17 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Game Level Design at Each Stage of Development

Level design is an incredibly complex chunk of game development. In this article, we aim to provide structure and nuanced tips for each of the stages of level design that will help you navigate your job better and improve your game level design skills.

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What Is Game Level Design?

If we could boil down game level design to its essence, it would be this: Level design is the implementation of game design. It is taking the game systems and gameplay and designing their unfolding in the game environment. You could say that level design is the meeting point of all the game design elements.

It is important to separate between level design and city game design.

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What Makes a Great Game Level Design?

From casual mobile games to AAA video game monsters, level design is present and plays a crucial part in all of them. Good game level design immerses the player’s attention into the game world, gives them a dynamic gaming experience, makes them feel a wide range of emotions without being overwhelmed or bored, and makes them want to play again and again. It also works as one with the narrative, telling the story in motion, creating an atmosphere and pushing the player forward to their destiny (or doom). The popularity of the game significantly depends on the level of design decisions.

A level, especially in mobile games, is usually represented by a particular location, an area of the game world like a room, a building, a city, a valley, a cave, etc. However, environment design is but a part of level design.

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How Can I Improve My Game Level Design?

Given the complexity of the game level design process and its inevitable back-and-forth messiness due to the many game developers, departments, and systems involved, it is essential to have a well-organized workflow.

We will now go through all the stages of game level design, outlying the most important level design tools and the most helpful level design tips you can use to make your level excellent and get a positive user experience.

The Hotel Room 2D 3D Interior Game Level Design Concept Chairs

Tip #1: Get Clear on the Concept

Nailing down the concept will help you tremendously by giving you structure ideas and focus from the start. It will also be a great reference point for your art director and team, and help them to plan and work efficiently. Rework is super costly the further you move along the project, so by answering some fundamental questions from the start you reduce the risk of it all blowing up in your face later.

  • Understand the game mechanics and all the elements of the gameplay. That may include communicating with the game designers and studying the documentation.

 

Determine:

    • Restrictions: things you absolutely have to do. This is often not up to the level designer.
    • Goals: things you want to do. This could be the level’s theme, aesthetic, the feeling you wish to evoke in the player, specific structure, etc.
    • Context: things you need to take into account. For example, you need to consider other game levels and how this one will be different, where it is positioned in relation to the narrative and other levels and how it will affect its intensity, etc.

 

Get specific about:

    • Where the level takes place.
    • When it takes place.
    • What the game mechanics are.
    • What will be memorable about this level?
    • If the location works for the gameplay.

This includes considering the type of movement, combat, etc. that will take place at this level.

    • The location’s story aspects.

To make the location believable, you need to come up with specifics about what happened there, who inhabits it, how all that comes through, etc.

    • What do you need to communicate to your team?

What do they need to know about the level so that the artists can make it beautiful and the gameplay is how it should be?

    • If the level is possible.

You need to evaluate how much time, specialists, hardware and software power, etc. your level will need and if it is feasible.

  • Summarize your level in one sentence
  • Think of the final point of your map. This is the place in which you put most thought. You can also start here: determine the outcome you want the player to achieve and work your way backward, designing a logical pathway from the ending scene to the starting point.
  • Create a flowchart or timeline and start putting the most important things that need to happen on it.
  • Remember that you can and should discuss all this with the game designer. Sometimes, both level designer and game designer work on the script.
  • Distribute the tasks among all the game developers, and agree on the specifics of the workflow.
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Tip#2: Design the Pacing and Intensity of the Player Experience With the Help of a Timeline

Balanced pacing is crucial for dynamic gameplay. There are three key elements to pacing in a video game and it is a complex task to get them right and plan them in such a way that they work together.

