One of the simplest but most useful lessons I learned while working at 2K Marin was: build the first level of the game last.
The first level of the game has a critical function. It introduces players to the world, the story, and the mechanics. But it must not feel like a history lesson or an instruction manual. The first level is the first impression a player will have of the game (marketing materials aside). It should be exciting, visually striking, and uniquely memorable. If the first level is boring or confusing, the player may put the controller down and never come back.
These myriad requirements are difficult to balance at any point during development, but they are virtually impossible to satisfy at the start of production. When a project is young, there are systems and assets to be built, best practices to be discovered, scheduling snafus to be resolved. The process of development informs further development. At inception, there is barely any context for how to make a good level, let alone the most critical level in the game.
So the practice goes: build the first level of the game last. At the end of production, with all the acquired tools and techniques and code and content, a developer is best equipped to tackle the challenge of the game’s opening moments.
The first set of levels I built for NEON STRUCT are those in the middle third of the game. I originally planned to continue to the endgame content and finally come back and build the first third last. I changed that plan recently to support a playable demo for testing and marketing purposes. I need the demo to stand alone as a coherent experience, which means it carries many of the same expectations as the first level: it must introduce the story and systems while making a great first impression. As I could not afford to build a throwaway level, the most appropriate plan was to build the first level now and use it as the demo.
Although I did not wait until the absolute end of the project to build the first level, the benefits of doing it later in production were clear. I had a larger set of assets. I had an improved scripting language. I more fully understood the story. I knew how to work within the constraints of the voxel engine to produce interesting, visually appealing spaces.
And perhaps there will be a separate advantage in not waiting until the last minute to build this level. I now have sufficient time to playtest it and make any necessary improvements for the shipping version.