CS/INFO 4152: Advanced Topics in Computer Game Development

Assignment 12
Level Design Document

Due: Saturday, April 15th at 11:59 pm

The level design document is one of the more controversial documents in this class. It can be a lot of work for the designers, at a time when art asset generation is incredibly important. Furthermore, this document has historically been very long -- longer than any of the other documents. So it became a document that people did because they had to, not because it helped them design levels. This is not unlike the problem the architecture specification used to have (particularly when we required UML or full class documentation).

In recognition of this problem, we have tried to make this document more focused than in previous years. In particular, we will only be concentrating on what was called the intermediate level. Tutorial design is important, but we will leave that to your in-class demonstrations. We want you to be thinking ahead, to the time where your game gets really interesting.

In designing this document, you may wish to refer to the slides on Level Design from class. If you have never done storyboarding for games or software before, you also might want to review the storyboarding design lab in the introductory course.


Document Format

Before you start, the very first thing we want in this document is a restatement of the team’s design philosophy. What are you trying to accomplish with your levels? Do you want this to feel like an action game or more like a puzzle game? Should there be a feeling of tension or should the player be relaxed. Is exploration encouraged, or do you want to reward optimal behavior?

You have plenty of experience with design philosophies by now. This is just more of the same, except that it should be focused on your desires for level design instead of just game mechanics. Just give us 2-3 paragraphs. The purpose of this initial section is to give us criteria that we can use to judge the rest of the document.

After the initial design philosophy, we are looking for three things:

It is acceptable to make each one of these its own high level section. However, if the team thinks it has a better way of organizing the document, we will take that into consideration. Maybe your team will define the format for future semesters!


Basic Patterns

A basic pattern is what Walker called a "building block" in lecture. It is a single mechanic/challenge pairing that represents a 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 basic patterns (and composite patterns). But either way, the key to level design is understanding the game’s building blocks.

For example, 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 player's maneuverability. So the player must either destroy the launcher or time any actions very carefully.

block-chuck

In this section list several basic patterns for the game (at least three). For each pattern, provide a single storyboard illustrating the challenge and an an accompanying paragraph describing the pattern.

We have some examples of basic patterns in the examples below. Think about level design in games that you have played and take inspiration from that, rather than looking at a document for a game you have never seen before. Many of your favorite genres have well-established patterns. Here are a few examples, to help your team think of design possibilities.

Platformers

High-Precision Jump: In a 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. If you jump too early, or stop running before you make the jump, you will not clear the distance. If you jump too late, you will fall off the first platform.

Moving Platforms: The moving platform is a variation on the high-precision jump. The platform you need to read is moving back-and-forth (or up-and-down). You need to time your jump so that the platform is close enough to your current platform in order to clear the distance.

Mobile Hazards: Monsters and platforms rarely chase you. The just go back-and-forth and block your way. Furthermore, 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 or hazard.

Stealth Games

Cover: In a stealth game, guards typically 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.

Patrol Patterns: A patrol pattern loop that the guards make about the level (or part of the level). To move 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.

Campers: A camper is a guard that never moves, and is blocking a location that you need to reach. You must either disable or distract this guard using an appropriate game mechanic.

Cover Shooters

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

Covering Fire: As we said above, you have to come out of cover to hit an enemy. Covering fire is a constant stream of fire from the enemy that forces you to remain in cover. If you are out of cover for too long, you will be hit and die.

Cover Busters: A cover buster is an enemy whose whole purpose is to get you out of cover. A classic technique is to throw a grenade at your current location. The grenade can circumvent cover, and you are given limited time to move away from cover before the grenade explodes.


Composite Patterns

As we said above, a level is often a sequence of patterns. However, the most interesting levels are those in which the player has to overcome challenges in parallel instead of just in sequence. This is the definition of a composite pattern: two or more basic patterns combined together so that the player must overcome them simultaneously.

A good composite pattern should be more than the sum of its parts. Just as we like to see emergent gameplay when we combine player mechanics, we would like for their to be an emergent challenge that can only occur when the challenges are combined together.

In this section, teams should come up with at least one composite pattern. Once again storyboard the challenge. In addition, include a paragraph or more describing the pattern. This paragraph should clearly indicate the basic patterns that make up the composite pattern. In addition, explain the emergent challenge, bringing attention to what is new about this challenge, created by combining the basic patterns together.

This might seem a little abstract, and it is hard to fully describe without seeing it in a document with the appropriate basic patterns. See the first few examples below, most notably Aphelion and Squeak & Swipe. However, what we want is very straightforward if you think about how this works in other games.

Platformers

Forced Jump: In a forced jump, the player must overcome one of the jump challenges. This can be either a moving platform or a high-precision jump. However, the current platform also has a mobile hazard on it. The mobile hazard forces you to jump to avoid it. The emergent challenge is that this forced jump causes you to lose the momentum that you need to jump to the next platform. Therefore, the jump to avoid must be to the next platform, or you will never make it.

