Introduction: How to Create a Good N Level

About: An Independent game developer based in Toronto.

N is a fun ninja-based freeware game made by Metanet Software available here. N includes a built-in level editor so you can create and share your own levels with the help of NUMA, the N User Map Archive.

Making a level is easy. But making a good level is tricky. This instructable will help you understand what good N levels are all about, and so open the doors to virtual fame and fortune, and a 38% increase in your popularity.

Step 1: Getting Started

So, first things first, you'll need to download N . It's free!

When you unzip the archive, you'll notice there are a bunch of files included with your download. One of these is the N Editor Manual. This is a comprehensive guide to using Ned, the N level editor -- you should definitely give it a read. You can view or download the .doc version here .

So when you're finished reading through that awesome and informative manual, open up N. At the moment, Ned is still in the early stages of life, so it's a little rough around the edges: too rough to include directly from N's main menu.

At the main menu screen, press tilde (~ ) or the vertical bar key ( | ) to pull up the debug menu.

Step 2: Welcome to Ned

Ned, or N-Editor, is a decent and functional editor, but it's a work in progress, and is by no means perfect.

The cheesy welcome images you see accompanying this step will hopefully illustrate some of the limitations of Ned and the N tileset.

Step 3: A Brief Overview of Ned's Tile Editing Capabilities

Before we get started on the process of making a level, we should first take a look at the Tile and Object editing sections of Ned to gain familiarity with them.

Tile editing and object editing are individual processes, which may be annoying at times, but it actually helps to clarify the level-making procedure, allowing you to to focus your efforts without things getting too complicated. N is all about maximizing creativity within limitation!

Ned relies on a combination of the keyboard and mouse input. Once you've chosen your tile type, hold down the appropriate keyboard key and you can 'paint' the level using the mouse. Piece of cake!

The images attached to this step will give you a quick look at some of the more interesting features of the Tile Editor.

Step 4: A Brief Overview of Ned's Object Editing Capabilities

The process of adding and editing objects is pretty straightforward, but is slightly more complicated than that of tiles. Once you've chosen your object type, press the corresponding key; you should see the cursor change to reflect the currently selected object.

Move the mouse around the level, and click to place objects at the cursor's position (specifically, beneath the centre of the 'x'). Some objects, such as most enemies, require more than one step before they can be placed. Follow the instructions displayed around the cursor.

Though there is no 'Undo', you can delete individual objects by moving the cursor near or on them, holding 'backspace' and clicking. You can delete objects in reverse order of their creation by holding '\' and clicking.

See the images attached to this step for a quick look at some of the features of the Object Editor.

Step 5: What Makes a Good N Level?

N level authors generally agree that it's easy to make an N level, but much more difficult to make a good one. But what constitutes a good level? According to Metanet Software, a good N level is aesthetically pleasing and fun to play. So how do so many levels go so, so wrong?
These next few steps will hopefully help illustrate some of the common mistakes.

It's a good idea to start editing the tiles, and move from there to the objects. Aside from providing the ninja with surfaces on which to gain purchase, and providing the enemies with movement cues, the tiles offer a level designer a chance to be artistic and creative. Instead of making predictable rectangular platforms, N's tileset provides the opportunity to embellish and enhance, turning a standard level into something visually stimulating.

First, the aesthetics
A good N level should be easy on the eyes -- embrace minimalism. Good N levels incorporate balance in terms of positive and negative space (as created by the tiles and lack thereof), position and number of objects and tiles, and symmetry.

Repetition of pattern and shape throughout a level will give it a clean and consistent look. If you've used a lot of rounded tiles, scattering sharply angled tiles around your level as well will break up the visual flow, causing your eye to jump around the different tiles, rather than flowing smoothly through your map.

Playing N can be quite frustrating because of the precision involved in making jumps and executing tricky maneuvers. It's important to prevent the level itself from being too distracting, because this will make the game more difficult.

Take a look at these images of levels from N1.4 to get an idea of the aesthetic considerations mentioned above.

Step 6: Look Around You

You know how when you've been playing Tony Hawk for a while, you start seeing places to grind and do a wicked series of tricks as you walk around the real world? Or if you've been playing Burnout a lot, you start to plan gigantic crash sequences as you drive along the highway? Similarly, as you start to really get into making good N levels, you'll start to see shapes and designs you can use in your levels scattered around the real world.

Take a look at the images attached to this step. I've collected some cool images, and made a quick N-level-coloured overlay in Photoshop to illustrate how you might be able to see shapes, patterns and ideas for levels in the things around you.

For us at Metanet, one of the most inspiring sources for N levels has always been architecture. We walk around cities snapping pics of interesting buildings and parts of buildings, and then work the shapes into N levels. You could also check out the Architecture section of your favourite bookstore. Look up Tadao Ando -- his work was one of the first inspirations for N's style.

Step 7: Creating an N Level

Now that you're moderately familiar with the functions and features of Ned and have an idea of what makes a good N level, let's run through the process of creating a level step by step, and get a closer look at what makes a good N level.

It's always a good idea to start with a blank slate. So hit "J" from the debug menu to load an empty map, then hit "E" to edit it.

Step 8: Tile Editing: and So, It Begins

The images of this and the next few steps are a chronological photo-documentation of the editing process and should give you some insight as to how it goes down.

When you start designing a level, you need to have some idea of the general flow of the level in terms of gameplay. How do you want the player to progress through the level? Do you want to make an open-ended level, which has several "solutions", or do you want to direct the player through a specific path?

You don't need to have it all figured out, but you do need to have an idea. Creating N levels is iterative, so expect to revisit your level design several times before it's finished.

Start with the tiles. If you have no tiles, it's really hard to know where to place objects!

It's best to begin with an idea of a specific shape, move/technique or tile-type you'd like to highlight. Design a level with a purpose so you can be sure you're staying on track.

Step 9: Tile Editing: Expanding the Design

When you're designing N levels and you notice something looking odd, you have to be ready to scrap and redo the design, no matter what the cost. It's worth it though: You'll end up with a better level.

Once you've got the basic level down, try imagining the gameplay flow. In this case, the player is pretty free to move around. Now unless you already have done, you'll need to decide whether you want to restrict/direct the player's movement, and if so, whether to do that with tiles, objects, or both.

Here, we're going to use a combination. We'll start by adding some horizontal channels to direct the player, and provide some options for how to traverse the columns.

Step 10: Editing Objects: Adjusting the Difficulty and Creating Paths

When you're comfortable with the tiles, it's time to move on to editing the objects.

Though the tiles can certainly contribute to determining a level's difficulty, objects provide a more concrete way to tweak this. A level's enemies can help direct the player as they move through the map: enemies can make it very difficult to take a certain path, causing the player to try a new approach.

Remember to focus on minimalism: too many entities or too many types of entity gets distracting fast. Limit yourself, as this will give your level the most punch. You can't go wrong with more punch.

Start with the ninja and the exit, and then add some enemies and objects. Every object should be added with a purpose in mind. Never add objects just to fill up space -- this leads to maps that look and feel thrown together. Think about what will be happening when playing through this map. Does adding the object or enemy contribute to the gameplay? If not, it's probably unnecessary, and if you can't justify its existence, you should remove it altogether.

Levels that require the player to come up with a strategy for traversing the level are much more interesting. N is as much a puzzle game as it is a platformer, and levels which exploit both aspects of the game are 17 times more fun to make and play. See the images for examples of how to do this.

Step 11: Editing Objects: the Final Touches

When you've finished adding enemies that move, you might want to add a few mines here and there, to make certain parts of the level more difficult to traverse. The ninja has the ability to perform a number of different moves; it helps to have played N a bit so you have an idea of what is possible and what is impossible.

Adding objects such as jump pads and bounceblocks can make a level easier to move through quickly, so consider those if you'd like to adjust the player's speed.

