Crafting Levels for Project Giana
Hello everybody, my name is Stefan Schmitz and I’m one of two project owners for Project Giana. As a project owner, it’s my task to ensure that all levels are in line with the vision of our creative director, Jean-Marc Haessig. I’m also a level designer and do design work as normal.
In this dev diary, I’ll give you a peek at how we level designers work at Black Forest Games, as well as the different stages our work has to go through before it’s done.
Levels and Their Owners
For Project Giana, each level designer has a great deal of control over their respective levels. When a designer is tasked with creating a new level, he or she obtains “ownership” over it. That means that this designer is responsible for all changes made to that level.
As long as the guidelines set early on are respected, the level owner is given creative freedom over his or her work.
Bringing the Ideas to Paper
Before we start building a level, we determine its rough guidelines. Among other things, we define its central theme, pacing, difficulty and which enemies are appropriate for what we intend to achieve.
The next step is done on paper. The designs in this phase start out very rough, and only serve to provide a general direction at first. We then make a few passes over the “paper design” until we have a usable layout.
Paper designs are useful at an early stage as it’s easy to get feedback from colleagues and correct errors before they can find their way into the editor. It’s always easier to erase a few pencil lines than to rip apart level geometry.
Old School Level Geometry
Once we are happy with a paper design, we use it as a reference and start working with the editor. For the level geometry of Project Giana, we’re making use of a tried-and-true method for platformer games: tilesets.
Tilesets are collections of graphical building blocks that can be easily assembled to large objects or even entire levels. Project Giana uses a grid of 1×1 meters (one meter equals approximately 3.3 feet); building blocks for the basic level geometry generally have a size around 9×9 meters.
Assembling tilesets quickly gives us a structure that is quite close to the paper design.
Making Things Work
The next step when creating a level is to place elements called „actors”. Those elements all interact with Giana in some way, be it water, moving platforms, destructible blocks, bottomless pits or monsters.
The action segments and small puzzles created that way get tested and tweaked again and again until all parts of the level match the designer’s vision and the overall concept of the game.
While building the level in the editor, we designers often get new ideas that weren’t part of the paper design. As we have full control over our respective levels, we are free to follow our creative impulses and make any changes we deem beneficial.
Building a level is made more challenging by our main feature, the „twist“. As the player can switch forms and dreams at any time, we need to constantly keep that in mind when building the challenges – a single mistake, and the player would be able to skip large chunks of the game by dashing or twirling where we didn’t expect it. This is great for speedruns, but severely cuts into the amount of effective content if it happens too often. We leave in unintentional shortcuts if they require a substantial amount of skill to use, but if they’re trivial, they have to go.
Once everything works as it should, we place the gems, cameras, starting point and exit. Like in most platformers, the pickups (gems) serve a dual purpose: small amounts of easily accessible and clearly visible gems serve as a hint and lure, while hidden or difficult-to-reach stashes provide a reward for difficult challenges.
Ready, Steady, Dress-Up!
When a level designer is satisfied with his or her work, it’s handed over to the colleagues at quality assurance (testing), to other level designers and to both project owners, where it is thoroughly checked for bugs, design flaws and consistency with the vision for the game.
Once a level has no more gameplay issues that need to be resolved and has been greenlighted by both project owners, we hand it over to the art department for dressing. “Dressing” refers to all elements in a level that aren’t required for making it work, but are necessary for making it look appealing and easy to “read” (see our last dev diary) While the level designer/owner no longer makes any changes at this point, he or she confers with the art team on what the level is supposed to express and on how to support that vision with the proper dressing.
To wrap things up, here’s a snapshot from the finished level. See where it matches the previous pic?