If you ever say one of my games is too formulaic, I’ll thank you–especially if the game is level-based.

The Argument

When designing a game, there are two primary formulas I establish first: an Over-Arching and an Individual Level formula. With these guidelines, the game designs itself. Yes, sometimes people complain that a game feels formulaic, but this is usually AFTER they have praised the game.

Once a development team establishes their formulas in the beginning (based off of their game pillars), designing the levels becomes a no-brainer. Other aspects of the game begin aligning with these formulas as well, such as enemy, item, boss, narrative and mechanic designs.

Over-Arching Level Formula

This formula establishes the ground work for all levels in a game such as: level progression, spacing of bosses, narrative branching, new mechanic introductions, and anything to do with level design that is not contained in a single level.

I first noticed an overarching level structure when studying one of my favorite games: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. I noticed that the individual structure of a level alternated between Traversal Challenges and Combat Challenges. I then looked at the boss battles, and noticed they had a similar structure.

Level Boss Encounters:

  1. Traversal – Scale a wall before being pushed into spikes
  2. Combat – Defeat multiple waves of enemies
  3. Traversal – Dodge the giant spike wheel
  4. Combat – Defeat a fire-breathing dinosaur
  5. etc.

Looking at my favorite game of all time, FF3 (aka FF6), they follow a formula as well–and it’s so simple.

  • Their Over-Arching formula is to focus on each character, then obtain that character. (yes, there are some secret characters that deviate from this formula)

Once the player has obtained all of the characters, a narrative event causes the player to lose them. The formula then repeats a second time, except this time the player has more choice in which order they obtain the characters. The game’s over-arching flow is about acquiring new characters; with each character representing a chapter.

  • Narrative driven games use “chapters” like action/adventure games use “levels”.

Individual Level Formula

The formula that establishes and unifies each level. All levels of the same type should use the same formula.

  • If the Over-Arching Level Formula dictates different types of levels, (traversal levels, combat levels, puzzle levels, etc) then each level type needs to have its own formula.
  • Some levels have branching paths that act like individual level formulas within one level (for example: stealth path vs. combat path).

Traditionally, individual level formulas are pretty straight forward. Their is a crescendo of difficulty/excitement that reaches a climax at the end (traditionally with a boss encounter). Because the goal of each level should always be to teach the player something, the climax should also revolve around exercising what they learned.

  • I believe that fun is derived from learning, even it’s learning about a new enemy type or environmental hazard.

IPM (Introduce, Practice, Master)

Many individual formulas revolve around IPM. The Legend of Zelda series is famous for it. Introducing the player to a new mechanic, having them practice it throughout the level, and then prove they have mastered it against a boss who can only be defeated by the new mechanic.

  • Many games will lock the player in a non-threatening room that they can only escape from by using the new mechanic. This is usually at the introduction step.

Deviation

The best artists know that embracing the rules of form, perspective, color-theory, proportion, etc. is only the first step. The real art comes from elaborating and deviating from the rules.

With formulas, once you have everything set, then you can start deviating to add surprises. Once the player is in a rhythm, any alterations will become more memorable (if used sparingly).

  • Portal 2 does this exceptionally well. The game is fantastically-formulaic and toward then end **spoiler alert** when Wheatley takes over and puts the player through tests, his “super-easy” test is hysterical, partly because it plays off the player’s expectations for a level.
  • Other games use deviations to catch the player’s attention for a narrative twist. Like destroying the obvious path and suddenly throwing the player into an unknown and dangerous situation.

Wrap Up

When designing a game’s flow. First plan out an over-arching formula, then plan out individual formulas, then deviate a little to highlight memorable moments in your game. Then presto, you have an awesome game with awesome flow.

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