Welcome to Shacknews Close-Up, a new feature dedicated to spotlighting some of the up-and-coming faces of new media in video games. Join us as we get to know some of the people behind YouTube and Twitch content creators that dive into various channels of video games, be they informative, artistic, or otherwise.
Often times, games can be made or broken through the level of detail devoted to their level design. Platformers can quickly become mundane bores without thoughtful stages, especially since so much platforming territory has been explored in video games across three decades. But what makes for successful level design? Where does level design go wrong? And how can game developers avoid some common pitfalls when designing stages?
For our first Shacknews Close-Up, we took some time to speak to YouTube personality Sunder about his channel, which is mainly devoted to level analysis across a number of popular video games. We also ask about one of his more recent analyses, in which he broke down some of the problems with Super Mario Maker and ask whether the game has made progress since its recent updates.
Shacknews: Take a moment to talk about your channel. What's it about and what made you want to start making videos?
Sunder: My channel started from an idea that has become one of my biggest mantras: "create the content that you would want to consume." Back before I had started, some of my favorite videos on YouTube were things like Egoraptor's Sequelitis series, and I had a lot of trouble finding anything in a similar vein. Since I couldn't really find much, I decided to make the stuff I wanted to see. If you take a look, there's some reviews and 'Let's Plays' and videos that aren't mainly grounded in game design, but regardless of that everything that I make I try to make it because I want to see it created. I work on stuff I'm passionate about first and foremost (which explains my inability to stay on a schedule... heh).
Shacknews: Your videos have mainly been about level design analysis. What made you want to focus on this particular aspect of video games?
Sunder: To be blunt, nobody else was talking about it. I mean, there were people talking game design, but as far as strictly video-based content discussing level design, I don't think I could find a single channel or show dedicated to it aside from that one infamous bit from the Mega Man X episode of Sequelitis. I found it infinitely fascinating discussing the idea that every stage in a video game has a lot of deliberate steps taken to make sure the game's concepts are conveyed well, and I wanted to share that with people. The other reason is that I like to learn by doing, and LevelHead in particular was me challenging myself to become more well-versed in level design. I think I can say I've achieved at least that, I find myself unconsciously picking out design elements while playing games these days, almost to a point where I start annoying people.
Shacknews: In your mind, what makes a good level? Since this is a bit of a loaded question, in particular, what makes a good level in a platformer?
Sunder: Hm, well I think there are 100+ different things to take into account, but I'll try my best to summarize what I think. A good level, in my personal opinion, is one that is deliberately designed with an overarching idea in mind. This idea should be iterated on more than once, it should allow the player to explore the its boundaries, and the idea should encourage the player to experiment and discover new things about the game. That's my big thing, discovery, the topic I find impossible to talk about but I really want to discuss it in detail one day. I think discovery is so incredibly important.
But again, there are so many different angles to tackle this question from. What constitutes great design in say, Super Mario Bros., doesn't necessarily translate to Metroid, or Mega Man, or whatever it may be. I mean, I would very much hope that levels in a game like LIMBO are absolutely nothing like the levels in Shovel Knight. I guess that's why I think core ideas are important to have for levels, because they're essentially weird conversations between the devs and the players. Putting a box on the ground in the players way is just a dev saying "hey, you should jump over this" or "try pushing this forward" or something along those lines. Good conversations are cohesive, and good levels should be cohesive as well (more cohesive than my answer to this question anyway, I tend to ramble)
Shacknews: What games do you feel have nailed the level design element?
Sunder: Well, pretty much anything I've talked about on LevelHead I can safely say that I believe they nailed it. There's a few that are too broad for me to pin down in videos like that, but just to name a few that really wow'd me: Braid, FEZ, Antichamber, The Talos Principle, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Dustforce. Most of these I think really do well because not only are they filled with individual levels that are extremely well put-together, but especially in the case of FEZ/Dustforce/Antichamber the devs did a really good job of have a well-designed world that contains the levels. FEZ probably hit me the hardest in that regard, there are puzzles that get set up for several hours of seemingly not-related gameplay and when it all comes together it's simply magical.
Oh and Splatoon's multiplayer maps, those are rad.
