Using Journey Maps in Level Design
Students come to my Level Design class expecting to learn a game engine. Some expect the course to be about block-outs, others want it to be about gameplay programming, or the aesthetics of game design, or working with assets and content pipelines. These are all great topics, and it's true that there's a ton of technical ground to cover. And there's quite a bit of built-in program-level goals like game production, best practices, teamwork, communication, etc. After making room for all of these goals, there's sometimes little bandwidth left for teaching actual design, as in: How does a team create and deliver a specific experience?
For creating and communicating a vision for a level's design, we turn to tools like mood-boards, lore-writing, floorplans, and journey maps. Each of these tools provide ways for a team to establish and document their ideas, but journey maps are perhaps the most important. When done well, a journey map not only brings together various aspects of the design into a single document, but they are also intended to be testable, for both usability and desirability.
Introducing the Journey Map
When designing a level, we want to think about the moment-to-moment experience of playing. What does the player see? What do they interact with? How do they feel? For beginners, this can start simple. Worksheets like the following can be made so that students can easily drag-in or type-in key phrases related to story, aesthetics, emotion, and gameplay.
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A key idea here is that entire levels or sections of levels are designed as linear experiences, even though the gameplay may feel open and the spaces are possibly non-linear. You'd think that this would simplify game design, but many beginners simply visualize a space's aesthetics with little regard for how the player will move through the space.
And of course we need to have a plan for how the player moves through the space so that we can make intelligent decisions about affordances, gameplay gates, landmarks and more. These maps can be expanded to include as much data as the team needs, though "front of house" and "back of house" are necessary additions as a game rolls from pre-production into production.
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When it comes time to playtest the game, a journey map provides us with really clear goals that we can measure. How long did players spend in that section of the game? Did players notice what we wanted them to notice? Did they take the path through the level? Did the cutscenes trigger at the right time? Did they notice the new item in their inventory? Etc.
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It doesn't matter so much what tools you use here -- sticky notes are a great way to iterate! Personally, I favor tools that allow for easy collaboration with my students. Many of these maps were made in Google Slides so that they could be easily shared, updated, and presented. But sometimes you need tools that are a bit more flexible.
This final example combines a journey map with aspects from a persona document, allowing a designer to create individual experience maps with particular player archetypes in mind. I've made the Illustrator file available for download if you want to take a closer look.
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