Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Can I Craft That For You?

Though traditionally confined to RPGs and roguelikes, crafting has become a staple of modern gaming almost regardless of what genre you enjoy.  Whether it's first-person shooters like RAGE, action-adventure titles like Dead Rising or Assassin's Creed, MMOs like World of Warcraft, or even rhythm games like Sequence, crafting is here to stay, for better or for worse.  After all, games are all about choice, and just like RPG elements like experience points creeping into just about every facet of gaming, crafting is another solid way to provide that choice to players.

Even so, not all crafting systems are created equal - so much so that often reading "crafting system" amongst a list of a game's features is enough to set off alarm bells in my head, as it's as much a source of tedium and frustration as it is a genuine improvement.  While there's always going to be some subjectivity involved as far as the value of crafting goes, there are still very clear wrong and right ways to go about implementing such mechanics.  When done right, crafting can be a positive addition to a game... and when done wrong, sometimes it's enough to make players want to stop playing altogether.

Why Crafting?

The first question to ask before even going into the details of a crafting system at all is actually much more basic - namely, why crafting?  What does crafting, mechanically, accomplish for a game?  What sorts of problems does it solve, and introduce?  Perhaps more to the point, does crafting fit into the overall vision of what a given game is about?  Often when it comes to game mechanics, it's not so much a question of the how as it is the why that needs to be addressed before any design work or code is written down.

Namely, what exactly does crafting do for a game?
  1. Provides a sense of player agency.  Just like making a hot meal for yourself instead of getting take-out, crafting in games helps players feel that they own the things they create.  Even if it's just following a recipe and there isn't anything creative involved, the simple process of choosing to make something can often be more satisfying than simply being given the same object or item.
  2. Gives a secondary use for items.  A common problem with loot-driven games, especially RPGs, is that the player will end up nearly drowning in excess amounts of equipment.  Usually the solution is to either sell this equipment or simply throw it away, neither of which rarely have much use in the game.  Crafting helps mitigate this problem.
  3. Balances in-game economies.  Another side-effect of giving the player lots of junk or "vendor trash" is that often a game's economy becomes woefully unbalanced or unstable, often to the point of completely undermining the value of money in the first place.  I can't count the number of RPGs I've played where I simply stopped picking up items because I already had so much money to spend and nothing to spend it on.  Implementing crafting doesn't just cut down on junk, it also helps reinforce the value of in-game money and keeps its role distinct.
  4. Encourages exploration.  Especially in open-world games, crafting is one of the ways in which designers can subtly get players to do and see more of the game worlds they spend so much time creating.  Even if it's just picking flowers to use in a few potions, players will want to spend time doing things and going places if they can acquire items doing so - especially if they're useful or can't be found elsewhere.
  5. Provides better rewards.  How many times have you completed a game objective and received a reward that was completely and utterly useless to you, either because mages don't use longswords, or because the item was well below your character level?  By rewarding the player with generic crafting ingredients and recipes (or unique, limited ones), players can actually receive something that's useful, without designers needing to come up with specific rewards for every possible play-style.
  6. Adds to play-time.  This, unfortunately, is one of the most malicious ways in which crafting is used.  Though sometimes there can be benefits in requiring players spend more time to complete a task (if something is too easy, it isn't rewarding), the majority of games I see featuring crafting use it as a way to simply pad out the experience.  More on this later.
With all that in mind, it's worth turning attention to exactly how all of those fit into the experience intended by a specific game.  All of this sounds good on paper, granted, but when put in context, sometimes it's clear that crafting isn't always beneficial to a game's design.  Would Super Mario 3D Land really be enhanced by the ability to craft power-ups?  Does the cinematic, structured and highly scripted gameplay of Uncharted really need a system that encourages exploration?  Grand Theft Auto IV is an open-world game, but does hunting down powder to make different types of bullets really fit with the vision of the designers or the immediacy of the experience?

