What is level design
What is a level, what is level design, and how to use this book

What is a level

diagram of a basketball court superimposed on overview of Blood Gulch (Halo 1)
A level is a space where a game happens. Some examples:
  • the Fortnite island, an obstacle course ("obby") in Roblox
  • a basketball court, race track, or playground
  • a Monopoly board, crossword puzzle, coloring book
All these game spaces set boundaries for players to move and interact.
Different levels offer variation. For example, all basketball courts have similar shapes, but an outdoor court offers a different experience and culture from an indoor gym.
Level designers focus on how different game spaces can make players feel and behave.

What is level design

We define level design broadly, but with a specific disclaimer:
Level design is the practice of planning and building spaces for video games...
... usually first-person or third-person action shooters.
This book is still useful for sidescrolling platformers, top-down strategy games, or non-combat games. But for better or worse, most level design theory engages with 3D shooters as the default medium, dating back to the invention of the level designer role during the shooter-heavy 1990s.
For more about the history of the level designer role, see History of the level designer.
"island arrival" blockout development screenshot by Em Schatz for Uncharted 4

Functional level design vs. environment art

Level designers focus on shaping player behavior. In large studios, they often write documentation, draft layouts, build blockouts, observe playtests, and balance maps and encounters.
In contrast, an environment artist focuses more on graphics. They art pass models, materials, set dressing, and lighting to refine the level's visual appearance. While this is mostly decoration, good environment art supports design goals and helps players play.
So there are two ways to understand level design:
  • formal industrial sense of capital-L capital-D "Level Design" without environment art
  • broad common sense "level design" that includes environment art / anything part of a level
In this book we emphasize the formal industrial "Level Design" for learning purposes, but always remember that your players engage with broad common sense "level design" as a whole.
diagram comparing "Level Design" vs "level design" vs "environment art", using process images of Gallente Research Facility from Dust 514

Room-by-room level design vs. world design

Level designers can spend hours designing a single room.
But for a huge battle royale, open world, or MMO with hundreds / thousands of rooms, agonizing over a single room is impractical. A world designer considers flow and wayfinding for neighborhoods instead of houses, biomes instead of places, categories instead of instances. This generic approach lets players and systems breathe. But without players or systems to fill that void, the resulting world may feel empty.
To build a directed or scripted experience, obsess over rooms like an architect. But for player-heavy or system-heavy games, world design offers the lighter touch of an urban planner.
in "Pleasant Park" in Fortnite, the individual room layout of each house matters less than the overall shape of the neighborhood

Thinking about theory vs. "go map"

This is a book, so obviously we think reading is good.
But as with any other art, a book can only introduce you to the craft. At some point you just have to close the book and go build some levels.
If you ask a Quake community mapper a lot of questions, there is a tradition to respond with the blunt answer: "go map." This curt expression might seem rude but it intends to nurture -- as if to say, "stop procrastinating, you'll figure it out; now go try to do it, you're ready."
The only way to become a level designer... is to make levels. Ideally, a lot of levels.
Don't know what to make? See our list of suggested Projects.
Sometimes we say "map" instead of "level." A map is a free-form space that supports a variety of activities, while a level implies a more scripted progression. But it's not a big deal.

Philosophy

This book was written with specific ideals and beliefs about level design.

Cleaner theory

Most level design books are either too academic and conceptual, or too commercial and reductive. We aim to explain and expand the same language that working level designers use, while also remaining critical enough to prune lazy thinking.
Level designers often lack language for discussing shape and volume, and benefit greatly from the architectural concept of massing. We cite outside concepts without realizing the deeper roots; for example, critical paths come from critical path method, a scoping and dependency-checking tool in engineering. When we're imprecise with words and theory, thinking and communication suffers.
Various daylighting strategies used in architecture, by Francis Ching from "Form, Space, and Order"

Zooming out

Although level designers should focus on player behavior, sometimes we must zoom out and see the big picture.
A level is a combination of spatial design, art, psychology, programming, and culture. From the player's perspective, there is no difference between level design and environment art. Anything that affects the game world is level design.
Avoid the lure of simplistic dos-and-don'ts. Levels are more than collections of rooms and cover boxes, and more than landscapes with rocks and trees sprinkled on top. A level possesses history and culture and intent, and as responsible designers we must consider the entire play experience.
still from "An Approach to Holistic Level Design" by Steve Lee at GDC 2017

Stay alive and free

The printed format tends to doom level design books to obsolescence within a few years. Fortunately, this book lives online. For the foreseeable future, we intend to continue updating the book as new developments or trends in level design emerge. Don't die.
This online book will stay free and open access until its servers shutdown -- and even then, its content will likely be archived across the internet. The level design community collectively made level design, and so it should continue to belong freely to the community.
The book text (and any unattributed images) are licensed under a permissive Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. You cannot sell this book nor sell any ports / translations. All versions must remain free and open.

How to use this book

The book consists of four major sections: Process, History, Studies, and Projects.
Process details core level design concepts, and it is essential for beginners and students who need to learn level design workflows and language. Most readers should start here.
History covers level design trends from various perspectives, and offers short primers on the history of architecture, lighting, and other crafts adjacent to level design.
Studies analyze and unpack how a particular level works, accompanied by diagrams and screenshots. These design essays deconstruct a level's structure and functionality.
Projects are self-guided tutorials and project ideas for students and hobbyists. These lesson plans are especially useful for teaching a level design course.
Teachers and educators should check the Notes for educators. There's also a Tools list with recommended software and game engines, and links to additional level design Resources.

Now what?

  • Beginners: get a general understanding of the Process, especially Pre-production, Layout, and Blockout. Then pick a Tool, join a level design Community, and go map.
  • Somewhat experienced level designers: read about specific topics such as Pacing, Flow, Balance, and Metrics that usually go neglected in most online level design tutorials. Then go map.
  • Very experienced level designers: see our critical design Studies, and maybe even contribute some of your own.
  • Aspiring to work in AAA level design? You must specialize. If you're not obsessed with layouts / blockouts / playtests, then maybe you're more of an artist, narrative designer, level scripter, etc. Once you've narrowed down your interest... go map.
Last modified 1mo ago