Add gold last. It's so easy to go overboard with gold. Each piece of gold adds 2 seconds to the ninja's life, so adding 30 pieces is probably about the most you'll ever want to add.

Step 12: Don't Do What Donny Don't Does

Take a look at the images attached to this step. They are meant to help illustrate some of the problems you can encounter when editing tiles and objects.

In the first image, the level's tiles are interesting, but the 'H' design is obscured by the embellishments. The overall effect is a bit overwhelming, and causes the eye to jump all around the level randomly. Sometimes, as you're finishing a level, it becomes clear that there is a conflict between more than one focal design: as a good N level designer, you need to know when to separate your ideas so you can give each design concept the spotlight. The cool, spiky tiles in this image might work better in a level where the graphic effect is less structured.

The second level suffers from too many objects disease. Each bounceblock and one-way platform is pretty much entirely superfluous, and so they can be removed without loss of gameplay quality. Though the placement of objects is fairly consistent here, they still detract from the clarity of the level's design.

Step 13: Saving Your Level

Ned's saving interface is unfortunately quite poor. Flash does not yet have the ability to read and write files, so we have to leave that to the user.

To save your level, hit the "Home" key to get back to Ned's menu, then hit "PgDn" to dump your level data into the upper textbox (labeled 'Level Data'); that's where your level data resides.

You will need to click in the box, then select all and copy the text: click, ctrl-A, ctrl-C.

Paste your text into the userlevels.txt file that accompanied your download of N -- this will allow you to play your level in N. Adding a level to the userlevels.txt file must be done in a particular way, so please read the file to find out how.

You could also paste it into an Excel spreadsheet or plain text file for later revision.

The names of N levels is part of what makes them great. It's an art, really. To title levels, Metanet Software uses a unique blend of pop culture references, favourite quotes, the names of fictional characters and interesting historical figures, ridiculous/funny sayings, alliteration, horrible puns, a dash of sarcasm and, where possible, a reference to the level's theme. There's a list out there somewhere -- read through the names and prepare to laugh until hospitalized.

Here, I've called my level "hurry hurry hurry", which unfortunately isn't particularly funny; however, interesting nonetheless. The level resembles three 'H' shapes, hence the repetition of three words beginning with 'h'. 'Hurry, hurry, hurry' (eg. 'step right up!') is a phrase used by ancient hucksters who were more often than not, con artists. Con artists are cool. The idea of needing to hurry is integral to N, so that fits well. I'd rate that name only a 6/10, but it'll do for now.

When your level has been saved, it's time to try playing it.

Step 14: Playing Through Levels

It's a good idea to test your level in debug mode, because this is the first test. It's almost guaranteed you'll find something you need to change as you play through.

Finally, the Gameplay
This is the other half of what is required to make a good N level. Your level has to be fun to play. As stated previously, N is a fairly frustrating game at times, but finally beating a level that has been annoying you makes it all worthwhile. Make sure that the satisfaction of beating your level is not outweighed by the frustration incurred while playing it.

Playing through a level will give you an idea of how difficult certain moves and jumps are to make, how difficult it is to avoid the enemies, and overall how much fun the level is to play. It is absolutely necessary that you are able to play through your level entirely without dying before you can consider it finished.

Step 15: The Final Countdown

Nice work, you've finished your N level, and it should be pretty good! But the ultimate test is yet to come. Now that you've finished, you should upload your level to NUMA, the N User Map Archive, and see what your fellow N fans think of it.

It's a good idea to upload a replay demonstrating successful completion, in case people complain that it can't be done.

You'll need to start by creating an account in N -- click "Configure" at the main menu, choose a username and password, and click 'create new user'. You can then use the same username/password to log in at NUMA and activate your account. Once that's done, you're ready to upload levels.

Here's the level that was used in this tutorial:
hurry hurry hurry

Once you get used to Ned's eccentricities, making a good N level can take as little as 5 minutes. You get to know by sight what will work and what won't, which moves the ninja can pull off and which are impossible, which layouts to avoid and which make a good base.

We wish you success and happy happy N levels!