  • Design intensity, i.e. how difficult and emotionally potent the experience is at any given time. You want the player to be engaged and not bored or overwhelmed.
  • Include both difficult situations to challenge the player and calm times for them to rest and feel safe.
  • Be very mindful of the important narrative points. The level of intensity and difficulty should work for the narrative, not separate from it and not against it.
    • Keep in mind that the peak and the end of the level need to stand out and be satisfying for the player.
    • Draw an intensity chart and place the important events on it. This will help you plan the emotional experience of the player. Generally, you want to alternate between tough and easy, emotionally difficult and peaceful.
    • Note for the future stages: it can be good for the visuals (e.g. shapes, colors, lighting, etc.) to correlate with the level of intensity, difficulty, and danger of the experience and evoke certain emotional states in the player.
  • Plan variety: you want different kinds of activities with similar kinds spaced not too close to each other. The kinds of activities depend on the genre and may include platforming, exploration, puzzle-solving, combat, stealth, cinematic interludes, and others.
  • Take time into account. While designing levels, keep time in mind and have a rough idea of how much it will take to complete your level.
  • Create a timeline. Calculate the average time it takes to complete the level and each activity. Show how the types of activities and their intensity degree change throughout the level. This visualization will save you the time of rework since you can experiment and make changes at this stage before going into more detail.
  • If your level is non-linear, i.e. you open it up for the player’s choice and have alternate routes, you can still design the pacing by creating multiple linear levels and connecting them.
  • In this case, and especially in the case of the open world, you need to be mindful of the number of choices you give to the player so that it creates a sense of agency and not a choice paralysis.

 

This could be called a pre-production stage. Although a lot of things will inevitably change during the blocking and testing stages, this top-down level design approach is incredibly helpful for a game developer to visualize and plan important events and the pacing before even touching the engine.

Level Design Game Room References Mood Board Aesthetic Layout

Tip#3: Make a Moodboard and Concept Art

Visual art is a task for an environment artist but a video game level designer needs to come up with an aesthetic for the level and be able to communicate it. Besides, initial images are necessary for imagining the location, making a layout, and planning structural geometry and props.

  • Make a moodboard with illustrations, photos, and images from films, animated movies, and games. They should match the feeling you want to evoke from the player at this level and inspire you to make something unique.
  • Make initial drafts of the visual part of the level and hand them over to concept artists.
  • Now it is up to the 2D artists to make concept art. This will help you visualize the space when you work on the layout. We will return to the visuals at the white box stage when we have all the shapes in place.
Blocks Model Cyberpunk 3D Game Environment Location Blender

Tip#4: Choose the Type of Structure for Game Level

This is the point when you make your first draft of the layout. It is a prototype on a piece of paper that looks like a branching chain of blocks, arrows and numerous notes. It aims to show how the player will interact with the environment of this level. Different video game layouts have different structures.

  • Decide on the type of structure you are going to use:
    • A linear structure has all the branching paths returning to the main path.
    • A cluster structure has a chain of hubs and each of these hubs has extra paths coming from it.
    • An interconnected set of clusters is a type of structure in which the player can move freely and go through the level in a non-linear way

 

  • Make the structure facilitate an interesting experience for the player:
    • For a simple, linear structure, consider adding alternate routes, branches, and dead-ends to make the player feel more engaged.
    • Make different routes look, feel, and function a bit different and trigger different events, if possible. It is much more entertaining for the player is they know they encounter something because of the choice they made. This also sparks a sense of risk and reward that is so important for the player to feel.
    • Do not give the player freedom for nothing. If they make a choice, it should lead to something (good or bad) that means something.
    • If you have just one obvious goal at the end of the level, consider adding smaller goals to add a sense of exploration and reduce a linear “A to B” feeling.

 

  • Create a flowchart: think of all the locations in your level, draw them as ‘bubbles’ and connect them the way you want them to be connected in the game. Think of how the player will flow through the level and plan the events such as NPC encounters, combat, puzzles, quest items, etc.
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Tip#5: Make the Gameplay Motivating and Fair

  • Keep the player’s motivation strong.
  • If you take something away from the player — give something back. For example, an easier path with fewer obstacles and/or enemies leads to acquiring a weaker weapon, and a more difficult path leads to a greater reward (e.g. a more powerful weapon).
  • Do not do something unfair to the player like making them kill 50 enemies for nothing.
  • Encourage the player to take risks by providing good rewards.
  • Make the player think by creating puzzles that require observation, attempts, and wit.
  • When designing a quest that requires a player to use a certain skill, be sure the player knows how to perform it.
  • Get the player to use specific objects in combination with certain activities for goal achievement and gaining game mastery.
  • Encourage the player to follow the game’s narrative by facilitating their progression along the core progression loop and making the emotional moments impactful.
  • Use testing and feedback to determine if the players are motivated enough and if your strategies work. More on that in the section on testing.
a computer screen with a picture of a person in a lab, layout in Autodesk 3ds Max

Tip#6: Plan EVERYTHING on a Layout

At this stage, you draw the whole video game layout, a detailed version of the bubble diagram from the previous stage. This will also be used by artists later to create a video game map design.

