Recommended books

Recommended level design books... other than this one

As discussed in the introduction, remember that there's different types of level design. Thus, there's different types of level design books.

  • We generally don't recommend any pre-2000s level design book. A lot has changed in 20+ years. The game industry and culture is very different, not to mention the tools, workflow, and language.

  • As discussed on our license / copyright page, we generally avoid including content from other level design books. You should borrow / buy these books yourself.

Generalist level design books

Generalist books approach level design as one aspect of a much larger design problem. These types of books are usually written by academics who have studied this topic from multiple angles.

If you are more of a big picture type of thinker, or if you're suspicious of the game industry, then these are the books for you.

However, zooming-out also means missing out on more specific technical details. This philosophical focus can feel unhelpful for beginners wrestling with a level editor.

  • An Architectural Approach to Level Design (2014) by Christopher Totten is a theory-heavy generalist level design textbook. Totten connects a lot of core architecture education (basic drafting, parti, prospect and refuge, etc.) to some game examples. A good roundup of conceptual design theory.

  • Level Design: Processes And Experiences (2017) edited by Christopher Totten is a collection of case studies covering many level design topics from a variety of academics, critics, and devs. This diverse survey is useful for gauging our collective understanding of level design, but all these different contexts vary greatly in aim and approach. What does a Yakuza player's personal essay have in common with a research overview of PCG methods? An interesting question, though the answer won't readily apply to beginners.

  • A Game Design Vocabulary (2014) by Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark is a robust all-in-one introductory game design textbook with streamlined game design language and several good chapters relating to platformer level design. Probably the best 2D level design book. Great for a junior high / high school / teenager with an interest in game or level design but who might not know where to start.

Industry level design books

Industry books are written by working level designers who have shipped some 3D AAA action shooter games. They tend to have a narrower focus than generalist academics, zooming-in on specific techniques and situations. For beginners, this will seem better than non-industry academic philosophers.

To become this specific, there is a price -- these books must make a lot of assumptions about genre and audience, and they rarely imagine any larger overarching theory. It often reads like a pile of random do's and don'ts. But if your creative goals match the industry's, then you'll find a lot of useful advice here.

  • Hows and Whys of Level Design (2008) by Sjoerd "Hourences" De Jong is among the best 3D level design books available, though some of it has aged poorly since 15+ years ago. Yet De Jong is an experienced industry developer who has built lots of 3D levels, and much of that work experience reflects his straightforward advice and examples. Given the book's age, familiarize yourself with the history of the level designer, or else De Jong's golden age fascination with low poly construction might not make sense.

  • Let's Design: Combat (2020) by Max Pears is maybe the first (and only) encounter design book ever, with lots of diagrams with cute cartoon illustrations. However, note that Pears assumes you're not just making a shooter, but a fairly specific military-themed shooter with specific enemy types and weapons, etc. Still, he offers a lot of useful language and patterns for combat games.

  • Building Game Worlds (coming in 2023+?) by Tommy Norberg is an upcoming level design book based on his popular level design tweets. Honestly, we think the image-heavy format isn't the best, often oversimplifying player psychology and flattening nuance. Regardless, lots of people benefit from his advice and insight, so it's hard to ignore his influential perspective.

Game reference books / art books

Prestige AAA release often feature companion "art books" which show lots of process images and asset breakdowns from production, for a "behind the scenes" look and feel. These books tend to focus on environment art, with lots of concept art and asset breakdowns.

  • Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar (2004) by David Hodgson is perhaps the most celebrated game art book of all time. Back in the 2000s when Valve still regularly made single player games with great craft and secrecy, this book offered a rare look into Valve's history and archives. Today it's a bit sad to read; it's a record of a golden age long past, when Valve was an inspiring design leader rather than just our benevolent landlord.

  • The Art of Dishonored 2 (2016) by Ian Tucker follows Valve's torchbearer Arkane Studios and their highly involved creative process. Arkane is one of the last AAA studios still making prestige single player story-shooter games with golden age level design sensibilities, and many level designers still look up to them.

  • Virtual Cities: An Atlas and Exploration of Video Game Cities (2020) by Konstantinos Dimopoulos isn't an official artbook, but rather an urban planner's study of several video game cities, packaged as a virtual travel guide. Dimopoulos writes from the imagined perspective of a real world tourist, not a player nor a dev, so this is less of a behind-the-scenes thing and more of an extended worldbuilding analysis.

Architecture books

Understanding the basics of real world architecture is useful for level design.

  • 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederic is the classic architecture and fast design primer that most industry level designers have at least skimmed through. It's enough architecture education to talk at a party, and its brevity ensures you'll actually finish reading it. However, since it is so short, it doesn't actually study any specific buildings -- which is like studying literature without reading any books. This is good for an overview of concepts, but it won't give you any examples to practice applying those concepts.

  • Architecture: Form, Space and Order by Francis Ching often gets assigned in first year university architecture courses, but it's still approachable enough for non-architects to engage. Ching's confident hand drawn examples urge the reader to focus on timeless fundamentals rather than flashy CAD aesthetics. There's a specificity and attention to actual buildings which is missing from Frederic's abbreviated approach. However, where Frederic will spell something out very clearly, Ching is more elusive and expects you to do more of the thinking yourself.

  • A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander et al. is a famous architecture and urban design handbook that tries to detail good design principles for homes, neighborhoods, and cities. Rules like "bedrooms should have windows with daylight" or "every neighborhood needs a walkable market street with a local cafe." For level designers, the rules themselves are less important than Alexander's methodology: his vocabulary and grammar are a powerful way to describe and design a world, very useful for open world design and worldbuilding.

Architectural reference

  • Grammar of Architecture

To review...

  • Generalist level design books try to understand it from many angles

  • Industry level design books focus on specific genres and styles

  • Architecture books offer a third perspective: what if you had to live in your levels, what if level design was thousands of years old?

  • Try to read everything, the future isn't just in one place

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