Game Level Design
The Art and Science


Back about a decade or two, video games were programmed to feature stages with an increasing difficulty level.

This is how the progression or plot advancement in a game was classified.

Game level design has transformed modern-day gaming primarily because of conceptual game designing.

Game Level Design

Contents

Important Constraints
Chapter 1
Important Constraints
Forming Structure
Chapter 2
Forming Structure
Understanding "Areas"
Chapter 3
Understanding “Areas”
Mapping Design
Chapter 4
Mapping Design
Connecting Dots
Chapter 5
Connecting Dots
Golden Rules
Chapter 6
Golden Rules
Example of Modern Game
Chapter 7
Example of Modern Game
Common Mistakes
Chapter 8
Common Mistakes

Chapter 1
Important Constraints


For a level designer, the most difficult area of work is figuring out the key components that will form a design.

As a designer, one would find it an ideal thing to decide every aspect by oneself.

However, it is truly not the case when one is working as a part of a larger team with individual KPIs and specific responsibilities.

Important Constraints

Working in a team, a designer would benefit from the input of their team members.

However, it can also be a limiting factor because not all ideas would resonate with your own understanding of level design.

Other than that, constraints also cover legal, audience, and franchise aspects. There are restrictions enforced by the executive management of a game developing agency.

On the contrary, a creative director would also impose certain constraints. The vision of a creative director and that of a designer may be in conflict.

Even if a designer is working independently, there is no way to fully avoid constraints associated with game level design.

Mario - Game Example
Mario – An example of Level Based Game

One may ask questions related to the following concepts:

What should be the ideal duration of a game level?

Is it a short level, about 30 minutes long at maximum?

Will the design carry some new aspects of technology, art, or audio effects?

Does it have cool exterior lighting effects and outdoor aesthetics?

How much time would designing a level take?

Average time (in months) that will be required to develop a level.

What are the top requirements of a third-party client who commissioned such work?

The investors, publishers, marketing department, etc. – what are their personal preferences and guidelines?

What is the platform?

The platform usually differs from the electronic device it will be played on. Games developed for PS4 are on a different scale than PC or Mobile games. Similarly, VR games should be ideally programmed and developed to avoid motion sickness to the player. These are some of the constraints to keep in one’s mind.

How does the level relate to the game’s progression?

Define the game’s level and the challenges which come by affecting the game’s difficulty level.

Who is the target audience of the game?

Considering the game has violent subjects, is sexually explicit, and would require parental guidelines, the game’s rating should be set bearing all of these important details in mind.

Game Studio Approach

In high intensive game developing studios, every order of a game by a client is carefully approached.

Often studios aspire for perfection and level design is treated as the most critical aspect with no margin for errors.

So, level designers have to work in an intense environment carefully calibrate and track every decision that they make.

Game Studio Approach
Gaming Studio in Pakistan (Courtesy: Dawn.com)

The most fundamental things to keep in mind when working on level design for clients are the following:

Chapter 2
Brainstorming and Forming Structure


Keeping all important details and aspects in mind, a level designer has to carefully conduction the ideation process.

Let’s understand this using an example of a video game involving military action.

Brainstorming and Forming Structure

Keeping all important details and aspects in mind, a level designer has to carefully conduction the ideation process.

Let’s understand this using an example of a video game involving military action.

Chapter 3
Understanding “Areas”


Understanding Areas

“Areas” could be any solid details within a level.

It can be the size of a location, an important landscape, or certain shapes. A designer is required to determine which details of a game can be classified into areas.

Most designers may find it difficult to know because it generally requires a lot of game knowledge and basic information about video games.

In our previous example of a video game containing military action, areas can be determined by the following scenario:

Chapter 4
Mapping Design on Paper


Mapping Design on Paper

Level designers are tasked with the responsibility of creating impeccable levels in which they cannot make many errors, nor are they allowed to skip details and information from the macro documents.

So, in order to avoid errors and have a clear understanding of how it all would appear when put together, raw sketches and diagrams are formed to set everything inflow.

One can do this using a diagram.

Game Level Design Diagram
Game Diagram Sample

A diagram can be treated as a map or a complete level. It can allow a level designer to visualize and make amendments on every part. It also helps a designer to take key decisions with respect to the structure of a level.

