverability. So the player must either destroy the launcher or time his/her actions very carefully.


When building blocks appear in a lot of games, they get called a design pattern. Many of your favorite genres are defined by their design patterns. Here are a few examples:


The classic design pattern for a platformer is the high-precision jump. The gap between two platforms is so large that you must make a running jump just as you reach the end of the first platform. Jump to early (or stop running before you make the jump) and you will not clear the distance. Jump to late and you fall off the first platformer.

Another design pattern are monsters and mobile hazards. Goomba-stomping aside, most monsters in platformers are to be avoided. The challenge is to time your jump to make it over the (moving) monster.

When you combine these design patterns together, you get a particularly insidious challenge. You have to jump just at the right time to make it across, but avoiding the monster may cause you to jump to early or break your timing.

Stealth Games

The basic design pattern in a stealth game is cover. Guards cannot see you while you are behind walls, crates or other obstructions. You therefore need to move quickly from cover to cover so that you are never seen by the guards.

Stealth games also have patrol patterns. This is a loop that the guards make about the level. You learn this pattern, and take advantage of it to keep your player actively out of the line of sight of the guards.

Good stealth games combine these two patterns together in a single level. You move to cover to keep from being seen. It is only safe to come out of cover when the guard moves away from the open space between you and the next cover position.

Cover Shooters

As the name implied, cover shooters also use cover as a design pattern. While enemies can see you behind cover, they cannot hit you with weapons either. Of course you cannot hit them while in cover either. So the challenge is to come out of cover at just the right time to hit another enemy.

Cover shooters often have an arena layout as part of their level design. This is a design pattern to keep the player from “turtling”. Cover only protects you from one side, and in an arena, and enemy can flank you behind the cover. So these two design patterns combine to force the player to move about the arena.


We want you to spend this lab time coming up with building blocks for your own game. We do not want complete levels; we want simple challenges (or pairing of challenges) that you will later use to build your levels. A good indication of whether a challenge is a building block is if you can sketch it in a single storyboard frame.

To give you some idea of what we are looking for, here are some building-blocks from semesters past, when we still had the level design document.


Winner of Most Polished Game in the Spring 2014 Showcase, Dash does an excellent job of designing a complex level from building blocks. While this is a complete design document, including tutorial levels, you should focus on the intermediate level. Notice how they isolate each challenge and then chain them together to make an interesting level.

Black Friday

The audience favorite in the Spring 2014 Showcase, Black Friday has a very different level design that the other games. Instead of static obstacles, its level design is about controlling crowd density. Once again, this is a complete design document, but you should only focus on the intermediate level.


The winner of the Spring 2011 Showcase, Blush presents its level design as a sequence of frames, with each frame focusing on a single platform. While we never see the entire level all at once, we get an idea of how they fit together.


The winner of the Winter 2011 Showcase (2011 was an odd year), this document from Reflexio is a sketch of several short level ideas. While there is no single level that puts all of them together, this document does a good job of illustrating the design style.


Level design is an iterative process, and we would like to give you some feedback early on in the process. Therefore, the lecture immediately following this lab is a critique session. There is no official document for level design, so this is one of the main times you will get any feedback from us outside of your milestone demonstrations.

In this critique, we will pair you with the other group. You are to remind the other group how your game is played. You will then present the building blocks to the other group. But do not tell them how to overcome the building block. Remember, design is about constraining the other player, not telling the player want to do. The other group should brainstorm ways that they can solve or get around your build block. Use their answers to determine if your building blocks are really that different from each other. Once you have presented all your building blocks, the two groups should swap places.

You have a lot to do this week if you expect to finish alpha release in time. Therefore, we are not expecting you to do any work outside of lab. Finish what you can in lab today. On the day of critique, bring whatever you finished. If the blocks are incomplete, that is okay. But please make an effort to complete as much as possible during class.