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Video Game Level: A Designer’s Introduction

Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

What is a level (in video games)?

In either extreme, each video game level exists to support your design goals as well as challenge and guide the players through the intended experience.

Here are a few game level 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:

In this guide, we are specifically focusing on understanding level in the context of level design and game design.

By the way, as you’re reading this post, if you have any questions or issues implementing you can get free help in the #game-design channel in Funsmith Club Discord, or you can DM me there.

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Here are different types of levels majority of videos games can be categorized in:

2D – level design that focuses on two dimensional plane spaces

Examples:

  • Tetris
  • Original Mario Bros
  • Ori and The Will of The Wisps

Linear – level design that takes the player directly where the designer wants

Examples:

  • Last of Us
  • Half-life 2
  • Call of Duty

Corridor – sections between major parts of the gameplay

Examples:

  • Doom
  • Metroid Prime

Wide Linear – areas that allow you to arrive at the objective through multiple roots

Examples:

  • Dishonored
  • Witcher 1
  • Last of Us 2

Arena – areas dedicated primarily to combat, usually with multiple waves

Examples:

  • God of War
  • Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Open World – level design focused on freeform exploration and approach from any direction

Examples:

  • Breath of the Wild
  • Assassin’s Creed
  • Far Cry 4

The origin of level-based game design started in arcades. Hardware limitations in these early games meant that each screen had to provide a single piece of content in a self-contained area.

There was variation even then: games like Joust kept the physical layout mostly the same, with different patterns of enemies arriving in waves. Pacman, on the other hand, changed the layout but left the monsters the same.

image9
(The arcade game Joust takes place entirely in this location, with only small changes between waves.)

Arcade levels had clear start and end points, but modern games no longer have this limitation. In my own design work, everything from World of Warcraft to Ori and the Will of the Wisps can support fluid, boundaryless streaming of content that blurs the lines between “levels” and makes them harder to define.

image4 1
(Ori and the Will of the Wisps)

While not a level designer by trade, I wanted to share my thoughts on how skilled level designers think about creating games. (And if any of you are level designers and want to correct or update this piece, you message me in our game design community or leave a comment below.)

Let’s go over my perspective on levels and why designers continue to use the concept, even when it’s not strictly required for game mechanics anymore.

Why Design Video Games with Levels in the First Place?

Game designers continue to think in terms of levels for a very simple reason: it helps us design with the right goals in mind.

Whether you’re designing a puzzle game, an open world game, or a minigame, thinking in terms of a discrete area helps set the scope of both your own work and the player’s attention.

While open world game design might look like it’s endlessly borderless, in truth it’s a series of carefully cultivated landmarks, each with a self-contained experience, within the larger world.

Let’s break down the different purposes video game levels can provide to both designers and players.

Building a self-contained challenge

The first reason to use a level, particularly in designs that don’t allow the player to leave, is to ensure the player approaches the problem with a limited scope.

If a player is trapped inside a locked room, they know the pieces they need to solve the problem must be close at hand. This prevents them from wasting time fruitlessly searching for answers in unrelated areas.

If you do allow players to wander the whole map, then your game has to support many different solutions and feature interconnected levels that work well with different orders of approach, if you want to ensure that all of your players can complete the game.

Guiding the player experience

Each self-contained level gives a sense of completion and progress. The level designer put this challenge in front of you—and you won. There’s a clarity there that many games lack in the modern era.

Regions can add to this sense of progress by introducing new environmental themes and emphasizing a new mechanic, with groups of levels designed to challenge a specific skill or tools.

image11
(New Super Mario Bros does this incredibly well, using landmarks, environment and overworld maps to connect locations, mechanics and themes)

Completing a level is a clean way to mentally prepare players for a change of pace, introduce a new element into the gameplay loop, and possibly unlock upgrades or dialogue.

Even in a game with completely linear progression, this gives a fresh breath of interesting gameplay, helping keep the player excited and engaged.

But you can build your game with levels and still give the player agency over their journey with a branching level structure, letting them choose which of the various obstacles they want to overcome.

If nothing else, even just a change in the art can emotionally and visually refresh the players.

Practical reasons

Finally, breaking games down into discrete levels makes it easier for individual level designers to be assigned a piece of content, load only the limited area of the world they need into the editor, and keep their computer from bogging down.

