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Frustrating and Attractive:

Level Design for BattleBlock Theater

Nowadays, some of the 2D platform games are made to be frustrating, like “Catmario” and “VVVVVV”. These games are really hard, and players are playing it because they are seeking this kind of experiences. So, for other 2D platform games that are made for everyone, they may also want to add some elements that are frustrating, so more players will enjoy their game.

However, for the second kind of games, they do not want their levels to be like “Catmario”. Because lots of players may feel bad about the continuous failure and then give up the game. So, for the second kind of games, the frustrating levels have to be attractive at the same time, so players will keep trying.

Here I will analysis a level in BattleBlock Theater, which means to be frustrating, but on the other hand, successfully keep players trying. This level is the second time-limit level in the second room.

Level Layout

Here is the layout of this level. According to this picture, the critical path of this level is pretty straight forward. Since this is a time-limit level, this helps player to keep tense and easily understand where to go next.

Another interesting part of the layout is that the whole level is divided into several parts. This is pretty normal but in this level, each part takes more space than usual and also it means that there are less parts than a normal level. A bigger individual space means player can not understand the whole structure with a glance. This has an influence on players in two different ways.

Firstly, if a player does not know the structure at the first place, what happens next will always be unpredictable. This doesn’t always make player feel frustrate. However, in several parts of this level, player doesn’t have a stable place to stay unless he hits the next saving point.

For example, at the first part of the level, player have to jump between 5 moving blocks and for all five moving blocks player can not always stand on it during the moving process.

This unpredictability is the key method to make this level frustrate. Player can only learn by keep trying and practice.

Intensity Ramping

This level is mainly about the moving blocks. In this level, player experienced at least 4 kinds of new puzzles that are based on the moving blocks.

Interestingly, this level begins with the most difficult new puzzle. This is a good choice because it can force player to practice and understand the moving block since this part is using the basic rule of this element. More importantly, this is a time-limit level, if this part is in the middle of the level, player may be too frustrated to keep trying. By put this part at the beginning of the level, player have more time to practice without wasting too much effort.

This intensity ramping happens to all part of this level. For each part, it begins with a new or difficult puzzle that may cause several times of the failure, and easier puzzles come after that. This is not always a good decision in this game. However, since this is a time-limit level, this keeps player away from too many meaningless attempts, and helps player concentrate on the practicing the current puzzle.

This part of the design makes the whole level attractive, because after player solved a difficult puzzle, the next puzzle will not be as hard as the previous one until player gets the saving point. Player feels good after each challenge, so they will keep trying.


As I mentioned before, this level is about the moving blocks. One of the interesting part of the designs about the moving blocks is that one failure may cause player to wait till another chance comes up.

The variety about the puzzles in this level is great. Almost every part has its own mechanism, and each part starts with the new mechanism which makes player feels attractive.

However, the variety of the failure punishment is always about waiting, which makes player feel frustrate. I understand this is a design decision and they supposed to be bad. But, in my point of view, some varieties are needed in this level. Player can failure in another way. This may cause a waste of effort like I mentioned before, but some changes may make player feel more attractive without being less frustrate.

What did we learn?

  • Uncertainty creates frustration.

  • For a time-limit level, a straight forward layout, and a downward intensity ramping is a good design.

  • Variety of a level is not only about puzzles, but also about failure.

  • Frustrating and attractive can describe a same level.