What Is a Level Design? A Beginner’s Guide

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Level design has evolved greatly over the past few decades. Today, it is an exercise in teamwork that requires the input of multiple designers, artists, programmers, and engineers who must work together to create a consistent and engaging experience. So, what is level design exactly? How can you design your own level, and what are the steps involved? A guide for beginners.

What Does Level Design Mean?

Level design begins with the conceptual design of the level, which includes sketches, renderings, and even physical models. Once the design is complete, extensive documentation and environmental models are made, leading to the creation of the actual level. The goal of level design is to create life-like interactive game environments.

Level design includes the following steps, but not all of them need to be done:

  • Laying out large map elements, buildings, hills, cities, rooms, and tunnels for the game characters to move around in.
  • Setting the environmental conditions such as day, night, and weather.
  • Setting basic rules such as the scoring system, allowed weapons, game types, time limits, or resources.
  • Setting specific map regions where certain gameplay features occur, such as resource generation or harvesting, structure building, and even interactive cutscenes.
  • Specify non-static parts such as doorways, buttons, and levers associated with mechanisms, teleporters, and hidden corridors and areas.
  • Specify the locations of various entities such as player, enemy, and monster spawn points, as well as ladders, coins, resource nodes and weapons, and save points.
  • Add details such as level-specific styling and textures, sounds, animations, lighting, and music.
  • Introduce scripted events in specific locations that are triggered by certain player actions.
  • Create the paths that non-player characters follow, their reactions to certain trigger actions, and any dialogue they might have with the player.

The 5 Steps of The Level Design Process

There are several models and ways to proceed in level design. In this guide, I will show you 5 steps in the process of your level design. 

Step 1: Understanding the Different Constraints

At the beginning of a design, it’s hardest to figure out what will be included in a level. As a designer, you have a lot to decide, but not always everything. If you are working in a large team, most of the constraints will come from other people. So, there will be business constraints, licensing constraints, audience constraints, legal constraints, engine constraints, and many more. Most of the time, those constraints come from higher up the chain you can’t control. But closer to you are the constraints that come from the vision of the creative director, for example, and everyone else involved in making decisions at that level.

If you’re working as a lone wolf, you’re the one making those decisions, so you need to know your constraints very well.

There are a few questions to ask yourself before going into details and starting to work on the level design, like:

  • How long should this level be?
  • Is there any new tech, art, audio, or similar we are trying to show off?
  • How much time do I have to design the level?
  • What are the requirements from a potential publisher, investor or marketing department?
  • What platform is the game on?
  • Who is the audience of the game?

There are also some more question going into detail regarding the game itself:

  • What is required by the story, theme or plot of the game?
  • What are the set-pieces?
  • What metrics am I bound by?
  • What does the game’s macro design require from this level?

Step 2: Brainstorming & Structuring

Once the restrictions are clear, you can start brainstorming. When designing a level, it can help to think in terms of different “areas” within the level. This makes it easier to divide your work into manageable sections. “Areas” is a loose term for any part of the level, which can be any size, shape, or location. The only real criterion for whether something is a section or not is that it helps you work faster if you look at it that way. If it makes it more difficult, don’t worry about it.

Step 3: Visualizing with Bubble Diagrams

Before we invest a bunch of time and effort into a final design, build something in the engine, or even start thinking about individual areas, we should first have a feel for the entire level and its flow. That way, mistakes can be avoided, and we don’t have to revise designs as often. To visualize the entire level and the connections between the individual areas, for example, a bubble diagram is suitable.

A bubble diagram is a simple map of the entire level, with circles standing for areas in the level and arrows showing the flow and connections between areas. The idea of a bubble diagram is to help you visualize where all these parts will be relating to each other. It also helps to think about the paths in the level and what kind of path structure is best for your goals.

Step 4: Visualizing with a Rough Map

Once I finish the bubble diagram, we know what’s in that level, and we know how each area is connected to the other areas. The next step is to go through the list and make a rough draft of each bubble. You can easily do this on paper or in Illustrator. A number of great designers also do something like this right in the machine to get a better feel for the space. Whatever makes you work the fastest is best here.

At this rough stage, it’s extremely helpful to be able to change things quickly, so don’t finish details until you’re ready to finish the design. Don’t worry too much about accuracy or small details. The design will be constantly changing from now until the game ships. Nothing is set in stone. After you take each bubble and roughly design it on paper, you can roughly connect them together.

Step 5: Finishing the Design

The final step is to finally determine how all areas in the physical space are connected. All the transitions are done, and the heights and spacing of everything have been determined.

Different designers approach this step in different ways. Many designers prefer to jump right into the engine and build these things out, which is great. But you can also finish the 2D map first, should you be a little slower than most when building levels in the engine. The best method is the one that lets you work faster and improves your final product.

Always remember that everything you’ve done so far is just a draft. Once you put it into the engine and start playing with it, you’ll find numerous things that should be improved – but having a solid foundation before you get into the tools is a big help.

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