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Mobile Game Level Design: Key Considerations for Ad-Monetized Casual Mobile Games

What makes a game transcend from good to great? Ask any player and they’ll likely point to the game’s levels. The challenges, pacing, and level progression can make or break the gaming experience.

To uncover the best strategies behind crafting killer game levels for mobile games, we sat down with the one and only Umut, one of Sunday’s Game Leads. With multiple chart-topping and even award-winning titles under his belt, Umut knows a thing or two about level design. Join us as we pick his brain on designing levels that hook players from the first tap. Let’s go!

Level Design for Onboarding Levels and Mechanics Introduction

Onboarding is a crucial part of mobile game level design – there’s no way around it. But also, there’s no need to make things complicated. The first level always serves as the purest introduction to the core mechanics and goals of the game. This first impression matters, and in a casual mobile game it should instantly communicate the controls and flow of play through clean and simple level design and, sometimes, visual cues like arrows or short text instructions (e.g. “Tap here!”). “You need to show them the goal, and give them controls to reach it, that’s it! Teach them directly, and don’t distract their attention with unnecessary elements” says Umut. If you do the onboarding the smart way and strip down the mechanic, players will grasp the basics with an intuitive “aha!” moment, sometimes without any cues at all.

After nailing the introduction, it’s time to steadily build on players’ skills without overloading them upfront. Let users master basic taps and swipes by adding one to each level before progressively introducing new mechanics. Taking baby steps prevents overwhelm!

When new mechanics need to be added in the middle of a game, the introduction should follow a similar approach to initial onboarding. Rather than tutorial popups, rely on intuitive teaching through the level design itself. Design a simple stage focused only on the new mechanic, letting players experiment and discover how it works. The next few levels then slowly combine the new mechanic with existing ones. This gradual layering allows players to incorporate fresh abilities into their knowledge set without getting overwhelmed by too many new variables at once. The key is starting focused and sparse before iteratively combining mechanics over time. With this approach, onboarding continues seamlessly throughout the full game. 

You might say “hey, but people crave escalating challenges”. So how do you keep introducing the new mechanics without crashing the difficulty progression? Umut says the key here is keeping difficulty on a slow gradual slope while accelerating visual complexity throughout the game instead. Throw more enemies on-screen or add obstacles without drastically increasing the level of difficulty. Players will feel a thrilling sense of progression from overcoming the increasingly chaotic level. Let’s get more in detail about that.

Balancing Difficulty VS Complexity in Game Level Design

Throughout the conversation, Umut keeps mentioning that he likes to keep the difficulty curve under the complexity curve. This allows players to feel a sense of progression and accomplishment from overcoming increasingly complex levels, without actually making the core gameplay mechanics too difficult.

The reason for this approach is that many players will struggle with harder puzzle mechanics or challenges. By keeping the difficulty relatively smooth, designers let players succeed and advance through the game without causing extra churn. However, simply making all levels easy would not provide a feeling of escalation and satisfaction. Instead, designers ratchet up the visual complexity, number of steps required, and enemies on screen, etc. This makes the player feel like levels are getting harder when in reality the core gameplay remains within their skill level. Completing these seemingly more difficult levels gives players a rush of succeeding at a challenge that we need to keep them playing.

But you don’t have to leave the players who seek a real challenge out. To satisfy both kinds of players, it’s possible to add an extra layer of harder yet optional levels – be it bonus levels, post levels from a timely pop-up, or a “daily challenge” – separate from the main progression. These will appeal to gamers seeking more challenge while not blocking regular players. 

Creating Mobile Game Levels en Masse

Hyper-casual as a genre might be dwindling, but some things in game development remain unchanged – like the short levels people enjoy to crack whenever they have a free moment. With short levels comes the need for developers to create a large pool of them for the players to never run out. When prototyping many levels at once, the key goals to keep in mind are uniqueness and progression. To keep levels feeling fresh, new mechanics, new level elements and obstacles need to be introduced regularly – about every 5 levels, according to Umut: “You need to surprise the user all the time! If you don’t do that, they will simply get bored. But if you consistently introduce something new, let’s say every 5 levels, then they will always stay curious about what’s coming next”. This game level planning trick provides just enough surprise and variety to keep players engaged. 

