Insight into Level Design: Interview with Bojana Božin
We have this regular thing at TD when all desperados come together (via google link), teams give an update to the rest of us or talk about their craft or important topics in general. It’s never a boring slot in my Google Calendar, that’s for sure. One of the recent insider topics was Level Design.
So I took the power of WordPress, Desperado Diaries and the Comms team invested in me to bring you the craft of Bojana Bozin, our Level Designer. Enjoy!
Tamara: Time to write in Desperado Diaries, Bojana. 🙂 Get your digital ink ready! First things first… If you had to describe Level Design in one sentence without using the words ‘level’ or ‘design’, what would that sentence be?
Bojana: In my mind it’s choosing and arranging elements to create something fun yet challenging.
Tamara: You’ve been at Two Desperados for a year now, getting hired during 2020. You were actually studying abroad in China when the pandemic hit. So how did you get into Level Design in the first place? What were you studying in China and how did you manage the notorious ‘new normal’ shift?
Bojana: I can hardly believe a year has already passed. To be honest, I didn’t really plan on getting a job because I wanted to finish my studies first. But the opportunity came when a good friend of mine, Andreas, who is part of Two Desperados, suggested that I try out my luck. I guess level design came naturally because growing up, I played Warcraft games, where you could make your own maps and balance things the way you wanted.
In China I studied Computer Science and Technology at Beijing Institute of Technology. Truthfully, staying locked on campus for 5 months made the shift breezy, haha, I had games, lectures and exams, so I had things to do 🙂
Tamara: Designing levels for casual marble shooting games can seem almost easy and predictable to someone looking from the outside. The principle of shooting marbles before they get in the hole is pretty simplistic, but as levels progress there always seem to be tweaks and details that make this simple task a different experience with every level. How easy or difficult is it for you as a Level Designer to keep levels interesting and give players an experience they both expect and don’t expect getting?
Bojana: Players know what to expect, so our task is to think of new ways to challenge their expectations, either by making a level that looks easy but is very tricky, or putting more bothersome elements in easy levels. At this point, Woka has 2480 levels and Viola is nearing its 2000th level, so you can imagine how much work goes into it. But it’s still a fun challenge.
Our games have a good number of various elements, too many to list, but I’ll lay out a few examples. So as a level designer you have the power to change and manipulate elements. Before you can design a level, you need to know how different elements impact the level’s difficulty, while also gathering knowledge about the player’s behaviour and what they like and dislike.
For example, we know that our black/silver and white/gold marbles were one of the most hated ones in the game.
They can be easy to destroy on fairly easy levels but hard if the level doesn’t allow you to easily get a match 3. White and black marbles can be destroyed like regular ones but they are also used to make gold or silver ones by making a gap between them.
However, gold and silver marbles aren’t like regular marbles. Meaning they can’t be spawned in the shooter but they can be destroyed in a similar way as they are made, by making a gap between three or more of them. This makes them harder to get rid of but that is why we reward the player after they manage to destroy them. Gold ones release a fireball that has a radius that destroys marbles around it and the Silver ones freeze the chain, giving the player 5 moves to make the best of it.
These are exclusive to Woka. And speaking of exclusive things in Woka, we also added the coconut marble, which was the first in-game element that I designed. This is the gif I drew to visually show the marble mechanics to the team:
We also have some simple mechanics that can be a drag at times, such as frozen and gummy layers:
Here we can see how they look in Viola.
Marbles can have up to four frozen layers. The number also represents how many times you have to hit that marble with the same colored one in order to take off all of the frozen layers.
As for gummy, it only has one layer, and it’s destroyed when matched with the marble with the gummy on top. The gummy layer gets destroyed but the marble remains.
Tamara: The process of game development can vary from company to company and that’s mostly because of different work styles and, first and foremost, the different types of games that are created. Who do you depend on most in your work and who do you communicate with the most when it comes to other team members?
Bojana: I was really dependent on my buddy in the company, Anđela Simić, Game Designer. When I started working at Two Desperados, we were already working remotely. I didn’t get the chance to meet the team in person back then, so she was my go to person.
While testing the levels, you can stumble upon bugs or things you think might improve the gameplay, so you go straight to the developers. Also when new features are made, you have to be in close contact with the developers, especially when we work remotely and you can’t just turn your head around and tell them what you want to be changed. But I have to say, the ideas for new features in the games come from every person on the team 🙂
Nowadays, we also have some workshops at the office, which really help us get closer as a team that’s otherwise remote. Being in the office has its benefits, which is having all the people you work with in one place, so arranging meetings isn’t needed but being at home has its perks as well. In my case, as a Level Designer, working remotely isn’t a problem because it’s mostly solo work. I communicate with every department on the team but mostly with the developers and my fellow game designer.
Tamara: You have a technical background when it comes to your education, since you studied Computer Science and Technology at the Beijing Institute. How much has it helped in your line of work? What kind of skills are your forte?
Bojana: Knowing how to read code and how to use tools for development, such as Unity and Visual Studio Code, does come in handy when you need information but can’t find a free developer. You can always make a simple script that extracts information for you.
I would say that my forte would be doing boring things in order to make my job more efficient, while simultaneously maintaining high quality. For example, while level planning you have to choose a level path. I find it easier to extract all the paths and keep them in one place, while sorting them by similarity.
So my advice is to keep things simple and if you see that your tools and information is scattered, try to put it in one place. Also, if you see that you can make something beneficial for your work in the long run, do it, even if it’s little by little.
Tamara: We all know that no matter how much we love our work, sometimes we all experience all kinds of crises—from creativity blocks to the plain and simple ‘I can’t seem to focus today’. Have you experienced any downsides of your work and how do you personally push through moments of crises?
Bojana: Oh gosh, yes. It comes when it is least wanted. But hey, everyone needs a break every now and then. It happens when I get stuck on balancing one level for hours and I can’t see why I can’t get to the wanted difficulty, or I have just been playing for too long and everything seems easy.
When that time comes, I take an instrument into my hands and play for a bit, or read some webtoons or comics. I find it easier to get back into work when you do something that you enjoy, and most times it brings new ideas 🙂