Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design

Scott Rogers

Scott set out to write a handbook; a general text that any designer can pull
off their shelf or call up on their PC or e - reader when they want to get back
to fundamentals. A sort of Scout Handbook or Farmer ’ s Almanac for game
creation. Scott has even included the kind of clear and simple illustrations
you might find in these evergreen texts.
When any team in sports, any military unit, or any human endeavor wants
success, they start in one place: with the basics. How many times have we
heard after a big win, “ It ’ s all about fundamentals. ” One of those
fundamentals I ’ ve found valuable in game design is the concept of “ doing
one thing, well. ” Well, Mr. Rogers has done just that with his handbook.
Whether you are starting out as a new designer or are a veteran who ’ s stuck
on a difficult problem, pull this handbook off the shelf, get back to the
fundamentals, and I ’ ll bet they trigger some inspiration that will take you beyond.
Danny Bilson
Executive Vice President of Core Games, THQ

February 2010

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Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design

About the Author
After discovering that game designers have more fun, Scott Rogers
embarked on a 16 - year- (and counting) career in video games. He has
helped design many successful video games including: Pac - Man World, the
Maximo series, God of War, Drawn to Life series and Darksiders. Scott is
currently a creative manager for THQ and lives just outside nuclear strike
range of Los Angeles with his lovely wife, two children and many, many action figures.

Press Start!
If You Are Anything Like Me …
… then you ’ ll read the first page of a book before you buy it. I find that if I
like the first page, then I ’ ll probably like the whole thing. I have noticed that
many books have an exciting excerpt on the first page in order to grab the
reader ’ s interest, such as:

The zombie ’ s filthy claws clutched hungrily at Jack ’ s shirt, even as his blade
split the creature ’ s head like a ripe melon. A firm kick to its headless torso
sent it sprawling down the stairs into the greedy mob that surged forward
like a wave. The corpse ’ s undead brothers and sisters paused their onslaught
until they realized the decapitated body was just dead meat. Their hesitation
gave Jack a second to spare a glance over his shoulder and see that Evelyn
had finally reached the helicopter. Jack braced himself for the oncoming mob.

“ Get that thing started! I can ’ t hold them off forever! ” he yelled, as he severed
several greedily clutching hands from their wrists. “ But, Jack! ” Evelyn screamed
back, frantically flipping switches. “ I don ’ t know HOW to fly a helicopter! ”
Not that I would ever resort to such cheap tactics in this book. I have also
noticed that some books try to gain respectability by publishing a positive
quote from an industry professional or famous person on their first page:

I learned more from reading the first page of Level Up! The Book of Great Video
Game Design than I learned in working for 25 years in the video game industry!
A very famous game designer'

You obviously don ’ t need someone else to tell you how to make up your
mind. Just by picking up this book, I can tell you are a discriminating
reader. I can also tell you are seeking the straight truth on the creation of
video games. This book will teach you the who, what, where and, most
importantly, how to design video games. If you have an interest in arcade
games, boss fights, chili, deadly traps, ergonomics, fun, giant hydras,
haunted mansions, islands and alleys, jumps, killer bunnies, leitmotifs,
Mexican pizza, non - player characters, one - sheet designs, pitch sessions,
quests, robotic chickens, smart bombs, the triangle of weirdness, un - fun,
violence, whack- a - mole, XXX, Y- axis and zombies, then this is the book for you.

Before we start, keep in mind that there are many ways to approach game
design. All of them are valid, as long as they can communicate the
designer ’ s ideas. The tricks and techniques found in Level Up! are MY
WAYS of creating game design.

Another quick reminder, when I say “ I designed a game ” this is an
oversimplification. Video games are created by many, many, many talented
people (you ’ ll be introduced to them shortly) and to give the impression that
I did all the work myself is not only incorrect but egotistical2. There is no “ I ” in team3.

The majority of the games I ’ ve helped design were single player action
games, so many of the examples found in Level Up! will be skewed towards
that perspective. It ’ s just the way I think. But I have also found that most of
the gameplay concepts are transferable to many different genres of games.
It won ’ t be too hard for you to translate my advice to your own game, no
matter what the genre.

Another thing before we get started. If you are looking for a single chapter
about gameplay, don ’ t bother. Because EVERY chapter in this book is about
gameplay. You should be thinking about gameplay all the time and how
things affect the player, even when designing passive elements like
cutscenes and pause screens.

Since you have made it this far, I may as well start by actually telling you
the bad news first. Making video games is very hard work 4. I have worked
in video games for over 16 years and on games that have sold millions of copies.

But in that time, I have learned that making video games is also the best job
in the world. It can be thrilling, frustrating, rewarding, nerve - wracking, hectic,

boring, vomit- inducing, and just plain fun.

