Level Design Booster Pack
Every game needs levels, this booster pack is to help you craft your own. Below is an overview of important Level Design concepts and a curated list of resources to be used as reference for when you are actually implementing your level designs.
If you are a level designer, your tool of communication are the levels you design. This communication takes the form of guiding the player. Your levels need to communicate what can, and can’t be done, what should and shouldn’t be done, and lead the players through your crafted experience… Let’s jump right in and learn how to craft levels that just do that.
Level Design Perspectives: A Checklist
Who is great at leading thousands of people through a large space filled with attractions? Theme park designers! Level designers can learn a lot from their experience. In Everything I Learned About Level Design I Learned from Disneyland, Scott Rogers summarizes the insights of theme park designers on how to create exciting spaces. These different topics give a broad overview of concepts to keep in mind while designing your levels. Going over my designs with each of these techniques in mind ensured no technique is forgotten.
Everything I Learned About Level Design I Learned from Disneyland
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- Utilize landmarks, weenies, to focus players attention. We will go much deeper into this topic down in the blogpost.
- Place Kodak Picture Spots that showcase powerful moments of your game. You can think of the opening of Breath of the Wild. To go deeper check out Landscape framing fundamentals.
- Use lighting intentionally to separate the important from the background. To test what’s lit in your scene, squint your eyes and notice what pops up. To go deeper check out How to Light a Level and Lighting Master Class.
- Sprinkle foreshadowing to build anticipation. Examples of these are posters in Disneyland, or locked characters in Mortal Kombat. To go deeper check out an explanation of different examples of foreshadowing.
- Plan alternative paths that only reveal themselves to motivated players after exploration. Creating multiple ways to engage with the level will rewards expert players without leaving novices behind. To go deeper checkout the level design analysis of Hollow Knight.
- Add fun little surprises! These could be easter eggs and ensure your game is memorable. To go deeper checkout the best examples of game surprises.
- Vary pacing. After an intense fight there needs to be time for respite. You can even be bold and make the slow moments in your game the most iconic such as The Ladder. To go deeper checkout Pacing in Game Design.
- Put skeletons — I mean use the environment to enrich your story. Here is a compilation of real life environmental storytelling examples, and to go deeper check out How Level Design Can Tell a Story.
Incorporate these topics in your craft by using this list as a checklist. When you are designing a level analyze your with a focus on these techniques Have you lit your level effectively? What are the surprises that you have planned? Where will the player take in the great vista and how will an advanced user navigate through the space? When will the player struggle, and where will the player rest? How will you guide the player? On the note of guidance, let’s look into more hands on techniques for just doing that.
Guide the player: Leading attention
We mentioned the importance of guiding the player throughout the levels. But how do you go about actually accomplishing this? Invisible Intuition: Blockmesh and Lighting Tips to Guide Players and Set the Mood by Naughty Dog’s David Shaver goes into the nuts and bolts of implicitly guiding the player.
These are the concepts you should use in all your levels:
- Affordances: Drawing upon players’ real life knowledge of how *things* work is an effective method of showing they can and can’t do. You should learn more about affordances. If you have 10 minutes watch this video, if you have intentions of getting better at design read Design of Everyday Things .
- Visual Language Shapes and Color: Be consistent with what colors and shapes you use and the player will intuitively learn how to navigate.
- Landmarks: These are big objects that can be seen from all over the level and are useful for the player to orient themselves.
- Openings Attract: Humans are primed to explore openings, such as caves, open doors and archways. Abuse this instinct.
- Gates and Valves: The former stop progress until conditions are met, while the latter prevent backtracking.
- Leading Lines draw the players eye to an intended point. These can be roads, pipes, cables etc.
- Pinching means angling shapes to funnel the players to a specific spot which is effective to set up a reveal.
- Framing and Composition: Photography fundamentals are useful in leading the player’s gaze. Here is a fast primer on composition and framing using Shadow of the Colossus.
- Breadcrumbs: Anything that draws a player’s interest can be used to, well, draw the players interest! Coins, lights, pick ups, enemies! Use them liberally.
- Movement: Humans evolved to look at movement. If you want the player to notice something, make it move.
- Light and God Rays: You can’t see things in the dark. When something is to be seen, put it in the light. You can check what is most prominent in the scene by squinting your eyes recording what you notice.
If your players are getting lost in your levels add a few more of theses techniques to make their job a little bit easier. So far we discussed HOW to build your levels. However, a more important topic is deciding WHAT levels to build.
Decide what level to build: Finding your intention
In Level Design Workshop: Designing Celeste, designer Maddy Thorson explains the methods they used when developing the action packed, critically acclaimed, my favorite platformer game Celeste.
Celeste is broken down into areas, and each area is further broken down into tiny levels. What makes Celeste work is that each level encapsulates a short story that supports the story of the larger area and the whole game. These short stories guide the design of each level.
