PLATFORM LEVEL DESIGN
Platformers are one of the most popular styles of games, and also one of the easiest to mess up. While fun combat and good graphics might make you think you've made a good game, the most important part of the game is often overlooked by developers: level design. Good level design is really not as hard as you would think. It's simply a series of set pieces that challenge what the player has learned. A good level is really a tutorial in disguise.
The Super Nintendo is both famous and infamous for the levels found in its games. If you've ever played the Super Star Wars games or Home Improvement, you've already seen examples of bad design. Whereas games like Super Mario World, Super Metroid, and Megaman X have some of the best level design ever made. Why is that so? Let's find out.
Click the thumbnail to view the full level.
This is an example level I made up for a friend's game. In his game, the player can jump on enemies to hurt them, double jump, and wall climb like in Megaman X. For this tutorial, however, I've put Midi in his place.
The level begins with the player in an open space. The red circle represents an enemy, and the blue space above is a region of coins. This simple setup offers incentive, reward, and consequence, all in regards to the most basic things the player needs to learn: how to walk and jump. If they jump straight up, they'll get some of the coins, and they'll have to learn how to jump and move in order to get past the enemy without being hurt.
This setup is used in the beginning of almost every 2D Super Mario game, and for good reason. The player not only has made no progress to be lost if they should fail, but if they don't jump high enough, they can also learn how to attack by landing on the enemy's head.
The next obstacle they face is a straight wall. If they jump against it, the player will grab on and slowly slide down. The player will learn through experimentation that if they hit jump while holding the wall, they can jump off it. There is no need for popup messages or signs telling the player what to do; it's a simple task to figure it out on their own, and something a lot of devs seem to forget is to trust the player. In fact, throughout this entire level, there is not one sign telling the player what to do.
After climbing the wall, they come to a place that is too far for them to jump across normally with a ladder to get back up and try again. The ledge blocks them from wall climbing as well, so their only option is to try double jumping. Once they've figured that out, they can move on.
A note about double jumping for anyone who's wondered why it exists and why it's more popular than simply having a higher jump is because you get better control over where you land when you use it. You may accidentally overshoot a jump during a tricky platforming segment, and if you haven't use the double jump yet, you can correct such miscalculations. It's also easier to control in general, since it doesn't need an extra button to execute like the high jumps in Super Star Wars or Super Mario 2.
The next set piece is a simple pond of water. It's too far across to double jump, so instead, the player must learn how to swim. They can do this by "jumping" repeatedly under water. Think of it as unlimited double jumps (also known as a space jump, as coined by Metroid), but in a limited area. The pond is also shallow enough that the player can safely test how long they can stay underwater before having to surface, instead of being thrown into a full-blown water level where they may not even be aware of whether or not such a limit exists.
Here the player comes across their first vertical segment. The enemies on the left here will shoot bullets at the wall for the player to dodge. The ladder lets them have an easier time learning to dodge here since they won't lose progress if they take damage, but the ladder is too short, so for the second half, they have to mix what they've learned before: how to dodge and how to climb walls. This ups the challenge and tests the player on previous knowledge.
Here, the player is faced with enemies that are on raised platforms. There are gaps that make it impossible to progress without clearing the enemy before each next one, but if the player pulls it off right, they can do a combo by bouncing off each enemies head, taking them all out in a single jump. By now, they've already had a chance to defeat other enemies, so they should already know that you gain height by defeating them.
Up until now, the player has had pretty safe places to learn how to play the game, so let's introduce them to danger. This time, they will have to mix combat with platforming in order to cross a deadly gap. This is usually a good place to put in a checkpoint, since it's easy to fail here. They hit the first enemy and use them as a staircase to cross the gap. Optionally, you can add a second path of enemies leading to a platform that has a reward, so if they're more skilled, they have a chance at earning a reward.
From here, there is no turning back, as once the enemies are gone, there's nothing to bridge them back to the other side. This adds a silent narrative to the level. All this time, they've had the chance to go back to the beginning where it's safe and never go on their adventure, but now something has happened, and they have no choice but to move forward and see what's next. This is a call to action that can be executed in many different ways, such as a rock slide blocking a path, a floor crumbling and dropping the player into a new area, or even having a literal bridge break. The point of it is the player's own actions brought them here. They willingly went to this place, and now they must progress in order to survive.
In my friend's original game, there was a blue dinosaur that I couldn't figure out how to get past other than letting it hurt me and then pushing through during the mercy frames, so I decided to rework him for this part. Instead of having him block the path, he would show up after the player has learned to use the double jump, and jumping on his head lets you bounce up to the next platform. It's probably not as difficult as crossing a huge gap with only enemies to use as a bridge, but that's a good thing. Alternating between easy and hard moments gives a level healthy pacing, something that develops naturally when you alternate between learning and testing set pieces.
Finally, we have a part of the level where the player must wall climb and avoid enemies on both sides, jumping up between them to reach the goal. This will be a harder dodging section since they can't just hold right the whole time. They'll have to switch sides while avoiding the shots of their enemies. You can mix up a segment like this by adding ledges and different-sized spacing between the walls in some spots. Think of the vertical climb just after beating Vile in Mega Man X.
When the player completes the level, it should feel triumphant. They've just bested everything the level had to throw at them, so it's good to make them feel rewarded. Games that use points will reward the player based on the number of items they found, and the time it took to get through. If your game uses lives, give them a chance to earn more at the end.
Anyway, this is just a short level to give some ideas. Later levels in your game will probably not have that many concepts to introduce, so once you've gotten the basics down, introduce new concepts slowly and have more testing between each new lesson. The final area of your game should pay off on everything the player has learned and test every mechanic you can throw at them. Remember, teaching a new mechanic without testing the player on it down the road will make the mechanic feel pointless. A good way to manage the learning curve of your game is to have more teaching in the beginning and more testing towards the end.
I hope you find this tutorial useful, and I look forward to hearing your feedback, so please let me know down below what you think!