Level Design in Video Games

  • Level design, also known as environment design or mapping, is both a technical and a creative process.
  • The level designer’s job is to focus on the gameplay in the moment while keeping an eye on the big picture and the character’s goals.

Video game development is a complex process where creativity and logic go hand in hand with technical tasks. In the dawn of video games, titles were far simpler, and it was enough for one or a few programmers to handle all aspects of creating a game. Over time, video games have evolved into multi-hour interactive narratives with lots of action, challenges, and twists. Their creation, in turn, was divided into different stages and disciplines, which were dealt with by different specialists. One of them is the level designer.

Level design is a part of the development process of a video game, which includes both the creation of levels and locations, missions, or stages. For this purpose, special software is used to construct the digital environment. Level design is also known as environment design or mapping. It is both a technical and a creative process.

Planning and sketching

The first step is planning. At this stage, the team discusses what the level would look like – what elements are in it and what actions the player performs. Rough sketching follows. Sketching is an important point that allows us to create prototypes at the appropriate level more easily and quickly. At the initial stage of game development, some level designers also make a set of items, which they then distribute across the respective locations and levels.

Essential when creating level design is the difficulty of the respective level. Bigger challenges result in a change in the environment or enemies/bosses. Let’s take the game DOOM as an example. The first level begins in a room where there are no enemies, followed by two main rooms where many enemies appear and three smaller areas with fewer enemies. In the first game of the Super Mario series, with each level the difficulty increases, until in the last one the player encounters the so-called boss, which he must kill to “reverse” the game. 

Stages of creating levels

The organization of work in different studios can vary according to their structure, scale, and the type of titles they develop. Accordingly, the level design can be done in different ways. If we have to describe the process in a nutshell, creating a level usually involves the following stages: 

  • Location of large objects on the map – cities, buildings, hills, roads, tunnels.
  • Determining weather conditions – whether it is day or night, what the weather is like.
  • Set ground rules, a scoring system, allowed weapons, gameplay type, and time or resource limit.
  • Specifying specific areas of the map where specific features such as crafting or gathering resources or interactive cutscenes appear*.
  • Specifying movable elements such as doors, buttons, and levers that are connected to mechanisms, teleports, or hidden areas.
  • Pinpointing the locations of objects such as enemies, resource gathering spots, and safe zones.
  • Adding details such as specific level styles and textures, sound, lighting, and music.
  • Introducing scripted events at specific locations triggered by certain player actions.
  • Choosing a direction that the other non-player characters follow, creating their dialogue, and responding to certain player actions.

Creating a world that the player interacts with is an exciting process. A level designer’s job is to focus on the gameplay at the current moment, in the current level, while keeping an eye on the big picture and the character’s goals. It must be able to present the player with a crisis that changes the pace in a meaningful and challenging way. At the same time, it is necessary to follow the key themes and tone of the entire story and skillfully develop the characters’ images. The work of a level designer is both creative and very responsible. You can learn more about it from the lecture given by Jasen Stoev from the Polish studio Flying Wild Hog as part of the “Development in the game dev industry” webinar.

* In video games, a cutscene that advances the storyline often appears after completing a certain level or when the player’s character dies.