There are zillions of platforms games out there, but one of the major things that separates them are the gimmicks – the various obstacles that players must manipulate or avoid to accomplish their objectives. I may not be a total expert on the subject, but I’ve learned enough about level design through experimentation that I would be happy to share some tips to those of you who want to get better at it.
That being said, I’ll start off with a list of common gimmicks that you might like to program into your game. After that, I’ll touch up a little bit on introducing gimmicks to players and combining them in a stage, and then conclude with my thoughts on inventing unique gimmicks from scratch (well, almost).
A. The Grand List of Common 2D Platform Game Gimmicks
B. Introducing and Combining Gimmicks
C. Invent Your Own!
A. The Grand List of Common 2D Platform Game Gimmicks
If you’re new to building levels, it can be pretty tricky to come up with your own unique gimmicks that are fun and keep your players wanting more. That’s where this list comes in. A group of my friends and I came up with as many generic obstacles, hazards, and stage elements as we could, so hopefully this helps you think about what kinds of gimmicks would work well in your platformer!
1. The Ladder
2. The Spring
For bouncing high into the air. Quite useful if the player’s normal jump isn’t very strong.
3. The Spikes of Doom
It could be anything hazardous, from spikes to thorns to pits of burning hot coal. The general idea is that it’s a floor, wall, or ceiling surface that you don’t want to touch.
4. The Crusher
Comes in ceiling and floor varieties. Don’t forget about the ones that come out from the walls – you can jump on top of them to reach higher spots!
5. The Collapsing Floor
It doesn’t always have to dump the player into lava or spikes – it could lead them to an alternate path through the stage. It’s also a good way to temporarily break their fall if they’re heading down a long vertical shaft.
6. The Pulley
Both ends could have a platform on them. Step on one platform and it goes down, while the other one goes up. You may have to put weight on it to get across!
7. The Swinging Rope
For bonus points, let the player control the strength of the swing via the movement keys.
8. The Swinging Platform
Like the swinging rope, but with a platform on one end. Handy if you’d rather not make a swinging animation for the player.
9. The Spinning Spike Chain
Tends to move in a full circle. If you know trigonometry, use it here – it’s fun! (Set X position to Cos(time)*ChainLength. For Y position, swap out the Cos with Sin.)
10. The Weighted Switch
You see a button on the floor and step on it. Avast, a door opens! You rush to the door, but as soon as your feet leave the switch, it comes crashing down again. Looks like you’ll need to find something heavy and put it on the switch, like a pushable block or a gullible enemy.
11. The Timed Switch
Pull this lever or push this button and the door opens. As soon as you release, it slowly starts to close again, so make a break for it before it closes! The mere fact that it’s timed can add a nice little touch of pressure.
12. The Cannon
Jump inside, set your target, and blast into the skies! Perfectly safe. You should consider whether the player can adjust their trajectory in mid-air or if their landing spot is the same every time.
13. The Speed Zipper
Step on it, and you go flying forward at the speed of a locomotive. For obvious reasons, you’ll only want to put these in open areas; It’s no fun crashing into a wall right after stepping on it.
14. The Arrow Launcher
Launches projectiles out of the wall at a fixed interval. It could be laser beams, cannonballs, or anything that fits the theme.
15. The Exploding Barrel
Hitting it with something causes massive damage to everything nearby. Stack multiple barrels beside each other for a chain reaction!
16. The Moving Train
You’re coasting through a level, when suddenly, a train or some other massive vehicle drives by! Time to hitch a ride and do battle atop this mighty mass of moving metal.
17. The Flood
The water level is rising! Either hurry to higher ground or drown! Other liquids can be substituted, such as lava, toxic waste, overflowing garbage, etc. Be careful when making it cause instant death by touch.
18. The Advancing Wall of Doom
The Flood’s horizontal cousin. This is usually a wall of some sort that threatens to crush the player if they don’t keep moving forward.
19. The Hidden Platform
Sometimes it pops out on a regular basis. Other times it’s invisible until you actually get close or step on it.
20. The Scenery Fake-Out
The bush in the background isn’t really a bush – it’s a monster waiting to sink its teeth into passers-by. In the interest of fairness, you could give the fake scenery a tiny difference that separates it from the rest of the background, or warn the player beforehand by animating it before it strikes.