This is all easier thought about than done, it goes without saying, and sometimes the only true test is experimentation.  Even so, there are some games I've played where crafting feels bizarre, bolted-on and arbitrary to the experience, as if it was just thrown in there for the sake of it being included, and I think that's largely due to a lack of scrutiny paid not just to the individual game mechanics, but to their place in the larger picture as well.  There's no "right" answers in this sort of exercise, but what it does do is highlight whether or not crafting is a good fit for a game, or if those resources would be better spent elsewhere - and in more cases than not, the answer is "yes."

Crafting Skills

More specific to RPGs is the inclusion of crafting skills in gameplay, which exist to limit the player's ability to craft in a way other than denial of resources.  Much like the basic "why crafting?" question, the "why skills?" question is also of the utmost importance for ensuring whether or not a crafting system works in a given game.  Even in cases where crafting fits in, the specifics, usually relating to skills, can often be over- or under-developed.

As above, when considering crafting skills it's important to ask these questions:
  1. How does skill progression work?  Does the player level up crafting separate from other skills in the game, or is the development of those skills integrated deeply into the standard gameplay?
  2. How long does it take to level crafting?  Is it something that requires a big time investment, such as gaining enough XP, or does the investment come from other parts of the game, like collecting money or crafting resources?
  3. How are skill levels structured?  Are there only a few skill levels with big benefits, or are the levels incremental with relatively small improvements each step?
  4. Is crafting static or customizable?  That is, is crafting a system that adheres to the same rules for all players, or do players customize their available options by, for instance, specializing in crafting certain types of items?
  5. What sort of information about crafting skills is exposed to the player?  Do they get to see all the minute details of the mechanics, or are they hidden in order to encourage experimentation and to create a more organic notion of improvement?
  6. How many crafting skills does the player have?  Are they mutually exclusive, i.e. only one crafting skill per player, or can the player become an expert at crafting anything in the game?
  7. Do crafting skills compete for attention with other skills?  Does the player have to, for instance, sacrifice combat ability to become a better blacksmith, or is every player guaranteed competence with at least one profession?
Some of these questions might seem a bit obvious, and admittedly they're the sort of thing that gets hammered out during development, but it is absolutely integral to answer them as early on as possible.  These sorts of choices dictate the nature of a crafting system; leaving them to be figured out over time or through experimentation is setting up that system for imbalance, poor cohesion with the rest of the game, and eventually, outright failure.  These questions are second only to the fundamental one of whether to have any crafting to begin with.

Crafting and Grinding

As I mentioned above, crafting is, much more often than I'd like, used in order to pad out a game and extend it beyond its worth.  Much like in Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy, where often the player has to take time out to perform repetitive battles in order to defeat a boss monster, crafting, in its lowest and most malicious implementation, can be used to restrict the player's way through the game by forcing the replay of the same game content over and over, and is even sometimes responsible for outright ruining a game's pacing and flow.

Talking about grinding is a hard thing, however.  As I said above, sometimes a little bit of grinding can be to a game's benefit.  Too much of it grows frustrating, but especially if it's optional content that isn't necessary to complete the game, grinding can give extra-dedicated players the sense of mastery over the game that they live for.  Moreover, some players even enjoy the act of grinding itself - perhaps because it represents a sort of "safe zone" where the player doesn't have to contend with any new game mechanics or story elements, or even because it leads to a sort of "grinding zen."  Quantifying exactly what the right amount is, both necessary and optional, is a very subjective thing.

Team Fortress 2's crafting system is extensive, but has begun to receive more emphasis than the core game itself.
 Even so, it's fair to say that there is such a thing as too much grinding, and that extends to crafting as well as anywhere else.  One game, I think, that perhaps takes the crafting grind to absolute extremes is Team Fortress 2, so much so that it has turned both myself and several friends of mine off from playing the game altogether.  Even though it's a multiplayer-focused game intended to be played for years, with the crafting itself almost a metagame on top of it, the amount of emphasis given to crafting both by the developers and the community borders on absurd.

