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Old 11-30-2017   #1
Ice
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Default The Icebox of Cool Level Design Tips and Tricks!

~INTRODUCTION~

Hi everyone!

This is a bit of a strange thread, I know, but I wanted to do something a little different than just show off the few things I'm working on. This is intended to be a compilation of solid, easy-to-digest tips to help your brain sort through the massive amorphous blob of thoughts that bubbles up when you try to make a level. I'm gearing them towards SRB2 but a lot of this is actually taken from places way outside platformer games. This is mainly stuff I've picked up throughout the years, but, please, give me your useful/fun/quirky level design tips in the comments! I want this to be as community-built as possible!

This might be a little disorganized to begin with, but bear with me and as time goes on I promise this will be as neat and clean as can be. I don't have time to put down everything I intend to at the moment, so this tiny section will have to do for now. Consider it a proof-of-concept!


1. LEVEL BOUNDARIES

This section is my attempt at categorizing the way different levels handle those annoying little video-game quirks of boundaries. Obviously, SRB2 can't have infinite Minecraft-sized worlds, so the player is going to have to run into the edge of the level at some time or another. Most games deal with this in some way or another, and this section is designed to make dealing with this fact feel as natural as possible.

1.0. THE INVISIBLE WALL.
Spoiler: The Invisible Wall

Unlike the rest of the tips, don't use this one!!! Lemme just sum up my point with some gifs:

NO:

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YES:

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Here's a side-view of this second one:

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Invisible walls are exactly what they sound like: a place where the player hits the wall where there are no obvious barriers. Invisible walls are bad, and running into one should make you feel bad. They wreck player immersion and remind us of how fake and boxed-in levels are. Players shouldn't be able to touch an invisible wall straight from the ground of the level, like in the first gif.
Obviously, invisible walls are necessary to display the sky, but the trick is to hide them. The following boundary-styles should help you hide your invisible walls.


1.1. THE GREAT INDOORS.
Spoiler: The Great Indoors

Like the title says, you can avoid the invisible wall problem altogether if your level is always in some kind of indoor environment like a cave or a castle. No sky means no sky textures, and no potential invisible walls. This is shown by my shitty drawing below.
Note that this is a SIDE VIEW:
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1.2. THE CANYON.
Spoiler: The Canyon

You can also avoid the invisible wall problem if you build your level geometry like a canyon. That is, the sky texture overhead, solid walls stretching up to touch the ceiling. This is the simplest way to create convincing level barriers, and in my opinion works for about 90% of the outdoor areas in a level. This style is shown by another crappy drawing below.
Again, side view. This time the blue represents sky texture:
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The walls don't need to touch the ceiling, though. As in GFZ1, the sky can stretch far above the tops of the walls. This makes the level feel far more natural for flying characters like tails, who can run into invisible ceilings, especially for the first canyon style. This can be risky, though. You should still make sure the player can't go running into invisible walls too easily. The tops of your walls should be fairly high.
Here's the ideal canyon, side view again:
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Here's a "canyon" with short walls. Some levels can get away with this, for example, Glaber's Skytop Zone and some Mystic Realm levels. I'd say it's best to avoid this style though. These are little better than invisible walls that are raised off the floor a little bit. You're better off making The Cliffside, which is described in the section that comes next.
Here's the short canyon:
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1.3. THE CLIFFSIDE.
Spoiler: The Cliffside

This is how you show off that skybox! I think when mappers make awful invisible walls, they were really trying to make a cliffside. It's pretty simple. You separate your invisible wall off from your level with a deathpit. Here's a drawing:

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This way if your player touches that invisible wall, they'll die. That'll learn 'em!


2. BUILDING BLOCKS

The idea of this section is to give you a collection of level chunks and layouts that you can build larger levels from. Of course, level geometry can be shaped in infinitely many combinations, but if you're anything like me, this can be overwhelming! These building blocks are supposed to help you piece together larger layouts by thinking of the level in chunks of smaller layouts.

2.1 THE LOOP.
Spoiler: The Loop

No not those kinds of loops! The loop can be a room shape or an entire level shape. This is a layout that takes the player back to a previously-visited area, often from a different angle or different height. Here's a top-down view of the loop:

A good example of a looped level is the first act of Jade Garden Zone, by elvinkonohana. The end of the level offers you a view of where you began the level. The Valve Developer Community has a perfect article about this which I'll provide a link for. I've summarized the main points of using loops as they apply to SRB2 below, and/or you could click here to read the Valve article yourself.

