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Level design guide
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Warning: You are about to read a big super mega giant wall of text!

Table of contents:

I) Introducction
II) Starting the level
III) Use of objects and sprites
IV) Lenght
V) Variety
VI) Challenge
VII) Some last words

I) Introduction.

I’ve wanted to do this for a while. There are tutorials about how to add sprites, blocks, code ASM, port music ect… but there’s nothing about level design which is, in my opinion, the most important element in a hack and generally thrown away by graphics and music.

First of all, what is level design? Well, that’s pretty hard to define actually, my personal definition is “the placement and behavior of the objects and sprites in the level” in other words, every sprite and every block you place will contribute to your level’s design. In my opinion, graphics, decorations (this includes the background), palettes and music don’t belong to the level design since the player cannot interact with them, even if they can change the feeling of a level.

Unfortunately, there is no formula for good level design like “if you add three sublevels, and every levels is at least F screen long, and you have a bonus room and an alternate path and a P-switch you level will be good no matter what”, you don’t need to add custom stuff either in order to have a good level, the only tool you need is Lunar Magic. The point of this tutorial is not to tell you how you should make your levels and much less to give you a pattern to follow, but rather to give you some advices so you can improve your level design.

II) Starting the level.

The first thing, you have to do, of course is press ctrl+del in order delete the original level, generally, it’s not a good idea to edit the original SMW levels, even for switch palaces (a lot of people don't even change the switch palaces), because it’s uncreative, If you want to have a completely original level design you’d better start from a scratch.

Now, that you’ve pressed ctrl+del, you find yourself in front of a blank level and there is nothing in front of you except for the background and you are probably asking yourself “how should I start?” don’t worry, every hacker has gone thought this phase, it’s just like when you’re about to write an essay and you are in front of a white sheet of paper, you have to organize your ideas and know in which order you should write them down, well it’s basically the same in SMW hacking. First of all, you need to know what kind of level you’re about to make, a forest? A castle? A cave? A desert? Once you’ve decided, you should change the background to something more fitting. I’d advise you not to do something like “this level starts as a desert, then it’s a snowland, and then a mountain, and then a ghost house”, if you are going to have mixed themes like these, make sure it doesn’t happen too often and that there is some kind of connection between those themes.

The next step is to chose what kind of sprites and objects you are going to use, try to chose something that fits the scenery you have in mind, for example, if you’re going to do a forest level, you can use some vines, munchers, piranha plants and wigglers, but you can also add some ghosts instead and say it’s a haunted forest; or you can add some grinders, mecha-koopas and chucks and say the forest has been invaded by bowser’s troops. Heck you can pick any subject you want, just make sure to respect it all over the level.

Once you’ve chosen your subject you have to change the graphics, palettes and music to something that matches it, I know I said these kind of thing didn’t belong to the level design, but it doesn’t mean they are not related with the design in any way, and it’s better to have them to match your level design, however, you must remember that just because your level has good looking graphics and awesome music it doesn’t mean it’s good. Other stuff like if the level is vertical or not, if it’s a layer 2 level, if it uses layer 3 tides, if it’s slippery, or if it’s a water level ect... should also be decided at this point.

III) Use of objects and sprites.

This is the most important part since it’s the one that will determine if your level design is good or not. Remember that the level design doesn’t come from the objects and sprites your are using, but from the way you are using them. Don’t add random custom blocks and sprites just for the heck of it, it won’t give you a better design just because they are custom, try to make a blend between original and custom objects and sprites that match the subject of your level, and use them cleverly.

I’d advise you not to use a lot of different sprites per level, try to stick to the subject you chosed, you don’t write down a lot of random ideas when you make an essay right? Well then you shouldn’t add a lot of random sprites in your level. On the other hand, a level with a few kind of enemies is as poor as an essay with a few arguments, even if your level has a name based on an enemy, like “dry bones desert” you should also add some other enemies to avoid having a repetitive design, in the level “dry bones desert” you can also add a few bony beetles and pokeys. If you don’t know what to add, you can always use koopas and goombas, since they fit in almost every scenario.

Your level shouldn’t be flat and boring, the point of SMW hacks is not to make the player dodge some enemies and avoid pits from time to time, add coins to your levels in order to make the player jump, use enemies and objects cleverly so they will be an obstacle to the player and not just something they can avoid by just jumping over them, you can also use slopes, walls and pits so your level won’t just be a flat piece of ground. Finally, you shouldn’t leave bland areas that lack any kind of enemies or danger.

Spamming bosses and ASM gimmicks is not the way to go either, ASM gimmicks should be used to give a nice touch to your level, not to make your hack completely distant from the original SMW, same goes for the bosses, you should limit those to castles and ghosts houses, and maybe a couple of levels out there, if you add a boss at the end of every level, your hack will start to be boring and repetitive. I guess all of us have heard of and played brutal Mario already, that hack is a good example of what I’ve just mentioned, it overused bosses and ASM gimmicks, however, some of the levels (not all) had a pretty bad design.

IV) Length

Length is a very important factor as well, if you levels are too short, the player will beat them easily and you hack will be too short and boring. If your level is too long, you can add one (or several since there is a patch for that) midway point(s).

I don’t like it when people say “you levels should be at least X screens long”, the level length is not based on how many screens it has, but in how much time it takes to beat it, you can use the time counter as a reference. In my opinion, a good level takes at least 250 game seconds to beat, there are some exceptions of course, but you should try to respect this limit.