For the purposes of illustration, let me break down the process behind crafting a rare item, the Sharpened Volcano Fragment.  This assumes that the player already knows how, of course.
  1. To start, we need Scrap Metal.  Scrap Metal is created by combining 2 weapons from the same character class.
  2. Next, we need Reclaimed Metal.  Reclaimed Metal is made up of 3 Scrap Metals, which means that we need to collect 6 weapons.
  3. Now comes Refined Metal.  Refined Metal requires, you guessed it, 3 Reclaimed Metals.  We're up to a total of 18 weapons to hoard up.
  4. The Sharpened Volcano Fragment needs 2 pieces of Refined Metal.  That's 36 weapons in total so far.
  5. Last, the Refined Metal needs to be combined with an Axtinguisher, another Pyro weapon... relatively rare, but considering we've burned through 36 items already, perhaps not too big a deal.
Of course, this is being optimistic and assuming that the player is a) going to keep all the weapons he/she finds for crafting purposes and b) going to find exactly the needed items.  More realistically, the player is going to need two or three times the 36 weapons needed.  Now, owing to some intrepid fans of the game, it's been estimated that most players will find a new item every two or three hours of gameplay, and that on average, players can only obtain about eight to ten new items per week.  This means that, at minimum, you're looking at about 80 to 100 hours of gameplay just to craft this one weapon.  Speaking realistically, however, it could easily take 250+ hours just to assemble the raw materials needed.

Granted, this particular item is an extreme example, and most in the game don't require quite that number.  Still, it serves to highlight just how absurd a time investment is required just to obtain even a single one of Team Fortress 2's best items.  Even for the more mundane items, 10 to 15 hours is not at all uncommon.  Given that you'll need to give up your day job for the sake of crafting, it's no wonder that players are willing to simply shell out real money to get their hands on the items.  Somewhere, Gabe Newell is rubbing his palms together and laughing manically.

Good Crafting: Case Study

After that rather depressing overview of Team Fortress 2, I'd like to take some time to gush over a game that actually gets crafting right.  Risen, developed by Piranha Bytes, is effectively a reboot of the Gothic series, and shares many of the franchise's strengths, from an open world and punishing but fair difficulty curve.  It also has one of the best crafting systems I've seen in a modern game, especially when compared to similar games in the genre, like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

The first thing Risen does right is that it shows incredible restraint in its crafting system: there are just four crafting skills - Alchemy, Smithing, Prospecting, and Gut Animals - and only two of those can be leveled up more than once.  Leveling up crafting draws from the same pool of learning points all other skills require, and it must be done at the hands of a skill trainer.  Skill trainers cost money to employ, and gold is rather rare in Risen, especially earlier on.  Despite the limited number of skill levels, those skills provide large benefits for every new level gained, including new potions to brew and weapons to forge.

What?!  I can't level my skills to 100?  What kind of crafting system is this?
Due to the scarcity of items in the game, crafting takes on a different role than most others.  Whereas in some it's just a cheaper way to get health packs, in Risen it's outright required for many of the best items in the game, from potions that permanently boost stats, to powerful swords.  In order to craft, raw materials must be hunted down, and their numbers are finite.  Many of the best ingredients can only be gained by defeating powerful enemies, or by exploring the darkest and most distant dungeons.  Thus, crafting isn't just a matter of putting puts into a skill and hitting a button, it's about venturing into the game world and putting your in-game life in danger.

The risk-versus-reward element doesn't end there.  Risen is a deviously difficult game, and early on, death is often swift and almost impossible to avoid when going against certain enemies.  It's only through training, mastery of combat and acquisition of better gear that the player even stands a chance against the more challenging enemies.  Because of the challenge, the player is presented with a very real dilemma: go for the combat skills and ensure survivability out in the wilds, or put points and money into crafting to gain access to powerful healing potions otherwise unavailable, or new equipment?  Both health items and gear are hard to come by in Risen, and the trade-off between those two and the combat skills is a compelling one.

Last, what Risen's crafting system highlights most of all, both about crafting and more generally about mechanics, is that context is everything.  All the levels, recipes, ingredients, perks and so on in the world mean absolutely nothing if the decision to pursue crafting isn't relevant, interesting, valid or rewarding to the player.  Even though the system is just about as bare-bones as it gets, the crafting is compelling because of all the other elements of gameplay around it.  It's often true in game design that less is more, and Risen's crafting is proof of that.

