Designing a Game Level

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Designing a game level from visual inspirations


Designing a level from visual inspiration focuses on some of the key strategies as well as general methods used in designing a level. This dissertation focuses on the working minds of artists (mine included!) and elicits the strategies one uses, inside their head. By doing so, I could lay out a guideline by which, others could try out the same things to make a level. This is to convince the reader that the artistic process isn’t a rare talent to a select few individuals, but rather, a way in which we think and would also help them get along with their own levels.

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It’s organized chapter wise, beginning with a brief history followed by the basics. As we move further on, more and more diverse topics are introduced. Lot of the general requirements in creating a level is covered.

The 2nd chapter, entitled Inspiration, Vision, Dreams is a bit more detailed since part of the dissertation is about visuals.


Welcome to Designing a game level from visual inspirations. This is a dissertation that takes the reader through the process of creating a game level from visual inspiration to the final output. Once a level is done, fellow gamers can rejoice by playing the level.

A lot of valuable information and techniques from my research and experience will be provided here, which anyone, beginner or expert will have something new to look forward to.

Level design in short is like putting a puzzle together. Except here, the puzzle can unfold in many different ways depending on the way required, only limited by our imagination. Usually, a level designer need not create the assets, textures or even the source code. But by putting these together, one can make works of art that touch gamers profoundly and provide them with hours of entertainment. Building a level can be a long process, depending on the scale, resources and technical knowledge. But nonetheless it’s a very rewarding experience, where one gets’ to see their level come out, every second of it. Planning is the key, and knowing what to do next is important. So it’s crucial that the big picture is in mind first, with the major areas and gameplay worked out.

Throughout this dissertation, I’ll be eliciting strategies from my observation of others, from creating visual dreams and inspirations to realizing it on the game itself. There will be a few step-by-step instructions which one could try out instantly.

The Format

This dissertation is organized in a straightforward way, chapter wise. A lot more is focused on the strategies one uses inside their minds, rather than the technical know-how’s.

Chapter 1: The Basics of Level Design. This chapter deals with the basics of level and game design and introduces some of the requirements in any level, which should be keep in mind before starting.

Chapter 2: Inspiration, Vision, Dreams. This chapter deals with ideas and strategies behind the artistic process inside the human mind. It also covers some of the outside use of references.

Chapter 3: Refinement and Paper Work. This chapter builds upon the previous chapter and works on refining the already given ideas.

Chapter 4: Building the Landscape. Here, ideas will be presented to start up the actual level construction. How to make it more strategic and fun gameplay wise.

Chapter 5: Mood and Atmosphere. A lot about the lighting, effects and sound will be discussed upon here and the importance of it.

Chapter 6: Testing and Finalizing. In this chapter, the final stages of the level will be discussed.

Chapter 1: The Basics of Game and Level Design

Making a level is a very creative and enriching experience. Stretching our imagination and making works of art for a living is one of the most satisfying jobs ever. Playing a level might be fun, but making it – brings out a profound state of pleasure. It’s another world experience, where the designer creates a body of work for others to play and get entertained. If you’re reading this, then I hope to convince you through my research that anyone mildly interested in video games can create levels.

A good first step for making a level would be to make a design document. Levels are basically the content of a game – so when one makes a level, a clear idea of what’s required is important. The first and foremost thing is to completely BELIEVE that it’ll succeed, even before designing the level. Being tenacious and driven is important as that makes us to look for as many ways as possible to succeed. Modeling the successes of others and using it works as well. Of course, what’s a ‘success’ and what’s a ‘failure’ when it comes to making works of art is always relative. What might be small for a veteran level designer might be a big achievement for an amateur. But it’s always better to aim for the best and strive to achieve it with every part of your body and soul. It’s how powerful it is inside our mind that makes it shine on the outside as well. Letting our imagination run away is a good thing. So throughout this dissertation, I’ll be presenting strategies that might not have much to do with level design itself, but it all comes together eventually.

BELIEVING is what makes things real on the outside. Seeing is not believing – it’s the opposite. All too often, beginners seem very excited to create their level or game but fall short most of the time. There might be different reasons, such as motivation, procrastination etc. but usually it boils down to the fact that they don’t back themselves enough and end up abandoning the project. Others just end up making uninspired levels with bad and unimaginative gameplay. But this research will prove otherwise – anyone could be convinced about their own capabilities.

To avoid this, we need to be smart and ferociously approach the creation process. Reading books & articles always helps in that regard. Finding out how other’s have succeeded and trying it out is an unbelievably easy yet powerful strategy.

This chapter deals with the following:

· History of game and level design

· The basic knowledge required about level design

· How to empower the player

· Challenges and Pacing

A bit of History

Earlier on, the term ‘level design’ never used to exist. The programmer did all the work including the visuals. But the visuals weren’t all that hard, since the computer could only handle so much and hence had to be kept at a minimal.

Early Stages

MUD was one of the earliest game that required a bit of level design. Developed by Ralph Koster, Brad McQuaid and J.Todd Coleman, it was a realtime multi-user dungeon game which basically revolved around texts. The player interacts with each other by typing in commands.

Then on 1978, Tomohiro Nishikado’s ‘Space invaders’ was released. It’s a simple 2-dimensional game, where the player shoots aliens moving towards the ship.

In the 1980s, came along a landmark game, ‘pac man’ created by Toru Iwantani. It’s a 2D game which really displays one of the earliest examples of ‘level design’. Of Course, it’s not as complicated as it is now, but hey, making it fun is the whole point.

Another famous example of the 80s would be super-mario bros developed by Nintendo, which almost anyone would be aware of.

The 90s include some of the earliest examples of FPS games such as wolfenstein 3D, duke nukem and half-life. The late 90s (1998) is when epic games released ‘unreal tournament’ and their unreal technology. This brought about a reform in modern games since the technology allowed for greater flexibility. Some of the highlights of the 2000s were Far Cry (2004), F.E.A.R (2005) and Crysis (2007).

