Level Design Concepts

This document is a summary of concepts involved in level design. It is intended to be useful for any student studying game art or design.

Why Players Play Games

People play games for a variety of reasons. They may play games to escape or to be immersed. They may play games to socialize. Or, most importantly, they play games to have fun. How much fun a game typically causes players to have is often referred to as the games "fun factor". Specific Issues affecting fun factor Include:

How Levels Fit Into The Overall Game

Levels are generally part of a larger game, including the games user interface or "Frontend", which often contains level select screens, splash screens, option screens, and other screens that don't represent gameplay. It is always important for level designers to be conscious of how any level will fit into the overall gameplay. Designers should ask themselves how the level will start and how it will end.  (Does the player go directly to another level, or go to some kind of other screen?  Is it different for each level?) Common Methods of starting and stopping levels include:

Goals For The Player

Most levels generally contain goals that the player can complete, and often the player must complete these goals before finishing the level. Games can include the following types of goals (among others):


A game will often give breaks to the player to avoid fatigue, since too fast a pace without breaks can cause the player to loose interest. For example, often games will have parts between levels, such as cinematics, progress summaries, or item/level selection screens. In fact, even individual levels can be broken down into even smaller sections.  (Checkpoints being one possible example of splitting up a level.) Here is one example of how pacing is used, and how the player can be given breaks in gameplay.  In the popular game Street Fighter II, each fight acts as a "level" for the player. The sequence for each level is approximately as follows:

Many games share the same common types of levels. A short list of these could include ice worlds, fire worlds, and dessert worlds. Some of them may be cliches, but since they tend to lead to a lot of fun variation in gameplay, they are often used anyway. Many level clichés exist, the most common of which in modern games is the presence of crates/barrels, which in itself is sort of a running gag in the industry. ( There is actually an entire game rating system based on the amount of gameplay time before reaching the first crate or barrel.)

Story Telling

Story is very important in some games, but not very important in others. For example in a role-playing game, the story may be the main feature, while in many sports titles, the story is practically nonexistent. It is crucial for the designer to determine the importance of storytelling in the game and its levels. Common methods of developing story in games include:

Games will typically progress through the story (and thus the levels) in some combination of three different ways. The first and simplest method of progressing through gameplay is through a linear method in which progression through the levels is always the same. The story always involves the same events happening in the same order, only allowing for minor deviations such as the player failing the mission and needing to repeat it. This method limits the interactivity available, but allows the authors to tell a story in a conventional manner, much like a movie. Non Linear and Sandbox styles of gameplay are often used when designers want to give more control of the story to the player. In these systems, actions that the player takes will affect the future events or order of events that occur in the game, thus altering the story. This method is very often more believable and immersive; however, it does make planning complex stories difficult for the designers since there are so many variables involved.


The word immersion refers to the idea of the game encouraging the suspension of disbelief on the players' part, making players feel more like they are actually inside the game.  Like story, immersion is important to some games and less important to others. For example, in a simulation style racing game, realism and immersion would be very important. While in a science-fiction arcade style racing game, realism and immersion would be unimportant compared to the fun factor of the game.

Immersion can be helped by using cues such as sound, rumble packs, and motion detection. For example, the turning of switches in Metroid Prime Corruption is used to increase immersion. Often simple devices of realism are also used, such as realistically changing day and night cycles. Attention to detail and visuals is generally more important in a game that needs to be highly immersive.
Finally, continuity can be extraordinarily important to immersion. Even a game featuring a relatively unrealistic setting such as a science-fiction game, can be highly immersive if it is at least self consistent. ( This is similar to films, as it also affects their believability.)  If the game breaks its own continuity, even an otherwise highly realistic game will become much less immersive.

Arriving at a Solid Design For A Level

It is usually best to start designing a level by using simple tools. Examples of such tools would include pens or pencils, paper, rulers, and graph paper. This is generally the best way to start because it makes brainstorming easy. Often, simple 2d software can be as easy as a paper and pencil, especially if you have access to a touch screen or tablet/pen based input device.  The advantage of 2d software over paper is that as you design, it is much easier to reorganize and recycle the components of your design using copy/paste.  It also allows you to use templates and recycle old designs, etc, which can often save time. Once your 2D designs illustrate your level well, you can move into 3D design. Some experimentation can (and should) also be done using 3d software. Generally you should move to greyboxing in 3D as soon as you know how to rough out your plan in 3D. It doesn’t make sense to tweak things too far in 2D planning since you can’t test gameplay there anyway. Thus, the best general workflow is as follows:
  • First, brainstorm and make extremely rough ideas on paper.
  • Then use 2D software to create more detailed plans (or draw them if you prefer).
  • Finally, rough out your ideas in 3D.
The design of a level will typically evolve in response to changes in design elsewhere and play testing. However that shouldn't stop you from having a solid design to begin with. It simply means that you should not waste time polishing things too much, and you should ensure that your designs are flexible enough to adapt with change when needed.  

Copyright Joe Crawford 2009 Creative Commons License Level Design Concepts by Joe Crawford is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.

Misc. Content To Incorporate To This Article In The Future:
Using the Level itself as a tutorial for the player often the best way to learn seen in many modern games helps new players and avoids the need to read a manual Other elements commonly used in games: Comedy and Parody (braid's use of famous quotes). Flags for the level structure or platforms different parts of the environment will react to player differently, or cause the player to react to them

Teaching3D is a creation of Joe Crawford