Conclusion

When implemented effectively, crafting can enhance a game in subtle ways, both deepening the gameplay experience and providing the player with options in overcoming challenges, customizing his or her character, and exporing the game world.  However, it is worth reiterating that crafting, as trendy as it is these days, is not a guaranteed way to improve a game.  There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and that assumes that crafting is a fit for a particular game in the first place.  Game design is often a process of throwing things at a wall and seeing what sticks, but I think crafting might be one of those cases where that mentality doesn't work.

I, for one, am hoping to see crafting fade from popularity, due to my own fatigue with the mechanics and because it's something that simply doesn't belong everywhere.  I enjoy it when put in the right context, but the fact is that seeing it thrown into just about every genre of game imaginable really cheapens the mechanic, and ultimately ends up damaging many of the games it's shoehorned into.  To be blunt, if it can't be done right, then don't do it at all - there are better things to spend time, money and labor on.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sequels: Trying Too Hard?

Bigger, better, more.  Game developers are always expected to improve on previous titles, to move genres forward, to innovate, and to generally provide new experiences for players that they haven't seen before.  Whether it's extremely high expectations for a long-awaited franchise revival, an internal desire for the developer to one-up previous games, or a publisher's want for the most impressive product on the market, you won't find many game developers who aren't interested in keeping a good thing going and improving on their prior work.  There's a boundary, most will agree, and it needs to be pushed.

No more often is this attitude seen than in sequels.  With every successful game that becomes a franchise, the desire, in all cases, is to provide players more of what they want, in a more refined manner, with more pleasing aesthetics, and a grander scale.  Of course, this is only natural - developers want to make games that surpass their previous ones, publishers expect more sales than the original (or at least greater profit margins), and fans are ravenous for something that fulfills their desires (misguided as they can sometimes be).

However, in looking at a couple of up-and-coming games recently, a thought struck me.  Though both of them are technically proficient, mechanically sound, and will no doubt sell millions of copies to their dedicated fanbases, I was left with a distinct impression that their developers were more focused on raising the bar with cinematic action sequences and appealing to the emotions of fans, to the detriment of the quality of the games in the first place.  Put simply, it seemed to me that they were simply trying too hard to get my attention, to wow me, and to give me what I wanted.  In an industry where often forward progress is held up above all else, it may seem strange to say, but I have to wonder that obsession is holding developers back.

Running Sim 2012

The Spike TV Video Game Awards, whatever you think of them, are one of the biggest media events for games in the mainstream today.  With the VGAs, not only are the games of the past year put on pedestals for all to see, but often dozens of new games are premiered, with each publisher attempting to provide the most impressive trailers.  Some of the work that shows up in these trailers is, to be blunt, nothing short of phenomenal, and shows that games are getting closer and closer to films as far as production values, writing, and direction go.

One of these trailer in particular struck me, and that was Mass Effect 3's.  Though I enjoyed the first two games in the series, I wasn't a fan of the direction Mass Effect 2 took in placing action more at the forefront.  Everything I've seen about the upcoming trilogy-ender has further emphasized the action, with full-scale open warfare and an invasion of Earth being the game's primary focus, if the trailers are to be believed.  Mass Effect has long hinted at this sort of large-scale action and galaxy-shaping events, and Mass Effect 3 seems to capitalize on that potential.

Explore the entire city and win it back district-by-district?  Don't be crazy, Shepard, there are corridors we need you to walk down and buttons that need pressing.
However, what struck me about the trailer wasn't so much the action, but how completely lacking in actual gameplay that supposed gameplay footage was.  Despite the excellent graphics (no doubt making use of Unreal's newer atmosphere and lighting techniques), the focus on giving the player (or in this case, viewer) an intense and cinematic experience actually seemed to be getting in the way of the game itself.  If the trailer of Mass Effect 3 is anything to judge it on, then it's a game about running in a straight line, while stuff happens in the skybox around you... and making Shepard press buttons to trigger more cutscenes.

