Arachnotron Post-Mortem Part 1: Level Design

In the business of working on Arachnotron while also keeping up with other classes, I lost track of the weekly blog posts. In their place, I’m writing an extended post-mortem, broken up into a few different parts to focus on different aspects of the project.

In hindsight, the level design is probably the part of the project that most needed extra time. Though there are plenty of similar games to draw on for the systems design in Arachnotron, the wall-climbing mechanic made it so that the level design had to be different from anything any of us had seen before. Us on the design team still don’t really have a solid understanding of what good level design takes in this game; we’ve learned a lot, and the stuff we made later in the project ended up being a lot more interesting and easy to navigate than the earlier designs, but I don’t feel like I can say we know how to do great level design in this game yet.

Because every surface has to be a viable floor to walk on–both from the design intent and technical limitations–there was already a lot more to consider than in your standard up and down grounded shooter. I struggled planning out the structure of a level ahead of time, and resorted to just white-boxing as the first sketch in the beginning. I considered using a VR drawing program to sketch out the shapes of the levels early on, but decided that would just take too long, since I was a solo designer at that point in the project. I now wish I’d remembered that idea for when we brought on other designers, because if I’d had everyone use the VR drawing tools from the beginning, the level design could have been planned much better.

With more planning, we would have ended up with much better levels. The way it ended up, we pretty much had to go with what we made, whether it worked well or not. Levels in this game are so involved to create in this game that we didn’t have time for major revision and re-do of anything. In most games, you can afford to have the shape of the level be relatively vague, add some art, and still maintain the same gameplay experience.

In Arachnotron, the precise world geometry has a big impact on the gameplay, so we had to make sure every edge, corner, and vertex were in line with the limitations we had to deal with. The three main rules of no acute angles, no outcroppings skinnier than the spider-tank, and no intricate/bumpy surfaces meant we had to be meticulous in creating the white-boxes of the levels, or the gameplay could easily be interrupted by the spider-tank’s wall-climbing glitching out and spiraling off into the sky.

Of course these constraints around world geometry became doubly troublesome when the artists came in to make the levels look good…

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