How to make a level
Overview of general workflow and concepts for video game level design
Most, but not all, 3D level design projects involve these work phases:
  1. 1.
    Pre-production: plan out the big ideas and overall experience design.
  2. 2.
    Combat (optional): for combat games, define how player(s) and enemy types interact.
  3. 3.
    Layout: sketch a visual top-down 2D plan for a level.
  4. 4.
    Blockout: build a basic in-game 3D rough draft and playtest it.
  5. 5.
    Scripting: integrate events and behaviors (missions, quests, doors, buttons, AI)
  6. 6.
    Environment Art: "art pass" the level with props and set dressing
  7. 7.
    Release: document, publicize, and publish the project.
If you don't know where to start, try doing everything. With more experience, you will learn when to skip or expand a phase.
underpass in de_dust by Dave "DaveJ" Johnston, for Counter-Strike 1.6

Tailor the process

Every level / project has different needs. There is no single foolproof way to make a level.
  • Group projects need more pre-production and planning, like pacing outlines and layout drawings. Without enough communication and documentation, collaborators can't collaborate.
  • Combat games / multiplayer maps need more blockout time to tune encounters and map balance with a strong focus on playtesting.
  • Single player levels with a storytelling focus benefit less from a long blockout period. That may sound appealing but it's actually a special hell with zero certainty. When is a story "good enough"? You'll need a lot of iterations on scripting and environment art. If your story changes, you'll have to redo everything, and it's hard to keep everything in sync. Ever play a game where the story doesn't make sense? Well, that's probably going to be your game too.

Process overview

Pre-production is about planning the basic shape and scope of the project. What is the project about? What are the design goals and constraints?
Beginners often neglect project planning entirely, while experienced designers sometimes over-plan. Big commercial studios often spend months or even years in pre-production. When collaborating in a group, this phase is very important because this is when you all align your expectations. When working solo as a hobbyist, you can probably get away with less planning.
Pre-production plans are usually text documents, boards with movable cards, and spreadsheets.
For more on conceptual planning, see Pre-production
photo of internal planning board for The Last Of Us (Naughty Dog), from "Videogames" at Victoria and Albert Museum

1b. Combat design (optional)

If your project is about combat, then you need to do combat design: define how players and enemy types interact.
What does a typical fight look like, what is a battle made of? How do players prepare for a fight? How can you make fights feel varied and fresh across a play session?
Combat is like any other game system or mechanic. You should define these experience design goals before you make levels for them.
However, combat is difficult to build. Fights won't "feel good" until programmers and artists make it functional and readable. You basically have to make the whole game before you'll know what the combat feels like! Because it's so much work, we recommend learning combat design by modding existing games first, so you can practice on pre-built battle-tested systems.
For more on designing fights, weapons, and enemies, see Combat.
For a list of recommended combat games to mod, see Tools.
spreadsheet breakdown showing the moveset matrix for valkyrie bosses in God of War (2018), ​by Jason de Heras (via Twitter)

2. Layout

The layout is the basic structure of the level, usually shown as a flat 2D drawing of core areas and elements. It is a visual summary of where the player can go and what they can do. Layout drawings are a core level design skill about planning a level in more detail and specificity, similar to an architectural floor plan / blueprints.
In a group / big project, detailed layout drawings are an important communication tool. No one can read your mind; if you don't visualize it and talk about it, then no one will know what you want. But if you're working alone for a small hobby project, a simple layout sketch can suffice to help you understand the big problems.
Layout drawings are usually top-down 2D floor plans, but perspective or isometric layout drawings are common too. But this isn't about being a great artist; it's about communication.
For more on visual space planning, see Layout
layout drawing of multiplayer map "Warpath" for Team Fortress Classic, by Robin Walker

3. Blockout

A blockout is a playable rough draft of the level, usually built with simple blocky 3D shapes with minimal visual details. The purpose of the blockout is to prototype the basic structure of the level so that you can playtest it and walking around in it within the game engine. Playtesting the blockout can help you decide whether the prototype is too small or too big, confusing or entertaining, balanced or broken, etc.
These basic 3D prototypes are important for any combat-oriented game, or any design where rearranging a room can cause big changes in player behavior. If you realize a room design isn't working, then you can modify it easily when it is made of simple shapes.
Blockouts are usually playable game level / scene files, built in a special level editor tool and loaded into the game engine.
For more on in-game 3D prototyping, see Blockout
blockout screenshot for a cliff level in Uncharted 4 (Naughty Dog), by Em Schatz

4. Scripting

Scripting is about integrating behaviors, events, and game logic into a level.
Door scripting is one of the most difficult problems in game development. Trains and moving platforms are even more complicated. It's better to start with buttons and collectibles.
Mission objectives, quests, cutscenes, choreography -- and any AI control / combat / encounter design -- often rely on scripting. If you're scared of coding, don't be afraid, many game engines and toolsets have special scripting languages and tools to simplify the programming process.
Level design culture tends to underappreciates scripters, yet scripting is what makes a level feel "alive" and is crucial for transforming a map into an experience.
For more about making levels do stuff, see Scripting
in an early version of Gone Home, doors didn't quite work correctly... from blog post "Code Judo" by Johnnemann Nordhagen
Once you have enough certainty about the overall shape and flow of the level, you can begin adding more environment art, or visual detail.
An art pass is the process of adding these details. Most projects will require multiple art passes.
Many people think art passing is the "fun part." Beginners often rush too quickly into art passing without adequate planning, layout, or blockout work. A premature art pass locks-in early design mistakes because it becomes "expensive" to change the level and thus redo all the artwork. So, resist the urge! Don't rush into an art pass!
For more about making levels pretty, see Environment Art
animated GIF of development process for a snowy military dock level in Sniper Elite

6. Release

When the project is complete, it is time to release and distribute playable files to the public, and support the release to make sure it reaches your audience.
For commercial projects, the game launch is just the beginning of the nightmare -- you must continue to market and publicize the project, gauge user feedback, issue bug fixes, and even build out additional post-launch content.
For personal portfolio projects, you must document the level design properly, or else no one will understand your work and you'll have wasted your time. Without effective design documentation, the project basically does not exist.
Beginners often do not put enough time into the release phase, and assume the project will speak for itself -- but if no one knows about it, then your work has no one to speak to.
For more on publishing a level / building a portfolio, see Release.

Now what?

  • Start with the beginning -- learn about pre-production for level design. Even just a little bit of planning will help a lot. It will help you figure out what the hell you're doing.
  • Day-to-day, most level designers tend to focus on the layout and blockout.