Layout
How to draw a top-down floor plan for a level, with flow, balance, encounters, and typology

Why design a layout?

Layout has two closely-related meanings in level design:
  1. 1.
    the overall floor plan / shape / structure of a playable level; "the layout was so confusing I didn't know where to go"
  2. 2.
    a layout drawing used in design planning, usually an overview drawing of the level from a top-down perspective; "have you finished drawing the layout? we need to prototype the level soon"
Is your level "good" or "fun"? A layout drawing alone cannot tell you, only a blockout and a playtest can begin answering that question. Instead, the layout is merely a planning tool to help you understand the virtual space and troubleshoot obvious problems. Layout drawings are essential for working collaboratively and planning multiplayer levels. Drawing layouts is one of the most fundamental design skills and work tasks for industry level designers.
Layout drawings can be simple or complex, symbolic or representational, abstract or concrete. A "good layout drawing" is any image that effectively communicates the core design of the level. Some projects are best with just a scribbled diagram, while other projects may benefit from a full detailed floorplan.
Remember: a layout drawing is just a tool. A layout is NOT a level, the player never plays your drawing.

Key concepts

When designing a layout, utilize these design concepts:
  • Flow is how it feels to move around the level. Players can move quickly and smoothly, or the flow can feel abrupt and disjointed, etc. This sense of mobility should match with experience goals, or else the level might feel confusing, awkward, incoherent, or broken.
  • Balance is the real and perceived fairness of the player's options, usually in combat. Where can the player go, what territory can the player control? A balanced level helps players trust the layout and thus more invested in the game outcome.
  • Encounters are gameplay sequences with NPCs that test the player's skills, usually in combat. The player must improvise a strategy to confront a challenge. Note that implementing encounters in-game usually involves some scripting.
  • Typology is about the use of design patterns to better understand how a layout fundamentally functions. Using this shared design vocabulary helps you study other levels, convey ideas, and collaborate on teams.

How to design a layout

Below, we suggest a layout process, but ideally every designer should develop their own process.
Many experienced level designers jump straight to the last phase of our suggested workflow and make only a minimal sketch. Meanwhile plenty of other working level designers will insist on a long research phase before making any sketches. But for a quick level design jam, you should avoid doing too much planning and research. Every project has different needs.
That said, if level design feels difficult or if you're new to this, then maybe start with the first step and follow through the full process detailed below to gradually build up the level. As you make more levels, you'll discover what type of process works best for each type of project.
drawing iterations from abstract grid (left) to floor plan (right) from "Architectural Graphics" by Francis Ching

1. Have at least a basic plan

It is difficult to design something without knowing its intended function or purpose. So before drawing a layout, try to define at least one player experience goal. What should the player learn, feel, or do, in this level? Some designers use specific experience goals ("teach the player how to double-jump inside a sci-fi sewer for about 5 minutes") while others might prefer more abstract design goals ("feel one with nature").
Once you have an idea of your ideal experience, try to plan how your level will make that experience happen. A basic pacing outline that plots various game events and setpieces will help you design an appropriate space.
For more on planning experience goals and pacing, see Pre-production.
overall experience arc for Journey (2012), from "Designing Journey" talk at GDC 2013

2. Parti thumbnails

What type of general shape or space might make that experience goal happen?
In architecture, the parti is the basic shape / idea of the building. Sketch a small simple diagram (thumbnail) and label the parti. The parti can be symbolic ("upside-down boat") or abstract ("box subtracted") or it can focus on how people will use the building ("core segregates public-private") or a relationship with the surrounding environment ("finger poking into the woods"). Or you can just draw and vibe some shapes and sort it out later.
parti diagrams from "101 Things I Learned in Architecture School" by Matthew Frederic
Draw several / many per page. Don't spend too long on the drawings! Sometimes all you'll need is 30 seconds to scribble some lines, and that'll be enough to express the basic core idea.
Whatever you do, don't just stop at one drawing. We recommend drawing at least 5-10 parti thumbnails to generate multiple ways to approach your design problems. And if you draw 100 partis, then at least one of those will be good, because it's impossible to design 100 terrible buildings. The more you draw, the more probability is on your side.
And again, try to label the parti drawing with a short phrase / sentence. What's the core concept or big idea of this layout? If you can't name it, then maybe it's still too raw and unclear. Or what if there's another drawing that better exemplifies the idea? If your levels often lack a main idea or main theme, then consider spending more time articulating partis and focusing your thoughts.

3. Bubble diagrams

Once you have some partis that seem promising, try to expand a parti into a bubble diagram. Quickly draw some bubbles / ovals to represent the different rooms and spaces that will serve your experience goal, and then label each area. You can also draw arrows and small lines to mark possible passageways, windows, and stair directions.
example bubble diagram of F10 House in Chicago, from The Architecture Handbook: A Student Guide to Understanding Buildings by Masengarb et al.
The goal of the bubble diagram is to establish proportions and relationships of your level. Which spaces need to be big? Which spaces need to connect to each other? Don't worry about details yet. The most important thing is to understand the logic of your spaces.
As with the partis, don't just stop at one bubble diagram. Try drawing several different bubble diagrams to explore variations in rearranging the space. Bubbles are easy to draw, express proportions, and maintain an abstract symbolic value that is useful at this early stage of prototyping. If you don't like one configuration, just get more paper and draw another set of bubbles.
Once you find a bubble arrangement (or a few) that makes sense and feels good, we develop that diagram into a floor plan.

4. Floor plan

In architecture, a top-down layout drawing is called a floor plan. This type of drawing slices horizontally through a building and projects all the shapes below the plan cut, like wall segments and floors. Usually the height of the cut should be waist-height or higher, to capture any significant furniture or fixtures. To include objects above the plane of the plan cut, use dashed or dotted lines.
In the diagram below, notice how Francis D.K. Ching uses various line types, line weights, shading, and tonal patterns to differentiate parts of the floor plan. Ching thickens and darkens walls, but uses thinner lines to mark stairs or to denote areas of the house, and fainter lines for the arc of a rotating door.
various floor plan drawing techniques from "Architectural Graphics" (6th ed.) by Francis D. K. Ching

ADVICE FOR DRAWING FLOOR PLANS

  • START BIG. Use the entire page. Start with the big main shapes and gradually work down to smaller features like doors and windows. Work in passes over the entire drawing. Don't try to draw at 100% detail from the very beginning.
  • 90/90. Rectangles, boxes, and grids are much easier to build than odd angles or curved walls. Generally ~90%+ of your corners should be 90 degrees and aligned to the grid. You'll thank yourself when you blockout.
  • USE 2+ LINE THICKNESSES. Use different line weights to mark different types of walls and areas. If you're using a pen or pencil, don't apply so much pressure, and grip the pen a few centimeters above the nib.
  • THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE MOUSE. For quick layout drawings, use a pencil, pen, or drawing tablet. If drawing with a mouse, keep the layout drawing as simple as possible, and avoid fine-tuning lines or tweaking exact shapes -- precision doesn't matter here.
  • WE'RE NOT ARCHITECTS. Detailed architectural drawings are pretty, but at this phase of level design, just draw the bare minimum needed to express the bounds of the space and the player experience. Like in the 4-step image below, maybe stop at step 2 or 3.

5. Gameplay markup

Now this is perhaps the most important part of the layout process: you need to markup the intended mechanics, pacing, and gameplay beats. A good layout drawing is more than just a floor plan, it should also convey the player's experience.
As you markup your floor plan, don't forget to include:
  • Flow. Draw or mark the critical path, either with a line or a set of arrows. If the critical path is non-linear or complicated, then at least mark the player's start position and exits. For multiplayer maps, lightly shade or highlight team spawn areas and the primary circulation.
  • Areas. Label major areas, landmarks, and intended setpieces. What are its major segments or chunks? For competitive multiplayer maps, start thinking about the possible "callouts", short labels that players use to quickly refer to different parts of the map.
  • Game Objects. Mark important objectives, NPCs, enemies, items, powerups, pickups, traps, etc. that are vital for understanding the player experience. But omit secondary objects that aren't important or aren't on the critical path, to avoid cluttering your drawing with too much stuff. A busy confusing layout drawing is a useless layout drawing.
note the copious gameplay markup in this isometric layout drawing for "Nova Prospekt" in Half-Life 2 by Eric Kirchmer, from the art book Half-Life 2: Raising The Bar
note the player flow arrows in this isometric layout drawing for a puzzle in Portal 2, from Game Informer, March 2010

