Level Up: Flat is boring!

Level Up with Victor Kam — Banner

As the title suggests, flat is booooring!  A game level with little to no elevation will bore the player as the constant threat is completely visible;  the player always knows what’s coming ahead of them.  So what we need to do is add slight undulations in our paths to create tension and reveals in our levels.

In this day in age we have superb game engines and level editors that let us develop 3d worlds at the touch of our finger tips.  It would be a shame to not take advantage of this.  I remember making maps for Doom and Duke Nukem 3D, it was nearly impossible to create overhangs and vertical gameplay due to the technical limitations.

Let’s take a look at our first example, oh the dreaded UDK hallway.  Being a player, traversing through this area requires you to press the “forward” button to get through.  This is fine, especially if it’s in a downbeat in our game level and we just want the player to absorb their surroundings after an intense battle.  But we can make this calm section much more interesting, not by changing what the player is doing on their controller, but by creating the illusion that the player is doing “something” in a flat travel section.

This is done here by adding a ramp up or down.  Keep in mind that all the player is doing is still pressing the “forward” button on the controller.

If we add a ramp that goes UP we immediately occlude sightlines.  Depending on your design, we can easily surprise the player as they walk up the ramp with a set of enemies, OR we can also build up tension because the player doesn’t know what’s coming next.

Imagine if you were riding a bicycle on the road going uphill.  You would first have to be much more careful because you are not sure if there’s a car coming over the crest of the hill, at the same time you will also be travelling at a much slower speed.

If we add a ramp that goes DOWN we give the player immediate visibility of what’s to come.  This is a great idea for an area in your level that you need to provide the player with enough information to make it past the next section.  Not only that, but we can also encourage curiosity by placing a power up at the end of the section with the intent of making the player ask themselves, “How am I going to get there?”

Again, imagine if you were riding a bicycle downhill.  You can see directly what’s ahead of you so there are no surprises.  In most cases you would ride down the hill much faster with more confidence since you know that the path is clear of cars.

So next time you have a downbeat in your level which involves travelling, play around with sightlines and slight elevations.  This will greatly improve the gameplay experience in those slower areas of your level.  This concept is simple enough, yet overlooked with early level designers, but sometimes keeping things simple is what works the best!

Victor Kam teaches Level Design and Mission Design at VFS Game Design