Level Design: 11 Years Later

    So back in 2007 when I was 11, wayyy before I thought I could be a game designer, I got a game called Megaman Powered Up on the PSP. It’s a remake of the first Megaman game that adds two more robot masters, pretty cool stuff. Now I was, and still am, a huge Megaman fan, so I played the heck out of the game but eventually I finished it and ran out of game to play.

    However, one of the neat things about Megaman Powered Up is that it comes with a level editor. Think Mario Maker but for Megaman. I didn’t have access to the internet on my PSP back then, so I wasn’t able to download other peoples’ levels BUT I did make a bunch of my own levels.

The level editor in Megaman Powered Up

    Now, 11-year-old Michael didn’t really know how to make a good level. Some of the time, it seems like 11-year-old Michael was just randomly throwing things around, but current Michael knows better than that. So I thought it would be fun to go back and look at these old levels that I made when I was 11, and see what I did wrong and how I would change them now.

    “The Real Time” is a level based on Timeman, one of the new robot masters. His whole thing is that he can slow down time. This makes it easier to deal with some enemies and challenges that involve timed jumps or moving platforms. Normall,y when playing the game, you can only use time slow as long as you have Timeman’s weapon and enough energy to use it, but Megaman Powered Up introduces the ability to play as the robot masters. When playing as a robot master, you can use their abilities without having to worry about energy. The downside, of course, is that you can use only their ability-no switching to the most optimal weapon for the situation.

Timeman, one of the new robot masters added to the original 6 from the first game

    First things first, let's look at the level. Unfortunately 11-year-old Michael wasn’t exactly documenting his design, making notes, or drafting up early ideas. So the only thing we have to look back on are the actual levels. As a result, I can only guess what 11-year-old Michael was thinking. It would have gone something like this:

    “Start right in the action! It’s a stage for Timeman, so we have to use the swinging pendulum hammers. If we put a bunch of them together it's like a moving platform! We also have to use time slow too. So what if you had super fast conveyor belts that pushed you backwards? Then you can slow down time to get on top of the swinging platform!”

    “We gotta have more stuff for you to slow down. What about the flamethrowers from Fireman’s stage? We could put them right on top of a ladder, so that you have to slow down time so you can climb up before the fire gets you!”

    “If you slow down time, things fall more slowly too. So what if we have an extra life behind some blocks that you can break, but on top of them are blocks that you can’t break? That way, if you want the extra life, you have to slow down time, break the blocks, grab the life, and then get out of there before the blocks fall! It’ll be like a cool slow-mo action scene! That doesn't take up a whole lot of space though… I guess I’ll put more of the swinging pendulum hammers here to make things more interesting.”

    “We did the flamethrowers already, but what if we do them sideways this time! So instead of climbing up a ladder before they get you, you have to run up some platforms?”

    “Enemies are slowed down too, so we should have some of those as well. It's kind of boring to shoot enemies in slow-mo though… Your shots go too slow, and they're too easy to hit. What if you also have to jump up some conveyor belts? Then you would have to use slow-mo!”

    “We haven't used spikes yet! We can have them with a conveyor belt so that if you don’t slow down time you’ll get pushed into the spikes! We should put one of those swinging pendulums here to help you get across, too.”

    “Alright, that was a lot of stuff. I should probably give them something to heal themselves. Oh, and a party ball too! Those are always fun.”

    “This area is kind of empty. Maybe we can put some more enemies here… Oh! I know! We can use those guys that crawl along the ground! Normally you can’t shoot them if you’re Megaman, but Timeman can!”

    “What else… How about we do that thing with the unbreakable blocks again! This time instead of grabbing a life and running back, you’ll have to run through a whole bunch of them!”

    “We should probably have more of the swinging pendulums ‘cause they’re Timeman’s whole thing. What if we used them to make something kind of like a staircase? Normally getting past this would be easy, but if we use the pendulums, then the whole thing will move back and forth as you’re trying to climb it!"

    “We’re pretty far in, so we should give people a checkpoint around here.We can't just leave this area empty though, so why don't we use more flamethrowers? We can have two of them facing each other so it’s like a gate that opens and closes!”

    “It’s been a while since we had some enemies, so let's do more of those. We can have a whole bunch of them here! Let’s use one of those big enemies that you can’t always hurt. And we can have the respawning enemies so that you have to fight them off while trying to kill the big one!”

    “Is there anything we can do with the pendulums? Well they push you around, so maybe we can do something with that? Oh! I know! We can have a bunch of ladders that you have to climb, but then there are also pendulums that knock you off the ladders!”

