Design Shift

Hi, I’m Jason, Game Designer at DrinkBox Studios, specializing in Level Design. We’re all hard at work on our new game, Severed… and if you’re an eagle-eyed Back to the Future fan, you know that it’s coming out… someday.


From a Level Design standpoint, Severed is quite different from our previous titles, which were primarily Platformers. As a first-person action-adventure game, the player travels through, and interacts with the game world in a much different way than in, say, Guacamelee!. For the design team, this has not only created a few challenges for level design, but has also allowed us to learn some interesting new ways to approach level design and world building.


When designing a Platformer, you have to think about how the player will move through the environment from a gameplay perspective. The player has to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’, so you have to think about all of the gameplay opportunities that you can insert into the world to make that journey from ‘A’ to be ‘B’ as interesting as possible, and as difficult as you desire. The most important element of Platformer design is understanding, and leveraging the player character’s movement ability. If the player has the ability to jump, then make them jump! The more options the player has at their disposal, the more fun it is to move around the world.



A (not at all exhaustive) overview of Level Design for Platformers


That takes us to Severed, which obviously, is not a Platformer, and therefore needs a different approach to level design.


Movement in Severed

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In Severed, the player doesn’t have as many movement options as in a game like Guacamelee!. Firstly, the player doesn’t move freely around the screen, the player instead moves through the world in steps. A movement action is a single “step”, a constant distance that separates all of the game’s rooms (also known as ‘nodes’). The design team quickly learned that instead of thinking of this as a limitation, it is instead a useful concept for creating levels in Severed. With this unit of measurement we can plan out levels much more carefully and create a finely tuned experience for the player. For example we know that the player will be exactly 3 steps away from a point of interest and the level designers can use that information to their advantage.



Nodes connect to each other to create rooms in Severed


The world of Severed, as you have probably already seen, is beautiful, fascinating and sometimes terrifying. And being an action-adventure game, it’s very important that we allow the player to fully explore and take in this world we’ve created. There are many dangers in the world of Severed, but the player does not have to be afraid of moving around. The standard ‘step’ is not inherently dangerous… it can lead the player into danger, but the player doesn’t have to worry about falling into a pit or jumping over a flaming spike ball.


This has also affected the early concept and planning phases for level design. When designing a Platformer, I personally find it very useful to just roll up my sleeves and dive right in to the tools. However, Severed has required a great deal more planning before the actual creation of levels begins. It’s very, very difficult to simply jump in and begin creating. This is partially due to the way that the levels themselves are constructed but also due to the importance of what we want the player to see, and when we want them to see it. Something as simple as a path that approaches a deserted temple is carefully planned and structured to provide just the right feeling at that moment. This means that many of the levels in Severed went through multiple iterations of paper designs before any of the dev tools were used. Because of Severed’s node structure, I found that spreadsheets were incredibly useful in designing Severed’s levels.



Not how you typically use excel, but it worked great!


Severed is hardly devoid of level design gameplay. There are plenty of deadly enemies that inhabit the world. Deciding what enemies the player will face, and where they lie in wait is a very important element of the level design. And as with all other elements of the level design, everyone at DrinkBox has helped to inform these decisions. The enemy behaviors, combat difficulty tuning and reward systems have all factored into placing twisted creatures into the world of Severed.


So, what does all of this mean for the level designers on Severed? Well, for me, it has meant a shift away from pits, spikes, and Tule Trees, and shift towards building and fleshing out a world, one that is constantly telling a story. And don’t worry, there’s still plenty of opportunities to add traps, treasures, creatures and secrets! As a Level Designer you can’t always rely on your old methods… sometimes you do have to learn new tricks.

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