Who Is This Book For?
Why you, of course. Provided you are one of the following people.
A working video games professional. There are lots of books about
video games design, but most of them are full of THEORY, which I have
never found very helpful while making a game. Don ’ t get me wrong, theory
is great when you are at a game developers conference or one of those
wine and cheese affairs we game designers always find ourselves at. But
when I am working on a game, with my sleeves rolled up and blood
splattered all over the walls6, I need practical nuts n ’ bolts advice on how
to solve any problems I may encounter. I mention this because I assume
that some of you reading Level Up! will be experienced video game
professionals. I hope you find the techniques and tips in this book useful in
your day- to - day work. Not that this book doesn ’ t have uses for beginners.
I ’ m talking about you, future video game designers. Remember, one
page ago when I told you I was a pixel pusher? There was a point to that
story, which is I was just like you. Maybe you ’ re also an artist who is tired of
hearing the game designers laughing it up over in the other office. Or a
programmer who knows he can design a better enemy encounter than the
knucklehead currently doing it on your game. Or maybe you are a tester
who wants to move up in the world, but you don ’ t know how to do it. When I
wanted to become a video game designer, there weren ’ t any books on the
subject. We had to learn everything from other game designers. I was lucky
to have a mentor and an opportunity to work as a game designer. If you
don ’ t have either of these things, don ’ t fret. Read this book; I will be your
mentor. All you need to do is follow my advice, be prepared, and take
advantage of the opportunity when it finally arrives.

This book is also great for students of video game design. Back when I
started making games, I didn ’ t take any classes on video game design —
because they didn ’ t exist! I just made stuff up as I went along! And I made
a lot of mistakes. This is why I wrote this book: so you can learn from all my
mistakes before they become your mistakes too.

Finally, this book is for anyone who loves video games. I love video
games. I love to play them. I love to make them and I love to read about
making them. If you want to make video games, then you must love them
too. Ironically, I know several people who work in video games that freely
admit they do not like to play video games. That does not make any sense
to me. Why would you work in video games if you do not love video games?
They are fools. They should just step aside and let someone who loves
video games make video games. Someone like you.
Ready? Great! Let ’ s find out how to make games!

Everything I Learned About Writing A Book
educational and inspirational. What I ’ ve learned is that books don ’ t write
themselves and writers can ’ t write without support and inspiration from lots
of great people. I couldn ’ t have written Level Up! The Guide to Great Video
Game Design without the love, help, and support of the following family and
Brenda Lee Rogers, Evelyn Rogers, Jack Rogers, Noah Stein, Hardy LeBel,
Dr. Brett Rogers, Jackie Kashian, Danny Bilson, Laddie Ervin, Tim Campbell,
THQ games legal department, Jeremiah Slackza (for requesting the Platform
Primer), mentors William Anderson and David Siller, Mark Rogers, Eric
Williams, George Collins, Scott Frazier (my first test audience), Andy
Ashcraft, Paul Guirao, Tommy Tallarico, Joey Kuras, Ian Sedensky, Evan
Icenbice, Brian Kaiser, Jason Weezner, David O ’ Connor, Jaclyn Rogers, Dr.
Christopher Rogers, Patricia Rogers, Anthony Rogers, The GDC selection
committee of 2008, Disneyland ’ s original imagineers, the Los Angeles
customizing gang, the editors at John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: Juliet Booker,
Gareth Haman, Katherine Batchelor, Ellie Scott, and most importantly, Chris
Webb for making that call. And special thanks to Cory Doctrow for the
glowing GDC review that kicked all of this off. I owe you a drink, mate.
And a big thank you to YOU for buying this book. Now go and design some
great games! I can ’ t wait to play them!


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 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd 