On major games, like Breath of the Wild or World of Warcraft, this also means that different teams can work on different parts of the game in parallel.

Two teams working in parallel aren’t twice as efficient as one, because of the need for collaboration, communication, and cross-team education. It also adds a reconciliation phase, where both teams need to clean up the borders between their work.

Even so, this approach is well worth it.

Do video games still have levels?

So, with all of these reasons, you might wonder: since there are so many games which load environments seamlessly, do we even really have levels, outside of indie and mobile games?

Well, obviously, the answer is yes, or we wouldn’t be here… but why might you not have noticed them?

We’re better at hiding them

The world has changed since the 80s and 90s. The introduction of streaming technology (different from video streaming) allows regions, NPCs, and other forms of content to dynamically load and unload as you move around the game world.

image1 2

If you’ve ever gone through a hallway like this image, you’ve discovered a Line of Sight blocker. These elements allow engineers to save graphical performance by not rendering elements beyond the walls.

image2 2
(An example of a Line of Sight blocker we used in Magister’s Terrace in World of Warcraft)

Streaming works similarly, treating the world as a series of connected chunks, loading the next chunk while you’re moving around the space. This allows each piece of the world to be loaded and unloaded in memory.

This is how open world games are built. If you’ve ever seen Minecraft loading on a slower computer, you’ve seen this happen in real-time.

image12
(Example of a Minecraft chunk)

As a result of the hard work of programmers and shared research, we can run freely around these seemingly endless worlds seamlessly!

Levels have gotten bigger

World design—the variant of level design that focuses on landmarks approachable from any direction—has become more and more important as the physical scale of MMOs and RPGs, in general, has increased dramatically.

Just take a look at this screenshot from my last Valheim world, when I took off in a boat and just sailed as far as I could:

image5 1

The sheer scale of what’s possible for indies today was only achievable by the best in the business back when I joined the industry in 2005.

The open world genre was the exclusive tool of AAA studios and 1000+ person teams that could craft experiences like Assassin’s Creed.

While procedural content existed (the term used for tech that generates worlds like Minecraft), it was very rough. The dramatic increase in the quality of procedural content has made game development even more intriguing.

What Different Types of Levels Are Used in Game Development?

Many indie games are still divided into multiple levels in a traditional way, with clear start and end points.

But there are other games and genres with less obvious divisions. Here’s a guide to some of the most common alternatives and how to classify them.

MMO Zones and Dungeons

Open world games are broken into chunks, each with a specific location. These areas usually don’t have secret levels or regular stages. Instead, the entire experience is one contiguous whole.

They are usually built atop a single piece, called the terrain layer, which is little more than a detailed height map:

image13
(Terrain, courtesy of Unity)

Dungeons, on the other hand, are constructed pieces built with 3D graphics software like Maya. Each piece is constructed to fit together seamlessly. Starting with simple shapes and greyboxing, they develop into aesthetic and narrative contexts for the gameplay and plot.

image6 1
(3D map of Dark Souls 1, from 9S)

Waves

When it comes to content, some games choose to use only a single environment but have wave after wave of monsters come after you in a kind of endurance test.

In these cases, each wave is carefully constructed with a specific pacing to slowly wear down the player’s attention and resources.

image3 1
(Call of Duty Zombie Mode)

These environments are constructed to be approached from many angles by the monsters. Some, such as the Mass Effect 3 cooperative mode, also force the players to move around the map in an extraction-style format.

Rounds

Instead of designing levels per se, some games such as fighting games break up their content into rounds.

This gives you a chance to make a clean, fresh comeback after losing. Players in round-like structures specifically don’t carry any consequences forward from the previous round. This creates more dramatic tension and allows them to recover from a bad beatdown.

How to Design a Level?

I’m not a level designer by trade, so if you want to learn about the specific, step-by-step craft of designing levels, be sure to check out the work of Steve Lee.

However, what I will talk about is what we’re trying to do as designers while creating levels.

Specifically, we’re guiding the player to discover challenges and eventually overcome them.

The Level Design Process

A quick note on industry terms:

There are many stages to creating a level, starting with level design and ending with environmental design.

