My approach for initial level design is the same for as it is for system design - I start with the kind of experience I want the player(s) to have and the kind of feelings I want them to feel while engaging with my level. With those in mind, I can work my way backward from there by thinking about how I can craft a set of coherent places that will evoke the experience I want players to feel, and how I can connect those places with transitional spaces that draw the players through them. What feelings do I want to evoke in each place? What order do I want these feelings to be felt? What kind of overall theme do I want to tie the experience together?
First, let’s consider the kind of physical places you’ve been to. Most places you’ve been consist of smaller places connected by transitional spaces. A house is a bunch of places (rooms) connected by transitions (doorways, hallways, staircases, etc.). A museum is a bunch of places (exhibits and exhibit halls, gift shop, foyer, etc.) connected by transitions. A school campus is a bunch of places (classrooms, offices, parking lots, quad) connected by transitions. Each of these places carry a sense of where and what it is, and people navigate those places by remembering where they are relative to each other, and which transitions from their current place connect to which other places and where. That sense of relative connection and orientation is also how players figure out how to navigate levels. With this in mind, we can consider initial level design.
I suggest trying to think of different themes and emotions you want to evoke with your level. A happy picnic in a park. A claustrophobic sewer. A spooky gothic mansion. A dream-like candy land. An enormously tall tree. A dilapidated robot factory. A derelict space station. Then, break it down into places you think belong within that kind of level theme - a spooky gothic mansion might have a fancy bedroom with a big four-poster bed, a massive hallway with suits of armor, a big kitchen, a ballroom, a banquet hall, a grand foyer, a dungeon, manicured hedges and a fountain outside, and so on. Finally, start thinking about how players will navigate from place to place within that level - where will you place the transitions so they will be able to progress through the level in the way you want? Once you’ve got these sketched out and connected, you’ve got a rough blueprint for your level.
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