Unreal History

June 1998

Unreal was launched with a warm welcome from the gaming community. It’s the first game to use the unreal engine and one of the best looking games of that time. The game’s lush environment and beautiful graphics took gamers by storm. The game also had a robust multiplayer mode that could be played against artificially intelligent “bots”, I.E, players controlled by the computer rather than human beings.

The game’s development laid the foundation for the unreal engine. It’s modular design allowed Epic, or its licensees, to easily customize parts of the engine without needing to rewrite the entire program. The game also made it possible for the mod makers (those who edit pre-existing games) to insert their own UnrealScripts to enhance and customize their gaming experiences.

November 1999

Unreal Tournament was launched for the PC and ported to the Sony PlayStation 2 and Sega Dreamcast console gaming systems. The game was originally intended to be an expansion pack for the original Unreal. Focused on multiplayer gameplay, it also offers an intense single-player experience by implementing some of the most advanced bot AI ever to be used in a game. Unreal Tournament was also backward compatible with maps from the original Unreal.

March-July 2001

The Unreal Developer Network (UDN) website goes online, giving the world a central location to find documentation and tutorials for content creation and other aspects of the unreal engine. To this day, licensees and mod makers use the site regularly, and it remains one of the most respected resources for information on Unreal Engine and its development.

September 2002

Unreal championship is launched on the XBOX closely followed by Unreal Tournament 2003 on the PC. Both games focus mainly on multiplayer gameplay, with Unreal championship being one of the flagship games for the debut of the Microsoft Xbox Live! Broadband online system. Digital extremes assist epic with content creation for the games. The new unreal game sport a wide variety of new engine features, including the implementation of powerful particle system, terrains and the karma physics engine. The game also includes martinee, an embedded system to generate in-game cutscenes and movies. Finally, the revolutionary static mesh is introduced, which allows levels to be populated with more geometric detail that had ever been seen before, while maintaining extremely fast gameplay and animation frame rates.

February 2003

Unreal 2: The awakening is launched. It’s the first Unreal game to focus on single-player gaming since the release of the original, almost five years earlier. The game pushed the limits of the Unreal Engine even further, showing an unprecedented amount of onscreen detail in a fast paced game with a deep plot and intriguing nonplayer characters (NPCs). The game also supports the user of static meshes, terrains, the martinee movie system, the karma physics engine, the materials and particles and was supplemented by the golem animation system from legend entertainment.

March 2004

Unreal tournament 2004 is released. This game marks yet another leap in gaming experience that Unreal players have come to expect with the new Onslaught game type and the introduction of vehicles, players are no longer limited to simple levels. They now have vast terrains, skies and even outer space.

The Present 2007

Unreal 3 was released which saw even greater improvements over the previous releases. The visuals are better and the system has been solidified all that much more. It’s easier and quicker to add better graphics and effects to the level. Sound has also been improved upon vastly.

The Basics

Making levels or games can be a very daunting task as there are many things to be covered. A thing to remember is that it’s made for OTHERS to be ENTERTAINED. It can also on the rare occasion, serve as a medium for self-expression for the artist which can truly be an inspired process. Keeping that in mind, that the level is made for others to be happy and entertained enables the designer to go in the right direction.

Having Fun

Having fun doesn’t only include the player, but it includes the creator as well. Fun and pleasure is what drives us to play the game, as well as making the level. And if it’s too much pleasure, it becomes an addiction. Some people enjoy jumping out of a perfectly fine airplane as a way to have ‘fun’. Others like to glide from top of mountains with sticks attached to their legs as a pleasurable activity. I figured that if they could enjoy those, I could just about make anything fun. What makes the creation process fun for the artist?

* The fact that fantasies are becoming real

* The process of creation itself is liberating

* Using this digital platform as a form of self-expression

* The fact that the lives of others will be enriched and entertained

Video games are supposed to be fun for others. People expect to be entertained and use it as a medium to get away from their not-so-perfect day-to-day lives. And so, making a game fun should be of the first and foremost importance. There’s no short-cut method to make a game fun. The industry employs millions and millions of testers to find what works for them. And the truth is that, there are millions of ways to make a game fun and there are absolutely no limits whatsoever.

Pleasing everyone isn’t easy, but the level can be tweaked according to the information at hand.

Target Audience

As discussed before, since ‘others’ play the level, a target audience is always a consideration. So knowing whom to aim for is crucial, especially during the early stages of the level. Everyone will have their opinions on what’s fun and what isn’t. To track down specific target audiences, the genre must be decided upon first. The weirder the level, the harder it gets to find a specific audience.

Finding the gamers can be pretty simple, depending on the genre. Internet communities and forums are the easiest and most reliable method to find them. There are rather a huge number of internet gaming sites which one could check out and each of these sites may have different gaming communities.


Knowing the genre is equally as important as the target audience. Knowing what works so far in a genre and what players expect is a necessary input. There are many different genres with many different games in it. The genre and target audience are closely related. Of course, there are bound to be many open minded individuals who are open to just about anything, but then again, it’s more likely that they’ll seek out a wide range of internet communities and magazines to find games of their liking. The genre is also followed by the platform on which the game or level is made. A strategy game on a PC uses the mouse to maneuver around and the keyboard for various shortcut and menus to make it fast paced. First Person Shooter (FPS) games use the W, A, S & D keys to move around (which is quite common in most FPS).

Empowering the player

When a player plays a game or a level, they go with a belief such that they are experiencing a different world and that they’d wish it’s their reality. It’s basically a fictional scenario, which one wishes it’s their ‘reality’ since it’s a lot more fun.