Phased Hazards: Many times there are more than mobile hazard at the same time. These are simple if they are all moving at the same speed; you just need to time your jump over each one. In a phased hazard, one of the mobile hazards is moving at a faster speed than the other. The emergent challenge here is that timing your jump for each hazard becomes much harder; there are two different time intervals that you must keep track of and this can break your rhythm.

Stealth Games

Buddy System: Stealth games typically have more than one guard in a level. The AI for these guards may even expect to see one another, and get suspicious when they don't. They definitely get suspicious when they see the body of another guard. The emergent challenge here is that this can make disabling or distracting a camper that much harder. It has to be done out of sight of any guard whose patrol pattern takes it past a camper.

Cover Peeking: While a guard cannot see through cover, it might look behind cover, or even destroy cover that it passes by as part of its patrol pattern. The emergent challenge here is that this puts a time limit on how long you can stay in cover. You have to get out of poor cover before a peeking guard patrols by.

Cover Shooters

Arenas: Cover shooters often have an arena layout as part of their level design. There is more than one cover location, and they are not all facing the same direction. The emergent challenge is that this cover allows the enemy to safely get around to your side and flank you behind cover. Like cover busters, this is a design pattern to keep the player from "turtling.”

Covering the Busters: Covering fire makes it hazardous to move away from cover. Cover busters through grenades (or other weapons) that make staying behind cover dangerous. Putting the two together is obvious. The emergent challenge is to stay behind cover enough to be safe, without staying too long that the enemy forces you out before you are ready.


Example Levels

Now that you have the basic patterns, create some levels. We want three levels: an easy level, an intermediate level, and a hard level. You do not have to have all of your design patterns in each level. The design patterns also do not have to be tuned to exactly the same difficulty in each level. For example, in a platformer, the hard level is often the result of taking a standard high precision jump and making it more precise.

In creating each level, the team should should storyboard it clearly. In addition, annotate which parts of the level correspond to which design patterns. As an example of what we are looking for, consider this annotated level from the 2014 game Dash.

dash-overview

dash-legend

If you have described your design patterns well enough, we should be able to understand the entire level just by looking at this storyboard.

We do want some text accompanying the storyboard for each level. In this text we want you to argue why you believe this level is easy, intermediate, or hard. But we do not need much description of the level beyond that.


Examples

As we have said before, this version of the document is very new. We have only asked for this level detail once, in the previous year. But in contrast, in previous years we asked for a lot of things that we are no longer interested in. We do not need detailed tutorial descriptions anymore. And while player progression is important, we would rather focus on getting the intermediate levels right before we add them back to the document.

With that said, there there were three standout documents from last year. In addition, there were several documents from previous years that gave hints about how to create and intermediate level. Take a look at these examples to give you an idea of how you might design your levels.

Squeak & Swipe

Winner of Most Innovative (Mobile) Game in the Spring 2016 Showcase, Squeak & Swipe does a good job at identify a large number of basic patterns. They also clearly identify the patterns in each of their levels.

Aphelion

Another popular game from the Spring 2016 Showcase, Aphelion was a puzzle game that consisted of a large number of challenging levels. They do an excellent job of identifying complex patterns and incorporating them into their game.

Inari

Winner of Most Polished (Mobile) Game in the Spring 2016 Showcase, Inari also does a good job at identifying basic and composite patterns. However, we are not a fan of their sparse description for each level. Please do not use this bullet-point style.

Stack and Smash

A mobile game from the Spring 2015 Showcase, Stack and Smash had the problem that it was a multiplayer game with no single player content. However, they were able to identify basic strategies and showed how to mix and match them. This is a great way to use this document for multiplayer games.

Dash

Winner of Most Polished Game in the Spring 2014 Showcase, Dash does an excellent job of designing a complex level from design patterns. While you can ignore the tutorial section, the intermediate level section is exactly what you should be emulating. Indeed, this document was the early prototype of the current version.

Beam

Also Winner of Most Polished Game in the Spring 2014 Showcase (this time in the mobile division), Beam was a puzzle game with very strong level design. They clearly spend a lot of time thinking about their design patterns, as you can tell from this document.

Over the Arctic Hills

Winner of Most Innovative Game in the Spring 2014 Showcase (mobile division), Over the Arctic Hills was a puzzle game with a lot of real-time components. While they do not go into as much detail about their building blocks, they do an excellent job of putting them together in a single level.

Blush

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. Hence this document is one of the earliest examples of building-block design in this class. While we never see the entire level all at once, we get an idea of how they fit together.

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.

Exodus Protocol

Strategy games are always a hard sell at Showcase, and the game Exodus Protocol was a dark horse favorite among the TAs when we were grading afterwards. The design document for this game is another example of how to identify design patterns when your gameplay is unpredictable or depends on computer AI.


Submission

Due: Saturday, April 15th at 11:59 pm

You should submit a PDF file called leveldesign.pdf containing all of the information above. We ask that the file be a PDF so that we can annotate it in order to return it to you with feedback for possible revision. It is fine if you create the document in a program like Microsoft Word, but you should convert it to PDF before submission.

As the prospect of revision implies, this is not the final draft of your specification. You will have later opportunities to revise your concept. However, as with previous revisable documents, you should take this assignment seriously.