Links

Tools

Links to various level editors, moddable games, engines, and art tools
This page contains several lists of links to useful tools, both ancient and modern:
When you mod a game, you get to re-use graphics, sounds, code, and most importantly, core game design and tuning. We strongly recommend learning level design by modding.
This is a list of recommended games with well-supported toolsets and active communities. Download the tools, build levels, ask for help, and share your work.
We generally recommend Quake and Doom since these games have large active communities, free stable multiplatform tools, and proven design.
Game
Editor
Combat
Scripting
Community
Quake 1
static, dynamic (Horde)
visual (entities) + code (QC)
Doom
static
code (ACS)
Doomworld
Half-Life 2
static / scripted
visual (I/O)
RTSL, MapLabs, TWHL
Counter-Strike: GO
multiplayer
visual (I/O)
Mapcore
Left 4 Dead 2
Hammer (L4D2 Tools)
dynamic / multiplayer
visual (I/O) + code (VScript)
Steam
Portal 2
Puzzle Maker (in-game)
--
visual
Steam
Team Fortress 2
multiplayer
visual (I/O)
tf2maps
Combat setup
  • Static: pre-placed enemies, arcade style, "fire and forget"
  • Scripted: pre-placed enemies with some control over AI behavior
  • Dynamic: high level "director" manages enemies automatically
  • Multiplayer: combat centers around other players
screenshot of TrenchBroom, a standalone brush-based 3D level editor for Quake-based game engines

Moddable games (all)

These moddable games are NOT part of our recommended list, for one or more reasons:
  • player or modder community has died off
  • OR the tools are too old, unsupported, broken, or painful
  • OR the tools are seen as "illegitimate" by the industry (even though the industry is wrong)
But what matters most is your enthusiasm and energy. The best tool is the one that you will actually use and finish projects.
Game
Editor
Combat
Scripting
Community
CoD: MW (2007)
CoD Radiant
static
visual
???
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3
dynamic (zombies)
code (GSC)
???
Crysis 2
Sandbox 2 Mod SDK v1.0
static
???
???
static (stealth)
code (DoomScript)
Divinity: Original Sin 2
Divinity Engine 2 (guides)
scripted (RPG)
code (Osiris, guide)
Doom 3
static
code (DoomScript)
DOOM (2016)
SnapMap
static / dynamic (Conductor)
visual (Logic entities)
in-game (SnapHub)
Dreams
in-game
static
visual (+intense!)
in-game
Fallout 4
static
code (Papyrus)
NexusMods
Far Cry 5
in-game
static
visual
in-game
F.E.A.R
WorldEdit (FEAR SDK 1.08) (guide)
scripted
???
Discord
Fortnite
multiplayer
visual (Devices)
in-game, Reddit
Gears of War
UnrealEd 3
scripted
visual
???
Half-Life 1
static
visual (entities)
TWHL
Halo Infinite
in-game "Forge" (guide)
multiplayer
visual (nodes)
in-game
Minecraft
Creative Mode (guide) / Forge
static / dynamic
code (Java Eclipse+Forge)
Prodeus
in-game (guide)
static
???
DarkRadiant (guide)
none
code (DoomScript)
Quake 2
static
visual (entities)
Quake 3 Arena
multiplayer
visual (entities)
LvL World
Quake 4
Q4Radiant
static
code (.script)
???
Roblox
static?
code (Lua)
Shadowrun
Shadowrun Editor (guide)
scripted (RPG)
code (Gumbo)
Steam
Skyrim
static
code (Papyrus)
NexusMods
Stalker: Call of Pripyat
X-Ray Engine SDK
dynamic
???
???
Thief 1 / Thief Gold / Thief 2
static (stealth)
visual (Stim) + code (OSM)
TTLG
Thief 3
T3ed (guide)
static (stealth)
visual (Actors, Triggerscript)
TTLG
Unreal Tournament (1999) ("UT99")
UnrealED 2.1 / 227h (guide)
multiplayer
visual (Actors) + code (UScript)
Unreal Engine 4 (guide)
multiplayer
visual (Blueprint)
Discor

