Game level design is a sub-discipline under game design that focuses on crafting of levels for the delight, intrigue and enjoyment of players by combining the understanding of layout, game mechanics and pacing to allow players to utilize their skills and creativity to overcome challenges.
A level designer makes game levels that intentionally create feelings and guide behaviors for the players.
An effective level designer needs to have great empathy for players and an ability to imagine the game from multiple perspectives.
What is a level?
I will define level in the context of finite games.
A level is a space where a game takes place that has set boundaries for players to move and interact. The experience, culture, and mood change depending on the natural of the game.
Here are a few examples:
- Physical active game levels:
- Paintball field
- Tennis court
- Playground (tag, red light green light, hide n’ seek)
- Tabletop game levels:
- Connect 4 grid
- Battleship board
- Blackjack table
- Video game levels:
- Rust map from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
- Inkwater Marsh from Ori and The Will of The Wisps
In this guide, we are specifically focusing on level design in the context of video game development.
Here are different types of levels majority of videos games can be categorized in:
2D – level design that focuses on two dimensional plane spaces
- Original Mario Bros
- Ori and The Will of The Wisps
Linear – level design that takes the player directly where the designer wants
- Last of Us
- Half-life 2
- Call of Duty
Corridor – sections between major parts of the gameplay
- Metroid Prime
Wide Linear – areas that allow you to arrive at the objective through multiple roots
- Witcher 1
- Last of Us 2
Arena – areas dedicated primarily to combat, usually with multiple waves
- God of War
- Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Open World – level design focused on freeform exploration and approach from any direction
- Breath of the Wild
- Assassin’s Creed
- Far Cry 4
Types of level design discipline in video game development
Level design comes in many forms and requires dramatically different mindsets, depending on the game you are creating.
The two most common categories are room design and world design. Beyond this, it then specializes based on the genre, game camera and expectations of the player.
Room design is what most people think of when they imagine a level designer.
Spending an immense amount of time plotting out a small sequence, with a carefully crafted entrance and exit.
The most obvious example of this type of design is games like Portal or Ocarina of Time, where players flow through the game in a controlled and expected way.
Room designers carefully examine every path they build, setting up traps, tricks and challenges for the players to beat in a precise way.
Ori was designed this way, with every room or set of screens built independently, then stitched together into a series of challenges before being artistically decorated.
Here is a breakdown of the approach behind Ori’s levels by the Moon Studio lead level designer:
World design on the other hand, is about creating believable spaces which can be approached from many directions.
This is common in games like MMOs, battle royales or open world adventure games like
- Assassin’s Creed
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- Elden Ring
- World of Warcraft
As the players flow into the space is not controlled as carefully, objectives are generally surrounded by combat encounters, have far fewer traps and puzzles, and allow players to simply walk away from many challenges.
As a result, far larger spaces can be crafted, with a weaker focus on level design detail.
In either case, a video game level designer is still making levels and focusing on gameplay, with a wide range of environment designs, here are the difference:
- Room designers will create bespoke versions of every space such as more detailed architecture, layout, and shape etc.
- World designers will reuse pre-made elements as much as possible to create an entire game and rely more on general systems to allow players to drive more of the experience.
Level designs can be both realistic, or surrealistic, as games like Hex, Cats Sorted Neatly and Bayonetta showcase. Either way, the skills applied are the same.
How to learn level design?
Aspiring level designers often struggle with knowing where to start.
Do you need to know engines and tools first or general game development?
Can you even make a level without an example game to mimic?
Level design tips sometimes boil down to just ‘make a map and play’. There are so many aspects to game level design, it’s natural to get confused, frustrated or paralyzed.
Here are some basic principles you can follow:
Keep in mind that before you get into level design, you have to first learn the fundamentals of game design which also applies to level design, since it focuses on one aspect that interact seamlessly to create the player experience of the entire game.
If you don’t have a design framework to go off of, feel free to use this one.
You can also checkout my guided game design skill development program, where I show the fundamental principles of how to systematically approach game design.
For example: In module 8, I specifically demonstrate how to systematically apply these principles step-by-step in the context of level design throughout 16 rounds of iterative cycles taking a single dungeon start from a basic hand sketched rectangle all the way to a polished level map ↓
In addition to levels, these principles also applies to other aspects of game design such as game mechanics, narrative design, character design, and etc.
The reason I added this to the program is because looking at an entire finished product can be overwhelming to someone just trying to get started.
There are many different smaller skills that grow together to build levels.
