The Elements of Modern Level Design

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The Elements of Modern Level Design

Level design is not a craft that was invented by video game designers. Indeed, the art of level design has been with us from the moment we began playing games. Even the simplest games utilize space, and hence have level design. To demonstrate this, let us consider “Paper, Rock, Scissors.” While having no game board or screen, the game is influenced by the spatial relationship between the two players in whatever environment the game takes place in. Note that when a child plays scissors while the other child plays rock, what often happens? The winning child will playfully tap the “rock” on top of the other player’s failed scissors, pantomiming the actual conflict.


There is nothing in the game design¬†of Paper, Rock, Scissors that requires the players to stand close to one another. You could play it at any distance so as long as the game “pieces” were visible. However, most players implicitly design a play space that pits the two opponents as close to one another as is comfortable. So even in this simple game, spatial relationships are important!

Obviously, modern video games involve much more than positioning to players close to each other. So, then, what are the basic elements of modern level design in 2016, and how do these elements differ from the state of the art of five to ten years ago? To answer this in brief, I propose that we look at the discipline in three broad strokes.


1. Navigational Geometry

The basic premise of a game level in many typical games is to get a player from point A to point B, whether the game is Super Mario Bros. or Grand Theft Auto V. In this type of level design, we create positive space (geometry that the player cannot pass through) and negative space (“open” areas that the player can pass through freely). This mixture of negative and positive space creates spatial relationships in the map that, if done well, amplify and enhance a game design.

In multiplayer shooters, such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the paths the players can traverse must be carefully considered against the abilities the game design gives them. Designers must employ enough positive space through cover objects, walls, and other blocking geometry to give interesting tactical choices to players. Yet, the designer must also balance this against not just the weapons systems, but also against the rules of the game being played.

In the “Bomb Scenario” mode, there is an attacking team that must traverse most of the map, pitted against a defending team that are trying to prevent the attacking team from planting a bomb. The usual rules of multiplayer level design still apply, giving both attackers and defenders cover, but the game mode dictates longer and wider paths, with less cover, for the attacking team. This is to facilitate fast movement from point A to point B, which in this case is more important than littering half the map with large amount of cover (since the defenders are going to be more stationary, while the attackers need to rush to the bomb sites as quickly as possible).

In 2016, most multiplayer shooters involve game modes that require designers to reconsider their old design patterns. No longer do multiplayer shooters offer a simple deathmatch or team deathmatch mode, with a few alternative modes added here and there. Instead, modern multiplayer shooters are focused on specific game modes, and maps must be tuned to accommodate them.

Additionally, level designers should consider the impact of the MOBA genre, which emphasizes a few clear, easy-to-learn paths for attacking and defending, while incorporating a more amorphous central area for exploration.

2. Active Content

I define active content as any non-static element in the level, whether it be moving platforms, attacking enemies, or interactive puzzles. This element of level design falls under the professional discipline of scripting. It may also be called mission design, content design, or implementation (among many titles you may see).

In the past, level designs that feature active content tended to be single player games (or those that are single player with a multiplayer mode). For example, consider Gears of War. This game is particularly important to think about for classic single player scripting because so many students working in the field today were trained using the Windows version of this game.

Taking place across linear levels, the active content portion of the game usually involved players walking into triggers (invisible objects that register a player touch), which in turn would activate game events. Most likely, these would be the spawning of enemies to set up combat scenarios. However, it can also include many other game events, such as the opening of a door, the start of new music, or the beginning of a cinematic. Regardless of what exactly is happening, the usual setup here is setting up a trigger, touching that trigger, and some action happening as a result.

While these design patterns are still going to be used today, the designer of active content of 2016 must also consider an array of new game designs outside the classical linear level action game. To name a few:

  • Open World. Areas visited by players can be revisited in perpetuity. Depending on the geometric design of the space, action areas might be approachable from any angle. A player may be able to arrive in an area in a place that might not make narrative sense. The designer must be able to account for these situations. Often this involves more sophisticated scripting that checks for narrative and player progression. A designer must be given (and be able to use) more tools from gameplay programmers.
  • Asynchronous Online. In the Dark Souls series, players are left hints from other players. A designer may consider crafting more difficult scenarios with trickier solutions, knowing that the player is armed with advice from a worldwide player base.
  • Online Free to Play. Great level design accounts for player and enemy abilities. The usual challenge is understanding what these are during an uncertain development. But what about games which add new features weeks, months, or even years after the initial release? The easy answer is to simply build new levels to leverage these features, but can the level designer create play spaces that anticipate proposed new additions to the game in advance? Should they even try (lest they spoil the handcrafted balance of the map during the game’s release)?