Table of Contents
Foreword by Danny Bilson xiii
About the Author xiv
Press Start! xv
Acknowledgments: Everything I Learned about Writing a Book xxi
Level 1 Welcome, N00bs!
A Brief History of Video Games 4
Game Genres 9
Who Makes this Stuff? 12
Programmer 12
Artist 13
Designer 14
Producer 15
Tester 16
Composer 17
Sound Designer 18
Writer 19
Have You Thought about Publishing? 19
Product Manager 20
Creative Manager 20
Art Director 21
Technical Director 21
And the Rest . . . 21
Level 1’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 2 Ideas 23
Ideas: Where to Get Them and Where to Stick Them 24
What do Gamers Want? 28
Why I Hate “Fun” 30
Brainstorming 31
Breaking Writer’s Block 34
Level 2’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 3 Writing the Story 37
The Triangle of Weirdness 44
Time to Wrap It Up 48
Creating Characters 50
A Few Pointers on Writing for Kids of All Ages 54
Writing for Licenses 54
Level 3’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 4 You Can Design a Game, But Can You Do the Paperwork? 57
Writing the GDD, Step 1: The One-Sheet 60
ESRB Ratings 60
Writing the GDD, Step 2: The Ten-Pager 62
The Rule of Threes 63
Ten-Pager Outline 64
The Game Design Document (and the Awful Truth about Writing Them) 72
Gameplay Progression 76
The Beat Chart 77
Above All, Don’t Be a Schmuck 79
Level 4’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 5 The Three Cs, Part 1—Character
Personality: Do We Really Need Another Badass? 85
Let’s Get Personal 88
Finally, We Talk about Gameplay 92
Why Walk When You Can Run? 95
The Art of Doing Nothing 99
Might as Well Jump 100
Hoists and Teeters 104
What Goes Up, Must Fall Down 105
Me and My Shadow 106
The Water’s Fine… or Is It? 108
Be Kind to Our Four-Legged Friends 109
Using All of the Parts 110
We Are Not Alone 111
Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood? 116
Level 5’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 6 The Three Cs, Part 2—Camera
Get It Right: Camera Views 121
So You’ve Decided to Not Let the Player Have Control Over
So You’ve Decided to Let the Player Sometimes Have Control
First Person Camera 127
Third Person Camera 130
Giving Up Control 133
So You’ve Decided to Let the Player Control the Camera 133
the Camera 135
Over the Camera 137
Two and a Half D 137
Isometric Camera 138
Top-Down Camera 139
Special Case Cameras 140
Tunnel Vision 141
Camera Shot Guide 141
Camera Angle Guide 145
Camera Movement Guide 146
Other Camera Notes 148
Always Point the Camera to the Objective 149
Never Let the Character Get Out of the Camera’s Sight 150
Multiple Player Cameras 151
Level 6’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 7 The Three Cs, Part 3—Controls
Dance, Monkey, Dance 159
Character or Camera Relative? 164
Shake, Rattle and Roll 166
Level 7’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 8 Sign Language—HUD and Icon Design
Health Bar 172
Targeting 173
Ammo Gauge 174
Inventory 174
Score 175
Radar/Map 176
Context-Sensitive Prompt 177
The Clean Screen 178
Icon Has Cheezburger? 179
Don’t Get QTE 183
HUDs, and Where to Stick ‘Em 185
There Are Other Screens Than the HUD 187
The Pause that Refreshes 189
A Final Word on Fonts 195
Level 8’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 9 Everything I Learned about Level Design, I Learned from Level 
The Top 10 Cliché Video Game Themes 200
The Name Game 207
Everything I Learned about Level Design, I Learned from Disneyland 208
The Beat Chart 214
Re-using Re-use 216
The Gary Gygax Memorial Mapping Section 217
The Dave Arnenson Memorial Mapping Section 223
Wrapping Up Mapping 229
Illusional Narrative 232
Gray Matters 233
Leave the Training Level for Last 239
Level 9’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 10 The Elements of Combat
400 Quatloos on the Newcomer! 245
Now You have to Kiss Me 254
On Moving 255
On Guarding 258
State of the Art Bang Bang 261
The Best Gun for You 265
Run and Gun 269
Not Just Shooting 271
Dammit Jones, Where Doesn’t It Hurt? 275
Death: What is It Good For? 277
Level 10’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 11 They All Want You Dead
Bring on the Bad Guys 294
I Love Designing Enemies 304
I Hate You to Pieces 314
Non-Enemy Enemies 317
How to Create the World’s Greatest Boss Battle 318
Who’s the Boss? 319
Size Matters 321
Location, Location, Location 326
Why Not to Create the World’s Greatest Boss Battle 327
Level 11’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 12 The Nuts and Bolts of Mechanics
Holy Death Trap! 335
Time to Die 339
The Music of Mechanics 341
A Nice Little Calm Spot 345
Riddle Me This 346
A Short Word on Minigames and Microgames 351
Level 12’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 13 Now You’re Playing with Power
“Love Thy Player” 361
More Wealth Than You Can Imagine! 365
Level 13’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 14 Multiplayer—the More the Merrier
How Many is the Right Number? 385
MMORPGS, or Hell is Other People 386
Level 14’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 15 Some Notes on Music
Sounds Like a Game to Me 400
Level 15’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 16 Cutscenes, or No One’s Gonna Watch ‘Em Anyway
How to Write a Screenplay in Eight Easy Steps 410
Level 16’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Level 17 And Now the Hard Part
No One Cares about Your Stupid Little World 418
Video Games is a Haaaard Business 421
What to Do for an Encore? 425
Level 17’s Universal Truths and Clever Ideas
Continue? 429
Bonus Level 1: The One-Sheet Sample 431
Bonus Level 2: The Ten-Page Design Document Sample 435
Bonus Level 3: Game Design Document Template 445
Bonus Level 4: The Medium-Sized List of Story Themes 459
Bonus Level 5: The Big List of Environments 461
Bonus Level 6: Mechanics and Hazards 465
Bonus Level 7: Enemy Design Template 467
Bonus Level 8: Boss Design Template 469
Bonus Level 9: High Concept Pitch Presentation 471
Achievement Unlocked: Exactly Like Making Chili 481
Index 483


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