Heistuesday – Interview with Level Designer Markus Månsson

#Heistuesday 2: The Level Design of SteamWorld Heist

Welcome to #Heistuesday! Every Tuesday until release, we’ll introduce something new from our coming game SteamWorld Heist.

This week I’d like share with you the first juicy bits on our level design. While we’re preparing to show you the first gameplay, I (Julius) sat down with our five-star level designer Markus Månson and had a chat about the challenges when working on SteamWorld Heist. In the game you recruit a team of rag-tag robots, board enemy spaceships and fight baddies in a unique variety of turn-based combat.

Julius: What’s the biggest challenge when designing levels meant for turn-based combat in 2D?

Markus: The biggest challenge when it comes to Heist is not that it’s in 2D. It’s the side perspective. In a strategy game it’s all about interesting choices. The choices are often about movement and placement of your troops.

With the side perspective we chose, the player naturally have fewer spots to move the troops to in each room. This is because you can’t move them freely in a vertical direction since that would include flying. You’ll have to find a ladder (or the equivalent) to move vertically, where in a top-down game you would just move across the ground both horizontally and vertically. So a big challenge when making levels for Heist is to give the player enough choices despite the fewer amount of walkable tiles.

That being said, this also leads to possibilities that are impossible with a top-down view. Finding and utilizing these elements is what will make the levels in SteamWorld Heist great.

J: What’s the most important: Making a level that’s fun to play or designing a believable ship interior?

M: It depends on how far into the level creation process I am. At the early stages of creation it’s all about the gameplay. I try to make the level play well with one single type of tile. It’s really just like any other kind of sketch. It helps me to get a hang of the level’s size and pacing.

When the basic layout has been playtested and works fine we start to decorate it. And that’s when a believable ship interior gets more relevant. While decorating, small tweaks are done to the level without affecting gameplay too much. These changes make the level more believable.

But in the end, I must admit that it’s the fun factor and gameplay that’s the most important.

SteamWorld Heist screenshot

J: How long does it take for you to design a complete level?

M: The exact amount of hours put into one level is hard to estimate. This is mostly because when one level has come to a stage where it’s playable, but still not finished, I usually start building another level and take it to the same stage. Then I have a number of levels taking shape simultaneously and I jump between them to keep all levels on the same stage. So instead of creating one level one day and another one the next, I create a number of levels during a longer period of time.

Another factor that makes it hard to determine time spent is gameplay testing. Testing takes a lot of time and I count that into the level creation process. After testing, new tasks always arise which means I have edit the levels again.

But to give a shorter answer I’d say it takes a few days for the whole process.

J: How do you prepare for a new level design? Do other games inspire you?

M: When starting work on a new Heist level I usually prepare with some really quick pen and paper sketches. It’s probably the fastest way of finding an interesting shape or layout. But I rather quickly move on to constructing the level idea in our level editor.

In the early weeks of the Heist production I actively looked at other turn-based strategy games to draw inspiration from. Just to have something solid to lean back on. The next step was to stop looking too much on other games and begin trying to find what was a good level for Heist. I needed to find the elements that make up a good Heist level in order to reproduce the fun into multiple levels. But of course, I’ve always got other games in the back of my head as inspiration.


J: Which magic tools are you using?

M: In this project I am only using our in-house level editor. It’s basically the same editor that was used for SteamWorld Dig but with some cool new features. The editor is really fast when it comes to prototyping a level.

J: When are you happy with a level?

M: I’m happy when anyone who plays the level can finish it without hassle. It should also contain the right amount of interesting and strategic choices for the player and perhaps a few secrets that not everybody will find… But that’s also a secret, I guess?

J: Thank you, Markus!

M: It was a pleasure!

Want to ask Markus a question of your own? Ask it in the comment section below or chat him up him on Twitter. His handle is @Mawnsson.