Level Design In 11 Points

May 5, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve written something about game design. So, I decided to write an article describing how I proceeded when I made the levels of Ninja Senki.

  1. I played many MANY platformers and studied how their levels were built. Doing that kind of research is enlightening and fun ^_^.
  2. I designed a bunch of micro situations to test extreme possibilities and various combinations of situations in small rooms prior to designing the actual levels. Ex: Maximum height and distance that the player can jump. Then, I saved these combinations and I ordered them from the easiest to the hardest. In the end, I discarded the uninteresting ones. This gave me a grasp of what I could do with the game system.
  3. I designed the macro architecture of the levels for the whole game by defining the general shape and orientation of each level (vertical up/down, horizontal, stairs, open area, L shaped, Z shaped, etc.). The shape of a level should also match the visual theme as much as possible.
  4. I planned the sequencing of the ambiances of the game. I gauged dark and bright levels. The idea was to make the player travel. Example: I tried to avoid making a sequence like this: cave, dungeon, and then house interiors… But it could have been a good idea if I wanted the player to feel claustrophobic.
  5. I tried to use level design as a means to tell a story. I believe that thematic progression inside each level is crucial. So, I segmented the architecture of each level in 3-4 parts. For example, for the second rooftop level (Scene 14), I divided it in 3 parts: the first part is some kind of gateway guarded by riflemen, the second part is a tower, where you have to climb up, and the last part is balcony where you have gaps to cross and jumping ninjas to defeat. If this progression is planned in the visuals of the backgrounds as well, this can make a level very memorable and engaging.
  6. I chose a limited amount of ingredients for each level (my test rooms mentioned at Point 2 were useful to help me choose what ingredients I wanted). I didn’t want to spoil all of the ingredients in the first level. That would have made the first level overwhelming and the rest of the game irrelevant. I chose only 3-4 enemies and obstacles for each level and then I created a progression by introducing them alone first, and then by combining them in more and more complex manners, thus creating a nice difficulty/learning curve.
  7. I used level design situations to teach the systems of the game. For example, I created some situations where the player had low chance of dying, but had to use a specific ability to progress. This can save a lot of explaining in texts and tutorials.
  8. I used enemies, walls or pickup items placement to hint how the player should solve a situation. For example, I put some pickup items to hint the position where the player should jump to successfully cross a gap. Or I placed a step, a solid object or a groove in the ground to hint where the player should stand to be safe from an attack.
  9. I restrained the height or width of some sub-levels to the height or width of the camera in order to allow the player to see further. Because, when the camera is centred on the player, the maximum distance that he can see is only half the size of the screen. Locking the camera to the level can give more possibilities for platform and enemy placement.
  10. I tried to let the player breathes sometimes. The difficulty shouldn’t be constantly climbing up. From time to time, I intentionally put some easier situations during a level to relieve the tension a bit.
  11. I kept levels short or checkpoints not too far from one another, especially if the difficulty was high. I like to keep playtime below 5 minutes between each checkpoint. It helps keep away the frustration.


  1. Thanks for the tips :D!

  2. Interesting. Testing everything, making a list from easy to hard of the game mechanics and placing easy bits on the levels to calm down the players are great ideas. Your article reminded me of a similar one I read not that much ago, it was about Super Mario Bros 3 level design, everything in that game has a reason and plays a part on how any player plays that game, check it out if you got some time, its really awesome.

  3. Is harder than it looks 🙂 I like the levels but boss battles are epic

  4. Glad you like it 🙂

    @Mars: Do you still have the link to this article on SMB3? I’d like to read it!

  5. Great read Jonathan and timely. I just wrote about my current level design process yesterday (directionless as it is) so I was quite excited to find this in my feed reader this morning. A question for you: About how much time do you spend on an individual level? About how much of that is artistic direction and how much would you say is arrangement of your micro situations (this is the part I’m currently most interested in)?

    Also, if you haven’t seen them yet, Auntie Pixelante has some great analysis of the original Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Land.

  6. Once all micro situations were done and that I had chosen the shape of each level, I spent about 3 days creating the layout of a level (placing collisions and game objects). Then, doing the “level art” (assembling tiles to make the backgrounds) took at least another 2 days.

    Generally, I only used a few micro situations as a basis for each level. However, by knowing what ingredients I needed and also what was the general shape of the level, I could extrapolate to build everything else inside that level. That’s where artistic direction comes into play and helps define the level as a whole. You don’t necessarily want to just put bare micro situations one after the other because it’d probably make the pacing too intense and it’d make it hard to create a well defined theme for the level.

    Thanks for the links by the way. Both articles are awesome.

  7. Here: http://www.significant-bits.com/super-mario-bros-3-level-design-lessons
    Beware, its a long article, so view it if you have time.
    Im sure you will learn a lot, like I did. 😀 greets.

  8. […] Check out article about Platformer Level Design posted on Pixeltao. Get it here! […]

  9. Thanks, is a very useful text. It’s interesting to observe from within the level design and see that all its elements have a reason to be there.

  10. Hey bud, just letting you know, Part 3 of SMB3 Level design is up:
    I have yet to check it out, but I think is as interesting as P1 and P2.

  11. Awesome. Thanks for the link!

  12. Most of this makes sense, but I personally feel comfortable while I am in a closed environment. It gives me a sense of safety.

    Also, I do not agree with the fact that the camera should be centered to the level and not the player. I have made a few levels at my company where I am a game designer, and I was forced to link the camera to the player unless you can zoom in and out the camera.

    I liked the point where you have suggested how to make the level memorable.
    Good Stuff 🙂

  13. @Chintan Shroff: Maybe the point about the camera is a bit unclear. In Ninja Senki, the camera is centered on the player all the time. However, there is one exception: the camera can’t cross the edges of the level (otherwise, when near a edge, you would see outside the boundaries of the level which wouldn’t look right). So, when designing some sub-levels where I needed the player to see further, I made the height or width of these sub-levels equal to the size of the camera to “lock” it and allow the player to see further away than only half the screen. This trick is used in many 2d side-scrollers (such as Mega Man ^_^).

  14. […] Platformer Level Design In 11 Points (Pixeltao) […]

  15. Nice writeup! All good points to consider when designing certain games.

  16. […] Level Design In 11 Points via Pixeltao […]

  17. Thanks for taking free time in order to post “Level Design In
    11 Points PIXELTAO”. Thank you yet again -Jami

  18. This info ist great! 😀

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