Mommy's Best Games, Inc. is an independent game developer founded in 2007. This is a view behind the scenes of our game development and marketing!


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Level Design Talk: GDC 2018

Hi, welcome to a special edition of the MBG blog. During the Game Developer's Conference this year, I've had one of my talk proposals selected for the show! This is very exciting.
The talk is called "Set This Game in Order".
It provides lots of details on how methods and tools for organizing games with lots of levels and mechanics.
Games like Super Mario Galaxy, Ape Escape, Candy Crush Saga, or even Pig Eat Ball!

Here are some of the concepts I covered in the talk, along with lots of details referenced.

The Problem

Lots of levels and lots of mechanics! How to organize them all?

Difficulty Balancing:

good difficulty across lots of levels.

Mechanics Introductions:

Managing when ideas are introduced in a hours-long game.

Mechanics Changes:

Manage a giant list of levels and be able to shift them around based on enemy or gameplay changes.

If the code changes, or a bug is fixed, how do we know what levels to test?


Before all that, let's cover some fundamentals...

Level Design "Mind-sets"

These are different ways to approach level design. (This is not an exhaustive list.)
  • Environmental Story-telling: Bioshock, Hyper Light Drifter, etc.
  • Set Pieces: Call of Duty series
  • Transcendant: Bullet hell shmups, Rez, Thumper, Wipeout Fusion 'zone' mode
  • Mechanics-Driven: Super Mario Galaxy, Marble Saga: Kororinpa, Ape Escape 2, and our own Pig Eat Ball!

 Difficulty Curves

Most games have a "difficulty curve" which is a plot of how hard the game is based on how far you are into the game. A traditional curve has it going steadily up. The further you are into the game, the harder the game gets.
I propose my own "Heart-beat curve".

A curve that does not go up much, but is based on introducing new mechanics frequently. The mechanic is introduced, then twisted, then the player is challenged a with a boss! The game gets tougher! Then the game gets much easier as the next level is an introduction for a new mechanic. This method lends itself well to "mechanics-driven" designs.

There was also a talk on the game Jelly Splash that is free on the GDC Vault. They used a different difficulty curve.
You can find it here:

How to Organize Your Levels: Solutions


Write down level names, mechanics, layouts on paper.

Easy to rearrange.
Cheap, accessible.
Quick to change.
spatial layout that mimics game layout.

No computer search-ability.
easy back-up method.
to share.
While working on his game Semispheres, designer Radu Muresan printed his level screenshots on cards, and reorganized more easily.
Level screenscaps printed on cards to more easily shuffle the difficulty curve.


Radu also used Inkscape.
It's free and he said it was pretty good.

Windows Search

A Windows Folder search done on an object in the level data, after I set Windows to index the folder.

I tried this on Pig Eat Ball. You must index your folder to search your level files based on keywords for objects in your level files. It can be slow to rebuild.

Google Docs

If you're not using a Doc of Spreadsheet to organize your levels, you should be! They are easy to share, and great to get a quick glance of your game. The bad part is you have to update them manually.
Levels from Pig Eat Ball organized by world.
Another team using it is Rare Sloth. Austin Borden used on their King Rabbit game.

Custom Analytics

You should already know about Unity Analytics and seeing a "funnel" representation of your playthroughs. But designer Stu Denman, while working on Tiny Bubbles, does a custom analytics plot. He stores Quits on levels and Tries until they beat it. He uses this to know if a level is too hard or easy.
Stu Denman's custom analytics plot for Tiny Bubbles

Device Shared-Folder Editing

Tim FitzRandolph for the Where's My Water series used a method to let his designers change things on the fly more easily. Designers worked on iPads to playtest, but the devices were setup to pull data from a shared Dropbox folder.
"The levels themselves were made in-game with a special build of the game that had a level editor. It was entirely custom, with tools for placing the objects in the levels, and quickly toggling between editing and playing in order to easily test the levels. We had a special build that could pull files from Dropbox (instead of the files baked into the app), so that a designer could also change aspects of the level not exposed in the editor (such as the PNG image, or brand new level data features that existed in the XML but not in the editor GUI), by changing them on their computer, saving the files to dropbox, and then refreshing the level on device and seeing those changes."

Level Object Look-Up

Search for objects in your levels in Pig Eat Ball.

For Pig Eat Ball, John Meister worked with me to create a level design look-up tool. It's in-game and 
was built by using object-counts stored from levels, as they were played. The result is an easy to use tool that let's us inspect and filter levels based on objects-included, world-type, goal-type and more.

Google Docs Export

John Meister of Super Soul also worked with me to create a method to export level data directly to google spreadsheets, for easier to use forms. This lets anyone on the team quickly see all sorts of information about the game and levels without playing hours into the game. And it's all up to date, and not prone to error like regular human-entered info.

Grid Arrange Tool

Level re-arranging software for Escape Goat 2

For Escape Goat 2, designer Ian Stocker made a simple but useful tool to rearrange his level. His overworld allowed players to move on a grid and play levels. He made an editing tool that allowed him to drag and drop levels. He could balance the game much more easily this way.

Level Library

Level Library tool used for Candy Crush Saga

Jeremy Kang worked on the Candy Crush Saga game. His team uses Google Docs and also a 
simple, internal software to track levels, but also rearrange them to balance their difficulty curve. Designers there can also rate each others levels to help anticipate level difficulty. 
Kang gave a talk free on the GDC Vault too: 

Level Design Saga: Creating Levels for Casual Games

Game-Design Thinking Tools

Designer Katharine Niel gave a talk devoted entirely too all sorts of software for just thinking about design (not about creation tools, about design tools). 

For When Spreadsheets and Flowcharts Aren't Enough”

 Does My Game Need This?

Can you count your gameplay mechanics and levels on two hands? If you can, you're probably fine. If you *can't* and you have multiple people working remotely on your game, consider some simple things to keep track of things better! Google Docs, Trello, Inkscape and all free and easy to use now. 
Custom software may help you too, even for a small team. 


“Better Tools
 Can Help You Make Better Games”