Many level designers adopt the practice of making drawings on large sheets using a pen or pencil.

Rough Mapping on a Paper
Rough Mapping on a Paper

Whereas, a lot of designers find it comfortably to rather create on a digital canvas, as in an illustrator software.

Expert designers have the professional experience to make diagrams in the in-engine modes which allow them to have a clear understand and feel of the level.

No method is the benchmark here and it usually depends on what suits better for a designer, whether it is in-engine, illustrator software, or pencil sketch.

Chapter 5
Connecting all Dots


Connecting all dots in Level Design

Once a level designer has laid out everything on paper and for their understanding, they also have to carefully accelerate the key steps which make up a complete level.

This could be the intricate details that finish up a level. 

One might want to check the game intensity, encounters in games, and climax. A designer also has to determine the difficulty level and balance the game intensity. A game level could be action-packed on every step and also contain periods of rest and easy encounters where a player can find some flexibility in the gaming experience. 

The next important course of action should be integrating the key elements of a level with one another.

These can be treated as transitions in a level and they should be finalized at all times. Different level designers adopt different sorts of approaches towards this. Some might directly jump to engine modes and build everything from ground zero. 

Engine Rendered Level Design
Screenshot is taken from Kingdom Rush

Beginner level designers find it difficult to directly conduct this process in an engine, which is why they prefer to do everything on a 2-dimensional map.

This allows a designer to build a solid foundation of a game before it is put into engine mode.

Normally, a designer would find a lot of mistakes and areas of improvement when the structure and design are put on live.

Chapter 6
Golden Rules of Level Design


There are certain benchmark rules which are observed and widely adopted in the work of even world-class designers sitting in game development studios.

These are the factors that contribute to a game’s success and they tend to offer an interactive and engaging gaming experience to players.

Let’s dig deeper into the contemporary rules of level design.

Golden Rules of Level Design

Level Designs according to the Game’s Theme

Game Theme Level Design

It is important to keep in mind key details of the game’s typology, its theme, and the characters’ storylines because they would be implemented into the design.

Make sure to follow 1 Color Palette.

Use the same kind of Architecture in the levels.

Characters designing and rendering should be similar to each other.

In short, don’t create a big difference in multiple levels.

Weighing the Character Potential

Weighing the Character Potential

Each character is unique and has an important role in the mechanism of the game.

When designing surroundings in a level, one should keep in mind the characters’ profiles and how they fit into a scene.

The character should look like it belongs to the environment put up in the level. Movements and positions of the characters should also be according to the level and compatible with everything.

All of these little details form an enriched experience that remains an important facet in modern games.

Paying close attention to Events in a Level

Commandos 2 Events happening

Each level in a game is made unique according to the turn of events that takes place.

Every plot is made up of certain plays and acts which form a complete story.

This would also involve the characters’ choices, actions, and decisions taken during the level of a game.

The environment and surroundings of a character play an important role in these events. A designer has to stay in touch with these close details. Keep a smooth flowing story where the map compliments every step that unfolds in a level.

For example, designers create weak points in a game that are treated as obstacles that prevent the main character to reach the final conclusion of a level and delay its progress to keep things interesting.

Detailing of Space and Areas

Every level should contain important highlights that guide a character to the level’s climax and ending point.

In many games, the players are supposed to keep track of the entire game map without the need for a User Interface (UI).

In the latter case, the environment should contain details and information which guide a player to navigate through the plot.

It could be any kind of details with respect or architectures, colors, level characters, and the basic landscape.

All of these details should account for the level’s progress.

Attributes of the Game Environment

Commandos Surrounding Observation
Commandos Game – Observe the surroundings

As discussed above, the surroundings play a vitally important role in the buildup of a story.

A level designer has to keep these things in mind and pay close attention to contemporary attributes of the game’s surroundings.

Every character needs to be familiarized with the environment as if it naturally belongs to the setting. In open-world games, these tend to be very important details which form very interactive gameplay.

It is like putting sense into a game and a human factor that guides a character.

For instance, in the game God of War, there are ancient signs and landmarks which allow the character to navigate and move along its progress.

Psychological effects

Psychological effects of a Charachter
Courtesy: nytimes.com

A game containing characters which are to play by humans must have important psychological influences.