The key fundamentals to creating a game world is thinking through the experience of the players and how they move to spaces.
It’s a common studio practice to flush out initial ideas and designs in pen and paper sketches before translating them into final spaces in game engines.
This is because it’s a much less expensive resource sink when it doesn’t work out on paper.
Just imagine the sunken cost when a game ships with a fully polished Unreal Engine environment design many players hate.
How to practice level design efficiently
Here are 2 simple pencil and paper exercises you can use to practice early phases of level design without needing to learn scripting.
You can also use visual or whiteboard tools like Miro to do these, which is what I’ll use to demonstrate each step.
Step 1: You start the level creation process by thinking:
- What kind of space do you want to make? What happens there?
- Why is the player there? What do they want?
- What are all the constraints on you? What tools do you have?
Step 2: Before even designing a rough map:
- Make a list of these things.
- Jumble them into an order that vaguely makes sense to you.
- Label them with letters.
Step 3: Take a pencil and notebook, or your favorite drawing tool such as Miro or Visio, and create simple bubble diagrams with all of these letters.
Move them around so they look interesting to you and draw a single line connecting all of them. The line can be straight, curved, swirly, doesn’t matter.
Congratulations, you’ve created the most basic entire level possible!
Step 1: Sit and think about how you would flow between all of these elements you placed following that line from start to finish.
- Is that the kind of experience you want?
- Do you want more ways to approach the situation?
- Should they be able to skip or play these in different orders?
Step 2: Start drawing more lines to connect these scenarios.
Note the word ‘scenarios’ – these things don’t have to be singular rooms unto themselves, and can be things you do within the same space, multiple spaces or even over multiple playthroughs of the entire game.
Step 3: Dive deep by thoroughly reflecting on the rest of your game and ask yourself: What kind of resistance does my game have?
- Enemy types
- Power ups
Step 4: Start placing these along the lines between your scenarios, tools and objectives.
Here is an amazing video series by Mark Brown called Boss Keys that breaks down early games rigorously and is a fantastic resource for practicing this skill.
Turn them into an actual playable level:
Take the results of these two exercises and now start clumping things together or spreading them out.
- Start drawing shapes and spaces around them.
- Position them in 2d or 3d space and connect them.
- Walk through the sequences over and over again, iterating and improving, until it works.
- See if your ideas work in the order you encounter them.
- Think about the stories of the beings that exist in your game and how that particular space can tell a tiny story about the world and name the room or space accordingly.
- Then adorn your simple map with landmarks and themes that reflect the narrative of your game and inspire the environment artists.
Now stop, breathe and take a look at what you’ve done! You’re designing levels!
Next actively seek out opportunities in passion projects, game jams and communities to start practicing:
- How to communicate your design process to others and get feedback
- Develop spaces inside level editors
- Collaborate with game designers to develop and test game mechanics
- Collaborate with environment artists to make your levels beautiful, clear and consistent.
Bonus ways to practice level design:
- Mimic a level from one of your favorite games and recreate it. This will give you a much deeper understanding than just playing it.
- Start modding your favorite games. It’s a low barrier to entry way to practice tweaking elements from proven successful games with an active player base.
Level design learning resources
Here are some resources I recommend you to checkout if you want to learn level design.
Level design videos:
- “Everything I learned about Level Design, I Learned from Disneyland” – Scott Rogers
- Interior Design and Environment Art: Mastering Space, Mastering Place – Dan Cox
- Environment Design as Spatial Cinematography: Theory and Practice – Miriam Bellard
- Steve Lee presentations:
- Designing Radically Non-Linear Single Player Levels – Aubrey Serr
- The Schema is (Still) Mightier than the Sword: How Cognition Predicts Player Spatial Coding Systems – Vanessa Hemovic
Level design books:
- Max Pears books:
- Christopher Totten books
- 101 things I learned in architecture school – Matthew Frederick
- Architecture: Form, Space, & Order – Francis D. K. Ching
Level design podcasts:
How to become a level designer?
(As in to make a living as a level designer either in a game studio or in your own game)
I will not go into the path of creating and monetizing your own indie game. That gigantic topic will take a series of posts by itself. So I’m only going to address how to be someone game studios want to hire.
In most studios, you’ll most likely start as a junior game designer as the entry position, which often involves working on different aspects of a game including design levels.
Once you accrue some experience, then you can grow into a level designer.
This means level design specific skills are built on top of game design fundamentals.