  • List all the props that you would expect to see in your location and place them on your layout in a way that seems logical. You can rearrange them later to aid the gameplay.
  • Place all the elements of the gameplay, the tasks of the player, the location of the weapons and/or other assets the player will need, the points where the player meets enemies, and how many they are onto your video game map. This should give you an accurate image of how the whole level will look and how the player will flow through it.
  • Take into account the type of action that will be happening in each of the areas and the type of weapons that will be used, if applicable. Plan the size of the physical space, the blocking, and the covers accordingly.
  • Come up with the strengths and weaknesses of each type of enemy and build arenas for combat in such a way that the enemies can show both their strengths and their weaknesses.
  • Consider the quickest possible route the player can take and the so-called “golden path” — the route you prefer the player to take to get the best experience. Think of the ways you can incentivize the player to take the route you want them to take.
  • Include notes about the events with elaboration on the number of enemies, the sequence of events, etc.
  • Estimate how much time it will take to create all the elements of the game environment.

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Tip#7: Determine the Metrics and Test Them in the ‘Gym’

Metrics give fixed values to all the components and processes in the game: the dimensions of the environment elements and props, jump range, cover height, bullet range of a particular weapon, etc. Metrics are vital for the gameplay, and mistakes can lead to making some needed jumps impossible, covers too low, etc. One simple room can require dozens of metrics.

  • When you have collected all the metrics, test them inside a ‘playground’. The ‘Gym’ is where you put boxes that have these measurements and check if they look right beside each other.
  • Add meshes or rulers that will help you measure the assets and processes.
  • Pay attention to the scale: how realistic the dimensions of different objects are in relation to each other and the characters.
  • Note that sometimes game proportions are different from real life. For example, having real-life proportions of doors, windows and ceilings in relation to a character will look cramped.
  • If you use a 3rd person camera in the game, this will also often require larger spaces.
  • Consider less common scenarios like a combination of two movements, a movement and weapon use, etc.
  • Document all the metrics and make it easy for everyone in the team to use them as reference points and update them when needed.
  • When you have all the metrics, it is a good idea to throw some stuff in the engine. It will be just ‘a dirty version’, a temporary draft so you could see how it looks, make adjustments to your layout, and get feedback from your team. Then you can delete this version completely and start anew.
Documentation Office Game Haiku Characters

Tip#8: Keep Your Documentation on Point

A concise, tidy, and clear game level design document is a crucial component of productive collaboration in modern game development. It is both an entry point and a log keeper, which a game developer will often refer to when they need to make decisions.

• Create an entry point page containing links to flowcharts, pages with detailed explanations of game systems, world building, game lore, plot, characters, etc.

• Document game mechanics thoroughly. What are the main goals of your level layout design? How do the checkpoints and save system work? How and when is control taken from the player? How are the experience points added?

• Keep and update all the relevant technical information.

Gray Box Game Level Start Gaming Room Section Furniture Items

Tip#9: Gray Box: Start Simple

Greybox (or block-out version) is the simplified level prototype composed of rigid colorless blocks (commonly gray boxes) where a map on paper turns into a 3D level design. It is used to evaluate how everything works and find weak spots at the early stage, skipping graphical detail and non-critical props. The goal is to create a playable level that will be tested more thoroughly later. Level design software like Maya and Unity have tools for gray boxing.

  • Use the metrics from the metrics stage and keep track of them throughout gray boxing.
  • When developing a rough 3D scene geometry for the level layout, start with large objects that define the layout surface and boundaries like big buildings, mountains, rivers, etc.
  • Keep an eye on the right proportions and dynamics. Check if scaling is correct and game physics feels engaging and natural.
  • Try different viewpoints. Make sure the player can see everything they need to see.
  • Add more subblocks in the form of simple boxes to introduce more details and smaller objects.
  • Get feedback early and often. Many level designers struggle with this. Do not wait until you have polished everything, this is a sure road for lots of rework.
  • If some mechanics do not work or underperform in the gray box, this is a strong suggestion to redo or even redesign some components of the level.

