Your Guide To 3d Platformer Game Design


So you want to design the greatest 3d platformer game of all time. If you are going to make a game why not make it the best? Join masters like Gregg Mayles, the head game designer for Banjo-Kazooie, and Shigeru Miyamoto the creator of Mario.

3D platformer games took off in the ’90s with Super Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64. This game wrote the book on 3D platformer game design. Just playing and dissecting Mario 64 is an education in itself. Many of the concepts are still fundamental thinking in terms of game design today.

This is a guide to 3D platformer game design, but there is so much to learn and discover. Reading this article should help you dig deeper into 3D platformer game design. By the end, you should have a greater appreciation and understanding of this beloved genre.

The goal is to teach you some often overlooked game design gems. So let’s start spading out the design dirt and dig into how 3D platformers have evolved from their 2D counterparts. 

How 3d Platformer Games Are Different From 2d?

3D platformer’s share a lot of the same DNA with their young sibling, the 2D platformer. Nearly all the lessons and techniques learned from playing or making 2D platformer games will put you in a great place to start thinking and making 3D platformers. The main difference is that 3D platformers add an extra layer of complexity in every department.

The main challenge stems from the fact that the player has to navigate a 3D space. In a 2D game, the world is flat. Only involving the player to move left, right, up or down. The 2D world is graphically easier to read for the player because they are presented with all of the information in the game world. No enemy is going to creep up behind the player from off-screen for example. The player can clearly see the game world as if they were playing on a map.

3D platforms literally add a whole new dimension!

If you look at any accomplished 3D platformer you will find great effort has gone into making the 3D space as easy to read and navigate as possible.

Generally, if a player is expected to do more, designers and programmers have to do more. This is done by adding systems and employing techniques that will come across as invisible to the player. They won’t realize that the game world is teaching them the language of the 3D space around them. The player will just think they are getting better at the game.

With a 3D game world being harder to read the player has to do more work to understand their surroundings. Players need to understand the relationship between objects in the game world and the playable character’s move set. 

The Hero’s move set is usually far more complicated in a 3D game. An example in a 2D Mario game, if Mario is close to a ledge, there is no noticeable change in the way he moves. If Mario falls off a ledge then he falls and it’s the player’s fault.

Where in a 3D game in the same circumstance, a character might change to a balancing animation. This could warn a player that they are near an edge of a platform because in a 3d world the player might not be facing the right direction. Most 3D platformers can be a bit more forgiving in regards to this type of accidental misadventure. 

Depth Perception in 3D Platformers 

Depth perception is one of the biggest hurdles that face 3d platformers. In a 2d platformer, the player can measure with their eyes, horizontally and vertically, how far a jump is, or how high an object is. 

Whereas, with a 3d platformer, the eye has to make calculations of fack 3d depth distance that is presented on a flat-screen. 

The problem is, in the real world, your eyes create a stereoscopic 3d image using the triangulation of your two eyes. The brain can then, in addition to our understanding of perspective, work out not only how far away an object is, but’s position in 3d space. This is what gives Baseball players the ability to catch a ball. They know exactly how far away the ball is at any given moment by keeping their eyes on the ball. 

In real life, we can tell when objects are very far away because the object is much smaller than what our “model for the world” tells us about its normal size. For example, we know houses are larger than us. So when we see one on the horizon that can be covered by our thumb, we know it’s very far away. 

However, this use of perspective is not very accurate at close distances. So our eyes create a stereoscopic image that lets us triangulate every object’s position in 3d space. 

Unfortunately, because 3d platformers are actually presented in 2d on a screen, we can’t depend on this stereoscopic image. Because the 3d game world doesn’t actually have any real-world 3d depth. 

A good example of this problem in real life is trying to place a key in a keyhole with one eye closed. Without stereoscopic 3d information telling us where the key and keyhole is in 3d space, we constantly miss putting the key in the hole. 

What does this mean in practice for 3d platformer games? 