3D game engines

Modern all-purpose game engines almost never have good level design tools by default, so you should expect to download and install additional plugins to aid construction.
Engine
3D tools
Scripting
Community
Unity
code (C#), visual (Bolt*, Playmaker)
Unreal
code (C++), visual (Blueprint)
Godot
code (GDScript), visual (VisualScript)
screenshot of Godot v3.0, rapidly emerging as a popular free and open source community alternative to Unity and Unreal

2D level editors

If your engine already has a built-in 2D level editor, then use that. But if you're using a homemade engine or web-based framework, you'll need a standalone 2D level editor.
Unlike the fragmented 3D editor ecosystem, all standalone 2D level editors are open-source, stable, and engine-agnostic with easily parsed JSON file formats. Here we generally recommend Tiled, with its many features and widespread engine support.
2D level editor
Notes
built-in Unity
built-in Unreal
Paper2D tilemaps are "experimental"
built-in Godot
TileMaps; supports autotiles
Tiled
most common standalone editor, supports many engines (Unity, UE4, Godot, +more)
LDtk
more recent tool, streamlined, lots of features
Ogmo
not actively developed, but still simple + solid
screenshot of Tiled, a free open source standalone 2D tile-based level editor

3D art tools

In most cases, we don't recommend using 3D modeling tools to build levels. That said, all these tools basically do the same thing, and you should use whatever tools you like using.
We generally recommend Blender, free open source software that now rivals commercial tools. Older artists often prefer Maya or 3DS Max because they already learned it + industry pipelines are tightly coupled. But let's be clear -- Blender is basically the future, and Autodesk's days are numbered.
Tool
Notes
Blender
free and open source; steadily getting more popular in industry with rich feature set
Maya
common in games and film, expensive but free for students
3DS Max
common in games and architecture, expensive but free for students
Cinema 4D
not often used in games but perfectly usable, free for students
SketchUp
used by architects but no topo / UV tools, don't use it beyond blockout phase

2D art tools

Good 2D art tools are vital for drawing level layouts and diagrams, and essential for making your own graphics and textures. Some of these tools even run online in your browser for free.
Tool
Notes
Photoshop
expensive photo-editor / painter, has student discount
expensive, good for vector maps, has a student discount
Substance
expensive, popular powerful texture generator tool, free for students
Affinity
cheap Photoshop / Illustrator alternative
Photopea
free ad-supported Photoshop clone, in-browser (!)
Krita
free open source Photoshop alternative
Paint.NET
free open source Photoshop alternative
GIMP
free old school Photoshop alt with bad name
Aesprite
cheap popular pixel art painting tool
Inkscape
free open source Illustrator alternative
Boxy SVG
free online Illustrator alternative, runs in browser
PureRef
free (PWYW) moodboard tool / reference image manager
Allusion
free open source moodboard manager with PureRef-like drag and drop

Planning tools

Good note-taking and writing tools can help you write design documentation, plan a project, track work tasks, and collaborate with others.
Tool
Description
a notebook (real-life, paper)
many designers keep personal notebooks; think of it as a portable always-on browser tab
Miro
popular freemium service for collaborative whiteboarding / "mindmap" / planning
Notion
popular freemium service for notes, lists, wikis, documentation
Trello
popular freemium service for "kanban" style project planning in games
Scrivener
cheap ($50) writing tool popular among authors, rich outlining features
free open-source lightweight personal wiki that lives in a single .HTML file on your device
Google Docs
sometimes it's best to keep it simple

To review...

  • for learning 3D level design fundamentals, we recommend modding Quake or Doom
  • for making 2D levels, we recommend Tiled
  • for general 3D art, we recommend Blender
  • for general 2D art, the world still uses Photoshop
  • for planning, we recommend keeping an IRL paper notebook for personal sketches, notes, etc.
  • but anyway, you should use whatever you feel good about, because making and finishing stuff is more important than social consensus
    • the ultimate level design tool is "giving a shit"