How To Design Game Levels

By Jesal Trivedi on July 13, 2020

This is the second part of our ‘Orbit Path: Game Development Series’, which follows the creation of our own mobile game, Orbit Path. To read the first part, where we discuss developing and designing your game’s aesthetic and concept, hit the link here.

How did breakout level-based games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope design their game levels? What strategies did they use to keep the user hooked (read: addicted) enough to keep coming back for more? More importantly, is there a secret recipe for success when it comes to how to design a mobile game?

Unless you were involved in creating those games, the answer to the rest of us is ‘No’. That said, there’s a whole lot we can take away from playing their games and taking notes. Here are 3 of the most important tactics we learned about how to design game levels in developing our strategy for Orbit Path.

Games With Levels Per ‘World’

The original Cut the Rope had 75 levels split into 3 ‘boxes’ or worlds. Angry Birds had 63 levels also split across 3 worlds. Is there a “specific amount” of game levels that is necessary for success?

In short, no. Following the mantra of former US president Teddy Roosevelt, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”, we used what we had developed so far to design the mobile levels and worlds. As this game was an MVP to validate the game concept, we didn’t want to spend our resources over-developing the game when we could use the money more effectively in marketing. Why spend more money and time developing game levels and worlds if we don’t know at this point if people will respond positively to the game? Doesn’t make sense.

We decided to open our closed beta with only 30 mobile levels, split across 2 worlds. We’re trying to keep this as lean as possible. If the market responds well, then we’ll produce an update with a new world with more levels.

How to Design a Mobile Game With New Concepts

I played the first three worlds of Cut the Rope to determine the frequency they introduced new concepts into the gameplay. Take a second to look at our spreadsheet that we made to keep track of all the levels and new concept introductions from the first three worlds in Cut the Rope.

If you see in the spreadsheet, red indicates when a new game concept is introduced. For example, this includes ‘Floating Bubbles’, ‘Air Cushions’, ‘Candy Spikes’, etc. The blue cells represent which of the already-introduced elements are used in each game level, their frequency of usage, and what variations of combinations are used to make the game progressively more difficult.

Grab the User’s Attention Early On

At the beginning of the game, primarily in the first world, a new concept is introduced roughly every 3-5 levels. By World 2, a new concept is introduced, on average, every 6-8 game levels. Hooking the user earlier in the game with more frequent introductions to new game concepts allows for a more effective retaining method. That is, assuming your game concept is fun and intuitive.

We followed a similar format as we considered how to design our game levels. Using our two worlds and handful of new concepts, we created more variety and difficulty for the user to keep them engaged. Once we figured out where we wanted to introduce the new game concepts and mechanics across the 2 worlds, next comes the fun part.

Difficulty Progression of Mobile Levels

How hard do you make your game levels? What if they are too hard? How do you flatten the learning curve?

These were some of the questions that our team was faced with after developing over 50-70 levels, play testing all of them, and finally selecting the best 30 that seemed to provide the most fun for the user. How did we get to this point?

Group QA and Feedback

We started low tech. We knew where we wanted to introduce the game concepts so we began sketching out rough drafts of how we imagined the mobile levels in Keynote. Using this as a starting point for how to design the game levels, we then created and placed the objects into Unity. By simultaneously playing and tweaking and making sure the levels weren’t physically impossible, we produced a build for our internal team to play with. This allowed us to get valuable feedback within a day or two, which we then used to further refine the level design and order.

Embrace the Process of Designing Games With Levels

Expect designing a mobile game to be an iterative process. Each version becomes better and better until you have a collection of game levels your whole team had a part in perfecting. We then added help text whenever new concepts were introduced and short graphic tutorials at the beginning, as we learned that users didn’t know how to play the game in the first and easiest level.

Final Considerations

Throughout the process of designing your game’s levels, be sure to recognize any immovable constraints and considerations. For example, what does your game’s plot or theme require of your mobile levels? You wouldn’t create a level for Angry Birds that had no bird characters in the actual gameplay, would you? Consider the images, metrics, and platforms for your game that the user will expect to remain fixed throughout the levels of play.

I hope this discussion on building games with levels as apps has been as helpful for you as it has been for us. Knowing these concepts will allow you to approach the process of how to design a mobile game with confidence and tenacity. Now that you have a solid game concept, levels, and progression of difficulty, you are ready to move into the world of marketing. ‘Till next time.

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