It’s important to know your source material when designing – to do your research. When creating a level for an already established game, it would be wasteful to not study the original game(s). So before I got too far into designing my Gears of War level, I wanted to study several aspects of the series, the first subject simply being level layout.
It’s easy to sit down and say “I want a warehouse and when the Gears run in, grubs fall from the ceiling and flood out of an elevator!” Ok, so at best that just described a giant box with some openings for AI to fall in. What about cover? It’s one of the most important mechanics of the series. So you throw down some concrete blocks and boxes for people to use as cover as bullet tracers fly over their heads. Done right? Well, as you can probably assume by the tone of this paragraph… No. You… You are not done.
Unless you are the Jesus of level design or just extremely lucky, throwing cover into your box of a level will not guarantee a compelling or engaging combat experience. Cover will define paths and choke points and as much as I wish I could just start throwing stuff down, some thought needs to be put into it. The actual level layout and cover need to convey a sense of momentum while introducing interesting combat scenarios. As a Gears level designer, cover is your tool to set up advantageous spots and opportunities to coordinate ambushes between players. If used correctly, a lack of cover can quickly put the player at a disadvantage and force a feeling of desperation and propel them forward to possible safety. If placed randomly, odds are the final result is a cluttered room.
I could sit for days and mock up combat scenarios to find what works best, or I can simply observe the actual games layouts. To the left are 5 areas from both Gears of War 1 and 3 detailing cover and stage layouts. I wanted to study not just the first games designs, but the third one as well as I consider it my favorite installment in the series. Since the editor I am using was designed for Gears 1, it was important to study the first game design philosophies. By examining the third game though, I can gain a sense of evolution in the series and attempt to implement some of my favorite aspects of Gears 3 into a level for Gears 1.
Below are three general design lessons I picked up from examining these levels.
Path of Least Resistance
Levels in both games usually display a clear path towards the end of the room absent of cover. This lane provides an easy visual of the goal to the player while also granting more daring player the ability to move down the battlefield quickly to engage the enemy up close. Cautious players still have the luxury of staying behind in cover as they assess the situation. By having an open lane, the designer not only gives the player a goal, but instantly creates a more mature area by allowing multiple play styles to inhabit the same area.
A Healthy Mix of Cover
Gears 3 does a more universal job of applying this, but my favorite Gears 1 levels were full of this philosophy. Multiple types of cover not only add variety, but can increase the momentum of the section. In the ACT 1- Abandoned Ship – Ship deck layout, a large crate is in the middle of the lane that can’t be hopped over. This then directs player down a narrow path crowding them into their companions while trying to get out of the way of incoming fire. This simple use of standing cover created a small, high-octane moment where the player had to act fast, or withdraw and wait for the lane to open up. Either way, the game play momentum shifted and forced the player to think about their next move.
As a two player campaign, Gears 1 didn’t make use of too many multi-lane sections. They have one room and one clear path through it. Gears 3 on the other hand focused a bit more on multiple lanes due to 4 players inhabiting the space at once. For instance, the Grocery Store in ACT 1- Homecoming of Gears 3 displays two major lanes. The first lane is on the left and is the more open of the two and is susceptible to stalemating if both sides hide and shoot at each other from cover. To the right, behind the counters, is a more closed off lane giving quick thinking players the ability to flank the enemy quickly while other players keep their attention in the first lane.
The wide open Street from ACT 1 – Homecoming also houses two lanes. Lane 2 on the right is the standard, while lane 1 on the left allows players to come up and surround the enemy. These multiple lanes can help create extra momentum and keep players from just hiding behind cover, waiting for grubs to poke their heads out.
While Gears 3 implements more strategies to keep players invested and thinking, by no means is Gears 1 inferior. Gears 1 focused on a more intimate space with just two players while Gears 3 exploded into a 4 player co-op extravaganza. By taking some of those momentum creating designs from Gears 3 into the Gears 1 space, I hope to improve upon the original design philosophies of Gears 1.
If there are any Gears modders out there, I hope these simple design tips help elevate your designs! If you need someone to play test, send me an email — firstname.lastname@example.org