This is a reprint of an article I wrote in 1998. It's about the ideals of design and presents map design broken down into three simple ideals - purpose, motion, and character. It was interesting for me to read it now, especially because I still wouldn't change a thing. I think if you look at what are considered to be the best levels right now, whether they are multiplayer or singleplayer, you will see that these ideals are utilized.
Ideals of Design
What makes a good level?
The answer to that question can both fill volumes, and be answered in a single line: A good level is a fun level. Victor Hugo wrote "If a writer wrote merely for his time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away." That is to say, don't design just for the simple sake of designing a level. Rather, design a level to be used. Give the level purpose, motion, and character, and it will be a good level. All aspects of design will contribute to that, and must be balanced against each other. In the end, people are going to judge the level on whether or not they liked playing it.
A level with purpose draws the player in. It both gives the player a goal, and creates the sense that something is being accomplished aside from and apart from what the player is doing. This can be loosely termed as realism, although that may be too broad of a word.
Give motion and momentum to your level in both a physical and temporal sense. I'm referring less to doors, trains and buttons, and more to the motion of consequences. By looking at a level, you should be able to know, or at least guess, what has happened before you arrived, and at least have an inkling of what will happen in the immediate future. Give the player a sense that he is running through a living area, where things happen.
This can be used to describe the lighting, the structure, the relative ambiance of a level. The character of a level can determine, and is partly determined by, its purpose and motion.
No single piece of a level can be classified under one of the above categories, but falls into all of them at once, or rather, none of them, unless considered with each part of the level as a whole.
Know thy enemy
The one thing holding you back from making "the perfect level" is the limitation placed upon you by both the engine and by current technology. While designing levels, always be sure to keep track of your level's performance data, being sure to stay in the range you set at the start of your project.
"A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn't borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn't borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul, and every wall, window and stairway to express it."
- (Roark) Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead.