On level design in Blue Bug Bob: Mechanics and Theme

13.06.15

Blue Bug Bob is a two-dimensional platformer with predefined levels. There level design is a central part of the game and contributes much to the feeling of the game. Therefore the level design needs much thought if the game is to be fun and successful. Here I elaborate my thoughts on how the game mechanics and its theme are entangled with level design.

Mechanics

Level design is the arrangement of interactive (and non-interactive) elements into levels for a game. Thus for good level design these elements and the overall game mechanics need to be well designed as well. The elements need to be easily recognisable and behave consistently.

Similar elements should behave similarly and different elements differently. This way the player can anticipate the next obstacles and learn to beat the game intuitively. New tactics and strategies can be invented. Inconsistencies would make the player feel treated unfairly.

Blue Bug Bob features a rather limited compact set of tiles. They are recombined into ever new arrangements. But the tiles and their objects never change themselves. The player knows how to interact with them because of prior knowledge and therefore is lead by them through the level. Thus the immersion is increased.

Sometimes it is good to challenge the player to find new ways to interact with the environment and break the old mental model. This is the essence of a puzzle platformer. But this challenge must be carefully contained to specific places. All other interaction must feel natural. (As always, rules are there to be broken: some of the best puzzle games I have played were constantly challenging my model of the game mechanics.)

To make the non-puzzle part of the game feel natural the designer must rely on previous experience of the player. This experience comes from two sources: the player had relevant experience prior to the game or the game induced the necessary knowledge. The knowledge that existed before the game is more general and is applicable to more games (and other situations in life).

Theme

To activate the preexisting knowledge is a major task for the designer. The main tool to achieve this goal is theming. The theme, the resemblance (or non-resemblance) to nature or other games activates a certain skill set and way of thinking in the player. For example in Blue Bug Bob: bees and thorns are spiky. It is natural to avoid them. (And indeed they are lethal in BBB.)

The theme gives structure to the game and its levels. The tiles are not randomly plopped into the map. Instead they follow certain (always slightly changing) patterns. Grass grows on earth and not randomly on air. Grass that grows on background tiles is itself dark and visually muted.

But at the same time the designer should not feel too constrained by the theme. Blue Bug Bob for example is two-dimensional and has flat graphics. Thus it already is somewhat abstracted. It is perfectly acceptable to have, for example, some floating platforms (e.g. leafs) without suspension. As long as it is a conscious decision of the designer and does not diverge too far from the theme, it is okay.

The designer has the duty to find the right balance.

Collectibles, Checkpoints and Lifes

Read the follow-up.