A level designer has to keep the human factor in it and make it look close to reality.

There can be dangerous terrains, fearful encounters, emotional scenes, sexually intimate interactions, etc.

Composition of a game

Every design detail is created for the sole purpose of guiding players towards the objective of the game. A game’s composition acts as a guide and direction which keeps the flow of a story.

A game’s composition is everything. It is the very tool that guides a player across every level.

Composition of a game

Compositions not only help find the right way to lead but also act as details which the designers place to help players find items, clues, supplies, necessary for the progression of a game.

Understanding the game’s composition is integral to navigate within the map and allow a player to use the cognitive function to play – which places to avoid, where are the most enemies, where are the key supplies located, where to find help, etc.

The composition also should allow a constant flow of the game’s progression and every player needs to feel that they are progressing.

On each step, the game advances towards more details placed in the level, and so progress takes place.

All of these details are set in place to make an engaging gameplay experience.

Chapter 7
Example of Modern Game


Example of Modern Game for Level Designers

Let us take into account the modern game, Resident Evil 4 played by millions of players on consoles around the world.

Resident Evil 4 remains the most popular installment in the franchise and can be treated as a profound example regarding the art and science of level design.

The game opens to a totally different environment than its predecessors.

Resident Evil 4
Resident Evil 4 Gameplay Screenshot

On the other hand, the later stages of Resident Evil 4 are created in terms of different aesthetics including a prison and a gothic castle.

Structure of Surroundings in a Game
The Gothic Castle Structure (Resident Evil 4)

In addition, there is a village which ideally stands out and is popular among game enthusiasts.

The visual of the village is a very important aspect to keep in mind.

All of these details are set there to discourage the player and make them feel threatened and overwhelmed.

In the opening sequence, we see a raid taking place in a village.

It is designed with pitch-perfect details where the character has little to no protection from the threat and encounter of village inhabitants.

One can experience bloodthirsty predators, knocking outdoors, and running after you.

A player is tasked to navigate through all of this and its surroundings play an integral role in escaping from the bloodthirsty enemies.

The interactive details, buildings, and wreckage in the outskirts and the map of a level play an important role to allow Leon Kennedy to escape from the scene and evade his enemies.

Chapter 8
Common Mistakes


Perhaps the most popular mistake would be details and platforms established without forethought or any logic behind it.

Many level designers do not put careful thought into the understanding of the plot and just throw in unnecessary details to keep up with the flow or for the sake of it.

Common Mistakes in Level designing

Any minute detail or characteristic of a design should play an important role in the progression of the story and not just be without purpose.

Behind every design, there is a meticulous analysis of events and dynamics which come into effect.

If these elements are not put together with purpose, then it would rather draw a very vague outline of the storyline. It may lack the punch and the emotional effect felt and noticed by the player as well.

In order to counter this, level designers should heavily invest their time in reading and learning about some of the most popular games out there.

Designers at game developing studios find it an art to create dynamics and details which have importance in the plot and carry a fitting purpose.

(It could even be a mouse running down a dark alley or anything alike.)

One must ask and carefully examine every aspect and attribute a strong purpose to it. This gives a game a direction and an environment that leads a player.

What Aspiring Level Designers Need to Know?

A few recommendations can be given to aspirants in the industry, and these pointers can massively impact one’s work.

Working in a studio as a team member is a perfect start for a “Level Designer” in Gaming Business and has a lot of perks:

Feedback is also important and should be considered sacred.

Customer feedback

A level designer is prone to mistakes but they must not be discouraged when there is negative feedback. In fact, most of the feedback put across is constructive and should be taken into account for one’s best interest. Feedback is a perspective itself and it can only lend a positive impact.

On the other hand, level designers should also keep up with modern times. Video games in the modern days are quite different from those developed over a decade ago. Modern details have to be kept in mind because they provide a sense of realism to a player.

Sheer details and relevance of real-life examples are important for a complete gaming experience.

Conclusion

Well, that was all from us!

I hope you enjoyed this guide to Game Level Design.

Now, I want you to tell us what you didn’t know about Level Designing before? or what exactly you learned from this guide…

Leave a comment below.

Conclusion Game Level Design

Sources

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