I've thought about starting this blog for quite some time, but I haven't really set out to commit to do so until tonight. So, here it is. Basically, I wanted to provide fellow Chipsters with a place where we could talk about the merits of quality level design, what level design preferences have looked like in this past in our community, and where things appear to be going in the future. I certainly don't consider myself to be the ultimate level design authority, but I'm happy to share my thoughts about what I've observed to work the most when designing levels, and at the same time, I'm ready and willing to learn from others as well.
So why don't we start from the very beginning?
Custom level design has almost always featured an overarching desire to explore new territory. When I discovered ChipEdit back in 1998, along with one of the first sets uploaded online (which is now much longer and called CatatonicP1.dat), I was intrigued by the use of invalid tile combinations. In fact, much of my time was spent playing around with invalid tile combinations, precisely because it was "that thing the original game just didn't have!" After a few years away from the game, I returned to the online CC world to discover many more sets had been uploaded, including an epic (then) 149-level challenge called EricS1 and an invalid tile lover's paradise: DaveB1 and DaveB2. From what I could tell, many of the seasoned designers were all about boldly going where no level had gone before. By the time CCLP2 was assembled and released, this same paradigm applied to many of its levels: sokobans, joyrides, a new type of puzzle called "Cloner's Maze," the use of random force floors, and other elements that had never been explored to much extent in years past took center stage. And at the same time, the interest in optimization started to reach a fever pitch.
The years that followed were largely spent dissecting the game and analyzing its various bugs and idiosyncracies. Some designers built entire levels that revolved around "insane" level behavior or the other strange workings of Microsoft CC. Much of the community at the time played the game for optimization, too. In fact, many levels were built specifically for optimization; the introduction of pieguy's custom scoreboard site was very instrumental in ushering in an era where custom scores could be reported on any set that was uploaded. Throughout this time, submissions for a new level set called CCLP3 were open - and for quite a very long time. With so much of the game's mystery taken away, the biggest satisfaction most people found was in optimizing it, and many of the levels submitted for CCLP3 consideration reflected this desire.
When CCLP3 voting was finally completed, most of the levels that the community had favored were the most difficult ones out of all that were submitted. But ironically, though the set was built mainly for the veteran players who enjoyed complexity and puzzling brain-teasers, what followed in the community was an unexpected but quite welcome shift. New players began to join the fold, and many of them weren't interested in optimizing the game, analyzing its intricacies to meticulous detail, or spending hours solving giant puzzles. They just wanted a game they could pick up for a brief period of time and enjoy playing in manageable chunks. The rise of Let's Plays on YouTube also proved to be conducive to casual gameplay, and once again, CC felt new again for a brand-new generation. Design was no longer about finding something new; it was now about presenting the familiar in innovative ways. It also wasn't long before the idea to create an official set specifically for new players that served as a replacement for the original CC1 was brought forth, and from that, the CCLP1 project has since launched and is currently in production.
Since CCLP1 submissions have closed, I've tested thousands of levels in the running, and I can safely say that the future is looking bright for level design. The objective of creating a level set that's beginner-friendly has sparked a revolution in level design where casual gameplay is being considered, and I believe that can only be a good thing, particularly for the next generation of CC players who will likely search for more challenges after completing CCLP1. In the days to come, I'll be sharing my thoughts on level design, how I believe the best levels consider all styles of gameplay, and some difficult lessons I've learned as a designer. Where will community preferences with respect to level design go in the future? The answer is anyone's guess, but I can only hope that it's a place where players of all skill levels can feel welcome.