In a well-designed game, progression involves gradually increasing complexity and difficulty over the course of the levels. And it’s important to remember that the difficulty curve must remain under the complexity curve. To achieve this, Umut starts by collecting screenshots of each designed level into a pool. Then he analyzes the complexity of each level by looking at factors like number and type of enemies, tools, and game mechanics used, ultimately giving each level a complexity score. Then, he orders levels from simple to more complex, creating a smooth difficulty curve.

Umut’s design process starts with simple tutorial levels that teach core mechanics one-by-one. Interesting new level elements are steadily layered in until there are levels that combine all elements in all possible variations: “I personally designed around 100 levels for one game, combining mechanics in an Excel sheet to brainstorm all possible combinations. There is no set formula, just experimenting with combinations and playing the levels myself to evaluate if they are engaging and functional.” 

After the initial planning to include all mechanics, elements, and their combinations into the progression comes the fun part – actually designing the levels. And what makes it fun is that it’s mostly automated thanks to our use of level editors.

Facilitating Level Designer Job with Level Editors

To rapidly prototype and produce many quality levels, having robust level editing tools is an absolute must. When developing with a game engine like Unity, we put effort into building custom level editors tailored to that game. The goal is enabling designers to construct levels both quickly and precisely.

Rather than manually placing every object in a scene, which is time-consuming, we automate parts of the level design process. For example, the level editor may allow configuring parameters like “create level with 3 X enemies and 4 Y obstacles.” It then generates a level matching those criteria. Automation handles all the heavy lifting so designers can focus on adding missing elements, placing everything correctly within the frame, and high-level polish. The automated foundation saves massive amounts of time versus building from scratch. Other editor features like batch copying objects or swiftly playtesting iterative changes also speed up workflow. And that’s what enables producing the volume of engaging game levels needed to sustain player commitment.

Playtesting Game Design

 Once levels have been designed, extensive playtesting and iteration is the way to go. Here at Sunday, Umut first does internal testing, so most of us get to play in front of an audience of game designers observing pain points firsthand. They evaluate aspects like clarity, game flow, and difficulty curve: “When playtesting in the office, I try to see if the game’s clear enough, and if people understand what everything means, especially new mechanics. We also track the reaction to difficulty, and the flow, too – we normally give players levels from 1 to 20, and they need to feel smooth, not too hard or too easy. Also, sometimes they’d ask things like ‘what does that green thing mean?’ but it’s just a useless prop. So I realize I put a problem there, something that seems important but isn’t. I remove confusing elements like that. It’s key to see early if something’s wrong with the game overall.”

After this initial phase, levels go through extensive KPI testing with a broader player base. Key metrics analyzed include:

  • Level completion percentage
  • Churn rate after each level
  • Level length time

We of course track level churn data from initial tests to identify any problem spikes in difficulty. Problematic levels get reordered or altered by adding instructions. Excessively long level times can also indicate an issue with engagement or challenge. All the data guides iterations to level design. The goal is dialing in an optimal player experience where the difficulty curves gently while complexity escalates. With each round of testing and refinement, designers hone in on the right balance between engagement and frustration. This helps ensure smooth progression and maximum retention once the full game launches.

Stay Tuned for Other Level Design Tips and More!

So, what are the main takeaways for a game developer to consider when working on the next game design document? Here’s what we learned from Umut’s approach to level design:

  • To make the game that will capture the attention of millions, start by introducing the main mechanic with a simple level design and an intuitive onboarding (think games like Mr. Pain, wink);
  • When building on the game world further, keep the difficulty curve of your ad-monetized game below the complexity curve;
  • Dedicate a part of the game to levels beyond the main progression that are more difficult, yet optional;
  • Starting from the early stages of level design, implement automation to quickly iterate on levels and build an entire game. After your level editor is done designing a game level, fine-tune the level layout yourself;
  • To improve your design, test with real players first to see how each level looks and feels – this should become an integral part of your game development process. You’ll see whether the players are engaged in your game, and whether there are aspects of level design that cause confusion or loss of interest – continue to design the game according to the findings, and move on to testing on a large audience.

Stay tuned for more – we constantly upload content about game-level design, game art, and more to help you with your own design decisions that will make your game stand out on the overcrowded market. And remember that you can publish with Sunday and benefit from the extensive knowledge-sharing with the mobile game development industry experts like Umut! Our mobile game development services cover every aspect of the process from design to monetization, user acquisition, and beyond. 

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