    “We should do another room with spikes. What if you have to jump over the spikes as you jump between pendulums! They did something like that in Castlevania, and that was cool. The room still looks a little empty though… What if we have conveyors coming out of the wall? That would be neat.”

    “Hmm… I think that’s about it for this level. I’ll just put a checkpoint here before the boss fight. Aaaand done!”

Oh dear.

    Ok, so let’s take a look at some problems through the eyes of current Michael. The first issue is with the pendulums. In Megaman Powered Up, if you ever find yourself in a space too small for Megaman, or whoever you’re playing as, they’ll be crushed and die. As you can see, this is quite common with the pendulums, often squishing the player into walls or between other pendulums.

    Another thing that these GIFs don’t convey, is that on the PSP, having this many moving things on-screen slows things down dramatically. I choose to believe that this is intentional to make the game more authentic to the original Megaman on the NES which suffered from the same issue, and not the result of poor optimization, which it most likely is. Regardless, we now have a soft limit on how many things we can have on-screen at once, if we want to keep a decent frame rate.

    The second issue with the level is the use of time slow and falling unbreakable blocks. This is used twice in the level, once as an optional challenge to get an extra life, and once more, half way through the level. In both cases, you can get stuck in a situation where you cannot progress.

    The only way to get past these specific situations, is to exit the level and try again from the start. While the idea of quickly running under a stack of collapsing blocks in slow-mo sounds cool, there isn’t really a good way to execute it. Having only one unbreakable block would mean that players could simply jump over it, once they destroy the ones that they can, and other objects either don’t fall or can be circumvented in other ways.

    The last issue is the space the player is given to navigate the level, most notably, in the room with the first checkpoint and conveyor belts.

    Here the player is expected to jump up through a one block wide gap while at the same time fighting against the force of a conveyor belt at max speed. This was most likely done in an attempt to force players to use time slow, and while this feat is indeed only possible with time slow, jumping up through a one block wide gap can be difficult at the best of times, let alone while being pushed back by a conveyor belt.

    Those are the playability issues that stood out immediately, but now that we’ve covered those lets see how current Michael would handle things. current Michael’s level sketches are on the left, and 11-year-old Michael’s level designs are on the right. current Michael added a few rooms, so those ones don't have 11-year-old Michael’s counterparts, but other than that, current Michael tried to keep the layout fairly similar.

    The first thing current Michael did was to give players room to breathe. Starting the level in the middle of a conveyor belt, with hammers in your face, might sound cool, but in reality, it’s just going to confuse players. Especially those who might not be familiar with the game.

    After that we have a gate that teaches the player about their time slow ability. The conveyor belt is moving too fast to walk over, and the spikes overhead make sure that players can’t simply hop over it. However, if players use their time slow, the conveyor belt will slow down enough so that they will be able to push past and walk over it.

    Then we introduce players to both pendulums and these cylinder enemies that respawn and follow the player. These pendulums don’t move but if the player shoots them, they start to sway. This is an interesting property of the pendulums that 11-year-old Michael didn’t really do anything with, but current Michael is here to pick up the slack. The enemy placed here is meant to not only show players how the enemy works, but also to prompt players to shoot the pendulums.

An example of  Timeman's angled shots
    Unlike Megaman, whose shots go straight forward, Timeman shoots two projectiles that travel diagonally up and down. This means that players trying to shoot the enemy will also most likely shoot one of the pendulums, causing it to sway. This mechanic isn’t necessary to completing the level, but it will help the player access side areas and extra lives.

    Just after that is an area with the other enemy type in the level: a spiky dude who crawls along the ground and moves quickly when the player is on the same platform as them. Normally these enemies are much more difficult to kill, as Megaman’s default shot will go over them, but Timeman’s diagonal shots allow him to kill these enemies much more easily. This is both a blessing and a curse as on the one hand it allows for Timeman to have a unique interaction with these enemies, but on the other hand it makes these enemies less useful as a stage hazard if the player can just kill them. Current Michael removed the flamethrowers that were here because he felt that they didn’t really fit the theme of the level, and they also weren’t as dynamically affected by time slow. 

    The next area splits off both left and right. Going to the right will progress the stage and going to the left will offer players a chance at an extra life, similar to the original stage. This area to the left also works to teach the player about how they can interact with the pendulums, as using the pendulum is the only way up to the extra life so naturally curious players will eventually figure it out.

    Going to the right, we introduce conveyor belts for the first time. There are no hazards in this area, so it gives players a chance to become familiar with the conveyor belts and learn how they interact with time slow (hint: they go slower).