It means that when the player is trying to judge a jump moving forward into the screen, it’s actually quite hard to tell how far you actually have to jump.

Most players learn through trial and error that certain jumps can always be reached with a basic jump. Unfortunately, players often make jumps in 3d platformer games only to fall to their doom. On reloading, they realize that this new longer jump needs a double jump. 

So the player, instead of using skill, is using trial and error to maneuver through a level.

Game designers can help judge distance in their game more effectively by using these following methods. 

1: You can use a “blob shadow” under the character at all times. This gives the player a clear indicator of where their character is in 3d space in relation to the ground and platforms when the player character is airborne. The problem with this method is the gamer tends to end up watching what the blob on the ground is doing instead of watching what the character is doing. 

2: The game’ jumps can be a universal length with each length variation being a clear multiplier of the basic jump length. This means the player knows that a basic jump will cover a normal jump, a double jump will cover a medium jump, and a sprinting double jump will cover a long jump. 

3: Level furniture such as trees, gems, vases, and coins are universal in size and shape, so the player can use them for perspective and measure distance.  

4: The difference between a single jump length and double jump length can be exaggerated to make it obvious the player needs to use a different technique.  

5: Let the player spin the camera 90-degrees to effectively turn your 3d platformer game into a 2D platformer game when they are finding it hard to judge the distance.

6: Colour code the edges of jumps so the player can tell, from the color, what sort of jump, or height the jump is. 

What Is The Goal Of Your Game?

What are the challenges that the player is trying to overcome? Are they saving the princess by battling a villainous monster or just collecting resources to salvage a crashed UFO?

Your game is more than likely going to have two goals for the player. A narrative goal, which in Mario games is normal; ‘save the princess’. The second goal is linked to the gameplay, how does the hero complete the narrative goal.

In ‘Mario 64’ the gameplay goal is to collect ‘power stars’ to unlock the final encounter to face Bowser and save the princess. 

In films the hero is only as good as the villain, games are a little bit different. The story is not always the primary focus of 3D platformer games. That’s not to say your game couldn’t be story-driven, that just isn’t a priority for most 3D platformers.

The narrative in 3D platformers is normally an excuse for the player to solve puzzles and have fun collecting a variety of resources and collectibles.

A narrative goal is an easy way for your player to become emotionally invested in the characters. Unfortunately, your player won’t have a pre-existing relationship with your character. Where Mario and Sonic can rely on the luxury of history and nostalgia. You’ll have to lay the foundation with this game so that future generations can enjoy your potential franchise as it grows. 

Designing Your Character

Your main character move set is a fundamental part of your game, more so than any other game type. In a first-person shooter, it is the guns that define the game. With a 3d platformer, it is how your hero character moves. 

It is crucial that the hero’s skill set is fun to play with.

You don’t need 100’s of powers or assign an action to every single button on a game controller. Your goal is to design a complementary set of skill moves that are at the heart of your game. This will be the foundation for all challenges in your game.

Each action is like a verb that the player will use to interact with the game world. In most 3D platformer games this consists of a jump and a versatile button, which for lack of a better term we will call the ‘action button’.

In Mario 64, the jump button is used for a wide variety of jumps, depending on how long the button is pressed and how many times it’s used consecutively. So Mario’s jump is a skill the player has to master, even though it is only one button. Mario can even combine it with other skills like the crouch. This allows Mario to do a long jump, which was a simple and logical modification of his jump. 

Your character’s movement should combine in logical ways, to create a wider array of abilities.

If you have a spin button and a jump button the player will expect to be able to do a spin jump.

The movement set will set the pace of your game. If you have free-flowing movement your game is naturally going to have fast gameplay. If your character is heavy and the player has to charge ability for example, then it’ll slow down the gameplay. This will need to be taken into consideration because it will affect everything, from the character design to the level design.

You probably started your design with a cool idea, something that no other game does or something no other character has. This should be the feature that your character is designed around.

