Notes for educators
Advice for teachers using this book in the classroom
This book is still under heavy construction. Page content may change a lot / randomly be complete or incomplete. You may want to use this book more to prep a lecture / discussion, vs. assigning readings.

Teaching goals

This online book is intended as a free high quality resource for teaching level design. We try to use industry-specific terminology as used by working level designers, but we always try to define these concepts with simple plain straightforward language. When the game industry terminology is just really weak or undeveloped, we make a note of it, and usually emphasize a more robust concept from architecture or neighboring design fields instead.
  • demonstrate what conventional 3D level design practice looks like
  • unpack "design" in a broad conceptual sense with many contexts, avoid one-size-fits-all tips that make big assumptions
  • unpack "development" as a creative problem solving process that takes time, benefits from planning
  • emphasize a functional playable level instead of beautiful environment art

Audience

We write for a late high school / undergraduate university reading level, and assume a "serious" study of design and development. There are occasional curse words and Western cultural allusions. Our target tone is "cool professor."
It is probably way too much for a day camp / summer camp format, though especially nerdy dedicated pre-teens would do fine.

Tools

Note that this book emphasizes theory and process. As the instructor, you will have to provide the technical instruction for your students. We have Opinions about the best Tools to teach:
  • if you really want to teach level design as a specialized subfield of industrial game design, then use Quake or Doom.
    • Students won't have to re-invent player controllers, combat, AI, graphics, etc.
    • Quake and Doom force a focus on encounter design and step-back from environment art, students' most common weakness today
    • Quake and Doom communities maintain solid free open source MacOS-compatible tools
  • if you just want to teach level design workflows as part of a generalist dev education, then you can probably get by with Unity / Unreal / Godot
    • modern game engines are much more user-friendly than retro shooter engines
    • great for students who don't aim to become AAA combat designers
    • walking sim style projects are a doable weekend intro to general 3D world building; for a sample workshop format, see KO-OP's "How To Make Cool Stuff in Unity"

Book structure

Process

Each Process page should be enough for a 60 minute lecture and discussion once a week.
Pair each lecture with a group "let's play" / play a game together as a class, to apply the lecture concepts to an actual level.
Sample breakdown for a 15 week level design course, focused on finishing one long term project:
  • Pre-production: 1 week. Emphasize setting experience design goals / articulating design constraints.
    • Concepts like pacing and research will usually feel too abstract until students have completed a few projects first. Don't assign too many planning tasks until maybe a final project.
  • Layout: 2 weeks. No one can visualize flow in a floor plan without practice, visual communication is obviously a skill that needs to be developed over time. But layouts are still a key part of level design thinking and practice. So for a big final project spend at least two weeks to require at least two passes of iterations on the layout, and have students practice presenting their layouts to their peers.
  • Blockout: 5+ weeks. Learning how to use a 3D tool will take at least 2 weeks, if not much longer. Spend 1+ weeks on 3D modeling and constructing common shapes, e.g. ramps, stairs, doorways.
    • Every 2 weeks, do a class playtest while also connecting back to key theory concepts.
    • A solid blockout with 2-3 playtested iterations is a good target for a midterm project.
  • Production: 5+ weeks. We usually spend the second half of the semester art-passing and finishing the midterm blockouts into more finished levels. For each production aspect, spend a week discussing how to apply the concepts to their projects.
  • Presentations and demos: 1-2 weeks. Many students loathe the social pressure of performing a presentation, but it's a key part of design education that sets expectations for how workplaces often operate: long meetings with peers and supervisors.
    • This is also a good time for reflective practice -- students should document and compare each iteration, from layout to blockout to art pass.

History

History articles provide useful background and discussion, especially for younger high school or undergraduate students who have likely played few games predating 2000. You should probably make them play Doom, Quake, Half-Life, Unreal Tournament, etc. to help them understand how modern 3D level design grew from those 1990s roots.
Also note this book's approach to history: we purposely challenge commonly accepted historical narratives about games, and we freely mix mods / indie games into the canon. Encourage students to show and tell about their own favorite games to induct them into a "class canon" of shared level design examples and references, and "mod" the histories presented in this book.
A more academic / research oriented level design class could task students with writing their own design histories. What is the history of the walking simulator, the explosive barrel, or of trees in video games? Confer Stephen Murphy's "Frogs in Videogames." All topics are worthy of study.

Studies

Studies are best accompanied by group live plays and/or students playing the actual level in question, before reading and debating the design analysis as presented in this book.
The learning goal is less about the specific design patterns in a historical level, and more about modeling a critical approach to close reading a level. How do we interpret levels? How do we make persuasive arguments about their functions?
An advanced level design class could even challenge students to write or present their own critical analyses and site studies. This is basically what senior design staff and creative leads must do in game studios; they have to know their field and decide what's relevant for guiding new projects. Furthermore, job interviews frequently hinge on providing an insightful discussion of the studio's favored game genre, as well as thoughtful analysis of the studio's past work.