Assuming you got your game design fundamentals down, here are a few things you need to get down to be a serious contender:
- Develop first hand experience from creating levels
- Learn how other parts of game development work
- Learn basic scripting to create interactable game objects in a game engine
- Learn the core elements of storytelling that can empower and improve your level design skillset.
- Put together a portfolio to demonstrate your skills
There are more to this, so feel free to read my full guide on how to become a level designer.
What are the key skills to excel at level design?
From my career working with and hiring many level designers, here is a range of key skills that differentiate the great ones from the average:
- Process – How levels are made
- Pacing – How players consume levels
- Flow – How players ebb and flow between challenges
- Balance – How fairness is perceived and expressed
- Massing – How size, architecture and shape impact level design
- Metrics – How distance and speed impact level design
- Lighting – How to guide and draw attention
- Tools – How to execute on the above concepts in game engines
What are the common misconceptions about level design?
Misconception 1: Level design is environment art
The role of an environment artist and level designer are actually two sides of the same coin. These two disciplines work carefully together to create holistic experiences.
Here is the difference:
- Level design focuses on the spaces, obstacles, tools and actions the players can perform,
- Environment art focuses on conveying theme, atmosphere, story and visual presentation.
Both utilize art, color and shape, but with different goals in mind.
Misconception 2: Level designers only look at their one little piece of the game.
While that might be true at the start, the best level designers look at the game as as a whole and take idea, lessons and inspiration from the game as a whole.
Other designers and even other genres can spark concepts that bring your work up to the next level.
People starting out in level design may also forget that they are the stewards of their levels. It is not enough to create a blockout and walk away, but they must also shepherd the vision of their level through all of the following steps of the process.
What makes good level design?
Good level design is a careful balance of the many elements that compose the game – obstacles, objectives and systems.
As a result, the best level designers do some initial planning, then trust themselves to move quickly to a form they can iterate upon.
Here are 6 level design tips you can use:
1. Plan first
Understand what everyone needs from your level before putting a pencil to paper.
Here are a few guiding questions to ask yourself:
- What challenges does the gameplay design team need?
- Which story moments is narrative design trying to accomplish?
- What environmental theme is being used as the backdrop to this location or sequence?
2. Design with purpose
Every location you create should exist for a purpose – even if that purpose is just to connect two spaces, provide an inspiring view or clearly convey a dead end.
Understanding its purpose will help ensure the right amount of time, attention and resources are applied to it.
3. Focus on one idea at a time
While knowing what everyone needs will help you create a vision in your mind, unify it into one guiding thing at a time.
Is this mostly a combat sequence?
Or a puzzle?
Or a space for narrative exposition?
Nail its major purpose first. Then layer in the second most important thing, then the third.
This will help you avoid confusing the players by ensuring the core focus is hit first, with supporting element to hit the secondary and tertiary goals decorated atop it.
4. Always playtest your game
Level designers are the first people to play game in its final form. As a result, they are both the first and last line of defense against bad experiences.
Playing not only the levels you’ve created, but the game as a whole will help you keep perspective.
As my colleague Mohammad Alavi (the level designer and creative director on Call of Duty, Titanfall and Apex Legends) said:
“Building your game without playing your game regularly is the fastest way to ruin an amazing idea.”
5. Do reevaluate levels and prune the worst ones
It’s a delicate balance to decide what needs extra effort from your studio and what needs to be cut. Ask yourself
- What benefit you’re getting by keeping it around?
- Is it serving you and your team?
- Is it serving the players?
The folks over at Ratchet and Clank had a practical simple rule for evaluating content in their games:
- Is this feature or level a 10 out of 10 for at least one of these three categories?
If the answer is no, then either cut it or create a plan for getting it there in one of these three axes.
6. Think in terms of Objectives, Obstacles, and Set Pieces
Beyond each obstacle should be a reward or objective. Set pieces are key landmarks that help the player stay oriented.
By using them effectively, you will encourage players to explore multiple levels, utilize as much of the core game design as possible and improve your design process by thinking constantly about the parts that matter the most.
Level design requires a broad set of artistic, technical and emotional skills. As a result, it doesn’t matter if you’re making PC games, console games or mobile games, your best option is to learn from playing, breaking down and examining other games.
Game level design is not just ideas, it’s development, gameplay, execution and the difficulty is more than just developing a particular level or character interaction.
Level design skills are born of planning, intent and execution.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a lead level designer or a regular game designer or an aspiring level designer – the fundamentals are the same.
I hope this guide helps you think about more than art or architecture, and to see the details that encourage dedicated players to explore every inch of your game multiple times.