This is your ‘unique selling point’ for your character and most likely your game.

Your unique selling point should be an action that your character performs. Not what type of creature they are. 

Your character should have consistency in their movement. This type of precision is needed when platforming, especially in three dimensions. Each action should take a predictable amount of time. There should be no randomness, the character needs to become an extension of the player.

You want the player to focus on the challenge not the controls.

Yooka-Laylee design from the kickstarter page.

The game’s main challenge will come from the level, not the character. Yes, the character might require mastering. It should only be for the most complex of moves, which are not necessarily on the game’s main path.

Essentially, each section within a 3d platformer is a puzzle that has to be solved by using the main character’s skill set.   

Additionally, you need to make the character feel grounded in the world. Not floaty like they are skidding across ice, (unless they are playing the obligatory ice level, which everybody hates.

You need to plan how your character will progress. Does your character start with the full skill set? Will the player collect temporary power-ups like in Mario? Is your game going to have a skill-based progression system, like a Metroidvania?

Each question you answer will turn your game from a lump of clay into a sculpture, by shaping it little by little until you are left with your masterpiece. 

Character design and appeal should be taken into consideration.  Especially because 3D platformers generally target a younger audience. This is mainly due to games like Mario and Sonic being family-friendly content. This might not be the case with your game. 

You can help engagement by designing appealing and charming characters. You can look at Disney films to deconstruct how they make appealing characters. You will normally find them with big eyes and expressive facial features. Their design works even when silhouetted. Often employing clear theatrical body language, when performing an action.

Think about the way you are going to communicate action through your character’s design.  

Designing with cliches can help to communicate your game’s ideas easily to your audience. I’m not saying it has to be as obvious as having a character that looks like a spring because your character moves like a spring. You will find that character designs that communicate game concepts through their design will often be received better by new players. 

It should go without saying that you should test the heck out of your main character. This is often done in a simple test environment.

Oh, and one final point. Remember that before, you design the world, before you create real levels before you really have a finished physical character design, you should have tried, tested, and finalized every single move that the character can do to ensure they are fun and thrilling to use. 

Why should tying down all the skills come first? 

Because, if the gameplay and skills are fun, you can fit them to any game theme, and game world, and any type of enemies. 

Fit the game world too the character. Not the Character too the game world. 

Should My Camera be Fixed Or Free?

The camera is one of the biggest challenges in any 3D game. Every 3D game from Mario to ‘Half-Life’ has had to solve this devious challenge.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to cameras. You can have a locked camera that is fixed and the player has little to no control over it or a free camera that the player controls.

Super Mario 3D World and Super Mario 3d Land, are both 3d platformers with limited play areas. This allowed Nintendo to treat the camera like a more traditional 2D platformer, with the player not needing to manipulate the camera much. This approach had a lot of the benefits of a 3D platformer from a puzzle design point of view but lost out in the relationship between spaces.

Levels don’t feel connected to one another. The game doesn’t ask the player to backtrack or require the player to learn the layout of the world. You are just playing through one-off gauntlets. 

Mario games such as Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Odyssey, on the other hand, have free-moving cameras which the player can control. This fits in better with the style of the game. They require the player to learn the lay of the land as levels and environments are revisited and feel like interconnected mazes. This helps the player engagement with the game world, combined with not being constantly pushed to menus after every success. The player is given more freedom and power. But with great power comes great responsibility.

Not all players will be able to move the camera as if they are a film director. It can often be hard to get the player to look in the right direction even at the best of times. That’s why games will often have a camera reset mapped on to one of the precious controller buttons. 

Having a player-controlled ‘free moving camera’ also raises questions like; how often should you take control away from the player to highlight an aspect of your game, if at all.

How To Create A Diverse Lineup Of Challenges.

Each enemy should utilize a different part of the player’s skillset. And be introduced in stages, it sounds simple but is often overlooked.