Example layout drawings

"Nova Prospekt" for Half-Life 2 (Valve), by Eric Kirchmer and David Sawyer

About 2/3 of the way through the single player FPS game Half-Life 2 (2004), the player must fight through a ruined prison complex called Nova Prospekt. It is a long chapter filled with many multi-floor close quarter combat encounters against fast moving squad enemies, designed to make heavy use of the player's "bugbait" weapon that can command flying "antlion" monsters to attack hostile soldiers.
  • Research: heavily inspired by Alcatraz State Penitentiary in San Francisco, California
  • Typology: ground-level arenas flanked with narrow catwalks and prison cells, frequently gated
  • Encounters: designed block-by-block, room-by-room, each section offers a central conceit that adds a new twist to the Antlion vs. Combine encounter space throughout the whole chapter
map of Alcatraz (left) and Nova Prospekt cell block bubble diagram (right) from art book "Half-Life 2: Raising The Bar"
Notice how the Nova Prospekt plan (above, right) is a relatively simple layout drawing, marking out areas and how the player might progress through them. It omits the individual rooms and hallways inside each building. This is a layout image for a group of levels, not just one level. It is basically a bubble diagram, focusing on the footprint of each area and its connectivity.
For the individual cell blocks and encounters, Valve concept artist Eric Kirchmer incorporated level design and gameplay markup directly into the concept art sketches, which were likely the result of collaborative group whiteboard design sessions. These combat encounters have intended flows with idealized critical path "solutions", which treat each battle like a puzzle to be solved. These sketches provided valuable design documentation for level designer David Sawyer to blockout and prototype from.
In all the isometric layout drawings, note the heavy gameplay markup: player start location, critical path arrows, and heavy use of text labels to help us imagine the player experience.
isometric layout drawings for various Nova Prospekt encounters, from art book "Half-Life 2: Raising The Bar"

"Untitled" for Quake 1, by Andrew Yoder

For his single player Quake level, designer Andrew Yoder iterated on a setpiece encounter involving suspended cages in the middle of the room. Here, Yoder fluidly switches between layout and blockout repeatedly, sometimes discarding entire rooms and revisiting the design with layout sketches. Here's some of his notes:
level layout sketches with perspective views (ink on paper), courtesy of Andrew Yoder
"My process is about iteration, which sometimes means stepping back to planning stages. [...] Sometimes I spend an hour iterating on an area and it clicks. Other times I spend that same hour, and eh, maybe best to set it aside and try something else. [...] How do I tell? There's a gut feeling from experience building similar levels in the past. There are also a bunch of heuristics and patterns to check against. Does the player know the goal? Can they anticipate a solution and plan for it?"
Note the numbering, ample use of notes, labeling different parts of the sketch, and use of occasional perspective thumbnails to clarify the overall structure. Perspective thumbnails are especially useful when the level layout involves height changes, which are difficult to draw from a top down perspective.
The variety of sketches and copious markup helps Yoder communicate the intent of his design. The layout process helps Yoder verbalize and articulate the design problems.
screenshot of the resulting suspended cage area blockout in Quake 1, courtesy of Andrew Yoder

"Automata - TV Station" for Watch Dogs 2 (Ubisoft), by Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu

For the open world hacking game Watch Dogs 2, designer Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu built a mission with multiple objectives, entrances, and critical paths.
In his post "Watch Dogs 2 — Automata - a level design retrospective", he includes layout drawings with heavy gameplay markup and minimal architecture:
layout of WKZ Station in "Automata" for Watch Dogs 2, as drawn by the designer Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu
Some of the designer's notes and intentions:
In this particular scenario the trick was that the player could go through the lasers and trigger an alarm but he could also:
  • Disable the lasers when the guard was patrolling away from them and then go into the red zone and silently take the AI down.
  • Use the Camera attached to the walls to scout the location by traveling from camera angle to camera angle. At this point in the game this is an already well established way of scouting interior locations.
  • Use the drone to explore the hallway and incapacitate guards.
The corridor beyond also has a bunch of strategically placed junction boxes that can be hacked to incapacitate to incapacitate two guards at the same time.
Note how the level designer's drawing (pictured above) is much simpler than the actual in-game implementation (pictured below). Architectural details, furniture, and even some gameplay elements like neutral NPCs and wall-mounted cameras, aren't represented in the layout drawing. None of that is relevant to planning the core experience goal of bypassing security by knocking-out the guard NPCs.
The lesson here is: don't clutter your layout drawing with unnecessary design features.
player view of finished WKZ Station lobby in "Automata" for Watch Dogs 2, by Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu

"Warpath" for Team Fortress Classic (Valve), by Robin Walker et al

In the class-based multiplayer shooter Team Fortress Classic (1999), "Warpath" was a control point ("CP") map designed collaboratively by Robin Walker and his team at Valve. TFC's CP game mode was similar to the modern CP modes in Team Fortress 2 or Overwatch, where two teams compete to capture all the control points along a central lane.
  • Flow: one central lane with side paths, 5 control points total with dynamic spawn rooms
  • Balance: symmetrical map, all 9 classes must be viable, attack / defense viable at each CP
  • Typology: beaded necklace, a long coiled corridor dotted with arenas for each CP
compare the original plan vs the final level layout; image of "Warpath" from Team Fortress Classic
In the Half-Life 2 artbook "Raising The Bar", Walker details their process and how drawing layouts factor into their collaborative multiplayer level design workflow:
"After the initial design discussions, maps were sketched out by the design group, and then built by the level designers. Once the initial version was complete, regular playtesting began. Many changes were made throughout the playtesting cycle, often resulting in drastic changes to original plans for the map. [...] [Warpath] was the first TF map in which teams respawned in different locations based upon which control zones their team controlled, and this led to a long test cycle where respawn points were moved many times." -- Robin Walker, from "Half-Life 2: Raising The Bar", pg. 48 (emphasis ours)
In the drawing above, note the numbered control points and labeled call outs. Each control point area is like a mini arena / parti, with specific landmark labels: sniper ledge, tunnel, stone arch, barracks, etc. Name and theme map areas from the beginning. Labels also highlight the most important parts key to the map's experience goals.
Also note the drawing only shows half of the map, where the mirrored symmetry splits at the central bridge. Because they already decided the map layout would be symmetrical, drawing the entire map was unnecessary. Thus, design constraints affect how you draw your layout.
the central bridge arena, facing south from the Blue team's sniper ledge; "Warpath" from Team Fortress Classic

Against layouts?

Drawing a layout can help you plan a project better and catch big problems. When collaborating with others, it also helps everyone coordinate their work and understand each other.
But a layout drawing is not a level. No one can playtest a sketch. It's just a plan, and plans always change.
It may seem like the perfect layout drawing will lead to the perfect level with zero wasted work, but this never happens. Instead, stop planning and "go map" -- build the map and test it, and then you will find out if it works. The construction process will help validate the design. Don't spend too long doing imaginary level design on paper.

To review...

The conventional process for designing a level layout starts with a design goal, and ends with a layout drawing. This drawing is just an initial plan to get you started, and you should expect your final level to diverge significantly.
  1. 1.
    Have a basic plan, define desired experience goals and pacing.
  2. 2.
    Sketch and label partis, simple thumbnail sketches of core shapes.
  3. 3.
    Arrange the space with bubble diagrams, sketches that emphasize overall proportion and relation.
  4. 4.
    Draw a floor plan, a top-down drawing with walls and floors.
    • Start with big simple shapes, omit details. Use multiple line weights and shade floor areas.
    • For rooms with multiple floors, draw an isometric view, with attention to the floor planes.
    • For important or complex set piece rooms, maybe sketch a perspective view and label it.
  5. 5.
    Markup the plan with player flow and gameplay notes. Help others imagine the experience, especially if you are collaborating with others.
    • Name and label areas. Think of each chunk of the level as its own parti.
When working in a group, try to do this entire design process collaboratively on a physical whiteboard or virtual whiteboard service like Miro.

Now what?

Further reading on layouts

Last modified 6d ago