An important is that a player should be made to LIVE a role inside the level and make them experience it very deeply that it resonates with their neurology. The player should get immersed in it deeply such that it’s just too much pleasure to ignore. They’ll crave for it every second of their life. And this is a good thing – as it keeps gamers coming for more and thereby, they’ll call their friends as well.

Putting the player with power is one of THE selling points of games – when players can kill monsters, shoot people and accomplish big quests with their own character, it gives a lot of joy and a sense of empowerment. Powers can also come in various forms, like for example, the power to create magical spells. There are endless number of ways to empower the player and the vast number of video games out there that are different just proves that.

Game mechanics

Developing the game rules and mechanics can be a very hard task for a game designer. Every game has to have its mechanics, on how things works, how the experience system (XP) for example is set up; how much damage does your attack do and so on.

For a level designer though, a lot of this is already in place. They’re usually left with the option of tweaking it to their liking, but usually, a big chunk of the headache is over with. The physics of the game should be in place as well like gravity, destruction and such. Hence level designers are more concerned about how they put these things together. Putting things together and making them all relate is a big task for the level designer to figure out.


Gameplay is more or less what the player does inside the game. It’s the player’s perspective and not the developer. It’s how they perceive the virtual world and how much fun it is. When a game is in creation, the gameplay type it encompasses is important. Usually in the case of a level designer, some of the gameplay elements are already in place. Improving upon it though is never out of the cards.

Challenges and Pacing

Challenges in a level always take centre stage, as they are one of the key driving forces. Setting up goals to achieve, plans to be followed and missions to be completed will determine what the challenges are. Challenges can range from simple straightforward ones to really complex combined ones. A whole book could be written on the subject of challenge alone.

Pacing generally refers to how the level unfolds to the player i.e. how players spend every moment while playing the level. It also includes the tempo of the level i.e. how slow or fast it is.

The rhythm decides how it feels to the player. A good level will have all the up’s and down’s one could relate to in life – rewards, joy, tension, anxiety etc. This makes it all the more important to think in terms of the players perspective right from the start.


At the end of this chapter, the following concepts were covered:

§ Games are made for others to be entertained

§ Find out what works and using them

§ Fun factor always a priority

§ Target Audience

§ Genre

§ Game Mechanics

§ Gameplay

§ Challenges

Chapter 2: Inspiration, Vision, Dreams

This chapter deals with the visualization process and strategies designers use to come up with the ideation and concepts. There are also some of my own experiments presented. Ideas are formed by using our different senses – images (visual), sound (auditory), feelings (kinesthetic), smell and taste. By knowing the inside process other artists use to bring out their ideas, a guideline could be given which should convince anyone to try it out for themselves.

That’s what level designers do. They take ideas and give it a solid form (in this case, a digitalized computer level). Hence knowing how to take these ideas in and convert them to in-game features is an important asset of level designers.

This chapter deals with the following:

* The visual process of an artist

* References Images and Inspiration

* Altered state

* Building the mini-level

The Visual Process

Level designers are artists, period. The visuals are a major component one needs to tackle first. Visually inclined thinkers use their right brain more often than their left. Our brain is symmetrically divided into two halves – left and right.

Above is a picture of our brain with its various activities. The left brain handles all our analytical and reasoning skills, whereas the right brain handles majority of our imagery and non-verbal skills. The left brain might be the dominant one throughout most of our lives, but artists think a lot visually i.e. they use their right brain a lot more. And being able to see the ‘big picture’ is all the more crucial.

Dreaming and day-dreaming alike is a very much right-brain activity. The next part demonstrates this right-brain ‘shift’.

The Right brain exercise:

The following is a very simple experiment which changes the way in which we think, where our mind starts making pictures rather than thinking verbally. Doing this exercise allows us to experience this shift real time. It’s usually found that participants ‘drift away’ a bit while doing this.

Using the following supplies, one could experience it themselves the point I’m trying to illustrate.

* Drawing paper

* An HB or 2B pencil

* Sharpener

* A board to rest your paper on

The following is a vase with an optical illusion where two faces are in symmetry.

This will be the focus of our experiment.

1. We begin by copying one of these patters on a paper. Right-handers copy “left face (figure 4)” and left-handers “right face (figure 5)”. Slight variations in the profile need not be corrected.

2. Continue by drawing the horizontal lines at the top and bottom. This forms the top and bottom of the vase.

3. Many at this point might be inclined to think verbally, such as “this is the head, this is the nose, and this is the chin” and so on.

4. The next step is to redraw the exact face on the opposite side, beginning at the top and making our way towards the end to complete the vase.

5. Half way through, our minds get confused on how to proceed. The best way forward is to let our minds resolve it without trying to use an eraser.

6. If an altered state wasn’t produced, try repeating the experiment.

If a state of shock or paralysis was experienced without knowing how to proceed, then it’s just our brain trying to sort out things. We learn by patterning and eventually memorizing it. But here, every time a new part is drawn, new patterns need to be made as drawing the forehead isn’t the same as drawing the nose. So how was this resolved eventually? Probably by making calculated images of what the vase ought to be on the other side, inside our mind and using that as a ‘reference’. And this is how artists think – they have a way of accessing their ‘visual’ brain more often than others. If I ask someone a question – ‘how many chairs are there in your living room?’ they’d stop and think for a moment. An image of their living room was probably made after which the chairs were counted. What artists do so often is that they enter into a deep and relaxed state, which so relaxed that they’re able to vividly imagine what their final output would look like way before they even get started. By putting pictures together, breaking them apart, adding subtle details to it and connecting the dots all in our mind, the entire mechanism that creates visuals and lets us ‘imagine’ things could be accessed.