Shacknews: Which ones do you feel didn't quite nail it?
Sunder: Didn't quite nail it? Well, I'd be betraying everything I stand for if I didn't say pretty much every Sonic the Hedgehog game. I don't wish to spark the flames of the angry internet masses, but I don't think I'll ever be able to enjoy a Sonic game. Especially in regards to the 2D Sonics, levels are sloppily laid out and usually bleed together with no interesting landmarks or indicators of where you are and the placement of enemies and traps is definitely meant for a game with a much wider camera view and always felt incredibly unfair to me. I won't linger on that, but I could talk for days, those games get under my skin really quickly. Maybe the only other game that I really felt had bad level design was La-Mulana, but I do acknowledge that's a game that's meant for a much more hardcore playerbase than what I would fall under. You're meant to draw maps out by hand and when you aren't lost it's still blisteringly hard. Cool idea but not something I could stomach.
Shacknews: Your most recent video got into Super Mario Maker and the problems with its metagame. Since that video went up, Nintendo released a new update with the bookmark web portal. Based on the last update, has your opinion on the Mario Maker metagame changed?
Sunder: Well, I am of course pleased that most of what I talked about ended up getting implemented in some way. Checkpoints were a no-brainer, I would've been shocked if they didn't make it in eventually, and I personally think their checkpoint system is pretty elegant. The online level browser is just okay, it's a solution but not the best one. Let's be real, your game that's based around building and sharing things should take strides to make it as easy as humanly possible to build and share things. Building they did great, but sharing not so much. I should be able to tap my Wii U menu button and drag my level over to the icon of an online friend and it should tell them "your friend wants you to try their level!", something to that effect. It's easy to be apologetic for Nintendo, but they're always years behind as far as online stuff goes, and it's really obvious in cases like this.
Also, I think that map-packs/worlds something to that effect is almost necessary. Especially since they've added speedrun timers to each level and people seem to be really liking that. I'd love to make a set of eight levels, all meant to be played back-to-back-to-back and then watch people compete for who can complete that whole world the fastest.
Shacknews: How do you feel you've improved as a content creator over the years?
Sunder: Realistically, too many ways to count. I've developed an on-microphone voice that I'm mostly comfortable with, as well as line improv skills (minor, but they're there). I didn't know the first thing about Premiere Pro going into this, but I feel fluent with it now, and I even picked up AfterEffects recently after years of being intimidated. I've learned a lot about the creation process, what works for me and what doesn't, and I've sure learned a hell of a lot about how crazy the world of YouTube is.
A big thing I learned is how to make friends and not connections. The people making stuff on the internet are usually pretty damn cool people, and I'm really lucky to be able to call so many of them friends. "Networking" is super important, but I've always found my biggest supporters are not people I ask for a signal boost or retweet or whatever, it's the people I've built connections with as friends rather than just "people in my field."
Shacknews: What advice can you offer anyone looking to get into content creation? What are some skills anyone looking to make videos should know?
Sunder: I made a video about this recently, Try your best, knowing full well that you will likely fail. Fail hard, fail harder than you ever thought possible. That's where you start to learn stuff. No matter what type of things you want to create, know that you're going to fail at it a lot and start envisioning that as gaining experience instead of "losing."
Shacknews: As a creator, you're pretty much free to set your own schedule. What level design analyses are you looking to focus on in future videos?
Sunder: I wish I could say I was totally free, but I do have plenty of work to do that keeps me from working on my own stuff. I'm not too sure about future episodes of LevelHead to be quite honest, I've been getting the vibes that the show might've run its course. I only have maybe one or two games that I would like to discuss in regards to that subject, and if I do it will likely be a different format. There's so much more out there to talk about, I want to diversify, try talking about new things so I can learn more, you know?
Regardless of that, level design analysis is forever a part of the way I think, so it's likely to slip its way into just about anything I make in the future.
Enjoy this feature? Join the conversation and let us know in the comments! Also, any personalities across YouTube, Twitch, Hitbox, and other content creation channels you'd like to see covered? Let us know that, too, or reach out directly on Twitter at @Ozz_Mejia and leave some suggestions.