Level Design Concepts*

Aug 24, 2009


Every decision in a level’s design is a conscious act by the level designer.

Levels aren’t made by placing walls; levels are made by planning. Once a level developer is accustomed to the toolset at hand, and the underlying game engine, emphasis shifts from placing “walls” to placing “rooms,” and from placing “enemies” to designing “encounters.”

Odds are, you’ve never played more than one published title that used the same underlying level design philosophy. What works in one game, given its AI, weapons set and player interface generally does not translate well to another title in the same genre. Goldeneye N64 levels make poor Doom levels; Doom levels make poor Unreal Tournament levels; Mario levels wouldn’t work for Sonic and Sonic levels wouldn’t work for Mario.

Why bother with level design philosophy at all? Why not just make maps that are different every time? Just like there are conflicting philosophies that don’t work well between games, for every game there are some overriding points that can be kept in mind to make the most of the engine. Here we’ll look at a few particularly different ways of thinking about level space, since by separating them out, we’re better able to switch between them deliberately as best fits the current videogame project’s needs.

Architect’s Design

Some games focus on environmental realism, to the point that most of the levels are designed to feel like they are almost incidental to the gameplay experience taking place there (ex. Hitman, Rainbow Six). For these games, most of rooms, hallways, and open areas feel like they were laid out without special emphasis for the player start, ammo/health boxes, or enemy placement locations. An architect by training is most likely to design this type of map, so we’ll call it the “Architect’s Design.” It provides a strong sense of immersion when it’s done well, since real buildings aren’t laid out linearly for mission objectives, but it can make for awkward flow that confuses first time action players.

Fireman’s Design

Other titles focus on flow of action. Halo is the unmatched example of this design strategy, using Architect’s Design to compensate for the disarray of the battlefield. The player is rarely left wondering where to go next, since there are typically shots, yelling, and action taking place where he/she should go. We’ll call this the “Fireman’s Design,” since it results in the player rushing from point to point to “put out fires.” This requires a considerable amount of event scripting, and doesn’t leave much of an opportunity for the player to rest. This risks hurting replay value by making interesting things happen predictably the second time around, but it can offer an extremely cinematic experience (ex. Medal of Honor, Call of Duty franchises).

Curiosity Lure

Some games lure the player around via exploration. Tomb Raider and Descent both relied at least in part on this “Curiosity Lure” (the player’s left thinking “maybe this pathway leads to the exit?”)… (continued in ebook)

*This entry is now in the Videogame Developer’s Strategy Guide, available through membership in Gamkedo Club.

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