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Analyzing Level Design: A Genre-Specific Approach (@ DePaul, Friday)

Jim Whitehead

This Friday I will be visiting Jose Zagal at DePaul University (his book Ludoliteracy has just come out) and giving a talk on my view of level design. My goal in giving the talk is to develop a framework spanning the research my students Gillian Smith, Ken Hullett, and I have been doing over the past few years (along with Mee Cha, Mike Treanor, and Michael Mateas). The core idea of the talk is this: level design is inherently a genre-specific activity, and each game genre possesses its own approach for designing levels in the genre. While there are some concepts, such as pacing and tension, that span multiple genres, to provide compelling explanations for how to create game levels requires an analytical approach that is tailored to a specific genre.

So, for example, we have 2D platform games such as Super Mario World and Sonic the Hedgehog where the notion of player rhythm explains much about level design [Sandbox08]. Yet, switch over to first person shooter games, and the crafting of level geometry to affect combat experience is paramount. FPS levels can largely be decomposed into a series of level design patterns that can be arbitrarily composed [FDG2010]. For 2d space shooters (shmups), the best explanatory framework for level design involves the crafting of safe and unsafe spaces, and the use of enemy placement and powerup drops to guide the player into certain locations. Further highlighting the genre-specific nature of level design, we see exceptions to the above. In Super Metroid, an action-platformer, the focus is more on creation of puzzles, enemy AI, and the placement of enemies. The notion of rhythm is no longer the guiding principle. Stealth first-person shooters such as Metal Gear Solid use different level design principles than traditional FPS games such as the Halo series.


A wide variety of computer games use the notion of levels to subdivide the gameplay experience into a series of distinct spaces with associated goals. While there are many examples of games that are segmented into levels, there is little written on how level design should be performed. This talk presents a view of level design as a genre-specific activity, where each game genre possesses its own approach for designing levels in the genre. Analysis of the genres of 2d platform games, 2d space shooters (shmups), and first-person shooters highlights how levels in each genre follow different design principles. The talk ends by discussing how procedural level generation can be used to turn these design principles into operational theories of level generation, to better understand their strengths and limitations.

The talk is Friday, November 12, from 12 to 1pm in CDM 708.

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