Abstract layout patterns for level design, with concrete examples

Why use typologies?

architectural diagram "formal typologies of dense residential architectures", by Maja Baldea (via Density Architecture blog)
In the architectural diagram above, Maja Baldea thinks about different ways to organize apartment buildings. She abstracts (simplifies, generalizes) these buildings as windowless blocks because she's not interested in little details, she's thinking about the overall shape, massing, and composition, to classify different types of residential buildings.
We can do something similar for level design -- here we define typology as an abstract layout pattern that promotes certain player behaviors.
Typologies are abstractions of layouts, conceptual patterns that help us simplify thinking about the layout. Instead of analyzing every wall, doorway, and staircase in detail, typologies "zoom out" and focus on the big ideas, like the overall pacing and flow of the entire level.
Typologies are useful for:
  • classifying different types of level design
  • reasoning about map balance and encounter design
  • open world / RPG projects, since a variety of typologies will usually lead to a variety of game content
  • shared design language, aids collaboration and teamwork
Why say "typology" instead of "type"? It's not just academics being pretentious. Adding the "-ology" part reminds us that it is a big field of study, a system of ideas connected to other ideas. "Typology" is a specific way of thinking about types. "Types" is too general.


Elements are small level design patterns -- a certain way to use a wall, door, or floor.


Half, full vs. hard / soft
see balance and encounters


Gates block the player's progress until they , otherwise the player can simply leave. Some strategies for gating players:
  • Hard gate: players must always complete the encounter with no shortcuts (e.g. wait until a timer elapses, defeat all enemies, loot a key from a defeated boss)
  • Soft gate: can potentially exit early, but must usually complete the encounter (e.g. exit mechanism requires staying in a vulnerable position, so most players clear the arena first)
  • Hidden exit: the player must explore the arena to find the exit (e.g. an exit hidden in a corner that most players won't notice until after clearing the arena)


ring around the rosie / maypole -- space with cover in the middle
example: Overwatch? Quake?
one-way variant, or put two in the same room

Room typologies

Room typologies are generalized patterns for a single area / "chunk" of the level.
Note: We use "room" as a generic term for "space." Not all rooms have walls. A room could be a garden, cave, courtyard, river, etc. This dates back to the golden age of level design, when outdoor spaces in Quake lineage engines were built as rooms with sky ceilings.
For more on the golden age of level design, see History of the level designer.


Straight-on linear progression through the space, like a hallway, river, or canyon. Anything with a one-way trajectory through a predictable sequence of spaces could be considered a corridor.
  • High degree of authorship, control, and certainty. You know where the player must go and how much time the player will likely take.
  • To speed it up, add downward slopes, one-way drops, and bright lighting
  • To slow it down, add side areas, alcoves, and spotty lighting

Example: house in P.T

The first person horror game P.T. (2014) made players walk down the same hallways over and over, with a looping mechanic that teleports the player back to the start once they open the door at the end. It is a powerful use of the corridor, and would've suffered with a more open layout.
Floorplan and critical path for P.T. (2014) by Kojima Productions; to complete the game, the player must solve hidden puzzles and loop through the same set of hallways at least 12 times
Note the strong control of sightlines, forcing the player to stare through a window at the end of a hallway, or to detour into the bathroom to notice the mirror and sink. Horror tropes and ominous alcoves discourage players from moving too quickly, while linearity and familiarity culminate in a sense of foreboding, dread, and doom. All we can do is go deeper, and there is no escape.

Switchback / Hairpin

example: Dear Esther

Arena / Combat Bowl

An arena is an open area with lots of circulation and some cover in the middle, like a lobby, courtyard, or warehouse. Designers at Epic Games call these combat bowls, which imply more of a spinning / rotating flow in an open arena.
  • Let the player express themselves, but their exact path is difficult to predict
  • A high intensity pattern that demands strategic movement and threat assessment
  • Used often in cover shooters, boss fights, and multiplayer level design
  • A gate is important, otherwise the player might simply leave the arena

Example: Dead Simple in Doom 2

(TODO: draw Dead Simple floorplan and critical path)

Level typologies

Level typologies are generalized layout patterns for multiple rooms / entire levels.


A larger multi-area pattern with a central area (hub) and several smaller areas / passages extending off of it (spokes). To explore different spokes, the player must return to the hub.
  • Gives unifying identity to different spokes, conveys logic to the structure
  • Needs lots of work to update the hub with each visit, or else it'll feel like backtracking
  • Can be a useful pacing tool, returning to a hub can feel like a relaxing reward
  • Gated hubs block off most spokes at the start, the player gradually unlocks shortcuts

Example: Medical Pavilion in BioShock 1

BioShock 1 features multiple hub-and-spokes. In the beginning Medical Pavilion chapter 1


(TODO: diagram)
A linear progression that loops back on itself, most common in open world dungeons.
  • Similar to Corridor: lots of control and certainty with less player indecision
  • Helps an area feel structurally non-linear and plausible, even if progression is initially linear
  • Subtle loopbacks feel like closing the loop of a natural inevitable circuit
  • Overly convenient loopbacks can feel like contrived shortcuts that plead for the player's gratitude, and thus feel artificial or implausible

Example: (some dungeon) in Skyrim

(example: skyrim layout and screenshot)
The open world fantasy RPG Skyrim features many dungeons where the player must return to the overworld after completing the dungeon. However, backtracking often feels monotonous or rote after an area has been cleared out... (TODO: finish)

Branching chokepoints / string of pearls


Time cave

Multiplayer typologies

Multiplayer layouts tend to be more nonlinear, circuitous, and bidirectional, emphasizing high replay value with reusable areas. Many team-based games feature bases / spawn rooms where players can safely join the game, as well as capture points for the teams to attack and defend.

Base / spawn room

No man's land

Sniper nest / sniper alley

Figure 8

most common in classic CTF maps, Blood Gulch, etc

Connector / Pivot

In multiplayer team games with bases and routes toward capture points
Example: CS:GO

Three lane

Example: League of Legends, DOTA, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare... also common in CS:GO (1 lane for each bomb site, and middle connector lane)

Against typology?

Once you classify something, you're potentially trapping yourself within the limits of those classifications. Sometimes it may be more helpful to ignore typologies and refuse categorization.

To review...

  • A typology is an abstract system of types. Since this is a level design book, we're interested in a level design typology -- classifying different categories of level layouts.
    • Abstract means generalized, imaginary, and simplified
    • System means each type relates to other types
    • Labeling things makes it easier to talk about it
    • But sometimes labels can trap us in a limited way of thinking
  • Elements are small level design patterns for designing parts of a room. Like a certain type of wall or floor.
  • Room typologies are patterns for designing single areas, like corridors, switchbacks, ring-around-the-rosies, and arenas / combat bowls.
  • Level typologies are patterns arranging multiple rooms in sequence, like loopback, pass-through, branch and bottleneck, hub-and-spoke, and time cave.

Further reading / sources

  • "A Pattern Language" (1977) by architect Christopher Alexander et al. is the classic typology manual of modern architecture and urban planning today, pioneering the New Urbanism movement.
  • "On the ‘Three Typologies’" (2017) by architect Luke Jones is a wonderful essay about how architects still aren't quite sure how to classify architecture.