Advantages:
  • Illusion of Choice: Although a loop is essentially just a linear path, they give the level a feeling of nonlinearity, and thus an illusion of player choice and exploration that they might not get with a linear level.
  • Immersion: We actually go through looped routes every day, both within the buildings we inhabit (school, work, even our homes) and outside (daily commutes, walking the dog, going on a hike). Unlike video game levels, real places are interconnected, and loops help your level feel less like a collection of rooms and hallways and more like a real place.
  • Efficiency: Who has time to make a brand-new room for every 5-second chunk of progress the player makes? Especially in SRB2, players have the capacity to zoom through the room that took you 10 hours to make in 10 seconds. Why make six 10-second rooms when you can make one 60-second + room?
  • Guidance: Loops can make the player realize exactly where they are in the level by helping them orient themselves off of where they've been before.

Disadvantages:
  • Lack of Progress: If you're trying to make a level that feels like a grand journey, like an adventure from point a to point b, loops can actually detract from that feeling. A lot of the times, levels can feel adventurous just by taking you far from where you started. The levels in Kuja's The Emerald Isles level pack tends to give me this feeling, like I've trekked across a continent by the time I've hit the end level sign. I wouldn't get this feeling if the levels looped back on themselves. Be aware of the type of feeling you're trying to give the player! Is your level a grand journey, or an explorable location?
  • Confusion: While loops can guide the player, they can also confuse them by making the level appear too open and having too many paths even if it doesn't. You should try to strike a balance between loops and other types paths.


2.2. THE BOUNCE.
Spoiler: The Bounce

The bounce is another layout shape that can be used in your levels. It begins with an obstacle, a path away from the obstacle, a button or event at the end of the path which removes the obstacle, and then a path back. The bounce can be similar to the loop in shape, but it's different mainly in that it forces the player to interact with the level to remove the obstacle. Here's a top down image of the bounce:

I don't see them very commonly used in SRB2 but there are some examples. Because SRB2 doesn't include the use of gravity guns, rocket launchers, wrenches, or even keys, the "event" is usually a button press. If used cleverly, the event could be the player obtaining an elemental shield. An amazing example of a button bouncr is activating the elevator in ERZ. The player encounters a closed elevator, has to venture into the elevator shaft, find the button that turns on the power, and then get on the powered elevator when finished. This is another building block I lifted from valve's website, you can read the article here and/or read my SRB2-focused summary below:

Advantages:
  • Immersion: In SRB2 more than most games, levels have a tendency to feel frozen in time (I think those were the wiki's words), so the more you can get the player to interact with the level the better. Bounces force the player to remove an obstacle in their path and thus force them to interact with the level. If done right, this can be used to immerse the player in the world you've created by getting them to interact with a system inside the world. THZ2 has those big red buttons because it's a factory, and pressing them does factory things. What place are you making, and what would kind of things would happen there? You can implement this stuff with the bounce.
  • Guidance and Emphasis: Bounces force the player to stop at the obstacle and think about their position. This temporary halt can help you bring their attention to the artistic masterpiece you've created around them, and more practically, it can force them to pay attention to your gimmick and use it the way you want them to. You want the player to understand that your new shield lets them thok through special walls? Run them up against a special wall, let them fail at passing it, have them find the path to your shield, and when they return they'll feel super smart when they finally bust through the wall.
  • Efficiency: Like the loop, the bounce lets you reuse pieces of your level. It can be e even more efficient, though, because you can have the player backtrack through the path to and from the button/event. Just make sure you unleash a horde of detons or something to keep them busy on the return trip. In fact, for non-loop bounces, keeping the player entertained on the return trip is a must!

    Disadvantages:
  • Breaking Immersion: Of course, when used badly, bounces can completely draw attention to how game-y your level is. Have you ever been playing a game, you're about to walk through a door, when the ceiling collapses and now you have to go murder three gods to circumvent the pile of rubble? Too many bounces, or too complex of bounces (button hunts from Darksiders 2 come to mind) can be frustrating and make the player feel like they're jumping through your hoops.
  • Halting Flow: SRB2 is all about flow! No one likes cramped corridors and right angles, and no one really wants to grind to a halt unless it's for a good reason. Bounces usually run the player up against a dead end, which can feel really bad if it's done just for padding out the level's length. If you add a bounce, be sure to do something cool with it, like the aforementioned ERZ elevator.


