Lessons from the Trenches

Lessons from the Trenches

Okay, so maybe game design doesn’t have trenches per se, at least not the same as in teaching, but as students, we’re definitely on the frontlines. Just ask any of the guys in my class who have pulled all nighters at school, alternating between Red Bulls and naps on the floor, eager to add in that extra feature or refine the core mechanic just a bit more. On second thought, I think this counts as trenches.

After hundreds of hours spent designing, scripting, and testing levels, I can safely say that I know a bit more about level design than I did when I arrived in Vancouver 6 months ago. Here are a few lessons for the road:

1. Put railings on things.

As it turns out, players don’t particularly like to fall off the edge of your level into the abyss of nothingness for no apparent reason. Just like in real life, virtual navigation requires railings, gates, and appropriately sized stairs. Now you know.

2. Think before you script.

It’s easy to get lost in a sea of code, coming up with “creative” and often unelegant solutions to simple problems. Always script with a plan. Break down your goal into the base components, then link them together in logical ways. Use your brain.

3. Save often. Save progressively. Save progressively often.

For my last level, I made well over 100 progressive saves over the course of five weeks. Not too bad, but I’m already on version 22 just 2 days into my current level. Why? Because you never know. Undos are not always as reliable as you think, so it’s always better to have multiple versions with progressive additions. Safety first.

4. Warning: This is a warning.

BOOM! Explosion out of nowhere. Evidently, players don’t like that either. If you’re going to have enemies pop out from behind a building or an explosion that takes out a forest, give the player a heads up first to allow time for a proper reaction. No one likes to be blindsided.

5. Ask.

Chances are, someone somewhere has run into the same exact problem you’re dealing with. Ask around. At the very least, Google should be able to point you in the right direction. Game designers are a friendly bunch. Usually.