21. The Elevator
Stand on it, or get inside it, and it’ll carry you up or down. You could have the player choose the direction, or make it an automated sequence where baddies come at you as you ascend or descend.
22. The See-Saw
If there’s something on one end, jump on the other end and watch it go flying!
23. The Teleporter
Instantly moves the player from one location in the stage to another. They could be one-way, or they could be arranged so that the player needs to figure out which teleporters to jump into.
24. The Bottomless Pit
Basically a gameplay condition in which the player will fail instantly when they pass through the bottom of the stage. This is surprisingly common and can be frustrating, so try to place them only where it makes sense.
25. The Walk-Through Wall
This devious thing is what often separates players from secret goodies. It looks like a solid wall, but you can march right through it.
26. The Lava Pit
Similar to the Spikes of Doom, but usually kills instantly.
27. The Underwater Section
If your game has swimming mechanics, use ‘em here! Otherwise you could adjust the physics so that gravity and movement speed are lower while underwater.
28. The Life Drainer
Step inside this room, or this water, or this location, and watch your health slowly decrease. You may find an item or switch that negates this effect.
29. The Suspiciously Fragile Wall
See a crack in something where everything else is in pristine condition? Smash it down and see what happens!
30. The Ferris Wheel
A group of rotating platforms that the player can hitch a ride on to reach a higher area.
31. The Geyser
Two ways you can tackle this: Throwing the player in the air like a high-pressured spring, or allowing them to levitate constantly above solid ground.
32. The Above-Stage Path
Reach the top of the stage, go over the ceiling, then run right to skip everything. Sometimes this happens accidentally when you fail to restrict the player inside the level boundaries, so watch for it!
33. The Hovering Platform
A simple block of land that floats around mysteriously. I find that a good for it is to link two individual gimmicks together without giving the player a break in between. Placed over bottomless pits, they can be tense.
34. The Wraparound Map
Leave the right side of the screen, appear on the left. Or fall through the bottom and come out the top. Bonus points if it’s not immediately obvious; It can be a great way to make labyrinth-like maps.
35. The Yoshi
A friendly animal or vehicle that you can hop on and take with you! It could grant the player a different set of controls, or it could simply change the way their usual controls work. Alternately, it could act on its own and sitting on it only “awakens” its behavior.
36. The Flipover Platform
Step on this platform oncee, jump off, and it flips over. Spikes could be on the underside, or a bouncy spring-like surface.
37. The Fixed Scrolling Section
The level scrolls at a steady pace while restricting the player’s movement to what’s currently on the screen. A simple way to add longevity to an otherwise short level.
38. The Slippery Ice Floor
Basically, a section of level that makes it more difficult for players to control their momentum.
39. The Giant Boulder Chase
One day, Indiana Jones went rummaging through an ancient temple. A giant boulder got angry at him and chased him down a narrow corridor, and the rest is history.
40. The Stalactites
If there’s sharp, pointy rocks on the ceiling, chances are that they’re going to fall right as you pass under them. Sometimes, the end of the stalactites are flat and you can jump on top of them.
41. The Quicksand Pit
If there’s sand in a level, expect some of the sand to pull you under. Keep jumping to stay out of it!
42. The Swinging Hammer
It swings back and forth, either from left or right or from background to foreground. In either base, colliding with it is equally painful.
43. The Fan Floor
A floor or platform in which the player remains in a floating, mid-air state instead of standing on solid ground. Consider how far above the ground you’d like the player to float.
44. The Zipline
Grab the handle and hang on tight! If you want to give the player some sort of control beyond deciding when to jump off, try letting them adjust the height of the handlebar or swing back and forth.
45. The One-Way Passage
One you pass this, there’s no turning back. Unless a switch is flipped or something, but that’s up to you.
46. The Pipe Network
Stuff yourself into this tube and it’ll send you along a crazy route, emerging on the other side. If you add a lot of these that are interconnected to each other, it can be quite a headscratcher, so make sure it doesn’t take too long to travel from one end to the other.
47. The Grind Rail
Close cousin to The Zipline. Step on this and you’ll slide down like a pro skater. Soap shoes are optional.
48. The Balloon
Jump on it and it pops, giving you a bit of a boost to your jump. Or, you can grab the string on the bottom and let it carry you gently upwards.