    The next room was previously the one that required the player to jump through a one block wide space while pushing against a conveyor belt. Naturally current Michael opened up this area, giving the player more room to jump. This area also serves as a more difficult version of the conveyor belts, since falling off the conveyor belts here will cause players to fall off the screen. The lack of a floor here makes the challenge more threatening than it really is, as players won’t die if they fall but rather just have to make their way through the previous screen again.

    After that, players have to jump from one pendulum to another over an area that contains more of the floor enemies. This is a simpler version of a similar room that appears later on in the stage, replacing the enemies on the ground for spikes, similar to what 11 year-old Michael did.

    Above this room is the first checkpoint of the level, as well as a recreation of a trap from the original level that appeared in the previous room. Just after the checkpoint is a conveyor belt that pushes the player forward, into some spikes. Current Michael liked this as it twists how the conveyor belts were being used up to this point, only pushing against the player. However, its position in the level was just before the checkpoint and players who fell for this trap would have to replay the entire stage up to that point in order to be able to try again. By putting a checkpoint right before this, players are able to instantly retry, and won’t feel the stress of having to replay the level.

    The falling blocks that were here previously have been replaced with some pendulums and enemies. The layout is similar to the area where pendulums are first introduced, however now the pendulums are moving and there are additional enemies along the floor. The moving pendulum combined with the enemies on the floor make it difficult for the player to get their footing and stand in one place, forcing them to fight the enemies as they move.

    All of the pendulums that were in the screen here before have been replaced with one. The idea here is that players would jump down to the screen below, but using the pendulum will allow them to jump down at a farther point on the screen and reward them with an extra life. This area had to be redesigned multiple times in order to better communicate to players that they had to go down to progress, and that they could obtain an extra life here. Current Michael still isn’t satisfied with the solution that he came up with, but what he did was place a large ammo pickup, at the far side of the screen, where players would drop down to obtain an extra life. The ammo pickup has no importance to characters other than Megaman, as no other characters use ammo for their abilities, but it still draws the players’ attention as a collectible object.

    On the screen with the extra life is a small health pickup as well for both players who collected the extra life and those that did not. Current Michael did this to try to be similar to how other Megaman games with vertical drop down areas force the player to drop down at specific points, and only show them the results of their choice afterwards, such as Flashman’s stage from Megaman 2. Players can infer that the more difficult it is to get to an area where you drop down the better the reward, and that's what's done here.

    Just below here is another conveyor belt-spike gate. Current Michael wanted to do something with the enemies that crawl along the ground and the conveyor belts. Normally these enemies would be pushed around by the belts, but if the player steps on the conveyor belts too, they increase in speed and can push against the conveyor. What current Michael ended up with was similar to the gate at the start of the level that forced players to use time slow. This is to force the player to walk along the conveyor belts instead of hopping past them, which allows the enemies to do their conveyor belt shenanigans. The end result is similar to the slow-mo action scene kind of thing that 11-year-old Michael was trying to do throughout the level, but only really works if the player jumps down before they use time slow. Current Michael still isn’t satisfied with this area, and will probably continue to tweak it.

    The area afterwards has the player fighting against a conveyor belt while they time a jump onto a swinging pendulum over a pit of spikes. Previously, this was the area with the pendulums and ladders. However, because the player can stand on top of ladders, they also double as blocks and having multiple short ladders makes platforming more awkward than difficult.

    After players climb up the ladder, they are greeted by two pendulums swinging over a bed of spikes. This is the final challenge before the boss, but it’s nothing that players haven't done before. There was a similar area earlier except it had a solid floor with a few enemies instead of spikes, and players have been dealing with swinging pendulums all throughout the level, so this should be simple enough for them at this point.

    The final area before the boss is an empty room with a single checkpoint in it. Current Michael was considering putting something here, but in custom levels there isn’t automatically a checkpoint room before the boss, so this room serves the same purpose.

And that's it! Put it all together and what do you get? Well, this:

And here's all the current Michael level sketches sewn together, because why not.

    There are still several things that current Michael still isn’t satisfied with and will probably continue to work on, but blocktober is almost done and it’s almost blockvember. One thing that stands out to current Michael is that this level doesn't really consider the players’ health very well. Compared to something like Mario, where the player can only take one or two hits, Megaman games allow the player to take much more punishment before they die. This level doesn't really use that very well, and players only encounter a few enemies throughout the entirety of the level, making it so that players don't have to consider their health very much.

    That’s all for The Real Time, but there are many more levels that 11-year-old Michael designed, all of varying quality. This was actually one of the better ones, so it would be interesting to see how current Michael handles some of the less… normal ones.

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