3. World Design

World design is the combination of planned architecture, nature, visual style, and function of a game world. It also involves the auditory information of the world as well. Simply put, it is everything experiential about a play space.

Non-digital games have world design that can have a large impact on the commercial fortunes of the games themselves! For example, in the early 1990s, many baseball teams in the United States played in huge, multipurpose stadiums. These were built with utility in mind, with the purpose of housing as many fans as possible, while hosting multiple major sporting events.

However, in 1992, the Baltimore Orioles played their first game at Camden Yards, a stadium designed to exploit the attributes of the game being played in the space, as well as the verisimilitude of the location it was built in.

In the image above, consider the sight lines provided to spectators. Preference is given to seats that have a point of view either perpendicular or behind the player batting at home plate. The dimensions of the field favor right handed hitters that hit home runs, by having a relatively short distance from home plate to the left field fence (364 feet).

Additionally, the stadium achieves a type of verisimilitude by blending in perfectly with the surrounding environment of Baltimore. In doing this, it becomes part of the city, and not a separate mass of ugly steel placed to impose its will on the populace.* Note how the warehouse to the upper right becomes like a wall of the stadium, while the tallest building serves as a beautiful anchor point to the eye. Baseball is a slow sport; how helpful is it that the scene at the ballpark is such a well composed work of art!

*In game level design, of course, we may want to have such an intimidating structure for an enemy’s fortress!

The result of this design is that Camden Yards was hailed as Major League Baseball’s best new stadium, and this style of ballpark has become the design template for all baseball stadiums.

A great example of a digital game with tremendous world design is Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma. The world is designed with visual rules that impact gameplay, while also helping achieve immersion by following some simple logic that helps us believe that the game’s kingdom of “Gransys” is a real place.

The main visual rule of the game is simple: walk on the main road for mild encounters with weak enemies. Venture off the main road, and particularly into trees of wilderness, to fight dragons and other high-level monsters. This simple design decision helps to solve one common problem with open world games that damage immersion: if everywhere in the world outside of villages and towns are dangerous places which mean certain death to all but the player, how would that society function? Why would stores even have goods to sell?

Surely, one would think, the player would not necessarily notice such an issue. But that is the magic of great world design: it should be felt, not necessarily noticed!

World design is the great frontier of the modern day level designer. in 2016, we have very few limitations anymore for the size and scope of a world. For instance, using Unreal 4, a designer can create a huge landscape, with many layers of textures, while populating it with trees, plants, and shrubs using the automatic foliage tool. Suddenly a task that would take days now takes hours of work!

In smaller games, even mobile games that mainly use a user interface and not a 3D game world, a designer can think about the design of the space and how icons, buttons, and graphics influence player choices and actions. To do this effectively, a designer should survey a broad variety of disciplines.

After understanding the layers that compose modern level design, how can the student increase their knowledge base in a field that is still highly ambiguous and rapidly changing? Fortunately, resources do exist.

Some books that are highly recommended would include:

Architecture: Form, Space & Order, By Francis DK Ching. A classic book that describes how architects arrange space into ordered forms. The first few chapters are a must read for any level designer!

The Design of Everyday Things, By Don Norman. Industrial and commercial design is what Shigeru Miyamoto was trained in before arriving at Nintendo.

An Architectural Approach to Level Design, By Christopher W. Totten. It is rare to find a recent book that eschews the typical “how to use a game editor” approach of most books about level design, and instead focuses on universal approaches that is technology agnostic. A fantastic book I require my students to acquire in the classes I teach.


Curious Constructs

During Prey 2, I was fortunate to have worked with a developer who would be highly influential on me as a designer, Nathan Cheever (he is currently hard at work on Mafia III). His website contains a lot of educational material about level design practices and concepts.

World of Level Design

While focusing more on the “nuts and bolts” of the design craft, World of Level Design is a great resource with many tutorials on a wide variety of topics.

Finally, if you are curious about my work, my portfolio is As the weeks and months unfold, I plan to update the website with more educational articles such as this one, so check back often!

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