Updated: Jan 22
A struggle I had when trying to plan my levels when prototyping and overall planning, was what kind of software should I use? The reason I said software was because when designing levels, I wanted the flexibility of using paper but the power that comes with using a computer. When researching I found the same suggestions each and every time.
Pencil and Paper
The problem with paper was that I wanted it electronic to where I could easily manipulate it and adjust the levels as needed without having to constantly erase everything. Tiled looked like a nice tool, but I was using Unity for building games and could build a 2D version of a game that way, but it lacked information that I needed.
I managed to find a solution that meets pretty much everything I need. There are a few issues that I do see with it.
It costs money, and isn't all that cheap.
Depending on your computer and how you break up scenes, the loading can be slow if it gets too large.
It was not actually built for Game Development
The first one can be a deal breaker, I had already had the software as I used it for Construction related projects. The second isn't all too bad so long as the scenes and areas are broke out to smaller areas. It could be a large scene, but if there are too many objects it could be slow. The last really wasn't a big issue, but if it's not meant for game development than you really aren't looking for it.
Anyway, the software is BlueBeam. It is a PDF editor that is heavily utilized in the construction industry. Now if you are wondering how in the world would a PDF editor do me any good in designing levels, I will break it out for you.
Everything is on the computer and in a digital environment so you don't have to worry about stacks of paper.
This software has "Markups" and what that means is you can place text boxes, clouds, arrows, highlighted areas, and more on the "Sheet". Remember this is a PDF editor, so you are working on an electronic sheet of paper with whatever size you want. You can even print out once you are done if you need a physical copy. For creating levels, you would generally have a large set of images like a sprite sheet and then import them all into the document to use. Once there you can save them for later.
A nice feature that comes with the markups, is you can covert any of them into a hyperlink. Whether you want to jump to a new scene, open a character description, open a new program, or even send an email. I use the hyperlinks for scene jumping and opening up Word documents to see level descriptions or characters. Being able to click a button and jump back and forth to places helps understand where the player needs to go and how everything ties together.
(An advanced feature to build with Markups and Hyperlinks is a Digital Dashboard. This could be a page where you have all your info about your game easily accessible in one location. Create a hyperlink to all your information and levels so you can get right to work.)
Markups don't do much good unless there is an easy way to access all your tools. Say you create a bunch of cave environment pieces and want to add them whenever you need. Just create a toolset and add all your images to it. This operates similar to a tileset in a way as you would want certain areas grouped together. You could create dozens of different toolsets for areas, a forest, cave, castle, standard notes, or pretty much any kind of environment you could think of. You can also export out the toolsets for other users, so if you have a team working on a game, you can create a "Profile" that houses all the toolsets and send to all the team members.
Every markup can be added to a layer, whether you do that within a toolset for a standard across the company, or while making the levels. Maybe you want one for "Water", simply select all the water tiles and add to a new layer called Water. Now if you ever need to turn certain objects off to see how the map is put together, its just a simple checkbox.
6. Cloud and multiple user editing
One thing that is great with this tool is you get a complimentary cloud storage server without storage limits (or none that I have found). So if you want to have all of your levels accessible on a server to access anywhere, all you need to do create your account and start creating projects and folders. You start by creating a project and adding the needed folders. You can invite other users by email address to have access to the project and assign permissions as they seem fit.
(Note: technically only the user who created the project needs a paid license as users without a license can access and markup the document, but they are limited to adding markups during a live session.)
Once there, a Live Session would be created for editing a document. during that time multiple people can edit 1 document at the same time. It even logs the users actions on the side and can be exported.
7. Custom Fields
This gets a bit further into the weeds, but you can create custom fields (text, number, formula, choice, etc.) that every markup can be assigned to. For instance you can have a Choice field for Player, Friendly NPC, Enemy NPC, etc. and then create a Health number and assign what health they should have. Likewise you do the same for environment pieces, weapons, etc.
(Note: Each field is a considered a "Global Variable" in which each one applies to every object in the scene. What that means is you can't have a distinct list of fields for weapons, characters and environment. You would need to consider so universal themes to make it work and have empty options so its not visible if it's not needed.)
Another feature is you can export the fields as a "Report" for the scene to have an overview of how many of each object is in the scene. You can create filters when doing this to group like objects together. This would be valuable when trying to quickly review what is all in a scene.
Like I mentioned, this software was technically meant for Game Design and Level Design, but I have found it incredibly powerful and useful. I have used the software itself for almost a decade so I was familiar with a lot of the tools and how they work, but never thought to apply it to Game Design until recently. There are a lot of training videos to get users started from the basic adding a markup, to creating spaces and sub-spaces to isolate markups (example: Temple Space, Room 1 Space, Room 2 Space, etc.) Honestly the more I type about it, the more I remember I can do with it. It has it's own estimation and counting functions that link to an excel spreadsheet, quick access to projects, digital signatures to sign off, you name it!
Price is a $350+ depending on what version you go with. Unless you need to create PDF Forms you could probably just use the basic package. It is a one time payment for that version, so if you want upgrades each year there is a fee for that, but you shouldn't need one.