For example, here you can see the evolution of a level that has the mechanical story of “Player jumping on a falling pillar, waiting enough to be able to jump away and then finishing the now changed level.” Having a story in mind makes the iteration process much more intentional. If you have strong target, you can decide whether to keep or discard a change by deciding whether the change moved the level closer to your intent. Watch the whole breakdown of how this level is formed; starting from an idea, and iterating until the intention is realized.
Whenever you are designing a level be clear with your intentions of what you want that level to achieve. Then simply iterate towards that intent.
Validate your ideas: Prototyping your levels
However, sometimes it is not obvious whether what you thought of as a good intent on paper actually fits the game that you are developing. It is crucial to validate your level design ideas before you spend a months finalizing an idea that is not even working!
To escape this pitfall we refer back to our trusty strategy of iterative design! Action Blocks are one such iterative design method to help prototype levels. Respawn Entertainment used action blocks extensively to develop Titanfall 2. To go deeper in this topic watch Designing Unforgettable Titanfall Single Player Levels with Action Blocks.
In short Action Blocks are prototypes of levels, encapsulating a specific design intent. Action Blocks:
- Explore an individual mechanic or a skill.
- Need no context to be fun and interesting.
- Designed in a short time (1–2 days).
- Are playable!
Using action blocks, or simply prototyping your levels will save you weeks in the long run and are an important step of preproduction. In order for your prototypes to be effective they should also teach the player whatever mechanic is contained within, which is another crucial facet of designing elegant levels. So how do we effectively teach our players through the level design?
Teaching the Player: Creating a curriculum
Celeste uses supporting side levels to teach the player what they need to do, in case they fail the skill check in the main level. (Watch this bit of the talk to see Celeste teaching how to use a platform to jump) This technique is extremely effective, unfortunately we don’t always have the luxury of creating side levels. So in order to make our main levels better teachers let’s refer to the masters of teaching through level design, Nintendo.
This is the four step process of how Nintendo teaches a new mechanic:
- Introduce the mechanic in a safe environment. Failing to use the mechanic doesn’t result in a game over and there are no stressors. In Super Mario Bros the player gets ample time to jump over pipes with no risk of death.
- Develop the mechanic by removing safety nets. After the player learns how to jump they are tasked with jumping over a hole.
- Throw in a twist to challenge the player’s expectation. At some point the player will have to jump on top of flying enemies to cross over a hole.
- Conclude with a spectacle that allows the player to show off their expertise. The best players will be able to jump and grab the top of the flag pole for maximum score. The less experienced players will still be able to finish the level however.
This gentle introduction that ramps up to a (sometime optional) showcase of expertise ensures the players are constantly challenged but never overwhelmed. Focusing sole on a single mechanic however can turn out to be limiting in the long run. To spice things up, mix multiple mechanics! Watch this analysis of Donkey Kong Country to see a breakdown of how to do mix and match different mechanics
Case Studies: Learning from Experts
Up until this point we discussed the fundamentals of level design. Practicing these will give you a foundation to build upon. However one way to improve even further is to watch an expert in their craft.
Here is a level design case study of Half-Life 2 by Robert Yang. He breaks down even minute details to give you insights into the design of one of the best levels ever. Being an expert Source Engine user himself, by using cheats to break the level he also reveals how certain spectacles are achieved from a technical standpoint.
If Half Life isn’t your game, you can check out the Boss Keys series where Mark Brown analyzes the level design of several other games in this playlist.
Learning by Osmosis: Follow the Professionals
An effective way learn is to surround yourself with experts. Here I picked a few people who consistently tweet high quality level design content. [Note: As you will see the cast of people I suggested here are not diverse. It was my inability to find others to share. If you have anyone in mind that could be added to the list please reach out.]
Peter field is a Principle Designer that worked on The Last of Us and Uncharted. This tweet thread of his might be my favorite ever!
Tommy Norberg consistently shares infographics that summarize advanced level design topics. Learned from their twitter feed as much as from a whole book.
With their experience on designing Halo, Blaze Dillon is especially good if you want to learn about FPS level design.
Max Pears is a level designer on CD Project Red and also runs a level deign podcast! Their Youtube channel is also pack filled with content from expert of their craft.
Art of Level Design is a good one to follow as they consistently retweet high quality LD tips from all over the community.
Finally if you want to join in on the conversation yourself you should checkout the Level Design discord channel:
Join the Level Design Discord Server!
Check out the Level Design community on Discord - hang out with 651 other members and enjoy free voice and text chat.
If you want MORE resources
- 2D Level Design Patterns
- Bobby Ross: If you pick one resource, pick this one. A visual guide for level design.
- Level Design — In Pursuit of Better Levels: This book is a very easy read that you will actually read.
- An Architectural Approach to Level Design: My favorite level design book that hopefully you will read.
- Here is a complication of publicly available GDC talks on level Design.
- Architecture: Form, Space, and Order: If you want to lean more heavily into 3D spaces.
- Level Design.org: A useful curator of level design content.
- World of Level Design: I actually never used this website but I mean if the name is anything to go by…
- Please reach out if you think there are other resources that people should be aware of!
Now go forth and design levels!