All great inventors are visual thinkers. Nikola Tesla, an Austrian-American scientist who helped create the first electric Light-bulb holds more patterns than anyone else to this day. He was very much a creative person. Now here’s a visual thinker. Before constructing the electric motor, he imagined building the motor completely inside his head, part by part, even including the nuts and bolts. Then he’d run the motor and see how it works and figure out its mechanism. All this was way before the actual construction of the motor, inside his head. Albert Einstein IMAGINED himself riding on a photon with all the other particles around him and manufactured all kinds of equations from it. The thing I’m trying to emphasize is that we already have a mechanism inside our heads through which our creativity could reach the ceiling. The level I made was finished way before I even started on the editor.

Reference and Inspiration

Randomly making up images and trying it out isn’t always the best strategy. Having reference images in accordance to the final output and letting ourselves be inspired will be a driving factor in the creation process. It also gives a starting point upon which adding new ideas would be easier. And references in the end, should always relate to what’s being created.

Reference can come in quite a few forms. Photographs of actual places are the most obvious one. Seeing the imagery of other similar levels and trying to emulate it is another. But for level designers though, usually, a lot of the images are already in place. It’s how they are arranged and composed together that determines the final output. Additionally, level designers always have the option of creating their own custom content for the level and are usually a requirement in many cases.


Photographs are an obvious example of reference. In truth, any photograph can inspire a person. If there’s any key architecture or building in the level, then finding appropriate photos from the real-world can prove very useful. If there’s a futuristic city with big buildings, then getting a picture of New York seems like a step in the right direction. If a level has mountainous areas with lots of forest and nature, then getting something similar sounds like a good plan. I’m not all that keen to know on how a photograph is acquired as long as they help, but visiting the place can make it an altogether a different experience which could be a driving force for a particular look and feel.

One thing I’d always like to do with photographs is to do a small mind exercise to get a full body experience. It involves going in to the picture and literally living it with all our senses.

The mind body exercise

This experiment involves stretching our imagination. It’s basically using all the senses and our body to experience a photograph in a whole new way. Even if the photograph wasn’t taken personally, this process might prove otherwise, since the artist has complete creative freedom. What it enables is to live the entire image so that we can get an idea of what the level should look and feel like.

1. We begin by taking looking up a photograph of interest. Making sure that it’s something useful and not letting our minds be disturbed is always a better thing.

2. The next step is to look at it thoroughly and give our full attention by making an image of it in our mind. Take a deep breath in through our mouth and out through the nose and closing our eyes helps.

3. Once my eyes are closed, I imagine myself floating inside the photograph, seeing what I see, hearing what I hear through my own body and feeling the atmosphere of the place.

4. I then Associate myself with the photograph i.e. see it through my own eyes. I turn the brightness up, increase the volume and feel the warmth or coolness of the place.

5. Now while totally living the picture, I start adding in new things. Think in terms of how this relates to the level and adjust accordingly. If it’s a coastal area I might want to add the sea on one side and mountains on the other. If I’d want to change sunlight to night time, so be it. One important thing to remember during this process is that the designer has complete creative license and is free to add anything and everything as long as it fits in the level.

6. Altering the entire photograph to a more cartoonish and stylized look is never out of the cards as well, if that’s what required.

This simple process of deeply imagining what the level ought to look will make it much more accessible for anyone to come up with concepts and help during the creation process. Repetition is important, as that solidifies the ideas inside. Repeating it often with different photographs gives us all that much more variety.

Playing similar games:

The easiest and obvious source of reference and inspiration would be the games similar to that of the level. There are millions of video games out there with countless number of levels. Getting ideas from those isn’t hard at all. What one needs to keep in mind are the toolsets used in creating the level. In the case of Unreal Editor, it’s always better to look for games which look similar, such as Quake and Farcry. Although ideas may come from many different sources, the core of the gameplay and visuals will be defined by the editor in use. So it’s always better to keep in check the minimum requirements of the genre by looking up at similar games before getting adventurous.

Searching the internet:

The internet and video games are so vast that it’s next to impossible even in an entire lifetime for a single person to keep track. The communities on the internet might provide some of the most valuable details ever in creating a level. They’ll give pointers on what works and what doesn’t. Besides, there are many top level designers who would gladly give their advice as well on the internet.

Everything else:

‘Everything else’ literally can include anything. One could get inspired with new ideas from just about anything. From junk around our house to great paintings – anything goes really. Brainstorming how to use it and how it all comes together is the key. Landscape paintings offer as a great source of inspiration. Great illustrators and concept artist of the past century have many to offer. There are countless movies to look up on. Eventually though, the ideas in our mind needs to be cohesive and vast enough to constitute a level. Once it’s a bit clearer on the overall look and feel of the level, the construction process becomes that much more easier as there are fewer chances of getting hung up. Planning is everything.

Building a mini level

Being able to alter our state gives us access to the unconscious portions of the brain. It gives the same process great artists, art-directors, visionaries and great inventors use. An altered state is just a heightened state of awareness where our sights, sounds and feelings become clearer. And while in this state, one can use the same tools as in the level editor and build an entire level completely inside the brain. It’s just a focused attention, where we take our consciousness and focus on a particular activity very intensely.

Everyone has done this all the time. People get inside the elevator and look at the ceiling thing. When the elevator stops, the command is to leave. At school, kids constantly day-dream and drift away during class. It’s not something out of the ordinary. We’ve all been doing it all the time. Our ability to induce an altered state and focus our attention so deeply on creating the level lets us complete the entire level in our minds.

The Process

1. Let’s begin by focusing our attention on the way we breathe. Breathe in deeply through the mouth and out through the nose. The more one does this, the deeper they relax. It’s simply an activity our mind isn’t used to doing before.

2. Disturbances such as inside ‘voices’ could be slowed down and eventually removed. Reduce the tempo and change the tonality till they aren’t distractions.

3. The third step involves thinking of the feeling of shock experienced earlier while drawing the vase – the feeling that makes our mind run around in circles. Doubling it intensifies it all the more.