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Tip#10: Use Various Tools To Help Navigation

Another important thing a game level designer needs to think about is how to make navigation easy for the player. The route can be complex and the goal may not always be visible but the important thing is that the player knows what to do to get there. The better the navigation, the better the player’s experience is.

  • Add landmarks. Those are things that stand out from the environment and help the player distinguish roads and locations between each other.
  • Use landmarks of different sizes:
    • Small, e.g. a print on the wall, an interesting stone, a skeleton.
    • Medium, e.g. a statue, a distinguishable house.
    • Large, e.g. a giant statue or building, a mountain peak, a huge ship. This kind of landmark is often used as a signifier of the goal destination for the player.
  • Use the landmarks that will feel unique in the area you place them. That means that the player will not find similar props or same landmarks in that area.
  • Use landmarks where they are needed, especially in the areas where the player can potentially go in circles. A landmark will signify to the player that they have been there before and missed the path forward.
  • Ideally, your landmarks will help world-building, and they always have to make sense narrative-wise.
  • Mark different locations with unique textures, e.g. different kinds of grass, floor tiles, graffiti, colors, etc. This will help the player know which area they are in and contribute to the variety of visuals.
Game Level Test Cyberpunk Skater Girl Real Time 3D Unreal Unity

Tip#11: Do Testing Before It Gets Complex

In video game level design, testing must be done early and often. Top video game testing companies will give you invaluable information that will inform your further iterations.

  • Remember to document everything important about your level beforehand. The document can include goals, interactable objects, events, a summary of a playthrough of the level, puzzles, secrets, where the narrative will happen, etc.
  • During testing sessions, observe the testers’ gaming patterns and collect feedback to identify and amend the most annoying factors.
  • Test-rinse-repeat. Once you collect the feedback, update your grey box and then test again. Any potential problems that arise need to be examined and addressed at this stage.
  • Pay attention to negative feedback, do not disregard it on the basis that it is not frequent. Make the necessary adjustments.
  • Ask the testers how they feel about the gameplay. Do they feel like the level difficulty curve is coherent with the level story and purpose?
  • Ensure that the game world is consistent and intuitive. For example, covers work to protect the protagonist from bullets, walls and small objects do not block the player’s view, and the camera itself does not get stuck at the boundaries of the location.
  • Log all the changes and mind the performance implications.
  • Do not be afraid to let go of the elements that do not work in practice.
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Tip#12: Create High-Quality Visuals That Match the Player’s Experience

You will communicate with an environment designer, so knowing these basic things will help.

  • Start by dividing the layout into zones and choosing the same textures for the zones that have the same theme. This will create a visually consistent environment.
  • Keep in mind what happens in a particular location and what kind of mood the visuals need to reflect.
  • Prioritize gameplay over visual perfection. Many level designers spend too much time trying to make the level look perfect and add elements that do not work well with the gameplay.

 

  • Be mindful of readability. Make sure the characters pop up and the environment elements do not blend into each other. This can be achieved through several things:
    • Make the characters darker than the environment.
    • Make the visual complexity low in the area where the main character operates.
    • Aim for making the environment elements visually distinct while reducing visual complexity.
Isometric Concept 3D Model Interior Laboratory Library

Tip#13: Light the Layout With the Mood and Navigation in Mind

Lighting in level design is an art in and of itself. There are several things to keep in mind:

  • Always have a source of light. The amount of light has to match the source and the area.
  • Choose two colors that go well together. The colors of light are yellow, red, green, blue, and purple.
  • Use colors to set a certain mood that matches what is happening in the game. For example, warm colors will make the player feel warm and peaceful, while red will give them a feeling of danger and may even give hellish vibes if it is intense.
Set 2D Game Stylized Background Environment Concept Art

Tip#14: Fill the Game Level with Different Types of Sounds

It is hard to overestimate the role of sounds in making the game environments alive, believable, and immersive.

