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Article - 'Dynamic Level Design 101' by Professor Onion

An item about Game Design posted on Mar 22, 2004


A detailed article about detailed level designs in video games. What level of detail should your game have?


There's about a million articles about RPG design, so I'm going to go offbeat and write a series of articles on how to write a seriously kickass action game, from a hardcore gamer's standpoint. So there. Anyway...

DYNAMIC LEVEL DESIGN 101 - Or, how to make your levels interesting!

Most video games have boring levels. Mario, Sonic, even Megaman, the levels are boring. I don't mean to insult these games, they're fantastic. In these games the action itself is the focus, the level is just the playing field. They have "static" levels, which don't change. So, why can't both the action in the foreground and the background on which it takes place be equally interesting? What about levels which change shape, turn on their sides, set of fire, freeze over, whatever. All while the player is still IN THE LEVEL. That's dynamic level design.

Let's start with a basic, generic, static level, say a platformer with a fantasy setting. The player starts in a tower, goes through it fighting general weak monsters, then fights a dragon on the top of the castle. A good simple level outline which makes sense within simple video game logic. But it's static, and hence "boring". Let's spice it up a bit.

It doesn't make sense, from a non-game logical standpoint that said dragon would wait for the hero to get through his fortress and slay all his minions to make his move. Let's say about halfway through the level, the player hears a roar, and sees a reptilian eye through one of the windows. Suddenly, a gigantic clawed hand smashes through the wall, taking a swipe at the player, catching him off guard. Maybe the enemies as well. Maybe they duck and cower at the sight of the hand. Maybe when the hand misses the player, it instead smashes one of his own allies against the wall instead, making a big, bloody mess. Small details and humor count enormously. The dragon makes a few more attempts at the player, and if it fails, he snorts and flys off. That's getting better, the player begins to pay more attention to the background. He never knows what's going to come out. That's good, you want to keep him on guard, attentive. Then you want to turn 180 degrees and throw something completely different at him and catch him off guard again.

Which leads to the most important point; never, EVER use the same trick twice. When you do, it becomes a regular gameplay element. It becomes predictable. You NEVER want to be predictable.

Let's get back to that tower level, shall we? It's improving, it's got that nice little ambush, but the rest of the level is still dull. But, that dragon's not going to just give up, is it? Let's have it crash through the wall again. This time, head first. Being the good dragon it is, it's going to breath fire on us. If the player manages to dodge all the shots, it's unreasonable to assume that the fire would just go away when it hits the floor. When the fire hits, the platform it strikes sets on fire, forcing the player to find another platform. It's important to do this so as to leave the player no comfort zone. When the player manages to dodge to the last non-burning platform, the dragon becomes enraged, breathing fire at random for a few seconds, then withdraws. Now, the whole tower's on fire. Burning rafters fall from the ceiling. Plumes of flame emerge from the pits at random intervals. The enemies are also on fire, rushing forward and jumping wildly in panic (Remember, details and humor). Now, we've added a new element that changed the enemies patterns, the hazards in the level, and even the very nature of the stage, and the poor player never saw it coming.

Every level should have at least one drastic element like this, that's important to remember.

But it still needs a few touches. Let's consider the boss fight itself. Who says it needs to be the end of the stage? Conventional video game logic does, but we've already thrown that out the window a few times this level. Besides, conventional video game logic is crap. Let's say, after the boss fight, the dragon, in one final display of spite, takes a mighty swing at the tower itself, unbalancing it, and dies. The player scales down the tower, which is now teetering left and right. depending on which direction the tower is facing, the player is running, sliding or hanging on for dear life, all while fending off flying monsters. (ACTION GAME LAW #1! The action must NEVER stop! Something should always be actively trying to destroy the player at all times, whether it's an enemy, a trap, or a pit. Quiet moments are boring ones and no room is a safe room! Remember this at all times!)

When the player reaches the bottom of the tower, perhaps seeing the dragon KO'd on the ground with his tounge sticking out and eyes swirled (remember, humor!), the level ends. In the background the tower falls and EXPLODES! (Every level should have at least one nice, big screen filling explosion. Ideally, it should have several.)

So let's take a look at this level. Starts out standard, then a claw tries to grab the player, and the whole stage sets on fire, then falls over. That's a lot better than our original idea, eh?

What we just created was a -Dynamic- level, one which changes shape while the player is still in it. Why are dynamic levels so good?

-Dynamic levels are chaotic. Chaos is -always- desirable in an action game. The more the player is caught completely off guard, the better.
-Dynamic levels force players to be cautious and aware of their surroundings.
-Dynamic levels can be used to startle or surprise players.
-Through dynamic levels, more than one gameplay style can be introduced in one stage. The first stage of the Sega Genesis classic Rocket Knight Adventures (A platformer which becomes a vertical scrolling shooter and back again) is a good example.
-Dynamic levels add life to dull games, and perfection to fun ones.
-They're just plain cooler than plain, static ones.

So, think each stage of your game over. If it isn't turning over, setting on fire, blowing up, coming to life, shooting lasers, turning into stuff, or sporatically swapping genres, you're probably doing something wrong.

I'm going to leave now, but you all have homework. You must track down, buy, rom, whatever, the following games. Use them as guidelines to build your own unpredicable, chaotic dynamic levels.

Rocket Knight Adventures (Genesis)
Sparkster (SNES)
Gunstar Heroes (Genesis)
Dynamite Headdy (Genesis)
Silpheed: The Lost Planet (PS2)
Haunted Castle (Arcade)
Castlevania Chronicles (PS1)

And anything I haven't listed by Treasure. They are the masters of this form of game design. Class dismissed.