Game Design Theory Level 3 – Customization and Creative Design Techniques

Is you Level an Alley or an Island? Design to Each Style’s Strengths


There are two main types of level structures that have been used frequently throughout modern gaming and most levels can be described using these two terms. An alley is a linear path level where the player travels more or less along a straight-line section of terrain that may bend, twist, etc. but the playing area is limited so that what’s behind you is done and what’s ahead is next. These alleys should usually have “fingers” that are like branches off of the main tree. Sometimes they fool players into thinking it’s a new path, other times there are hidden items there and even surprise ambushes from enemies. When you make lots of fingers and put cool things there then the player is much more likely to explore all of the areas in your game. Every finger, hallway or corridor that branches off of the main path should have a reward at the end, even if it’s something intangible like a laugh. Pictured below is a crude drawing of the map of an “alley” type level. Sorry but the next two pictures aren’t masterpieces, but they do demonstrate the point! 





Islands are more like open-world areas that are more or less large round or rectangular areas where the player can freely travel within a virtual “sandbox” area and take on various tasks. Of course a game will have boundaries and limitations so the terrain will reach some kind of border where the player must turn back. Hiding things around the border and throughout the island makes exploring more fun. The best islands don’t just have one look all the way around. There will be something interesting to see in general at the 4 corners of the world and in the middle. So at least 5 cool things / structures to see and interact with while exploring the island level / world.


If It Looks Like a Player Can Go There They Should Be Able to Go There


This one seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised at how many games you find with areas that look accessible, with a visible path, terrain and objects in sight, but when you get close it’s blocked off by some invisible field. Some game designers hate the invisible field and consider it to be lazy designing. They believe that games should have natural barriers that block off areas that are inaccessible. Also remember that players will try to break your game. What happens if they do get through the invisible field? Most of the time the invisible field is just a big solid invisible object. Why not make it visible and decorate it? It’s your call but at the very least put a warning of some type on screen indicating to the player “you can’t go here” when they look towards that area. Don’t leave the player confused and wondering. 




Walking is Never, Ever Gameplay!


We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, walking is not gameplay! Players don’t want power-walking as a special ability. In the old school platforming games every step forward you took was towards another obstacle, enemy or trap waiting to end the level. There was non-stop action, puzzles and conflict until the end. That’s an ideal you should strive for.


Players Need Variety, and Surprises are Just Unexpected Variety


Sometimes you’ll be playing a game and something will happen that changes the game in some awesome and unexpected way. It could be that the terrain switches up suddenly, a boss appears out of nowhere, or a regular door leads to another place entirely. Whatever the surprise may be it adds variety to the game, and unexpected variety is a great experience for gamers when done correctly. You should plan out a surprise well, and play the section several times to see if it delivers. You’ll want to show several people who’ve never seen it before so you can judge reactions and see if there’s something more or less you need to do to make it work.