  • Choose the sounds for each area of your level and mark them on the layout.
  • Add background sounds. Those are the sounds that play all the time. Virtually no place on earth is without sound and adding background sounds that make sense in a particular location quickly turns it into a space that is much more alive.
  • Add unique sounds. Those are the sounds that are usually accompanied and/or triggered by an action. They also evoke certain feelings in the player, so figure out what you want those feelings to be and choose sounds that help achieve that while also making sense in that particular situation in the game.
  • Give sounds to characters: the main character, NPCs, and enemies. With the enemies, this also helps the player to know that the enemy is approaching before the player sees them. You can choose a sound that brings the feeling of discomfort and fear, for example.
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Tip#15: Plan Special Effects

Special effects are usually a combination of animation and sound. They are an amazing tool to help the immersion of the game world.

  • Add all the effects the player would expect to produce and maybe some more. Fire, sparks, explosions, blood gushing out, magic flashes, etc. — the players love to see the effects of what they or other characters are doing, it makes the game believable.
  • Always use your creativity and add something original, something you have not seen before, even when you are doing something similar to other games.
  • Make it good. Special effects are a great indicator of how much effort was put into the game.

Tip#16: Be Ready to Step in During the White Box Stage

After gameplay is tested, the environment artists and 3D engineers take the reins and work on the visual part of the game. Lightweight textures, lighting frameworks in low-resolution mode and full-scale 3D game models are used to evaluate if the visual part looks as it should.

  • Visual artists should keep the gameplay unchanged while using artistic means to improve the gaming experience (navigation, visual clues and hints, etc).
  • Ensure all the mechanics are intact after rendering, i.e. the player can pass the barriers designed to be passed, NPCs’ spawn locations are correct, scripted events look natural, etc.

The result is an almost finished level assembled from temporary models and textures.

After another gameplay testing is done and all improvements are made, the level layout is approved and ice-boxed, meaning no further changes can be made. Now all the resources are concentrated on optimization.

Optimize 3D CG Level Design Environment Process

Tip#17: Optimize Throughout the Whole Process

Optimization is the process of improving the gameplay, visual perception and performance of the game. It is incredibly important since a poorly-optimized game will be anywhere from frustrating to impossible to play. Games are created using the best hardware, and game developers need to put in a lot of work to make it possible for users with ordinary phones and PCs to play them. A well-optimized game works with the same FPS (frames per second) on the majority of platforms.

Both the art and the code need to be optimized. In our games like Last Pirate: Survival Island, Zombie Run 2: Craft Fun Runner, and Spirit Run we implemented the following optimization strategies that you may find useful for your project:

  • Keep optimization in mind at every stage of development, starting from the concept stage.
  • Use occlusion culling. It is a technique where the objects that are not visible from the player’s point of view are not rendered by the video card.
  • Add loading screens if necessary.
  • Use cloud delivery of assets. This reduces the size of the game and allows you to use more assets.
  • Reuse assets to decrease RAM consumption.
  • Apply LOD (level of detail). You can make it so that the closest to the player part of a big texture is in high resolution, the part that is a bit further away is in medium, and the most remote part is in low resolution.
  • Optimize assets by lowering the resolution and reducing the polygon count. The assets will still look the same but consume less computing power.
  • Optimize the remote objects by decreasing the number of textures and polygon count, turning off shaders, and making 3D objects 2D.
  • Optimize the code: use the right algorithms, cashing, and reuse the code.
  • Improve gameplay mechanics and do bug fixing.

In some video games, the developers also provide the player with an opportunity to optimize the game themselves by changing the settings. This allows the player to customize the game for the platform they have and run the game even on a slow PC with low quality if needed.

Optimization in modern games is a never-ending process. We continuously update our games, to improve performance, add new character abilities, add new features, and keep up with the software updates.

Game Art for Level Design

We hope this level design tutorial has been useful for you and you will be able to apply some of the recommendations here to your current project. At RetroStyle Games, we know the nuances of level design development and help our clients flesh out and enhance their game environments with 2D and 3D art and visual effects. Having extensive experience in providing game art services and having created level designs for several successful in-house mobile games, we are confident in our ability to take on projects of any level of complexity.