49. The Timed Bomb
Touch it or otherwise provoke it, and you’ve got X seconds to get away from it before you’re blown to bits. Stack exploding barrels or other timed bombs next to it for some tense explosive action.
50. The Air Bubble
Touch this and it’ll gobble you up, allowing you to gently float higher. Move with the arrow keys and avoid spikes at all costs!
51. The Gooey Floor
Walk over this and you’ll find that jumping is a very difficult thing to do.
52. The Sinwave
A long string of objects that seem to float together in a sin-wave. They’re usually either solid blocks you can walk across or spikeballs.
53. The Crawlspace
You might be able to squeeze through this if you’re small enough, or having something small enough to toss in there.
54. The Gravity Well
All of the sudden, up is down and down is up! Gravity could be flipped via switches, overlapping certain parts of the stage, or through something else.
55. The Danger Zone
Cross this path and die horribly. It could be as wide as a lava fall or as narrow as a laser beam. You must first wait until it is safe to cross, or deactivate the hazard somehow.
56. The Conveyor Belt
Standing on it pushes the player in a specific direction. There could be a switch that flips the direction of the belt or changes its speed.
57. The Air Current
High-powered winds push you away in a specific direction. Comes in airborne and underwater flavors.
58. The Flip Panel
A large block or platform that occasionally rotates (by itself or when a switch is pressed). One or more sides could have spikes or other nasties on them, so the trick is to jump onto it at the right moment.
59. The Sawblade
Spinning slicers that travel along a set path, or around the edges of a platform. Keeps players on their toes by requiring them to jump at regular intervals.
60. The Monkey Bars
Metal bars attached to the wall or ceiling, which the player can cling to in order to climb those surfaces. Useful if you don’t have space in your level for ladders.
B. Introducing and Combining Gimmicks
Whoa, you actually scrolled all the way down here? Cheers! Now we can talk a little bit more about you could use some of these gimmicks effectively.
Sometimes it’s not about how inventive your gimmicks are, but how you chain them together in a stage. First, introduce your gimmicks to the player individually so that they learn how things work. After that, start mixing and matching them to create new challenges.
Say, for example, your stage has speed zippers, smashable walls, cannons that launch the player in the air, and hovering enemies. Start with your most exhilarating gimmick – in this case, the cannon. After the player figures out how to climb in and shoot out of the cannon, have them land on a flat stretch of floor with a speed zipper or two. In the next area, introduce the enemies by themselves. In the area after that, place speed zippers and enemies together, leading up to a cannon that shoots the player through several smashable walls. Now, at this point, the player will have learned intuitively what all of these things do (including what the smashable walls look like compared to non-smashable ones), so beyond this point, you would be free to place those gimmicks almost anywhere and the player would understand what their function is and what they need to do to progress.
Generally, combining gimmicks that the player has never seen before is something you want to try to avoid. In such a case, the player will have to learn how they function as a combination, which isn’t always the same as learning how they work individually, and it can lead to unwanted frustration depending on how difficult it is to pass through.
Combination and order of introduction can turn potentially frustrating levels in something that’s just fun.
C. Invent Your Own!
This is only scratching the surface, of course! There are hundreds of other ways that platform games have kept their levels interesting. The best way to find one that you’d like to use for your game is to do research; Play other platform games and find out what feels awesome for your game’s setting.
One suggestion I could give is to merge two existing concepts. Take these, for example:
Ladder + Stalactites = Falling ladder
Balloon + Timed Bomb = Floating Timed Bomb
The Yoshi + Giant Boulder Chase = You Are The Boulder
Seems a bit more exciting, neh?
In addition, real life works in funny ways. Sometimes inspiration can strike by looking at a simple, everyday object and wondering what it would be like to put something in your game that’s similar in shape or function. Example: I’m staring at a bottle of Germ-X hand sanitizer on my desk. Perhaps my game could have a squirt-bottle gimmick in which standing on top of a platform causes it to release water into a pit, allowing the player to swim to a high ledge on the other side. See what I mean? Children’s toys are really great for this, so if you have a kid, look around their room sometime.
TL;DR – If you’re making a platform game, try and introduce your gimmicks individually and then combine them later on to offer the player unique challenges. To figure out what kinds of gimmicks your level should have, search for things in other games, take a look at the above list, or draw inspiration from real life.
Have fun building gimmicks!