Non-Essential Level Art is Essential

Dec 31, 2012

One of the differences that can cause a student or novice project to stand out in a bad way, looking and feeling unfinished, is the lack of level art that’s non-essential to gameplay. I’m referring of course to art other than the main background, only because I’m assuming that main background art’s already accounted for.

Such non-gameplay art can be divided into three categories:

  • Visual-only: No collision data, pure decoration. This might include level pieces that actually do handle collision but are outside the playable area (though be careful to not confuse the player into thinking non-reachable areas are somehow reachable!). This provides visual interest, and can be more flexible for landmarking areas because the density and useable configurations of collidable level pieces is limited by their consequences on player navigation and action.
  • Collision-but-decorative: Minor obstacle, potentially adding a bit of variation to enemy movement and line of sight, but mostly just something to navigate around, or something to jump over. This provides a reason to pay attention to the player’s character and input while walking from point A to point B, instead of simply holding a button down for screens at at time.
  • Alternative-main-collision: If an overhead level’s shape is defined by placement of trees, add boulders into the mix. If there’s water – even if it isn’t traversable – have two shades to distinguish shallow versus deep. If a side view level’s main platforming tiles are metal, also have a set of wood; or if you’re feeling lazy, tint that same metal blueish for steel or brownish for rusty metal. In addition to adding a bit of visual interest, changing usage ratios or switching between sets of these helps convey a sense of meaningful progress between noticeably distinct areas. “I’ve made it underground to the caves,” or “I’m finally outside the castle walls” is just a tile swap, but without that tile swap, it’s merely walking between rooms that are otherwise pretty indistinguishable.

There doesn’t need to be a ton of non-essential art to make a major improvement in a player’s perception of the game. You can get a lot of mileage out of even a handful of relatively easily created assets. Having a little bit of non-essential art, especially if used in all three of the areas outlined above, can improve the first impression, likelihood of returning to the game, and memory about the game later.

Although I’m calling it non-essential, I mean only that, strictly speaking, it’s non-essential for gameplay, i.e. that the game can be feature complete and fully functional without it. But make no mistake: this kind of art is essential for the game to not feel barren, for the game’s levels to not all feel the same, and for the game to look done.

There’s really no excuse to avoid doing it. By design, player attention isn’t focused directly on these uses of art, so repetition is pretty easily forgiven. Nor is it especially time consuming compared to most other types of game art, since it’s rarely (or only very slightly) animated. And, again, players don’t typically look directly at it, so quality control and iteration isn’t really as important as it is with art for power-ups, enemies, or player sprites.

For games with more involved level design, placing these decorative elements into stages can often be put off until later in development, Step 8 of 11 from the Level Design Process, to figure out stage blocking and navigation with basic walls, maybe even completely throw out layouts that aren’t working as well (Photographer’s Algorithm) before spending time decorating something that won’t make the cut later anyhow. For games with simpler level structures, these visual flourishes can often be mixed-in easily on-the-fly.

These types of art assets are the icing on the cake.

And a cake without icing isn’t ready to show anyone.

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