Vlatitude: Level Design Last edited 3 years ago2019-04-25 11:33:56 UTC

This is a tutorial for those who are new to level editing. In it, I won't be talking about the specifics of making a level, like how to make flowing water or a rising ceiling for example. Instead, I will cover the process of level-making itself. In short, this tutorial will tell a beginning level editor how to make cool levels instead of levels that suck.

What makes a great game? The engine? The colored lighting? The (in)ability to see your character's feet? The amount of polygons per gibbed arm? NO! There are many factors that make a good game. With the arrival of Half-Life, the artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming rather important, but the quality of levels, or the environment as some call it, is still the main credential of games. You don't believe me? Think about that Nali temple in Unreal where you get the rocket launcher. I don't mean to bash unreal, but that particular section of it was just not as exciting as the rest of the game. Toward the end of the game, it really took off with excellent level design, and made me play it more and more. In some games, it's almost possible to tell at which point a different level designer started working because of drastic changes in quality. If you are still not convinced that level design is the very meat of game immersion, I leave you to think of such games as Pacman, Super Mario (any version), Metroid games, and Duke3D.

Make a plan

Now that we know what makes a great game (environment!), it's time to talk about what makes a good environment. Say you just got a great idea for a level: your own house! OK first of all, never make a level based on your house. It is very amusing to walk around shooting apart your kitchen, but unless you've got a really amazing mansion perfect for killing, nobody else will care. Say you got another idea, like a construction site. Good, and now you want to rush to your computer and get cracking, right? Well don't. I have seen this mistake over and over, a good idea translated into a good couple of rooms, but the rest of the level stinks. Before you even touch the keyboard, take some paper, and draw. Don't draw the whole level, just draw whatever rooms or areas may come to mind. We're still going along with the construction site, so think of some areas that would make a cool 3D shooter level on the construction site. Some that may be interesting are narrow planks that connect high platforms, a machine of death (those are present at every construction site), the boss's office, and of course the top of the building. These basic layout drawings on paper should give you a good idea of what the dimensions of the rooms are going to be like, and where everything will be located. Later, you can add on the underground tunnels, explosions, and other goodies, but for now let's worry about the structure.

While on paper, this is a good time to think about what will be happening in your level. These things are very important: the placement of items, the placement of monsters, and general effect. Draw symbols on your map to represent enemies, or peaceful characters, or ammo. Furthermore, remember that a level should be consistent. This means that a construction house would probably not have a chemical lab, a shopping mall would not have a forest bordering it, and a desert would not have a water tower. It's natural to make transitions, from one theme to another, but make sure these transitions are smooth.

Now, you should have a pretty good visualization of at least 5-7 rooms or areas of your level. In the end, it may have 30 or more, but you only need the key concepts to start working, details will come during the process. Keep in mind that in your level, you are not the one who's being entertained. Your audience, or other players, are the ones being entertained, so give them a show! Scare a player, make them feel self-satisfaction, and play with their emotions in other ways. If you want to be a level designer, you should at least imagine how this is done. Have enemies sneak up on the player, blow things up.....whatever, there are countless ways of making an impression. If you want some ideas, look at the levels that other people made. Pay attention to the levels in games you're playing, see what it is that you're enjoying about them.

In some tutorials, people say that you shouldn't use an effect (like colored lighting, or a cool door or something) just for the sake of using it. This is true in most cases, a teleporter probably wouldn't make much sense in a "lake cottage" level, though you might think it's a good idea at first. However, a level, especially a large one, needs to be diversified. Never use only one "type" of door on a level, make sure they open at least a couple different ways (swinging door, side-to-side, up-down). So my final word on overusing effects is: do what's reasonable to the motive of the level. Don't go crazy with lights, don't make earthquakes everywhere, and criticize yourself when you do so. Another huge mistake that is sometimes related to this is putting a huge amount of bad guys in levels to make it more exciting. It's not the number of bad guys that makes a level good, it's their positioning. If you guys remember that level in Doom2 with all the imps in one tiny room, and as they walked toward you they teleported to the left of you one by one? That was a good implementation of many enemies, but keep in mind that shooting mindlessly is only fun for a while.


A problem that I have myself is that I make some cool rooms, but I am not sure how to connect them while preserving the atmosphere of the level. I advise you to think about those hallways, elevators, and passages and make them interesting. If nothing comes to mind, you can always make a generic room and come back to it later. Sometimes, after the level is near-completion and has a good general atmosphere, some generic and "blank" rooms just may give you new ideas.

Preventing level-designer's block

So many times I've been working great on a level, and then for some reason or another, I don't work on it for a week or so. The week turns into a month, etc, and then if I open the level to work on it again, it looks boring and you can't come up with any new ideas. To prevent this from occurring, force yourself to work on a level even if drawing yet another sector might drive you over the edge. Remember, nobody talks about famous designers and the magnificent levels they never finished.

Finishing up

Now the time comes to put the finishing touches on your level and feel tons of self-pride for completing it. Generally, you should have a sense for how your level should end. It is important that the player feels some sense of accomplishment upon completing a level. This is why I like to put a challenge at the end of my levels. However, a challenge isn't needed in order to make someone feel satisfied. All that's needed is a closing that is reasonable and makes sense. For example, having the player fall into a pit, and then say "level over" is not a good idea. Having a player run from enemies down a corridor, narrowly escaping certain death, then fleeing into a nice outside area while the corridor collapses on your foes would be a great ending.

After the architecture for your level is complete, it's time to really make it look good. Play your level so many times that it makes you sick. Make your friends play it so many times that it makes them sick. This will ensure that you have just the right amount of ammo, the best-positioned monsters, and most importantly: NO BUGS! Also, go back and align all textures so that they look natural. When you play the level and finally think "there's no more to add!" that means it's done. Polish it up, write an authoring template (depending on the game), and send it to people so that they appreciate all of your efforts. One place to definitely send it is to the smooth guys over at 69th Vlatitude! Happy level making!
This article was originally published on 69th Vlatitude.
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