Aug 28, 2015

Lessons From Suzy Cube: Which Level Comes First?

#gamedev #indiedev #iosdev #madewithunity

A lot of games split the action up into distinct levels. These are usually meant to be played in a fairly linear fashion from first to last. But is that the best way to tackle designing the levels? For Suzy Cube, I've decided that creating the levels out of order is the best way to go.
So, if I don't plan on creating the levels based on their order during game play, how am I planning to do it? I've worked on a number of games which relied on a traditional level structure over the years and have noticed some reasons why one might decide to start work on a level sooner rather than later:
  • It's a matter of time. Levels that are around longer get more opportunities to be tested, tweaked and perfected.
  • Every level answers questions and brings up new ones.
  • Distinct levels force the creation of building blocks which can then be used to create yet more levels. 

More Tweaking, More Better-er

In a perfect world, every Suzy Cube level would be a perfect ten. Obviously, that won't be the case. I do hope all the levels will be fun and, at least, somewhat memorable, of course, but I know they won't all be the best. They can't all be the best. One way to ensure that a level is as good as it can be, though, is to give it plenty of time to evolve through testing and tweaking. Obviously, levels which are around throughout more of the project will, naturally, have more opportunity to be looked after and perfected. This is true for every aspect of a level, from it's flow, to it's difficulty, to it's visuals and polish. The game will benefit most from certain levels in the game receiving more love, so work on these levels should be started sooner to give me more time to perfect them.

No Stone Left Unturned

Another reason I'm deciding to design one level before another is for the lessons I can learn from it. Each level I work on allows me to answer many questions and uncover many more. By putting in a certain amount of polish and finishing work on a level, I can help set the quality bar for the visuals of the game and get a better sense of how much polish I can add while still hitting my performance goals on target hardware.

Getting the difficulty and length of levels right is also incredibly important. So much of the game's enjoyment will come down to how challenging it is. Furthermore, the length of each play session will have a huge impact on how players fit Suzy into their leisure time. I have design goals set around these factors and it's important I work on hitting those goals as early as possible.

Finally, certain levels bring with them new game mechanisms or gimmicks which, in turn, may bring with them uncertainty. The best way to learn whether or not some seemingly neat new piece of game play is actually fun is to try it and see, of course!

Laying a Solid Foundation

And lastly, there's no way I could possibly get the whole thing done without a lot of reuse. By working on visually distinct levels first, I hope to better flesh out the overall look of the game while building up a solid toolbox of level elements with which to fill out the roster. Certain levels I have planned will require more work or require that I code up new events, hazards and enemy behaviours. Tackling these early will also help minimize the risk associated with taking on such unknown quantities.

So, What's the Plan?

I plan on making twenty five regular levels. Five levels split up into five worlds with a boss at the end of each world. To keep things from getting too monotonous, I also plan on decorating levels based on one of five themes. A level's theme will be reflected in it's music, colour scheme and decoration.

As explained above, which level I choose to design and when can have a profound impact on the project. So, given these factors I've chosen three levels to take on first: Level 1-1, Level 3-3 and the final boss level. I've picked each one for very specific reasons:
  • Level 1-1: This is the game's first level. It's going to be the player's first introduction to Suzy Cube so it needs to be really solid,  look good and entice the player to keep playing. As such, I started work on this level first so it will have the most opportunity to be tweaked and perfected throughout my development of the game.
  • Level 3-3: This level is smack in the middle of the game. With this level I'm exploring what it means to be a 'typical' Suzy Cube level. It will act as a touch stone for level difficulty and length for the rest of the game. It also uses a different theme than level 1-1.
  • Final Boss Level: A great game needs a strong finale, so I need to make sure to have plenty of time to grow, evolve and perfect this level. The final boss fight itself is a big ball of risk and unknowns that I'm better off tackling sooner rather than later. It will also act as a template for the four other boss fights.
Though I haven't yet decided the exact order in which to design the rest of the levels, the idea is to take on the intro, middle and end of each world first for all the reasons listed above. Easy, right?

How have you approached this problem in your own projects? Have any thoughts on other approaches or reasons why certain levels should probably be tackled first? Let me know in the comments. See you next time!

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