4. Now I close my eyes and begin to relax. The deeper I’m relaxed, the easier it is to visualize comfortably.

5. The next step is to imagine the level editor on a big screen in front of us. See where the image is located and make it centered so that it’s easily visible. The ideas and visuals already thought of are now projected onto the screen.

6. The virtual ‘virtual’ level construction now begins. Since cohesive ideas are already formed on how it should look like, by using all the tools available in the editor we can begin constructing the level part by part.

7. Every time an area is constructed, our minds are capable of playing it in our imaginary world to get a feel on how it’s going.

8. This is done part by part for every area of the level till the ‘big picture’ is complete.

After completion, a pen and a notebook always proves useful to write down the details of the level or draw it out in a simple orthographic view. If it doesn’t click the first time, then we just keep trying. The trick is to focus completely on the task at hand that time seizes to exist. Every part of our body should be lined up and directed at a particular area. Visualizing becomes a lot easier this way.


The topics covered here were:

* How to access the right brain

* Collecting references and using them

* Coming up with great ideas

* Getting into an altered state

* Using the brain in such a way that makes visualizing easier

* Building a mini-level

Chapter 3: Refinement and Paper Work

Refining the level for in-game purposes and doing the paper design would be the next task.

This chapter deals with ideas and points to remember while drawing/writing out the level and sections of it.

This chapter deals with the following:

* To make the imaginative level more video game friendly

* Points to remember while drawing out the level

* Writing a design document

* Creating maps

Video game levels

Video game levels have quite a bit more to them than the visuals alone. Although the previous chapter dealt with ideation and visuals, it’s always better to keep some general pointers in mind while dishing out the details of it in paper.

The first line of action would be to take out a pen and paper (or pencil) and to consider how the environment of the level and gameplay match. Envisioning the player’s perspective enables the designer to get a grip on the gameplay and fun aspects.

There are a few things to be considered, like the missions or quests of the level. What should the player achieve in order to ‘win’? Killing bosses, finding secret places or having a multiplayer gametype (if it’s a multiplayer FPS level) should be kept in mind.

The next logical step would be to draw the level on a paper. Getting into the details isn’t necessary as the proportions and area are of first importance. A completed top view gives the designer a reference point to begin the level construction. It’s much easier to make boxes and circles as place holders for the buildings and landscapes from a top view onto the paper to cement the ideas. Once the perimeters are certain, drawing out detailed concepts becomes that much more easier.

Point to remember

Here are a few key points when it comes to beginning stages of any level

§ Marking the player spawn point and where all the different obstacles are, such as cliffs, rocks, ladders, dead ends etc. is a necessity. A few other details to mark would be all the places of importance, such as treasures, bosses, hidden pathways and such.

§ Many levels in other games might look open-ended, but they’re actually closed by invisible boundary markers which doesn’t allow the player to move after a specific distance. The graphics and the pathways are what makes them seem large. The trick is the make the player think it’s really big by giving them multiple pathways. So giving the player more than one route is vital.

§ If the game editor for which the level is being made still hasn’t been decided, then limiting the enemies, objects and such to a smaller number to begin with is a safer bet. Some engines can handle more than others, depending on the pre-supposed graphics.

§ Writing down as much as possible of the map such as lights, blocked pathway, boundary, the color of the ground, the texture and so on helps to keep on track during the construction process in itself. The more details, the easier it gets to nail down the ideas later.

Once these details are done, a pretty good mental as well as a physical image should be available before starting the level construction. It’s important that during every second of the process, one knows what they’re doing. Loitering around and trying out things can work out at times, but will be even more time consuming.

A level might also need a strong plot, depending on the gametype. Storyboarding, writing bits and pieces on paper or having a comical paper design all helps to solidify the plot. When I’m making a single player level, I’d like to use a comical method of drawing to bring out the story. Others might prefer a traditional storyboard. Anything goes really. There are no rules – only tools.

A lot of the gameplay elements needs to be in check as well. The genre will be the deciding factor on this and if followed along the guidelines of this thesis, one should by now have a clear idea of what kind of level is in the making. Another mind trick would be to literally imagine playing the entire level in our heads. The players need to be given maximum flexibility.

Writing a Design Document

Design documents always help, even in terms of creating a level. A level has many of the elements required in creating a game and keeping on track is crucial. It’s basically putting all the information gathered into meaningful, single document. It’s especially useful for large scale levels. It helps in several areas, such as

* Keeping on track

* Remembering what’s required

* Makes it easier for other to follow along and give solid feedback

There’s no particular format for a design document. It could be written in any way since it’s for our own reference.

* The simpler the better. Complicated use of language isn’t a requirement as long as the message is sent across.

* Making it complete and cohesive implies that any major requirement of the level isn’t forgotten. Usually every single detail possible should be included, such as environment, plot, player’s role, treasures and so on.

* References need to be included as well, such as visuals, photographs, drawings, paintings, concept art, storyboards etc.

* It’s better to avoid programming or marketing strategies. This document is just to help the designer keep on track. Adding details not pertained to the level construction serve only to complicate things.

Drawing Maps

A picture equals a thousand words and hence, no amount of writing can bring about the points as well as maps and drawings. Making really detailed in-game views aren’t a necessity. A well defined top and front view should suffice for any level construction. Using the techniques and ideas already presented, one should already have the ‘big picture’ in mind. Now it’s time to make a clear map of what’s required.

Here are a few pointers:

* Paper without lines or graph paper is always better. Approximation of the area and drawing out the borders of the entire level should be the first step.

* A map for terrain alone will be of great aid. The environment should be drawn where and when required, such as trees, lakes, mountains and so on.

* The scale should be kept consistent in accordance to the level. This helps estimate what it would be like when the actual level is constructed.