Now, I certainly don't want to judge the game in its entirety based on less than a minute of footage, and I also don't want to suggest that there literally is nothing else to the game, because that's ludicrous.  Still, it's very clear that BioWare's intent in showing off Mass Effect 3 is to wow prospective buyers with spectacle, explosions, and so on, a far cry from the first game's trailers espousing the game's dialogue system as expansive universe and fiction back in 2006.  Yet this trailer had the opposite effect on me - all I can see is a sequence that dozens of developers worked on for what must have been months, and yet paradoxically, nothing is actually happening.

The original Mass Effect sold itself on its living, breathing characters and reactive dialogue.  It's hard to believe that in 2012, we've devolved back to punching robots in the face.
Frankly, this is pretty upsetting to me.  While I'm sure Mass Effect 3 will have plenty of redeeming qualities, showing off the game this way absolutely does not help to sell them.  BioWare, no doubt, wanted to bring a level of excitement and cinematic scope to the game that they hadn't achieved in prior games, and EA no doubt want to have the hottest title of Q1 2012, and I can't fault them for that.  It's extremely hard for me to look at such a sequence, though, and think of just how much effort has been expended for something of such tenuous interactivity and originality.

Of course, I'm hardly the first person to observe how the focus on spectacle and, to a wider degree, graphics, has encroached upon the ability to deliver good gameplay.  It's a cruel irony that as graphics get better and better, actually building something that's fun to play around those visuals becomes increasingly complicated as the demands for realizing that vision grow exponentially.  I love great game art as much as the next person, and I love to be wowed by immense graphics and lovingly-crafted worlds... but when the only thing a developer does with it is create a pretty backdrop for the player to walk a straight line through, I have to wonder exactly what the point is.

Nostalgia Trip

Sometimes, the ways in which developers try too hard to appeal to fans can have effects that are entirely separate from gameplay.  Recently, I gained access to the Diablo III beta, and I've put about ten hours into it within the last week.  Though I have my gripes with the game, it's hard to deny the level of detail, polish, and the sheer quality of the gameplay on offer.  Where Diablo III begins to lose me, however, is in everything beyond its gameplay.  Blizzard, no doubt, is under an immense amount of pressure to satisfy their fans and give them the "Diablo experience" that they all expect.  How best to do that than to apply a liberal dose of nostalgia appeal to the game?  It works for just about all old franchises, after all, so why not Diablo?

Let's play a little game.  What sorts of things, outside of gameplay, do you associate with Diablo?  I've got a few.  Tristram.  Deckard Cain and the Horadrim.  The Cathedral.  King Leoric, aka the Skeleton King.  Wirt and his wooden leg.  Adria the Witch.  The Barbarian.  The Wizard.  Demons.  The Den of Evil.  Archbishop Lazarus.  Waypoints.  The Butcher.  Dark wilderness interspersed with underground dungeons to plunder.

I can hear that twangy old guitar already...
If you pulled up many of the same ideas, then congratulations: Blizzard has already got you.  Though I haven't played the entirety of Diablo III, of course, it's very clear from the opening of its beta that the entire experience has been systemically designed to include all of those memorable elements I mentioned above.  Yes, there is Tristram.  Yes, the Barbarian class makes a return, with all the favorite attacks from Diablo II.  Yes, the Skeleton King is the first major boss monster you fight.  Yes, there is a cave suspiciously similar to the Den of Evil, littered with the corpses of the Fallen enemies from the last game.  Yes, Adria the Witch and Wirt get less-than-subtle shout-outs.

Just to be clear, I have nothing against callbacks, references, and appeals to nostalgia.  I admit to getting a chuckle out of a couple of the references here and there, even though by all means Diablo III is a dark game.  However, the nostalgia appeal goes beyond mere references - the entire structure of the game's early stages is based almost entirely around the original two games.  It gets to the point where Diablo III stops feeling like a sequel, and more like a shallow attempt to include everything of popular recognition from the first two games; it certainly doesn't help that the reasons given for those locations and characters showing up border on nonsensical.  It's as if Blizzard is less concerned with making a Diablo III than they are with making a modern, glossy amalgam of Diablo iconography.

Oh, so... we're... we're back here.  Uh, again, I guess.
Beta players and members of the press have only been given a taste of the game so far, but it's fair to say exactly why - because those early stages of the game are so immediately familiar and recognizable to them.  I fully admit that Diablo is not fine art; it's a game about killing monsters and taking the junk they drop on the ground.  However, there's also something strangely manipulative about Diablo III's story setup and structure, like I can feel my heartstrings being tugged on, and snapping.  And as I trundled through one repetitive-looking random dungeon after another, I had to wonder if all the time and effort spent on making the game so perfectly hit all those right notes was leaving the end product formulaic and derivative of its own legacy, when it should be fresh and exciting.

There's a fine line between giving fans a wink and a nod, and simple pandering, and developers need to make sure they don't step over it.  Those references are good for a laugh here and there, but building much of your game on them is both limiting and tiresome.  I've already played Diablo and Diablo II, and I want something new.  Though I've used Diablo III as my case study here, this is one of the fundamental complaints I've had against recent Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and even Call of Duty games - all mechanically solid, and often extremely fun, but engineered to the point of exploitation.

Conclusion

I realize here that I've strayed from going into too many specifics, especially as this is a topic that deals so readily in feelings, emotions, and sensations, and not so much in cold hard facts.  To some degree, I also have to acknowledge there may be an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here - I've developed certain expectations about where I'd like certain games to go, even if that's unlikely to happen, and so I'm inevitably disappointed.

Even so, I still feel it's worth saying to developers: yes, appeal to fans, and yes, improve upon the games that you love to make... but understand the risks involved in sticking too close to the beaten path.  Players want to be thrilled, they want to be moved, and they want something original to experience, whether that's in gameplay or in story and characters.  The more you try to capture, distill and refine that "magic" that so many players hold dear to themselves, and the more you try to impress, the more you also run the risk of looking like a child waving his or her hands about, begging for attention.  A game has to stand on its own merits, and no amount of fan service or flashy cinematics will make up for that... and in the end, it may even cause more harm than good to try.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Making Game Levels Interesting

Throughout the years I've spent in doing level design, one thing that's always remained largely the same for me is that it's a process of constant change and iteration.  It doesn't matter what tools I'm using, or what idea I have going into level creation; when it comes right down to it, the only way to get truly great results is to keep refining and refining.

Usually the starting point is pretty similar as well: the player has to get from A to B, or fight enemy X, or has free reign to explore with several points of interest.  Whatever the game genre, there's always going to be a starting point in designing a game level which is objective-driven, with the gameplay arising out of how the level facilitates and mediates the player's pursuit of those objectives.

However, while oftentimes you might have that clear start point and at least some idea of an end result in mind, usually getting to that end is a lengthy and sometimes painful process, as work is done, redone, moved about, and completely deleted as the needs of gameplay, story, and art direction change.  While there is no surefire way to end up with a great game level right from the start, I've discovered a number of ideas to keep in mind that can greatly speed the level creation process and ensure that less work needs to be done in the long run.

Accentuate the Core Characteristics

Subtlety, though something to strive for, often doesn't work so well in level design, especially in action-oriented games.  Similarly, realism is also great, but sometimes being too realistic can also lead to a feeling of blandness (just look out the window sometime).  It's the high-impact, distinctive locations that stick with us even after we've turned the game off, and that take us away from the real world and into fantasy.

To that end, it's important, right off the bat, to identify exactly what sort of core traits and characteristics of a level are important, then play to them, and turn them into strengths.  Is an environment sprawling and flat, with rolling plains and dusty roads?  Are there towering cliffs and deep valleys?  Is it a futuristic, alien space station with lots of curves and loops?  Not all levels are going to be completely unique or interesting (a small shop in an RPG, for instance), but it's always good to have something to latch onto as a starting point.

Skyrim's vistas border on the geographically absurd, but they're what give the game so much character.
However, it's not enough to just identify those traits and build a level around them.  You want the player to remember a location after he or she has left it behind, after all.  I find that in almost every case, the mantra "turn it up to eleven" works best.  If your level is a craggy mountain pass, make the rocks even more jagged and the path twistier than you normally would think to.  If you're building a cluttered shanty town, place the shanties nearer to each other, pile up the trash higher, and stay away from providing obvious paths through the level.  While this doesn't mean that you should always go for the absurd and ridiculous, taking advantage of those unique characteristics and pushing them forward just a little bit more than you would otherwise will make your levels feel like more than "just a town" or "just a factory."

Mood Through Design

Though music and sound, artistic direction and lighting can all have a big influence on the player's perception of a game level, the level design itself is often extremely important in nailing the intended mood and feel.  This is one of those more subjective points, but I think it's worth bearing in mind that often the core geometry of a game level is just as important in establishing the mood of a given game level.

One of the best examples of this I've come across recently is Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  The hub area of Lower Hengsha isn't just great-looking, it's also a phenomenally well-designed location.  The intent is clear: a city area that feels bustling and crowded, as well as foreign and unfamiliar.  By transforming what could otherwise be a fairly straightforward location into a multi-story urban jungle, complete with rooftops, streets and sewer canals, Eidos don't just make a more interesting level, they also make one that directly improves the atmosphere and feel of the location in such a way that is almost integral to it; doing the same for the game's Detroit hub just wouldn't have been right.  The design is so successful that you could actually take out most of the distinctive artistic features, and you'd still be left with a level that stands out.

Human Revolution's busy, multi-level environments help establish mood beyond what the graphics themselves are able to provide.
Another, completely polar opposite example, is Fallout: New Vegas.  Though there are portions of the game which take place in urban environments, most of the player's time will likely be traveling through the Mojave Wasteland, a largely flat and extensive desert stretching into the distance.   Much of Fallout's appeal comes from its atmosphere, its crushing sense of desolation and bleak hopelessness.  The dry, mostly barren landscape stretching out into the distance suggests not only new gameplay locations for the player to explore, but also accentuates those qualities that make Fallout what it is.  Grand Theft Auto IV's comparatively dense city environment could have served the gameplay just as well, but would have killed that mood so important to the experience.

Always Keep the Player Engaged

There is nothing worse in level design to see the player running in a straight line from A to B, with little to no maneuvering required in between.  Though it may be realistic to provide a path that's completely straightforward (real-life city streets rarely resemble mazes), from a gameplay standpoint, it's usually completely and utterly boring.  Playing a game is all about being engaged and wrapped up in an experience, so the more you give the player to do, the better.  In most games, the simple act of getting from one point to another isn't too interesting, but the more you can do to make that act fun, the better.  The player needs to feel he or she is actually doing something, even if from a purely functional perspective, there's no difference.

To use an analogy, it's a bit like an animated loading screen, or the mouse cursor changing to an hourglass on a computer when you're opening a program: unless the user/player can see something is actually happening, and there is clear and obvious feedback for his or her own actions, then chances are he or she is simply going to think nothing much is happening at all.  Your goal as a level designer is to avoid that feeling of nothing happening as much as you possibly can.

Left 4 Dead 2 never, ever gives the player a straight line to follow - even a few cars to jump on or climb over make a world of difference.
 Though there are so many excellent examples to choose from, my favourite has to be Left 4 Dead.  Rarely do the Survivors get from place to place without having to jump over something, take a side-passage around an obstacle, climb over a fence, scale a ladder, slide down a cliff, dive through a window, and more.  Even without the zombie hordes attacking, just getting through a level is in itself engaging simply because of how the player is constantly called upon to do something other than walk forward.

Verticality

If there is one simple trick to making a level more interesting, it's this: stop thinking in two dimensions!  Most game SDKs by default will start out with a completely flat plane to work with.  Though it's easy to think "well, sure, have to start somewhere," it is surprising just how much of an impact these flat, featureless planes can have on your game levels.  Flat, is, by definition, boring, and the closer your game level is to flat, chances are it's going to be less and less interesting to play.  Once again, an appeal to realism is tempting (of course we don't have constant drastic changes in elevation, it's impractical), but even in "realistic" games, the hyperreal is what rules, not the real.

