Lessons in Level Design with Professor Phil #1

Attention students! Class is in session. Get out your #2 pencils and put on your learning caps! I'm Professor Phil!

Attention students! Class is in session. Get out your #2 pencils and put on your learning caps! I'm Professor Phil!

Hey Builders! It's Phil again with a new, planned recurring series of articles for the Bloxels blog! While I am not really a professor, nor do I play one on TV, you can count on me to provide my fellow Builders with advice on how to create great designed levels in Bloxels. 

On this inaugural edition of Lessons in Level Design with Professor Phil, I am going to use a real game example of a level that is well designed, explain why the level is so well designed, and offer tips on how you can use the information provided here to build better levels in Bloxels! 

The game I will be using for this first edition is the Super Nintendo game, Donkey Kong Country, a classic Rare-developed, Nintendo-published 1994 reawakening of Nintendo's classic arcade franchise. Unlike previous games in the series, Donkey Kong Country was a side-scrolling 2D platformer, similar to Super Mario Bros. in some aspects. Though in this case, instead of needing to rescue a damsel in distress, Donkey Kong and his pal Diddy Kong were going after their stolen hoard of bananas. 

With the introduction of the game out of the way, let's get to one of Donkey Kong Country's levels, as that's really what we're all here for. The level I have selected is the first level of the penultimate world of the game, Kremkroc Industries. It's Oil Drum Alley.

So many levels in Donkey Kong Country and its various sequels take a main gameplay mechanic or gimmick, if you will, and iterate on it from the start of the level where it is introduced to the end, where the gimmick is placed in its most challenging iteration. In Oil Drum Alley's case, the main gimmick used is that of the oil drums. 

Hello, Diddy Kong and enemy Gnawty the Beaver. this is the beginning portion of Oil Drum Alley. It eases the player into the level. There are no enemies nearby where the Kongs begin this level. That is because it'd be a bit tacky to immediately throw the player into harm's way. Not to mention quite frustrating.

Here lies the first instance of the oil drum. This one has a constant stream of fire coming out from its insides, harmful to the touch as you could probably expect. This first oil drum is as simple to avoid as having a running start and leaping over it. There will be no burnt monkey fannies while I'm around! 

This oil drum looks innocent enough, but it actually houses a bonus area. Taking a TNT barrel from the start of the level and having it hit the oil drum will reveal a hole that allows the player to access a secret bonus area. Keep players engaged and encourage exploration by creating hidden areas in your levels. There is nothing quite like discovering a secret location in a level to make you feel rewarded for your exploration. It's even better if there's something really special hidden there, perhaps a secret stash of coins?

Here's the second instance of an oil drum. This time we see it on a descending set of platforms akin to a staircase,  This is also pretty simple to a void, just a jump from the top platform to the bottom platform. Safe and sound!

Here's a precarious scenario, the first real challenge involving an oil drum in this level. Here, the player will need to bounce on this tire to get enough height to launch over to the right, over the oil drum, and safely to its other side. 

Now, the level designer makes the oil drum obstacle more challenging. First, notice how each instance of oil drums that the player needs to avoid are introduced in a way that they slowly rise in difficulty. You don't get an easy jump, then a brutally difficult jump, to a normal difficulty jump, ending with an easy jump. Instead, there's a steady difficulty curve. That is, the level starts out easy enough, and its major challenges are at the end of the level. 

Here, there are a series of tires the player needs to bounce on to make it over each of these oil drums. It's like the oil drum challenge that came before it, but now there's more drums and tires to worry about.

Now, the designer of this level is getting a bit mischievous! The oil drum here is placed over a bottomless pit. Not only does it rest in a dangerous location, but the fire inside it rises and falls intermittently. It's here that now timing is needed in the player's jumps to avoid a fiery bottom.

Taking the oil-drum-over-the-bottomless-pit idea and doubling it, now there are two oil drums in a row over this precarious chasm to be considered with. Again, the fire inside each drum rises and falls, meaning that proper timing in Donkey and Diddy Kong's jumps now is doubly important.

The conclusion of the Oil Drum Alley is the most difficult portion of the level, which makes sense as it's the final part. It takes all the player has learned about oil drums, and uses that knowledge to create a final challenge worthy of the end of the level. There are a handful of oil drums that burn on and off, tires to time bounces on, and a giant bottomless pit underneath to add some pressure (as if it was needed at all). However, there is always that sigh of relief to be had when the player completes this final stretch of level and reaches the goal.

So, what does Donkey Kong Country's Oil Drum Alley have to do with building levels in Bloxels? Well, the same design ideas and principles can be used. You can start out with a level with simple jumps, maybe with the player having the ability to fall safely if he or she misses a jump by having floor underneath. Further in the level you can make it so jumps no longer have that safety net, instead replacing it with a chasm or pool of lava. Then, to finish things off you can have much more challenging jumps, perhaps with platforms that are only one block wide, over a long bottomless pit. This is just one way you can create a level with a steady difficulty curve in Bloxels.

As Bloxels gains new functionality, new things can be added to your levels to make them even more interesting. Please look forward to new additions to Bloxels, as well as future editions of Lessons in Level Design with your friend, Professor Phil! I hope this read was an interesting, informative, and entertaining one. Stay tuned to the Bloxels blog for future updates!

All screenshots were taken from YouTube user's MegamanNG's video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_NSqG3Ozd0