* Another map with all the major landmarks and playable area properly outlined is a requirement. Buildings maybe denoted by simple squares (if it’s in the top view).

A top and front view (and maybe side) would suffice for all the maps. Right now, all we require is a clear idea of the perimeters of the level. The rest of the details can be filled in as the construction of the level is in progress.


Here’s a brief overview of the chapter:

* Things to remember while making a level

* Drawing maps

* Making a design document

Chapter 4: Building the Terrain

Building the landscape and terrain includes the basic setting of the level onto which details are placed. If a level has even a semblance of outdoors, then a terrain is essential. A lot of effort needs to be put into to it. A really bad looking and composed terrain will receive negative comments.

This chapter covers:

* Methods and tips on making terrain

* Making it gameplay friendly

* Texturing and placing props to flesh out the level

Importance of Terrain

Terrain continues to grow in beauty as the day passes by; with each new game coming out has ever stunning terrain. And along with the characters, props, lighting and effects, a level should be having all the basic requirements complete. Water for example is getting more realistic as the day passes by. Mountains draw us in even more. People like to look at these terrains as they walk by. Grass, trees, rivers, mountains etc. are all the bread and butter of a terrain. A lot of it depends on the kind of level in the making.

Terrain needs to be in accordance to the patterns found in the real world – a bit random and chaotic but, believable enough for the player to get involved with it. Terrains in current generation 3D games are nothing but a bunch of triangles modeled smoothly in a 3D software package, but the thing to keep in mind is that adding too many triangles into a level will make it unstable. Luckily for level designers though, a lot these terrains are already provided with the editor. So how we use them makes a big difference.

Methods to generate terrain:

There exists three different methods to generate a terrain using the right tools and softwares.

Depth Map

A depth map (sometimes height map) is a 2D black and white image that holds height information. It basically ‘tricks’ the player into seeing things that aren’t actually there. It basically is a map where the greyer the color, the more height it denotes. The really black ones are the ones with lower height. The advantages of using this method are that it’s quicker and computer friendly.

Modelling in 3D

This can be a tedious and long process. It’s basically using a 3D software package to model the entire terrain. The artist here models each terrain by using the software such as Autodesk Maya or 3D Studio Max and the sculpting tools associated with them. The advantage is that you get the finest results possible with stunning amounts of details. The disadvantage is that the artist needs to be careful on what to include and what not to, as frame-rates can be drastically hurt depending on the number of triangles.

Using a mix of both

The third method is probably the best approach. By using the advantages of both these methods, one can make the finest terrain with the best frame-rate. A lot of game companies do this and hence, develop their own tools. Luckily, for a level designer, many of these tools and editors are already provided. So, it’s how we use them that matters the most. The advantage of course is that the designer gets the best of both worlds – the large scale construction of Height maps mixed with the finer details of 3D modeling.

Tiled Terrains

Many strategy and role-playing games use what’s known as tiled terrain. The game area is basically divided into square tiles inside the level editor, upon which one may place objects and such. Tiles are great way to just get the big picture of a game, especially when gamers might not look for finer details. It’s pretty simply to use and easy to manipulate.

Gameplay Pointers

The gameplay side of terrain is all about making it more fun and enjoyable. Making the terrain and laying it about can be a fun task, but one shouldn’t get carried away without having the gameplay in mind. If it’s too hard, too inaccessible or with many bugs and glitches, players will find it hard to enjoy it and might even get frustrated. So to avoid this, here are a few pointers:

* Make just as much as required for the game without going overboard. Too much of details can clog the machine and reduce frame-rates drastically. ‘Less is more’ should always be a consideration. Add just as much as required to get the desired look.

* Too many secret pathways for players to figure out all the time can be frustrating. They should be used sparingly.

* Running around in a maze pointlessly might annoy the player and distract them away from the bigger picture of the level. This is of course assuming that the level isn’t maze based.

* Some things should make sense like it is in the outside world. If there’s a hill with a path going downwards, making a sudden 120 degree angle upwards doesn’t make any sense at all.

* Players should be given subtle hints and pointers on where the borders and boundaries or ‘end’ of the level are. A lot of times, especially in outdoor levels, there might be an unreachable mountain ranges and such. These should be made clearer to the player.

Texturing and placing props to flesh out the level

The look and feel of a terrain is vastly improved by placing appropriate textures since the surface details of an object are really important. Textures could be placed on 2D images by painting them in or by using photographs. In the gaming industry, full time texture artists are hired and level designers are left with the step of tweaking and editing these textures to their liking.

Here are a few examples and important points on texturing a level:

* Texture should be appropriate to the setting. Green textures in the middle of a desert just don’t work. It should make some sense.

* Textures should be seamless and tiled properly. This part can be time consuming, but it’s important nonetheless. The textures should flow from one part to another smoothly without making it look ‘computerized’.

* Enemies or big areas shouldn’t be completely dark. Not being able to see them makes it annoying to the player.

* Keeping it relatively simple is always a good idea. Terrain should enhance and make the level look good. Over saturating it with bring colors and such just makes it annoying.

Chapter 5: Mood and Atmosphere

Setting up the mood is an important part of the level. It sets the player up to get immersed into the level. It increases the emotional impact of the level.

This chapter covers:

* Establishing the lighting

* Effects

* Audio introduction


Lighting is of the first and foremost importance in establishing a mood to a level. The intensity of the light, color, shadows and movement will dictate how the lighting will end up. Proper lighting can convert a normal cave into an evil sanctuary, make the forest feel alive or bring about a vast change in weather condition.

Lighting can be a tricky process, as it might take a lot of back and forth adjustments to get the correct look. Here are the types of lights:

Types of Lights

Static Lights are pre-supposed lights with a specific function. These lights are rendered before the level starts up since they stay common throughout. Since the rendering is in advance, static lights can be used often and throughout the map.