2.3. THE HORSESHOE.
Spoiler: The Horseshoe

The horseshoe can be a room layout or an entire level layout. This is something I lifted from our cousin Doom's patron deity, John Romero in this interview here. In that series of interviews he says a couple of times how the horseshoe shape is used for both of Doom's opening levels, and in other places too. So what is it? It is similar to a loop, but the ends don't necessarily connect. Here is a top-down diagram:
[INSERT DIAGRAM HERE]
The first example of a horseshoe that I can think of is the first room of GFZ1. If your first intention is to run straight ahead as soon as you enter the level, you'll find yourself curving around a corner and coming back to an section right next to the starting area. Another prominent example is the big semicircular room in DSZ1 with the deep pool in the center and the 'V' made of FOF's on an elevated platform:

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As you can see, you enter the room on one side, take a nice trip around the perimeter, and exit at the other side. I'd say this is the most memorable room in DSZ1.

Advantages:
  • Guidance: This is the reason to use the horseshoe. If your horseshoe is a room, then it has the huge advantage of forcing the player to look at every wall in your room. Nifty! This is extremely important if your room has an exit that isn't obvious, or if the player is required to solve some kind of puzzle to progress. If your horseshoe is an entire level, it has the property of having the player make a relatively simple and non-confusing journey from the start to the end, since they've only really made turns in a single direction. Double clarity points if the player can see the starting area from the end.

Disadvantages:
  • ???: I honestly can't think of any downsides to horseshoe-shaped rooms. They don't necessarily require the player to end where they've started, so they still work in adventurey-journeyish maps, and they don't require backtracking or flow halting. In other words, use more horseshoes! (If you think of a downside, let me know).

Hope you enjoyed this little tidbit! I promise I'll add a whole bunch more later!
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Last edited by Ice; 04-21-2018 at 07:07 AM.
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Old 11-30-2017   #2
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I don't have anything to add at the moment but I'm glad a thread like this exists. It's disappointing how very few resources there are for people wanting to map for SRB2.
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Old 11-30-2017   #3
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Thanks Tyler! I just added a bit on bounces and I'll probably get to writing the bit on horseshoes later tonight
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Old 12-01-2017   #4
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Ooo neat! Nothing on slopes?! Grrr i am offended!.

Jokes aside I would teach people about smooth slopes rather than stiff 1 sector slopes. Multi sector slopes are great visually and they "feel" nice to run up/roll down on.

Also you should mention about how slopes shouldnt be really tall. Keep them at a reasonable angle unless your maps aesthetic has tall slopes, then add them in :v
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Old 12-13-2017   #5
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I've made a smidgen of progress on the post. I'm writing a section on level boundaries, and have finished a small section on invisible walls. Oh, and the horseshoe section has an example gif (still no abstract diagram, it turns out I'm ass at making those).

MK, great idea about slopes. I freaking hate those stiff 1-sector slopes. Stiff really is the word to use for them. I'll make sure to put something about them later!
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Old 12-27-2017   #6
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This is a really cool thread, if you're interested, I could give you some more tips to talk about in the top post based on what I've learned over the years.

I can think of a couple disadvantages Horseshoes could have:

For one, if poorly designed, it can cause disorient the player depending on the shape of the horseshoe. I've seen a lot of first time players run in a circle in GFZ1 because of how cramped that starting section is. Secondly, if the Horseshoe only has one exit point with a path towards it, (using DSZ1 as the example here) it can make the room feel extremely linear, and any extra geometry off of the "main path" can come off as superfluous, even with hidden items to be found. Lastly, DSZ1 has a second entry-point from the top path, players entering through this way have no idea which direction they should be moving, so a natural flow of geometry is needed to ensure that the real exit is made 100% clear.
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Old 04-18-2018   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ice View Post
[CENTER]
1.0. THE INVISIBLE WALL.
Spoiler: The Invisible Wall

Unlike the rest of the tips, don't use this one!!! Lemme just sum up my point with some gifs:

NO:

Attachment 12059

YES:

Attachment 12060

Here's a side-view of this second one:

Attachment 12061

Invisible walls are exactly what they sound like: a place where the player hits the wall where there are no obvious barriers. Invisible walls are bad, and running into one should make you feel bad. They wreck player immersion and remind us of how fake and boxed-in levels are. Players shouldn't be able to touch an invisible wall straight from the ground of the level, like in the first gif.
Obviously, invisible walls are necessary to display the sky, but the trick is to hide them. The following boundary-styles should help you hide your invisible walls.
But how am I suppose to protect the player from going into the wall?
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Old 04-21-2018   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SSNCaleb View Post
But how am I suppose to protect the player from going into the wall?
Check out the shiny new sections on level boundaries! Section 1.3 should answer your question directly, but I'd read 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3 for good measure. Let me know if it helps!

Sorry it's taken me so long to write these tips, guys... I had no idea how busy I'd become once I started 'adulting'.
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