If your level is too short, and you don’t know what else you can add to make it longer then take a break, close Lunar Magic, go do something else and come back when you feel more original. If you really can’t think about something more to add, there are some ways to give the feeling that level is longer than what it actually is: like adding auto school or forcing the player to go back through their own steps (with the help of a p-switch for example) however, these methods should only be used in extreme cases, don’t overuse them in your hacks.

Remember that your level’s length should be increasing while the player advances in the hack, shorter levels should be placed at the beginning and longer levels should be placed at the end. Although this curve doesn’t need to be perfect, I’d advise you to preserve it as much as you can.

V) Variety

Variety is another important factor you have to take in mind when designing a level. If your level is too repetitive the player will get bored, this is just like writing down the same idea all over an essay without adding anything new.

Just because you are sticking with the scenario you chosed, it doesn’t mean your whole level should not have a single variation, I’d advise you to use difent kind of terrains (normal/sloppy/floating/ect…) in the same level, features like bridges, water, pipes, should help you as well. If you’re going to use some sublevels you should have something to make the different from them main level (another spriteset/tileset/palettes/level mode, or at least use different blocks) so the player won’t get tired of going through similar areas. Also, you should never copy-paste areas just to make your level longer, this should be self-explainatory.

Having too much variation isn’t good either, as I’ve mentioned before, a level that starts as a desert and ends as a ghost house passing by a snow land, a mountain and outher space with completely different enemies and graphics in every area is not good either since the level will become a bunch of random areas thrown in without any kind of logical connections. Try not to have more than one major variation in your levels and make sure there’s some sort logic union between the first area and the second.

VI) Challenge

This is the last important factor you need to remember. A level shouldn’t be too easy nor should it be too hard, try to find the right balance.

If you want to make a level that’s rather easy, you should avoid adding complex enemies or hard jumps, adding powerups and midway points is a good way to decrease your level’s difficulty. Remember that even your easiest level should have a considerable chance for the player to lose.

On the other hand, if you are trying to make a hard level, you have to make a smart use of the sprites and objects in order to make nice obstacles, also remember that just because your level has a one or two hard areas it won’t make it hard, the difficulty should be dispatched all over your level and not just focused in a small area. Hard does not mean unfair or Kaizo, even your hardest level should be passable without savestaes, and it shouldn’t contain luck based segments, if you’re going to add something unexpected, warn the player; if you're going to make a hard puzzle, add a reset door.

You should also try to keep a good difficulty curve all over you hack, every level should be harder than the previous one, unlike the length curve, the difficulty curve should be as perfect as you can. I’d advise you to make your levels in the same order as they are placed in the overworld in order to avoid breaks in the curve.

VII) Some last words

To put this tutorial in a nutshell, you should always make your levels from a scratch, be sure change any settings like the level mode, the tileset, the spriteset ect... before you start making the level, you should pick a scenario and stick to it, but that doesn’t mean your level has to be repetitive. Don’t throw random sprites and objects just for the heck of it, instead, use the in a clever way to make obstacles that are hard to pass, but try to keep a fair difficulty level. Don’t make levels too short, and use midway points if they are too long, remember to have a good length and difficulty curve in your hack. And last but not least, play your own levels, if you don’t like them then there’s a big chance that other players won’t like them either.

That’s all; I hope this was useful, now go and show me some good s*it. Also, if there’s anything you would like to add to this tutorial fell free to post it here.

Yes, this was very useful. I think that all the SMWCP2 level designers need to read this before starting their levels. Some of the basic rules outlined in this would help prevent another level like football canyon or rupture in reality.

Also, i wouldn't mind seeing a section on switch palace design, because alot of people do not edit their switch palaces, or they make some hard puzzle, and they forget reset doors.

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This is amazingly useful.

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Originally posted by Clay_Buster
Also, i wouldn't mind seeing a section on switch palace design, because alot of people do not edit their switch palaces, or they make some hard puzzle, and they forget reset doors.


I added some words about editing switch palaces and adding reset doors. I don't think there should be a section just for switch palace design because everyone makes those levels their way, some people make puzzles,l other people make shorter level, others make full lenght levels and there's even people who don't use the switch palace tilset and make them as ordinary levels with a switch at the end. Adding a section about switch palace design would be just like adding a section for grassland level design.

Thanks for the nice words by the way.
Honestly,this is one of the best tutorials that I've readed so far.
Maybe it should be sticky.
good or not, tutorials alone i dont think should be stickied, theres really just no need, it only takes 1 person 2 clicks to search the entire tutorials page to find one they want to read if its not on the page.
Very useful#w{=)}

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Yay i have stuff to put in my sig :3
China called, they want their wall back. But aside from that joke, really really helpful tutorial, I've read every little thing. I think I've learned something from this, and than I already know music insertion, ASM insertion, and sprite insertion. Now only still some coding to go with it...


Very good tutorial!

I've always focused most on decorations and palettes, but now I've even more sure that level design comes first! I've been hacking for over two years and I still learned something from this tutorial, I suggest everyone who is hacking to read this, its just a damn good reminder!

Good job aj6666!
This should be on the F.A.Q. page.

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Great tutorial! It helped me a lot!

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Thank you so much! This really helped me :D
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This is really useful. Very good tutorial.
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