Dynamic Lights exist within the game and their function can vary, depending on what’s required. Dynamic lights are predominantly used to change the mood while the player plays the level.

How Lights are used

The first thing to keep in mind is always how it affects the player. Having just enough to get the particular mood required is the key. If it’s too dark or too bright, well, of course it’s bound to be annoying

Using the ideas and techniques provided in chapter 2, knowing and getting to what’s required shouldn’t be hard at all since all it takes is a bit of patience and a lot of tweaking around. Mastery over the technicalities of using lights in the game editor helps immensely. Usually, lights maybe of different types such as point lights, spot lights and directional lights. Trying out all the properties listed in the editor is part of the learning process.

Also, one needs to keep in mind that going extreme dark or light may work out depending on how the level looks. The game ‘Thief’ by Ion storm games uses very dark lighting to make it feel scary. Lights also bring out the forms of the 3D or 2D terrain much more clearly. A few key important pointers while placing lights:

* Color/Color Theory

* Intensity

* Position

All three of the above are crucial in determining how the light behaves.


One of the best ways to create an ambience and mood in a game is by using effects (or particle effects). Effects can range from a huge fire, to smoke from a forest, to water splashing all over the player! There’s also the atmospheric effect such as fog and haze.

Fog and haze are used to blur out vision and enhance the atmosphere. A dense foggy area can add so much more vibrancy to the level. Now-a-days, especially in outdoor levels, fog and atmospheric effects are a must.

Other particle effects such as a few well placed torches, waterfalls or an icy wind can change the effect a level has upon the player dramatically. Most editors have their own way of applying particles and effects.


Sound is a very important part of a level. A game cannot exist without sound. Using the correct sound effects for the environment in itself is a challenge. Usually level designers are provided with sound in the editor and are only required to use it appropriately. There are two types of sound:

Ambient sound/sound effects

Sound effects include the audio that adds realism to a game. In-game voice recordings, sound of the environment and many others such as the sound of water splashing, air blowing etc. all adds to the mood of the game. Ambient sound is always present in real life. Adding them wherever necessary is important.


Any game or level that starts has a soundtrack associated to it. A good soundtrack will get the player hooked on instantly. Soundtrack depends on the genre and setting of the level. Adding a soundtrack/music gives the game a cinematic feel.

Music by Zone:

Entering a different zone from the one the player is in might require a change in music.

Music by Action:

It’s sometimes better to use appropriate music when the player is engaged in combat.

Music by Choice:

One could get a bit creative in this area. Adding a virtual ‘radio station’ inside a game can give the player options to change the music. Similarly, one could include sound systems and such, depending on the level and area created.


Here’s a list of topics covered:

* Bringing about a mood and atmosphere to the level

* Lights and how to place them

* Types of lights

* Atmospheric and particle effects

* Ambient sounds

* Music/Soundtrack

Chapter 6: Testing and Finalizing

This chapter deals with techniques and methods to polish and finalize the level. These are the final stages of a level creation. From visualizing to using our brains (no pun intended!) to building up the terrain, landscape, architecture and so on. And now, these are the final touches.

This chapter deals with:

* Fine tuning the level

* Balance/bug fixes

* Release



Repeated plays are the key to fine-tune any game level. Playing it over and over again slowly reveals the flaws and errors, which could be fixed. Anything out of place should be looked upon immediately. Every corner of the level such as the environment, the insides, below rocks, behind trees and such must be checked clearly. Any issues with regards to lighting and effects should be resolved. If there’s any area inadequately lit, fix it is of the highest priority. By going back and forth this way, any level could be smoothed out and polished. Here are a few key points:

* Lights

* Proportion

* Glaring omissions

* Frames per second


Official private or public testing of the level by others has many uses. The main thing is that it assures quality or at least gives pointers in that area. Testers come of different types, depending on the resources available. There’s free testing and professional testing.

Free Testing

As the title suggests, free testing allows one to test things freely! It basically means, the level is distributed to a select few individuals who are willing to test it out. This could be done by giving it to friends or via the internet. Free testing offers an advantage in that, since most of these testers aren’t professionally trained, they look for bugs where one might least expect it. And testing is just one of those areas where even a non professional could prove useful.

Professional Testing

A professional and planned testing involves making game testers do very specific activities in order to find bugs. These are usually the most obvious ones. For example, a test plan could look like this:

1. Jump 100 times.

2. Jump 100 times while firing shotgun.

3. Jump 100 times while alternating firing shotgun and kicking.

4. Jump 100 times while in cutscene.

As the above example indicates, this type of setting is much more planned and thorough about what’s required to find. The level designer’s work should be to note down everything possible a player might do in their level and make the testers test it.

Bug fixes and balance


Once the testing is underway and the glitches in the level have been found, it’s important to identify the types of bugs. Finding out what it is exactly and under which category allows us to rectify it instantly. Here’s an example on the types of bugs which could be classified under category.

· “A” bugs:

There are the most obvious and important bugs that needs to be rectified immediately. Such bugs might prevent players from finishing or completing the level. An example would be the game freezing or crashing.

· “B” bugs:

These are bugs that don’t prevent players from playing the level, but may still be major annoyances. This might make the level less fun to play. These maybe present all over the map – from the terrain to textures and lights.

· “C” bugs:

These fall under the category where the testers suggest ideas to improve the gameplay than fix things. Nonetheless, any good suggestion should always be approached with an open mind.

Fixing bugs

While many bugs might be found, fixing them is the next step. Big levels could get complex pretty quickly and some bugs act as a hindrance to the gameplay and fun. Some of the most common bugs are:

* Terrain bugs:

Bugs related to the terrain that is, the ground, landscape etc.

* Architecture bugs:

Glitches related to the buildings and architecture. An example would be incomplete architecture or collision related, where one could walk through walls.

