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Article 69:

Level Design

November, 2008 (broken links replaced with good ones Sept. 20, 2016)

NOTE: these articles are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This lesson is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome.


Level design is regarded as a subset of game design, but a level designer isn't necessarily a game designer and vice versa. A level designer is part game designer, part 3D artist, part programmer, part architect.

Whereas game design is largely writing, salesmanship, and politics, level design is very hands-on in that the level designer works with level design tools and scripting languages.

The Tools

Level designers work in 3ds Max, or Unreal, or similar software, to create a 3D environment. An "environment" is a space in which the game is going to be played. The 3D space may be a surface of a planet, either a wilderness area or an urban area, or it may be the interior of a manmade structure (or an alienmade structure), or it might even be an area of outer space or an undersea area.

Let's say it's an outdoor area, with some buildings and trees and mountains. The level designer lays out the surface of the ground, then adds buildings in a manner that enables interesting gameplay activity. He adds trees wherever he believes they will further enhance the gameplay or the decorous look of the area. He adds mountains, either as a boundary of the gameplay arena or to provide a place for players to visit and look down upon the game arena.

Laying out this 3D environment is done largely the same way a 3D artist creates a 3D graphic. There's a wireframe model, with surface textures. The seams between the polygons should be without spaces a player character or vehicle could slip through into a void. Beyond that, each surface must have a material or substance associated with it. And then lighting sources must be defined, and default camera viewpoints must be chosen.

Usually, a level, once designed, must go to the art team for "dressing." The area needs an artist's eye to make it as attractive as possible. The level designer specifies the area and its layout to enable gameplay, and the artist makes it look good. So in effect, the level designer is the equivalent of the pencil artist, and the artists take it the rest of the way from there to fully ink and paint the level.

Then there are events that need to be scripted. Let's say the outdoor area is a military base, and the mission for the player will be to infiltrate it. There are guards with dogs who are to patrol the perimeter, and who have to be able to respond to player actions. Some of the response is programmed (it's part of the code, not part of the level per se), but some of it has to be scripted (and thus will be part of the level itself). The level designer uses a scripting language to automate the guard's and dog's actions. There may also be actions whose scripted choreography kicks in when certain player actions occur. For instance, if the player is within visible sightlines of the guard and dog, or if the player is close enough that his scent could be picked up by the dog, certain reactions of the guard and/or dog must occur. If the guard comes upon a hole cut into the perimeter fence, he is supposed to first alert the other guards by walky-talky and then initiate a search. The level designer, then, acts as a sort of programmer in writing these scripts.

Designing a Level

In creating a play arena for a game's level or mission, the level designer has to take advantage of player psychology. With a randomly laid-out city area, the player of a single-player game wouldn't necessarily have any clues as to which building he should go to, or what path to take. The designer usually wants to create an attractive path, to help guide the player in the correct direction. Or the level designer might be creating a multiplayer arena where two teams of players will oppose one another. He may want to set up one large open space, or he might want to create two spaces, with narrow passageways connecting them, like the playing board of the game Stratego.

Preparing for the Job of Level Designer

The preparation for the job of level designer is much less nebulous than that for the job of game designer, but there are still numerous possible courses of study the aspiring level designer can follow.

Since the level designer is part 3D artist, an Associates Degree in 3D art would not be a bad start. Since the level designer is part programmer, a degree in computing or programming would also be a viable way to begin the studies. Studies in architecture would also make a lot of sense. And the level designer should have a solid understanding of physics, geology, astronomy, history, psychology, and classical art.

For someone who wants to be a level designer, my usual advice (which I give to aspiring game designers) against game degrees goes out the window. A game-focused degree would be an excellent thing to have on one's résumé when applying for a job as a level designer. (That does not mean that you cannot become a level designer without a game degree. It does not mean you should go into excessive debt to go to an expensive school. It does not mean you should blindly jump into bed with a for-profit school. Read FAQ 77. As always, get a degree for the right reasons: because you want to learn that subject, not because it'll get you a piece of paper.)

But as in every other game job, the degree alone is never enough. You also need a solid portfolio. Besides studying, the candidate should work on mods and indie projects to get his feet wet. Mods and indie projects not only fill out the portfolio, they also get you contacts, a base of people who know what you do and what you're good at -- and people who you know, and whose skills and value are known to you.

If you can get an internship (and if you can afford to work for free, or for peanuts), that might or might not lead to a job offer at the company where you intern. And sometimes internships can be had at a top-ten game company. Regardless of whether or not the internship turns into a real job, it can look really good on your résumé to have interned at a real game company.

The Job of Level Designer

Unlike game design, level design is an entry level doorway into the game industry. Depending on the company and its present needs, of course. It is possible to get a job as a junior level designer shortly after getting your degree, if you have the talent and if the stars are in the right alignment (see FAQ 49).

To find salary information, go to mcvuk.com...mcv-s-2016-salary-survey-how-much-are-you-worth and gamasutra.com...Game_developers_speak_their_minds_as_part_of_our_2014_Salary_Survey.

To learn more about level design:

  • Extra Credits, "Backtracking and Level Design" on YouTube
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Level_design
  • gamedev.net...game-design/life-of-a-level-designer
  • downloads.gamedev.net/pdf/GameLevelDesign1.pdf
  • Ed Byrne's "Game Level Design"
  • Andy Clayton's "Introduction to Level Design for PC Games"


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    © 2008, 2012, 2016 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.