Long story short, the first experiment was the indoor level, where the zombies were massively powerful, both because their inherent stats (health, damage, etc) and because the nature of the level (tight corridors and short sight lines) gave the melee heavy hitters a huge advantage.
To compensate for that, I made an outdoors level with enemies spread further apart, with longer sight lines and a variety of low walls for the player to use as cover. The thing is, that didn’t help very much.
Basically, regardless of the shape of the level, the enemies were still too strong. As I explain in this post, I spent a while tuning them down for the outdoor environment and that made the level playable. That got me thinking; could I use the same indoor environment and, with my new weaker enemies, have a balanced fun level? As it turns out, not really.
Even when they are heavily nerfed the melee enemies rule the tight spaces. The ranged hero characters still tripped over each other, couldn’t spread out or kite the enemies easily. In fact, even with the nerfs, the enemy melee heroes swarmed the player in almost the same amount of turns.
It’s fascinating to be able to isolate the game design variables in this way. It was really fascinating to be able to isolate the two overpowering effects (character balance and level design) and find out which had the biggest impact and why. The takeaway here, for me, was that unbalanced characters just break things; on both maps, when the enemies were overpowered there was nothing I could do with level design to even the odds. However, even when the heroes and enemies were balanced more fairly, thoughtless level design could quickly and easily upset the balance I had created. Basically, you have to make sure the enemies and heroes are balanced, then think how the level design upsets that balance. And whether you want that, in certain cases. And whether it’s fun. Or whether you need to introduce a new hero type to help, etc.
So, my next step is to try and create indoor environments that retain the balance of the outdoor spaces, but still offer a different atmosphere. My first instinct is to retain the open spaces (ballrooms, inside of shops etc) but provide a more formal, structured layout. Hopefully this will provide the necessary flavour.