· Fixing Gaps:

Gaps may mean: Holes in the border or ground or in the architecture. Fixing them is very important.

· Fixing Normals:

Problems related to the ‘normals’ which generally means, players can see through objects such as wall..

· Collision bugs:

These are problems related to collision where the player is able to walk through things and such.

· AI bugs:

AI bugs are bugs related to bots and artificial intelligence. A programmer might be required to fix these.

· Scripting bugs:

Scripting bugs are just programming errors which might arise due to the editor in use. Again, a coder might be necessary.


Balancing is simply issues related to how easy or hard the game is. Balancing a video game level might get complicated because it’s not easy to spot immediately. This process can take a while.

A plan of action to balance a level would be to:

* Try and get the feel of the overall difficulty. Asking questions such as ‘is it too easy’ or ‘too hard?’ usually gives adequate answers.

* If it’s too easy, increasing the difficulty of a particular area is always a good option. If it’s too hard, reduce the enemies, traps and such.

* Too many ‘overpowering’ areas or items reduce the fun. While the rest of the level might be balanced, just the wrong thing at the wrong place and time can change the course of the game drastically.


Once tested, fine-tuned and balanced/fixed, the level now ready for release! An appropriate name and description is a necessity. Formalities need to be in place, such as file format (for example, unreal editor 3 uses the ‘.ut3′ and ‘.upk’ formats).

A quick descriptive document helps the player know what it’s about. Sending it over to friends and posting it over the internet are great ways of getting it out there. The party is just beginning!


This chapter dealt with the following:

* Polishing the level

* Testing and the types involved

* Bugs and types of bugs

* How to fix glitches

* Balancing

* Final release


The end of this journey is now imminent. This dissertation is meant to convince the reader about their own capabilities. The industry is vast and level designers are only now being represented in the spotlight. Having the right mental as well as technical strategy are both key factors in creating a level.

The thesis started out with the basics and a brief history, which then moved on to the fun stuff of creating the level in itself. A lot of pointers and ideas were given out especially in the visualization area. How to visualize inside our minds is especially an important point in being able to communicate through to the outside. Using our imagination is a highly undermined area where there’s lot to be explored. The ideas and strategies presented here is just the tip of the iceberg. This is only the beginning for a whole load of things to be explored.

Literature Review


Level design has always been a creative endeavor and many feel intimidated about the entire process. The grandiose nature of current video games only makes it worse. Making a level can be a huge undertaking as there are lots to be covered by a single person. The scope for better information and improvement is vast in this area. Visualization is one of the key components in making a level for without visuals, there’s no level. And with the right strategies in place, anyone can approach it with confidence. Typically, answers are arrived at from another field. Here’s a quick rundown of relevant information

Review of Literature

“Lenses and fundamentals are useful tools, but to truly understand level and game design is to understand an incredibly complex web of creativity, psychology, art, technology, and business. Everything in this web is connected to everything else. Changing one element affects all the others, and the understanding of one element influences the understanding of all of the others.”

(The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell – 2008)

These lines basically sum up the complex and vast nature of level and game design. Level design is an element of game design, which contains all the requirements seen in an entire game. To truly understand level design takes a lifetime of learning. One must go beyond the boundaries of video games and seek out knowledge from other areas.

An article by Rob Hale from states that level designers use a visual language as the basis to communicate with the player. He stresses the importance of player’s perspective and not to violate with their internal reality and rules. This topic is of particular importance, as too often, designers forget to take in player’s consideration. Here’s the excerpt:

“A Visual Language is what Level Designers use to communicate with the Player. The Level Designer should really be telling the Player how to complete their Level. It is not a competition between the Player and the Level Designer to see who wins”

“However what is important here is that the player has used their internal model of the games mechanics to solve a problem. The Solution may have been in plain sight but it is up to the player to establish the relationship between the elements and solve the problem. They will adjust the model to include this new information on how to kill this kind of enemy and similar encounters will appear much easier in future.” (Rob Hale – March 2009)

“When I was about seventeen, my thoughts turned seriously to invention. Then I observed to my delight that i could visualise with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind. Thus I have been led unconsciously to evolve what I consider a new method of materialising inventive concepts and ideas, which is radially opposite to the purely experimental and is in my opinion ever so much more expeditious and efficient.” (Nikola Tesla – 1919)

Nikola Tesla in his autobiography explained his methods of invention and visualizing. Using our minds, level designers can become inventors, innovators and creative masters. Tesla was able to visualize so vividly that he was able to construct everything inside his internal reality. This is a great tool which one could certainly use in other areas. Tesla further goes on to say:

“The moment one constructs a device to carry into practice a crude idea, he finds himself unavoidably engrossed with the details of the apparatus. As he goes on improving and reconstructing, his force of concentration diminishes and he loses sight of the great underlying principle. Results may be obtained, but always at the sacrifice of quality. My method is different. I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea, I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind.” (Nikola Tesla – 1919)

Certainly, one area that has been overlooked is our own capabilities. What Tesla did isn’t out of the ordinary. We’re all capable of going to such lengths, but one needs to stretch their imagination to get better at it. This is just one of the few strategies used in visualizing that works.


§ “The New Drawing on the right-side of your brain” by Betty Edwards, 1999; Tarcher; Rev Exp edition.

§ “Prometheus Rising” by Robert Anton Wilson, 1992; New Falcon Publications.

§ “Beginning Game Level Design” by John Feil and Mark Scattergood, 2005; Thomson Course Technology.

§ “The Art of Game Design” by Jesse Schell, 2008; Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

§ “The Hows and Whys of Level Design” by Hourences

§ “Nikola Tesla – My Inventions” by Nikola Tesla, 1919.

§ “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” by Daniel H. Pink, 2006; Riverhead Trade.

§ “Amadeus” (1984).






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Designing a game level. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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