Projects

The Projects section has ready-made project ideas and in-class lab activities for you to use. Discussion and evaluation phases are built into each assignment, along with suggested time lengths for each phase.
We recommend writing instructions on the whiteboard or providing students with a paper printout. If you just link students to the projects page on this website, then they will likely get distracted -- or worse, they'll close the browser tab and forget about the instructions entirely.

Classroom activities

There are many ways to teach level design. We recommend methods similar to most art and design classes:

Critique

For better or worse, critiques are a mainstay of art and design education:
  1. 1.
    Student gives short informal presentation of their project, summarize intent and method
  2. 2.
    Instructor + fellow students give reactions and feedback
"Crits" can be constructive and enlightening, or humiliating and pointless. Instructors must model what good critique looks like -- specific and open-minded, pushing questions rather than cruel opinions. Before any crit session, discuss with students what makes for helpful feedback:
  • Describe core unique strengths
    • unhelpful feedback: "This level looks fun."
    • more helpful: "This level's fantasy about demolishing a student loan office really appealed to me."
  • Describe problems that weaken those core strengths
    • unhelpful: "The level felt broken and bad, which is less fun."
    • more helpful: "The level is about canceling all student loan debt, but I had trouble understanding when or how the debt cancellation happened. Which parts of the level show the debt being destroyed? Did I miss those parts?..."
  • Use first person "i statements", refer to your specific reaction
    • unhelpful: "No one will know where to go in the level."
    • more helpful: "I didn't know where to go in the level... I thought the debt monster would be in the basement, but instead I found it in the CEO bathroom..." (why?)
  • Avoid second person "you statements", avoid accusing / attacking
    • unhelpful: "You made a confusing level, instead you should do (this) and (that)."
    • more helpful: "The level confused me. Maybe it could do (this) or (that)."
example classroom pinup from Pratt Graduate School of Architecture, photo by Sarah Le Clerc under CC-BY-ND license

Pin-ups

In architecture education, a pin-up is a critique where a student pins their architectural drawings to a wall and critics (instructors, guests, students) talk with the designer about their project.
We recommend a similar practice for level design as well: have students sketch layouts, attach them to the walls, and have conversations about their projects.
We recommend keeping it informal with in-class minimal prep "speed level design" exercises: a 15 minute period to sketch small map layouts on paper, followed by 30 minutes for groups of 4 to discuss each others work. Normalize simple drawings, try to make it less about who's the best artist and more about who can pitch a fascinating level concept.
If the classroom doesn't have pinboard and push pins, you can also use (big strong) magnets on whiteboards or non-marking painters tape. Whatever you do, pinning work on a wall is important! Don't have students look downwards at drawings laid flat on a desk; it makes presentation more difficult and the awkward crowding will make some students tune out.
At best, a pin up review is a conversation that leaves the student more excited about evolving their design. Aim for that best case scenario.

Some advice for teaching level design

This book was written by practicing level designers and academics, so we have a few words of advice on "best practices" for teaching level design.

Focus

What type of level design will you teach? Most level design courses must focus on either visual space planning aspects as a generalist architecture approach, or on designing challenges and puzzles with frequent playtesting and iteration.
For a generalist survey class, structure your class into different "units" where you focus on specific methods from month to month. Then for a final project, allow students to specialize in whichever unit(s) they preferred, to explore those topics more deeply on their own or in groups.

Communication

Design can happen on a whiteboard, on paper, in conversation, or in presentations. In a large commercial studio, lead game designers often do very little hands-on work in a editor tool.
In games education and STEM-related programs, students often neglect their underdeveloped "soft" skills and fundamentals. But it's impossible to be a good designer if you can't communicate. When students neglect soft skills, their career will collapse as soon as they have to talk to someone.

Process

Plans rarely survive intact. Ask students, do you think your level meets your design goals? Is there a better way to accomplish that? Do you want to adjust your design goals? What will you do differently on the next project? Emphasize development as an ongoing process where mistakes and problems will definitely happen.

Shared tools

Make every students use the same tools at first, before giving them the choice to branch out.
So much of level design requires developing a shared design language, and if you fragment your students' reference points, it will be more difficult for them to draw those connections and comparisons.

Shared social

Use internal classroom social media channels for sharing work and progress. If you have a class Slack or Discord, create a channel called "#screenshots" and task students to submit a screenshot every week as part of their homework. Students need to see each others' work so they can learn from each other.

Careers

Some students seek a future career in level design. However, the game industry usually has low demand for junior level designers for prestige AAA 3D action games. Instead, encourage students to follow smaller studios and indie teams, which may not carry blockbuster prestige, but still offer mentorship and growth.

Further reading

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