Creating a level with verticality in mind right from the start can be an interesting and entertaining approach.  Usually, I don't do it, and those I've spoke to also tend not to think of it so much until after the fact.  After all, that's kind of how we think about level design on a basic level, from a top-down perspective - especially those who have a background in isometric games, or even tabletop games.  When we plan out a level, usually it's also in two dimensions rather than three, and without turning a conscious eye towards that, sometimes it's possible to build a game level and suddenly find, "hey, wait, this is a lot less interesting than it seemed on paper!"

Consider just how much more interesting Batman: Arkham Asylum becomes simply by placing enemies and objectives on multiple levels, or requiring traversal and gliding to get from place to place.
 As an experiment, the next time you sit down to think out a level, try to imagine it in three dimensions, or better yet, open up your favourite SDK and drop key objective points not just at different spots along that basic 2D plane, but in 3D space, and then conceptualize different ways to go between them, even if it's just with CSG.  Think about ramps, stairs, ladders, doors, windows, and all the sorts of things the player might interact with when playing the games, and how it'd be more interesting if the player entered a room by descending a staircase, or falling through a ceiling.  The sooner you get stated on this, the sooner you'll have fun gameplay.

Composition & Artistic Principles

Though level design in and of itself isn't always directly connected to art, it's important enough to think about how a level will look from a compositional perspective even in the early stages when you're just sketching out a layout.  You don't have to be an artist to do this, either - there's just a few basic rules to keep in mind that can make a huge difference in speeding along the level design process, and that will provide good-looking levels without waiting for detailing and lighting to get involved.

The most obvious and essential of these is, at least in my opinion, the rule of thirds.  Though levels take place in 3D space, often it's easy to anticipate where the player is going to be looking at a given time - whether that's when exiting a commonly-visited location, walking a familiar road, or moving towards an objective in a linear fashion.  As such, it's important to drop the camera to ground level and figure out what the player will be looking at.  Building a level around the rule of thirds is an excellent way to provide visual interest and to make sure that each portion of the game world is adequately filled with something.

Always consider how compositional techniques like the rule of thirds can complement a level's aesthetic - BioShock in particular makes extensive use of it.
Though the principles of art are also a great starting point as well, some are more important than others in level design.  I find that balance is most essential above all others, mostly because it can so easily be achieved early on, without relying on detailing and lighting in the same way.  Whether that's providing one central point for the player to focus on, or weighing the scene equally on all sides, making sure that one part of the level doesn't completely overpower all the others is important in providing a sense of aesthetic wholeness and unity.  Moreover, videogames, unlike the real world, are much more readily governed by the rules of fun rather than the rules of reality - usually a level design will actually be enhanced from a gameplay perspective as well as an aesthetic one by keeping balance in mind when building.

Of course, the most important thing to note about this section is that none of this is set in stone.  The rule of thirds and other artistic principles are all well and good, but they shouldn't be used everywhere, especially where inappropriate to achieving a certain narrative goal.  For instance, Half-Life 2's slow progression towards the Citadel wouldn't be nearly as effective if it wasn't literally looming over the player, and sometimes too much symmetry, or too many colours that fit together just right can become formulaic.

Conclusion

Level design is a slow and steady process, but it doesn't have to be extremely lengthy and difficult as well.  Between teething pains working with tools, waiting for the right art assets to become available, and other production pipeline concerns, it can sometimes feel as if your work is never done.  And while it's true that you can always tweak and play with something forever, by keeping in mind some of the points I've made above, you'll spend less time on redesigning and rebuilding your levels, and more time focusing on the details and particularities.

As usual, I've only scratched the surface of this topic, and would love to hear any more "quick tips" or fundamentals that anyone else has to share.  Please feel free to comment and leave any others you might have picked up yourself!