Cally’s Caves 2 Development Blog #8 – More on Level Design in a 2D game

We already posted on some of the thoughts behind the level design in Cally’s Caves 2 a while ago.  In the time since that blog came out we’ve made a number of crucial decisions regarding how the levels will be laid out.  Also, the overall level design is such an important part of developing a 2D game that we figured it would be worth another post to discuss some of the decisions we’ve made.  We’ve already written about how we approach tutorials, the smaller level sizes, and increasing density of objects in a level, so this time we are going to focus on the smaller things that go into making a level for Cally’s Caves 2.

cally and big bear

Hazards 

A good 2D platformer should always be fun to run and jump around in.  Player movement mechanics are incredibly important, and part of developing player movement is figuring out how the player’s interaction with the environment works.  If the player stands on a brick block, they shouldn’t fall through it.  If the player runs into a wall, horizontal movement should stop.  Basic stuff, right?  But if that’s all there is to the game, it might get a bit boring after a while (although plenty of games don’t, and are awesome).  Introducing hazards allows a designer to inject some danger into a level design, which helps keep the player on their toes.  It also increases the reward value for a player when they beat a level.  Would a player feel more satisfaction if they ran down a level that was designed like a hallway, or if they navigated through a maze-like level filled with spikes and lava pits?  We believe the latter provides more opportunity for player satisfaction, although there isn’t an objectively correct answer.

Even just the word “platformer” makes a case for hazards.  What’s the point of having platforms to jump on if everywhere is safe?  In Cally’s Caves 2 we have 3 environmental hazards: Water, Lava, and Spikes.  And they all react the same way when the player collides with them: instant death.  Although this may seem overly frustrating, the penalty for death is not severe in Cally’s Caves 2.  Upon death, the player restarts the level with all the progress they have made in it (ie. enemies they have defeated) saved.  The main penalty is the loss of coins, which penalizes the player for not playing well, and reinforces the game’s currency system.

Lava

Coins to guide your way

As with any video game, the platform the game is on makes a lot of the decisions for us.  Cally’s Caves 2 is an iOS game that runs on iOS hardware, which has it’s own benefits and constraints.  Level size is an area where the hardware made the decision for us.  As much as we like the idea of having huge 10000 x 10000 pixel levels, the hardware on even the newest iOS devices struggles to display everything at a decent frame rate (we are using GameMaker: Studio).  Similarly, We know that we want to have environmental hazards in the game, but how do we do that on an iphone 4s with a small 960×640 resolution?   Pictured below is an area of a level where the player must jump over a bed of spikes to reach a platform.  The spikes are a mere 128 pixels below the height of the platform the player will jump off, however a player playing on an iphone 4s will not be able to see the spikes at the bottom (our field of view for the iphone 4s resolution is only 256 pixels high).

Spikes

This presents a serious problem, as the player should never jump off a ledge without knowing they can land safely somewhere.  If a player takes a leap of faith and falls into a spike bed, they will feel like the game cheated them and get frustrated.  In order to solve this problem, we looked to another aspect of our game: currency.  There was already a currency system in the game where coins drop from enemies when they are defeated.  These coins can then be spent on upgrades at a store in the pause menu.  The coins that drop from the enemies are gold coins and are affected by gravity, so we decided to make silver coins that are slightly less valuable, but act as a guide for the player.  As you can see in the picture above, if the player jumps off the ledge, they do have a chance of falling in the spikes and dying.   If they jump along the path of the coins, however, they will safely land on the other platform and continue on their merry way.  The most crucial aspect of implementing the “coins-as-a-path” system is that the coins should never lead the player astray.  If the coin path leads a player into spike pit, the trust between the game’s player and designer is broken, and the results will be negative.  So throughout Cally’s Caves 2, you will be able to follow the coins and know you will be safe.

Dead Ends/Alternate Paths

Cally's Caves 2: Level 10

Another way we have given the levels in Cally’s Caves 2 some variety is by adding in branching paths and dead end areas.  If you look at the level pictured above, you see that the player enters the room (from the top left), and encounters a 3 way intersection.  One path leads to the level’s exit, and the other two lead to dead ends.  We believe that by adding alternate paths and dead end areas, the levels will seem more nebulous and make the player feel like they are exploring (some might view this as unfocussed, and that’s definitely one way of looking at it, but Cally 2 is about exploring so we’ve decided to approach it this way).  We believe the key to building that feeling of exploring is by rewarding the player for checking out those alternate paths.  You will not find a dead end in Cally’s Caves 2 with no reward.  As you can see, one of the dead ends in this level (pictured above) leads to a large amount of coins, and the other leads to some coins and a treasure chest for the player to find.  So even though the player will not find the level exit in a dead end area, they will be rewarded for exploring that alternate path.  Utilizing alternate routes makes the levels feel bigger than they actually are, and make the player feel as though they are exploring and have options.

cally 2 level 34

This next level (pictured above) is one of the simplest examples of alternate paths in Cally’s Caves 2.  The player enters from the left and is confronted by a choice: should they take the higher or lower path?  In some cases, the decision will be made for them by the gating.  The upper path is only accessible if the player has bought the “triple jump” upgrade from the store.  The upper path is also much easier to traverse, with far fewer enemies, and a larger coin reward.  Players that take the lower path (either by choice or by not acquiring the triple jump yet), will have a harder time, but still reach the level’s exit if they can defeat the higher number of enemies.  This level helps reinforce some of the game’s other systems, such as the upgrade shop.  The player is most likely to try and reach the higher path when they enter the level, and if they don’t have the triple jump, they will attempt to reach the high path but fail.  This will hopefully motivate them to buy the triple jump upgrade from the shop, so in this case the level design helps reinforce the game’s currency and upgrade shop systems.  Having a level with a branching path like this also motivates the player to explore, and offers variety if they need or choose to replay the level.

Designing the levels for Cally’s Caves 2 has been complex, frustrating, and strangely addictive.  We believe that environmental hazards, coin paths to guide the player, dead ends, and alternate routes will help our levels be the best they possibly can be, and help sell the fiction and reinforce the systems of Cally’s Caves 2.  Cally is a girl exploring a gigantic, dangerous cave system, and we hope that these level design tricks have helped us get that feel across.  We hope that if we work very hard on our level designs, we can demonstrate how many of the game’s systems work without having to rely on text-based tutorials.

We are 4 months into the development of Cally’s Caves 2, and the level design is ongoing.

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