Quick Overview of Game Design & Level Design
Game Design is the mechanics and the rules of the game, pretty much the gameplay. Is the game a shooter where you can jump around, use grenades and powers ups? Or an adventure game where you explore by using physics to interact with the environment? Is there a certain goal to the game, such as save the princess. I've covered this before but its good to get the definition out there again (even for my sake).
Mario jumping is a game mechanic and part of Game Design
Level Design on the other hand are the areas in which gameplay will take place. For example, in Mario our level would be World 1-1, the very first area in the game (aka first level). There are blocks placed all around the area as well as blocks containing power ups. To make it clear, the level would be the placement of these blocks, power ups and enemies, where as the gameplay would be the interaction with these elements.
World 1-1 is a level for Super Mario
World 1-4 is a much harder level than World 1-1 because the player has progressed further
Game Design vs Level Design
Now two important and rather subjective questions were also raised in class which I will focus the rest of this post on. There were...
1) Does bad level design make a good game bad?
2) And does Good level design make a bad game good?
These question can be answered in any number of ways as they are subjective and I would like to give my opinion on them because they are pretty interesting. First of all, let's try and answer the first.
Does bad level design make a good game bad?
The first question assumes that our game in question has good gameplay mechanics. So let's say our game is Halo, which has very good foundations as an FPS. It helped reinforce the two weapon choice limit, has excellent controls, intelligent AI, fun weapons and other great qualities as a shooter. This game has a number of excellent and fun levels, save for one, which is titled the Library. The problems with this level are twofold. It's boring and it had enemies that no one really likes.
Halo - The Library, the labyrinth of the same thing over and over
The reason it was boring was because it was essentially the same one area, over and over for simply too long. Aesthetically it looks boring after seeing it for another time, but then you're forced to relive it over and over, the exact same scenery. Just when you think its about to end... nope, let's go through it again and again. There was honestly very little variation in it and it's proclaimed as one of the worst things in Halo: Combat Evolved. The enemies were also boring too, it was the flood, not the intelligent Covenant enemies you usually face. The flood AI is zombie like on purpose which makes them rather dull to fight in comparison to the covenant. It's always cool fighting an Elite from the Covenant but fighting a flood enemy is just not as interesting. So you have to fight these tedious enemies over and over with the same scenery. This is not a good level, everyone hates it. It's torture just to get through it, yet despite that the game still gets exclaim and I still love the game too.
Halo - The Flood, not as well liked as the Covenant
So in this case, it was a bad level, no one liked it, but a lot of people still loved the game. Did it ruin the game? Maybe for some but overall it didn't drag the game into oblivion by itself. So then maybe it's multiple bad levels that make a bad game? Because most of the other levels in Halo were much better in comparison and much more interesting. If you had to do 3 library like levels throughout Halo, things might get more grim for the shooter. You take that a step further and you just have every level being bad design, with flood everywhere and similar corridors about. Since people hated just playing the level once, won't they hate the game entirely if they had to do multiple bad levels? That's really a question of opinion for everyone but for me, I would absolutely despise it. I wouldn't play the game if I had to suffer through many dull levels like the Library multiple times. Sure enough I have the gameplay with cool weapons but things can get boring if you simply go through the same thing over and over. Now one can argue the levels would still be different even if they were badly designed but it can still make the experience dull as can be see in the difference in response to the Library compared to other levels.
Halo - The Silent Cartographer Level, I really loved this level. Why can't the Library be like this?
One thing to note is that, if a game has terrible level design everywhere, can a game with fundamentally good mechanics fully take advantage of it's own mechanics if the levels aren't designed well? Level design consists of using your game mechanics to their advantage in meaningful and interesting ways (such as the right amount of difficulty depending on how long the player has been playing and their skill level). If levels are low quality, then your mechanics will most likely be dumbed down to fit with that low quality which will make the game bad.
Does Good level design make a bad game good?
Expendables 2 Game - I can't say I know anything about it's level design but I know it's not a good game
So let's try and answer the second question now, does Good Level Design make a bad game good? Our Bad Game has terrible mechanics, the combat system is just awful, repetitive and doesn't really have all that much depth, its just mashing the same buttons over and over. The game's gameplay is just mediocre at best. Now say our game is an action game, and let's put them in the most fantastic level, with the right amount of enemies to fight, the right difficulty, and a really cool final boss encounter. In my opinion, if the game's mechanics were terrible to begin with, even with the right difficulty, it would still be a dull affair. If I am in a game where all I need to do is press one or two buttons, you could even argue that the level design doesn't even make a difference.
There should be a picture here but I honestly couldn't think of a bad action game with an excellent level
It's a little harder to answer this question with a terrible action game because its hard to balance the right amount of enemies in a game where you only press one button to really win. That and level design for these kinds of games isn't as complex as some others, so let's switch to a platformer for a sec to get another perspective.
A platformer, with excellent level design, gameplay looks like its going to be a lot of fun and there are a lot of innovative puzzles on hand and a lot of imagintation that really makes the level look fantastic, both gameplay wise and visually. Problem is, the controls are awful and you're more likely to boost off a cliff than make it to the platform the level designer wanted you to get to. This level is fantastic and in another similar game with better controls and mechanics, you'd be sailing through with a ton of fun. But in reality, you're fighting the game just to be able to play the level but you just can't.
Yoshi's Story - I liked this game when I was younger and the level design seemed good but I felt the gameplay was lacking compared to other Nintendo playformers
Yes, I played this game, I really hated it, couldn't even tell if the levels were designed well because of how bad it's gameplay was
This is where I feel there is a grayline for the second question, where Good level design can make a bad game good. I can't even properly tell if its supposed to be a good level in the first place because the game can't take advantage of it. But let's just say we can tell in that case. My earlier example of the platformer not being able to control well and you go out of control to get to those "perfect" would like me to think that even with good level design, in general you can't really make a bad game good or it's really hard.
Little Big Planet - Great game, with controls I didn't quite like
The only exception I can think of is Little Big Planet, who's controls I didn't really like at all but it's excellent Level Design, level creation and customization made it a great game still. That and the mods that allowed you to change the controls to even overcome some of it's control yipes (like becoming a spaceship somehow, don't know how Little Big Planet Players do that). The problem with including this exception is that it's Game Design was built around customization and overall it's Game Design is very solid. My only grief with it was the controls (though to be honest controls are very important in a platforming game)
To give these two questions a quicker answer I will say for the first...
Bad level design can make a game with good design suffer, one level can make the entire experience a bit less than it should be but still be great. Multiple bad levels can serious hinder a game from it's full potential but not might outright make it terrible. It certainly won't be as great depending on the severity of the bad level design but it probably won't outright "kill" the game on bad level design. Besides whats "bad" can be subjective to some people anyways. There is a difference between bad/poor level design and "just flat out terrible why would you do that, kind of level design".
For the second question, a good level will most likely not save a bad game. If the game is that bad overall, you might not even be able to tell if it has a good level or not since a good level works with the mechanics of the game and if the mechanics are bad, it might influence the level to be bad in order to fit. I feel it's highly unlikely great levels will make a bad game good.
That was a lot of time just spent on two questions but I honestly feel these are really good questions I hadn't considered before and that they deserved the time they got in this post.