Those two might sound like synonyms, but they are actually quite different. Level designers create the shape and intent of the space. Environment designers create the art assets and emotional tone of the space.

What are all of the steps of level design?

First off the level designers need to understand why they are crafting the space. What’s the goal? A wise man once told me: “Every space should have a purpose, even if it’s only to connect A to B. Make that purpose interesting in some way.”

With that goal in mind, the level design process looks something like this:

  1. Establish the goal of the level
  2. Establish the player’s starting point
  3. Figure out what the player can gain along the way
  4. Figure out what will get in the way
  5. Establish the golden path (primary route)
  6. Establish all of the supported side paths
  7. Expand the plan with additional features, obstacles, and more
  8. Develop an initial greybox to experience
  9. Implement the interactable elements and collectibles
  10. Spawn the hostiles (monsters)
  11. Integrate the bosses
  12. Iterate, iterate, iterate
  13. Explain any custom elements
  14. Handoff to environmental art for their own passes
  15. Enrich visually
    1. Modeling
    2. Texturing
    3. Lighting
    4. Camera Support
  1. Iterate some more
  2. Playtest
  3. Realize you made some major mistake and pivot
  4. Revise
  5. Ship

By the way, for those of you who are part of the First Principles of Game Design Program, check out module 8 to see how these steps are applied in detail through 16 rounds of iterative cycles taking a single World of Warcraft style dungeon level starting from a basic sketch all the way to a polished shippable version.

image7 1
(Example from First Principles of Game Design, Module 8)

Level design is a flow between many people and teams:

  • the game director defines the overarching direction (the purpose this level serves)
  • the level designer crafts the space with this purpose in mind
  • the technical designers support the interactive elements
  • the gameplay designers place the enemies
  • the environmental art team supports it with assets
  • the level designer returns to refine, playtest, and adjust

This sort of back and forth is irreplaceable. The more iterations you can do, the better the experience becomes.

What Makes a Video Game Level Design Effective?

image8 An effective level design achieves several things:

  • Clarity
  • Guidance
  • Flow

Ultimately, these elements are the responsibility of the level designers more than anyone else in the process. They are the closest to the final experience the player will have in the game.

As a result, a strong level of empathy and attention to detail is required in a level designer.

The level communicates clearly

The player should clearly understand which routes are viable and what the trade-offs will be based on the path they choose, based on environmental cues and previous lessons the game has taught them.

This doesn’t mean a good level can’t also intentionally subvert expectations to add emotional variety, for instance by adding enemy ambushes and traps.

You should ideally do this sporadically to ensure the levels aren’t too repetitive or gimmicky.

The level trains the player

The level introduces any new mechanics to the player, then tests them on the use of those mechanics in a way that escalates in challenge and depth of knowledge.

A whole level might be built of many small pieces of gameplay and each needs to be taught individually.

In a well-designed level, the player can feel themselves improve as they get further and further along.

The gameplay flows smoothly

As a single level might have limited replay value, that first time through is important, particularly in terms of creating a smooth experience.

It’s fine to challenge players, it’s fine to make them sit and stew, but they shouldn’t be stuck for too long.

This goes for navigating the environment as well as gameplay sequences. If players consistently miss a ladder or door, adding a light or torch nearby might solve the problem.

Designing Your Own Levels

If you’re looking to get started with level design, I’d strongly recommend against jumping into Unity or Unreal raw.

While you might think you’d get extra points for knowing these tools right away, it’s better to start with another tool that lets you focus on editing the spaces easily.

Mods and Level Editors

Things like the Starcraft 2 Editor, Roblox, or the Fortnite Creator’s Kit allow you to use pre-existing assets to build simple gameplay experiences and focus on the design instead of the technical learning curve.

After you’ve gotten some experience creating with these tools, you can safely jump into a higher challenge with Unity or Unreal.

In fact, creating mods or level designs is an incredibly valid path for getting into level or game design. Many designers found success by focusing on developing maps for existing games. Most famously, Counterstrike’s most popular map was created by a modder.

Learning More Level and Game Design

If you’d like to learn more about level design, I highly recommend:

And if you want to learn more about the universal fundamentals of game design, check out First Principles of Game Design and our upcoming course series on Game Mechanics.

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All tactics. No fluff . Pro advice only. Unsubscribe any time

EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan