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The philosophy of level design
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This is the same guide I posted in my C3 thread. As I said, I'm moving it here because C3 is over. Feedback is welcome.


1) Introduction

You may or may not have seen my old level design guide in the tutorial forum. That thread is now obsolete since AxemJinx’s guide covers everything I put there and even more points. That’s why I’m making a new level design guide.

You may be wondering, “Why make another level design guide if we already have APPALLED which is quite complete?” well, actually, it isn’t. Don’t take this wrong, I’m not saying APPALLED is a bad guide, actually it’s pretty good and I highly advise you to read it; however, I’ve seen many people taking it like if it was the ultimate guide for designing levels which it isn’t. I’m sure AxemJinx himself doesn’t want the readers to follow his guide like if it was the absolute truth, and neither do I; that’s why I decided to renew my level design guide, so SMW hackers will have a second opinion on level design.

So, what is this going to be? Another list of advices you should follow to design your levels? No! As the title says, this is a philosophy about level design. This guide will not tell you how you should design your levels, nor will it give you any tips on how to do so. In this guide, I’m going to teach you what level design is and how you can use your creativity to improve it. As opposed to APPALLED which is a list of concrete tips and sometimes very situational, this guide will be more abstract and general.

2) What is level design?

Level design is the most important aspect in any SMW hack, or in any platformer game in general. Why? Well, most of platformer games (like SMW and therefore its hacks) mostly consist on levels, so if those levels are boring, the game itself will be boring as well.

2.1 “Level design” does not mean “level”

The term “level” is not a short, a synonym nor an equivalent for “level design”. A level starts when you enter a tile from the overworld and ends when you find one of the exits, a level includes the objects, sprites, graphics, music, screen exits and anything else you can add with Lunar Magic and other tools. The level design is the way the level was built. Let me put it this way: imagine you are baking a cake, the cake itself is the level, and the design is everything you did in order to make the cake including not only the ingredients you are using, but the amount you use of each one, the order you add them to the mix as well as how long you let the oven go and many other things; if you change any of these things, the cake won’t be the same, same goes for SMW levels.

2.2 The definition


My personal definition for level design is “the placement and behavior of anything in the level that can interact with the player”, this is just my way to put it, so you are not forced to agree with this definition, but it’s the one I will be using for this guide. For me, things like graphics and music generally don’t belong to the level design because it’s not something the player can normally interact with (there are some exceptions, but that’s beside the point). You may want to ask me, “why if the player can’t interact with something it’s not part of the level design anymore?” Let’s go back to the cake example: imagine you add an artificial colorant to the cake that doesn’t have any influence in the flavor, it won’t be the same cake anymore since it will look different and the impression of whoever eats it will probably change, but it will taste the same; same goes for levels, if you change the music or the graphics the level will look (or sound) different and so will the feeling of the player towards the level, but the player will go through the level the same way and that’s why the design doesn’t change. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use good music or nice looking GFX in your hacks, but take in mind that that’s not what’s going to make your level good and you shouldn’t focus on these things.

3) Subjectivity and knowledge.


If you are an active member of the community, then you have surely read statements like “level design is subjective” or “fun is subjective”, do you know what this means? While these statements are true, a lot of people interpret them wrongly. Fun is subjective because something that can be fun for someone can be boring for someone else and neither of them is right or wrong because they both had reasons to like or dislike whatever it was and their experience was real, nobody is right or wrong for liking or disliking something; and of course this also applies for level design, any level can be fun for someone and boring for somebody else.

3.1) Good and bad level design


Up to now, everything’s fine, but here comes the hard part, this is what most of people misunderstand about subjectivity: just because level design is subjective and because two people may have different opinions about the same level without being right or wrong it doesn’t mean we can’t say a level is good or bad. If we couldn’t call a level “good” or “bad”, we couldn’t run contests, there wouldn’t be guides like this one or APPALLED, there wouldn’t be any hack submission guidelines or hack moderators, and SMWCP2 level designers wouldn’t need to have their levels tested before they are inserted to the base ROM; all these things I mentioned were made by people who believe there is a line between good and bad levels (even if they don’t exactly put it this way), but who are they to decide what’s good and what’s bad?, isn’t this separation a little artificial? Yes, maybe the separation is artificial, however so is level designing and SMW hacking, so there’s no way there can be a natural line between what’s good and what’ bad. We all have different opinions, however, these people have enough knowledge about gaming to draw this line and they have arguments that go way beyond their mere opinion to defend it; I’ll get back to this point later, now let’s move on to the examples.

See the situation this way: someone who’s new to SMW hacking will probably be amazed to see any SMW custom level and he/she will probably like it a lot even if it’s not very good and has some issues like minor glitches and a flat and repetitive level design however, you and me as more experienced hackers won’t like the level and will probably call it bad because we know more about SMW level designing than the newbies; if you don’t believe me, take a look at your first level, right now you probably think it’s horrible, but back when you made it you thought it was good, otherwise you wouldn’t have made it that way. What makes the difference between the experienced hacker and the newbie is that experienced hackers have a series of criteria they acquired during their experience with hacking that help them to judge what levels are good and what levels are bad, newbies don’t. Don’t take this as if I was saying experienced hackers always have the absolute truth and newbies are always wrong, it just mean experienced hackers have more knowledge about SMW hacks and can give a more accurate review on levels; don’t take it as if I was saying the experienced hacker can decide objectively what’s good and what’s bad either, not even experienced hackers can do this, but they will certainly give you a better approach than the newbies.

3.2) Acquiring the knowledge

Now that I’ve made clear that you can call levels good or bad if you have enough knowledge about SMW hacks (not to be confused about SMW hacking knowledge which includes things like coding ASM or inserting custom stuff), let’s see how you can acquire said knowledge.

First of all, as I sated before, you need to have some experience with the game, playing other hacks, as well as other platformer games, not only will give you ideas that you can incorporate to your hacks but it will also help you to make a difference between what’s good and what’s bad. When you play a hack, don’t limit yourself to saying if you liked it or not, ask yourself, what did you like about the levels, and what you didn’t like, and most importantly ask yourself what you would change to make the hack better and why; if you do this you will be able to apply it later when you design the levels for your hacks. Another important part of playing other hacks/platformer games is to compare, what makes the difference between a hack you liked and a hack you didn’t like?, what does the former have that made you like it?; keep asking yourself these questions and you’ll have an idea of what makes a good hack and what makes a bad hack.

Now, if you just limited yourself to what we liked and what we didn’t like in the hacks you played, you wouldn’t be able to see beyond your own opinion, right? That’s why you also have to listen to what others have to say. Read reviews and comments made by other members of the community about the hacks you’ve played, read about people’s thoughts about level design in the forums and ask them what they expect to see in a hack; by doing this you’ll realize a lot of things you didn’t take into account when playing. When you read other’s reviews and thoughts ask yourself if you agree or if you disagree with them, and most importantly: ask yourself why. In other words, don’t limit yourself to saying you agree or not, you must know and be able to explain why you agree or disagree with something; I highly advise you to pay attention to the reasons and arguments behind other people’s statements, because a statement without any argument is as good as nothing, read carefully through other’s statements and ask yourself if their reasons are good enough to validate them, or if they’re just statements thrown out into the air with no arguments at all. Also, make sure the reasons why you agree or disagree with something are your own reasons and not somebody else’s; I’m sure you’ve heard countless times statements like “you should avoid item babysitting” or “levels should never be linear” and I’m sure must of the people who keep repeating this don’t even know why, I’m not saying these statements are fake or that you shouldn’t agree with them, I just saying that whenever you agree or not with that, you should be able to give your own reasons, what you mustn’t do is follow them blindly.

3.3) keep an open mind.

Remember what I said in 3.1 about the line between good and bad hacks and seeing beyond your mere opinion? Remember I said I’d get into that later? Well, I’ll get into that right now.

As I said before, the line between good and bad hacks is artificial, but this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In other words, this line is made out of the point of view of the majority of the community, you can see this line if you read the hack submission guidelines and in any other guide for level designers like APPALLED or the designer’s guide for SMCWP2. However this is just one of many lines out there, those guides I mentioned only cover what AxemJinx would call the “mainstream audience”, but there are many other lines that divide good and bad hacks, for example: Japanese hackers have other criteria for judging hacks (hence why their hacks are so different from ours) so do Kaizo hackers, joke hackers and many other groups of hackers. Actually, we all have a different line that separates good and bad hacks; even if you are part of one of the above groups, your line will only be similar to the group’s line, but it will never be 100% identical.

So, how is this related to keeping an open mind and seeing beyond your own opinion? Well, while you have your own personal line which divides good and bad hacks, and you have your reasons and arguments to defend your line you must realize that your line is not the absolute truth, and you must be able to realize that just because you don’t like something it doesn’t mean it’s bad, that’s what “seeing beyond your mere opinion” means. Here’s an example: personally, I don’t like Kaizo hacks at all, even if I like hard hacks, the idea of playing something where I have to be extremely careful and precise in every single move I make doesn’t excites me at all; however, I know there are people who enjoy these hacks and even have their own criteria for judging between good and bad Kaizo hack, so I can realize those hacks can be good even if I don’t like them, same goes for all the other groups I mentioned in the last paragraph. Even if something is good, there’s no way everyone will like it, so don’t feel forced to enjoy everything, as long as you realize it can be good it’s okay.

4) Building your level

Up to now, I’ve just defined some concepts like level design, subjectivity, knowledge, and separating lines; this section will be different. Here I will talk about some things you have to keep in mind when you design a level. This is probably more (but not entirely) on the “tip” side than the “abstract” and “philosophical” side, however, I decided to put it here because I think it’s important, and most of it can be applied to any hack, so it’s still on the “general” side.

4.1 Conceptualizing a level


Before you start building a level you should ask yourself what concept it’s going to represent. Now, I’m not talking about the level design concept, I already talked about that in section 1, I’m taking about the concept your level should have; in other words, I’m talking about the theme of your level, what does your level represents?, where does it takes place?, what’s happening at the moment Mario is going there?, give an answer to these questions and you will get a level concept.

I’ll start with a simple example: imagine you want to design a forest level, so what do you need? I suppose you’re thinking about using a forest tileset and a “foresty” theme from the music section, would that be enough to call it a forest level? Well, no. While graphics and music can help you to give your level a forest ambience, it’s not enough to call it a forest level; in order to have an actual forest level you will also need to use objects and sprites that match the forest level theme like vines, munchers, wigglers, spinies and maybe a few custom sprites; but you don’t need to go with the classic forest level scenario, for example, you could make a forest that’s being destroyed, in that case enemies like mechakoopas, grinders and saws would be more appropriate, and maybe you could also put some cut-out trees or fallen trunks; or maybe you could do a haunted forest, in that case you should use ghosts apart from the regular forest enemies.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless when it comes to conceptualizing a level, all you have to do is choose a theme and build your level around said theme with the help of objects, sprites and maybe a gimmick (if you can implement one). Whatever you chose for your level concept, keep it mind it should be coherent and congruent; coherence means “overall sense”, I know a lot of things in the Mario world don’t make sense, but this doesn’t mean you should add a lot of random stuff around that don’t have nothing to do with your level’s concept, for example, you shouldn’t use a fire enemy if the concept of your level is a frosty cave; congruence means “something that corresponds”, in other words, a level is congruent if there is a logical connection between the beginning and the end, if a level starts as a forest level, you would expect it to end as a forest level, I’m not saying a level has to finish the same way it started, it’s ok to have variations in your level (like starting in a forest and ending in a cave) as long as there is a logical connection between the different segments of the level, but you shouldn’t do something like putting a pipe in a cave level that leads to other space, or something like that. Last but not least, you should remember the concept of your level when you name it, keep in mind that the name will represent the concept of your level, by reading the name of your level, the players should be able to get an idea of how it’s going to be.

4.2) Use of resources (original, custom and overused).

Although the number of people who have this mindset has decreased during the last year, there are still some people who still have the wrong idea about custom recourses, so I’ll give a little word here.

Custom resources (mostly sprites and blocks) are there so you can have more variety in your levels, but they are in no way superior to the original SMW resources. Inserting custom blocks and sprites won’t automatically make your level better just because they are custom, therefore you shouldn’t insert custom resources just for the heck of it; I know this may sound obvious, but a lot of people tend to forget about it. What makes the difference is not which resources you use but the way you use them, an enemy from SMW can give a more enjoyable experience if it’s used correctly than a custom enemy randomly thrown out there; the key is to combine enemies and blocks so you can create obstacles for the player. Don’t take this as if I was saying you shouldn’t use custom sprites and blocks, I’m saying you shouldn’t use them just because they’re custom, only use them if you can pull out a good use for them, like creating an obstacle or building a gimmick, or if they fit the concept of your level. Regarding overused resources: just because other people used them in their hacks it doesn’t mean they are inferior to the rest, if they are a nice addition to your level’s concept or if you can use them to build obstacles or gimmicks, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use them; besides you might as well be able to pull out new ways to use these resources, so you don’t have to worry about not being original.

5) Summary and final words.


In a nutshell: the level design is the way a level is built and mostly consists on objects and sprites, therefore you must know which resources you should use and how to use them in order to give a concept to your level, at the same time, there’s no reason why you should prefer a particular resource over another unless you know you can give the former a better use.

Level design is subjective; therefore there is not a “one and only” line that separates good and bad hacks but many, since different groups of hackers have different criteria to separate good and bad hacks. You must be able to draw your own separating line, in order to do so you must play a lot of hacks are read reviews made by other people so you can have some knowledge about SMW hacks; and most importantly, you must be able to give arguments that defend your point of view based on what you learned; but you mustn’t take it as if it was the absolute truth.

So that should be everything. I hope this guide will make you consider some stuff regarding level design. Please don’t follow this blindly like if it was the absolute truth; feel free to disagree with anything you don’t like, but don’t disagree just for the heck of it, if you disagree or agree with something you must be able to give arguments that will defend your point of view; just as I explained in section 3.
I had just finished reading through your philosophical document, and I must say I am rather impressed. It really encompasses the idea that the level is one's own creation, and much of its creation is created from a personal, subjective (as stated numerous times in the document) viewpoint of the individual. While a level's creation may be subjective, there are many outward influences that are placed on the designer; such as their frame of mind, the community, etc. I like how you addressed that through your example of everyone's first level in how many of us would put down our own first creation. That was a nice connection that really hit home for me.

Overall, it was really well written. The document really made you think about how one goes about creating their own level and in what manner. I know the next time that I make a level of my own, I will be reflecting on some of the ideas that you had posed in terms of planning, and how I can possibly improve certain areas of the level after it's first 'draft,' so to speak.

Thank you for this enlightening experience, aj6666!

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