The Secret Recipe to Designing Mobile Game Levels – App Development Series

By Jesal Trivedi on February 11, 2016

This is the second part to our ‘Orbit Path: Game Development Series’, which follows the creation of our own mobile game, Orbit Path. To read the first part, where we discuss developing and designing your game’s aesthetic and concept, hit the link here.

How did breakout level-based games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope design their levels? What strategies did they use to keep the user hooked (read: addicted) enough to keep come back for more? More importantly, is there a secret recipe for success?

Unless you were involved in creating those games, the answer to the rest of us is ‘No’. That said, there’s a whole lot we can take away from playing their games and taking notes. Here are 3 of the most important tactics we learned in developing our strategy for Orbit Path.

Levels Per ‘World’

The original Cut the Rope had 75 levels split into 3 ‘boxes’ or worlds. Angry Birds had 63 levels also split across 3 worlds. Is there a “specific amount” that is necessary for success?

In short, no. Following the mantra of former US president Teddy Roosevelt, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”, we used what we had developed so far to design the levels and worlds. As this game was an MVP to validate the game concept, we didn’t want to spend our resources over-developing the game, when we could use the money more effectively in marketing. Why spend more money and time developing levels and worlds if we don’t know at this point if people will respond positively to the game? Doesn’t make sense.

We decided to open our closed beta with only 30 levels, split across 2 worlds. We’re trying to keep this as lean as possible. If the market responds well, then we’ll produce an update with a new world with more levels.

New Concepts

I played the first three worlds of Cut the Rope to determine the frequency they introduced new concepts into the gameplay. Take a seconds to look at our spreadsheet that we made to keep track of all the levels and new concept introductions from the first three worlds in Cut the Rope.
If you see in the spreadsheet, red indicates when a new game concept is introduced, for example ‘Floating Bubbles’, ‘Air Cushions’, ‘Candy Spikes’, etc. The blue cells represent which of the already introduced elements are used in each level, their frequency of usage and what variations of combinations are used to make the game progressively more difficult.

At the beginning of the game, primarily in the first world, a new concept is introduced roughly every 3-5 levels. By World 2, a new concept is introduced, on average, every 6-8 levels. Hooking the user earlier in the game with more frequent introductions to new game concepts allows for a more effective retaining method, assuming your game concept is fun and intuitive.

We followed a similar format, using our two worlds and handful of new concepts, to create more variety and difficulty for the user to keep them engaged. Once we figured out where we wanted to introduce the new game concepts and mechanics across the 2 worlds, next comes the fun part.

Difficulty Progression

How hard do you make your levels? What if they are too hard? How do you flatten the learning curve?

These were some of the questions that our team was faced with after developing over 50-70 levels, play testing all of them, and finally selecting the best 30 that seemed to provide the most fun for the user. How did did we get to this point?

We started low tech. We knew where we wanted to introduce the game concepts so we began sketching out rough drafts of how we imagined the levels in Keynote. Using this as a starting point, we then created and placed the objects into Unity. By simultaneously playing and tweaking and making sure the levels weren’t physically impossible, we produced a build for our internal team to play with. This allowed us to get valuable feedback within a day or two, which we then used to further refine the level design and order.

Expect this to be an iterative process, with each version becoming better and better until you have a collection of levels your whole team had a part in perfecting. We then added help text whenever new concepts were introduced and short graphic tutorials at the beginning, as we learned that users didn’t know how to play the game in the first, and easiest level.

I hope this has been as helpful for you as it has been for us. Knowing these concepts will allow you to approach this process with confidence and tenacity. Now that you have a solid game concept, levels and progression of difficulty, you are ready to move into the world of marketing. Till next time.