If you think about Mario, whose main action is jump. All his enemies need to be interacted with by Mario jumping. The same goes with other interactive items such as blocks, Mario uses different types of jumps, combined with other skills to modify the jump into different types of attacks. For example, combining jumping and crouching, when Mario is in mid-air. If he crouches he will dive back to the ground by performing a ground-pound. This attack can be used to break different types of blocks and activate certain items.

In order to satisfy a lineup of challenges, you have to really understand your character’s toolset. You need to create challenges that require the player to fully master all of the game’s moves.

Keeping it fresh

Games like Mario keep adding new ideas to keep the game fresh. That way any idea never outstays its welcome. This can be very difficult to do from a creative and technical point of view. Not every developer has the budget and the time that Nintendo has to craft its games. You need to make sure you are using your resources wisely. 

That’s not to say with a little bit of creative thinking you can’t create a wide range of challenges. You will need to mine each idea, big and small for all of its creative possibilities. Take the humble moving platform as an example. How many different ways can you spice it up to present the player with a slightly different challenge? 

You should design as many of your game mechanics in such a way that you can combine ideas. So if you have a ‘bouncy block’ and a ‘moving platform’, you also should now have the ability to have a ‘bouncing moving platform’.

By combining and tweaking ideas you should be able to come up with 1000’s of potential challenges. You only need to make small changes to an idea for it to be different. Then with the power of great level design, you can design some truly magical experiences. 

So if you are careful with your design you could make sure many of your mechanics can be integrated with other ideas to increase the output of challenges.

You need to keep presenting the player with new challenges, to make your game fresh. 

Creating Challenges

Enemies are a lot of work in a 3D game because they require a full set of animations that need to interact with the game world and the hero’s skillset. Most players don’t understand the amount of work that goes into creating them, to make it feel satisfying to dispatch every single enemy.

They all have to have a death animation and sounds etc. That is why most games will only have a limited set of enemies. Even if you are lucky enough to be able to have a diverse cast, then you should make sure that your enemies are not designed to feel the same. 

Pay special attention to your enemies. By asking questions like how it is different from the last enemy? How do the enemies move in the world? What does it bring to the game? What skills does this enemy need to be dispatched?

The goal of your enemies is to create a type challenge that the player is required to overcome by mastering part of their skill set.

Think about how you can utilize your character’s unique move set. So if your character has a set of free-running parkour skills, then your enemies should be designed to be defeated by using various skills from this parkour skill set. 

Most 3D platformers don’t only rely on an abundance of enemies, they are often combined with environmental challenges. Adding environmental challenges is sometimes less work because you are not adding a full set of animations like you would with a character. They are often more mechanical in nature.

Remember that your level design needs to be mindful of the level’s pacing. You should ensure that you are giving the player the opportunity to try different tasks. One great way to change to a slower pace is to incorporate some lite puzzles solving. If your game happens to naturally run at a slower pace you could add a speedrunning section, such as a race or timed challenge. The hubs levels are a great place for puzzles because there is less or no pressure on the player. 

‘Super Mario Odyssey’ Race level to change up the gameplay.

Your levels should be a playground designed around your character’s skill set.

Game Structure

It is crucial that you design different areas or stages in your game so that they feel distinctly different from each other. Players expect a variety of environments and content. Adding this variety can help stop your game from getting stale.

Most 3d platformer games take the ‘Hub and Spoke’ approach.

Think of it like Disneyland.  

You walk down the main street, which is equivalent to your opening tutorial and game introduction. Then you reach the main hub which is in front of the castle, from this point you can access every land from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland. This is your main hub area in a 3D platformer. Having levels branch off from the hub then returning back just like visiting a land at Disneyland. This allows the player to build up a 3D picture of the world environment. 

When the player has learned the landmarks and experimented with their toolset, this is the time to get creative with your level design. This way the player isn’t going to get information overload. 

Creating levels is a skill within itself, as it’s a nuanced subject. Level design is all about creating compelling challenges that excite the player. It is a crucial part of a successful 3D platformer. For level design check out our article,‘Your Guide To 3d Platformer Game Level Design’.

