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Level Design in Video Games
What usually goes unnoticed
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06-29-14 10:31 PM
06-29-14 10:31 PM

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Level Design in Video Games


06-29-14 10:31 PM
gtwalq is Offline
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Before I begin I’d like to mention this article is targeted at 3D games (fps in particular) as they make up the majority of modern games we play today.  This article covers my own personal views/opinions and does not intentionally represent the views of Vizzed Board. 


Like most gamers I like to discuss video games with friends both near and far; one of the major things I’ve noticed is they all talk about the characters, the stories and the weapons, but one thing I’ve noticed is level and map design are rarely brought to topic.  It’s funny that one of the most important aspects of video game quite often goes unnoticed; level and map design can make or break a game.  This concerns me when I’m reading a game magazine or online article the most.  The review will cover just about everything except the level design; the closest it usually gets is critiquing the graphics and ambiance of levels. 


For a large chunk of my life I have developed levels and maps for various game mods, and I’ll be the first to admit that just like most cases in life; it’s easier said than done.  So today I’d like to bring this to topic, I’ll be going through some of the most basic elements of level and map design in an attempt to raise awareness on the subject matter. 


Let’s begin with the most common and simple elements; in-game decor.  I’m talking interior and exterior; barrels, crates, gas tanks, stationary vehicles, trees and all around room-fillers.  Usually the first thing a level designer works on is the layout of buildings, walls and pathways.  These then get filled with in-game decor; what kind of decor is dependent on the theme of the level.  You wouldn’t expect to see an ammo crate in the middle of a living room or a dining room table in the middle of a war-torn field. 


Two of the most commonly used features to video games are barrels and crates, they can serve multiple purposes such as explosive aid, cover from enemies, ammo/health supply and simply a stationary platform which can be used to gain higher ground.  You would typically see these in an industrial setting, but the thing I tend to look at is are they really necessary?  Could they have been placed better?  Are the textures on them decent and appropriate?  Could something else have filled the space?  One thing I’ve noticed time and time again is these being used to inappropriately fill an empty section of a room or area, when a little more thought could have been put in to make the room more ambient.  The same thing can apply to most objects you come across in a game, have a look next time you play through one of your favourite titles. 




Moving on to nature, trees and greenery are an essential addition to an outdoor area.  A great example regarding the use of these would be the crysis and far cry titles.  Until these games, trees were mostly an ambiance which gamers would pass by without much notice.  However one thing most developers fail to do so every time is provide a variety of different models and textures.  Just about every tree you come across in most games will be the exact same model, just positioned differently.  If you were to take a walk through a jungle or national park, you would notice every tree or plant is unique in its own shape or colour.  One thing I did to address this issue when I modelled trees and plants was to create at least two different models of each, then I would create two different textures for each; showing imperfections such as decay and browning of foliage. 


Getting the exterior objects right is a breeze compared to interior.  Just about every game I play I notice too little “going on” inside a room.  One principle I follow during the design process is more is better than less.  One title I will never forget is Rainbow Six: Lockdown.  The overall system of play was solid, simple and enjoyable, however Just about every level I played had an empty room; not just too little, but nothing at all and you will come across the mentioning of this in many reviews.   Another common mistake is the scale of internal objects.  The next time you are travelling through a house or interior room in a game, have a look and see if you believe the size and scale of its objects correct. 

Moving on to the general layout of a level.  Every level has an objective, usually as simple as getting from A to B.  I’ve broken down the most common bellow and added illustrations. 


Railed maps take the most control over the player and as they are given only one way to play out the map.  There is generally no choice in the way you handle the situation.  Most players hate this style of level but what they don’t always notice is the developer may want control over you for a reason.  There may be an underlying cinematic experience or in some cases it is the easiest way to control the difficulty of the game.  An example of this style would be FEAR. 


Bottleneck maps control the way you enter a scenario, in some cases they give you a choice of which way to approach once your there.  This is a moderately controlled layout which can give the player a taste of “sandbox” style play as he or she handles the situation the way they feel best.  These maps can also allow the player to flank the enemy.  A great example of this style of level would be the Brothers in Arms titles. 



Open world maps give the player control over how he or she handles the situation, usually the player can approach the area from any angle they seem fit and it also gives the player the opportunity to retreat.  Generally stealth elements apply to these maps and levels.   Many of today’s AAA games give the player this choice, such as GTA, Far Cry, Skyrim and Assassins Creed. 

The key to a good open world map is disguising your boundaries; Skyrim is a perfect example of this.  The boundaries are mountains, which in a standard game with a flat playing surface seems out of place.  In Skyrim, mountains are placed as part of the main game and are scattered throughout the map accordingly, this disguises the boundaries perfectly.  However one thing people generally fail to notice in Skyrim, is for an open world game, it also is slightly bottlenecked.  The mountains are designed with generally only one path which the player can take on his or her way up.  Bethesda takes advantage of this an always places enemies close to the path; making it near impossible to avoid. 


A perfect example of bad boundaries in video game, which we all have come across, is the dreaded invisible wall of “nothing going on back here”.   You’ll find these not only on surface levels of the map but also on the edge of rooftops, disallowing you to venture on top of them.  This is something which can be avoided with better placement and planning; if there are crates or other objects below the rooftop, make sure they are developed/placed in a manner which won’t let the player reach the rooftop. 

So as your playing (or replaying) your games, see if you can identify some of these things.  Personally, I believe it should be covered during critiquing process more often.  On the other hand if you ONLY notice these things from now on, I’m sorry.  But now you know how I feel.  Thanks for reading. 



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