Progression

Players need to feel a sense of progression when playing any game. This happens on different levels:

  • The player gets better at the game, the more they play.
  • The player character levels up or the skillset gets expanded, making the player feel forward momentum.
  • The player learns the world and starts to have ownership of it. This could be finding short cuts or just optimizing their routes.
  • The story or end goal moves forward, this could be seeing the number of collectibles they have collected or just getting the next story beat.

Death

One big question you need to ask yourself is how death works. This is all about thinking about how the risk works in your game.

What is the punishment for failure?

Time seems to be the largest punishment for failure in most video games. If you die in a level you normally have to start that level again or from a checkpoint. 

When you start to think about this subject it opens up all sorts of questions. Can you die in your hub world, if so what happens? Does the player just respawn?

‘Mario Odyssey’ lets Mario go to different mini hubs like levels, each big enough to warrant having several checkpoints marked around the hub on a map. They even feature ‘quick travel’ because time is one of your player’s most precious resources. 

Make sure the player understands the risks associated with their challenges. Be mindful that the more risk, the more cautious the player will become. This could manifest as slower play.

If you want players to play at a higher tempo, then the risk of failure should be lower. I don’t mean that you should make the levels easier. An example could be to have more frequent checkpoints, this means if a player dies then they don’t have to replay the whole level. 

A great example of game design that enables the player to play at a faster pace is ‘Super Meat Boy’.  Even though ‘Super Meat Boy’ is a 2D platformer, it has shorter levels. This will encourage the player to take more risks and they are more likely to allow the player to experiment. The reason the risk is lower is that there is an instant reload of the level if the player dies. The player isn’t wasting much of their time

However, when you decide to implement your character’s risk of death, be aware that it will have repercussions to the design of your game. It is not something that should be thought of at the end of production but rather at the foundation of its creation.

In ‘Super Mario 64’, when Mario dies he gets kicked out of the level.

Designing For Ease Of Play

Think of all the small things that games like Mario and alike have, that people often overlook. Objects in the game world, for example, having a clear shadow under the character so the player knows where the character is going to land. Even when there is no direct light above, it might not make sense from a real-world standpoint but the player will forgive you because you are helping them. They might even think of it as part of the UI.

The clearer the player can read the world, by understanding the space around them, the better experience they will have. I don’t mean to make your world empty, but make it memorable. 

Try to avoid large spaces that do nothing, it’s not the size of the game world but the density.

Conclusion

If you have gotten to the end of this article and are still hungry for more, then designing a 3D platformer might be up your street. This article has only scratched the surface. 

Hopefully, it has given you some idea where to look to further your understanding.

Your world needs to be engaging and charming. Remember to reward players for exploring your world. After all, it is all about the player having fun.

Modern 3d Mario games are based on a lot of different game mechanics that challenge the player. This genre will allow you as a designer to stretch those creative muscles. 

Players will appreciate your effort and hard work but they won’t understand the process. Making games is hard work, there will be a lot of trial and error.

And finally, I will leave you with words of wisdom: Remember that there is no such thing as a bad idea, just underdeveloped ideas.

What next?

If level design peaks your interest check out our article,‘Your Guide To 3d Platformer Game Level Design’. It should give you some food for thought.

I love the storytelling potential of video games. The way anybody can make their own game that I can inhabit and explore. For more information about ‘The art of worldbuilding in video games’ check out our article.

If you are looking for a book on the subject, who doesn’t love a good book, check out our article ‘The 15 Best Game Design Books We Recommend’.

Nick Sinclair

Having played games since the golden age of the Commodore 64, Nick finally took the plunge and studied Creative Game Design in university. After 3 years of "Study", Nick co-founded a games company where he soon discovered his true calling: writing about games. 11 years later Nick writes about a tower of topics, but gaming is always stacked neatly at the top.

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